Bettman & Halpin: Ten Years

I don’t get out much.  So, lately, I’ve been making an effort to do just that.  In January I went to a concert!  And the style of music was quite different for me.

I was not a rock & roller.  I grew up listening to pop music and The Beatles were my favorite.  But I was also heavily influenced by my mother’s favorites: Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra and Jerry Vale.

Joyful Acoustic Americana

So going to hear Bettman & Halpin was about as far away from my musical palate as I figured I could get.  I have really no musical knowledge to be able to describe their style.  Is it Bluegrass?  Country?  Folk music?  I couldn’t put my ear’s finger on it.  But their description of their music as Joyful Acoustic Americana perfectly sums it up.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I had seen them perform in the past.  I was directing a live stream of a conference and they were the performers one evening; but most of what’s left of my brain was concentrating on my job.  However to sit in the audience and be fully immersed in their musical magic was, for me, an almost otherworldly or ethereal experience.  At times during the show, I found myself wondering if the music was coming from their instruments and voices, or straight from their hearts.

Most of the songs they performed that evening, with very few exceptions, were written by Stephanie Bettman.  Again, I’m confessing to you that it is extremely rare for me to like a song until I have heard it a few times.  But another facet of their music is that there were songs that I instantly liked.

The concert I attended was their Tenth Anniversary Performance and was held at the incredibly beautiful Ruth B. Shannon Center for Performing Arts in Whittier, California.  And the ease with which the two performers banter with the audience and each other is that of people who have performed together for a lifetime.

I only cried three times

Every song they sing has a story and Bettman shares those as an introduction before each.  There are songs about their travels, about people they’ve met, known and loved; as well as songs inspired by meetings with people along the way.

The song, Bluestem, about a friend who passed away far too early was the first which brought me to tears (and I found the chorus whirling in my mind for days).  There’s one called A Million Hearts which was inspired by time the couple spent volunteering with children in crisis.  Another was called Cherokee Rose about the Trail of Tears and the inspiration behind it brought me goosebumps.  While the accompanying stories add emotion to each performance, the songs alone evoke the intended emotions.

Bettman plays the fiddle like she was born with it and Halpin, I believe, played every other stringed instrument known to man.  Their harmonies are impeccable and, throughout, Bettman’s voice reached across the rows and surrounded me, as if lifting me from my seat.  At times I found myself so moved by their performance that I wasn’t sure if I, the crotchety old man I’ve become, was still “in there…”

As I said, I am a fan of American Standards and Bettman & Halpin even included one along with the announcement of a future CD of that theme.  I always get teary at Johnny Mercer’s melancholy The Autumn Leaves.  Their rendition was unlike any performance I’ve experienced and I did find myself wiping my eyes by the finish.  Later in the program they sang another Bettman original called When We’re Together.  Her announcement that it would be included on their upcoming American Standards CD prompted me to call out, “Hurry up with it!”  Luckily for me, she smiled and didn’t have me removed from the theater.

As I mentioned, Halpin plays guitar.  And banjo.  And mandolin.  How does one do that?!  A guitar has six strings (unless it has 12).  A Banjo has five.  A mandolin has four unless it’s strung with pairs tuned together, making eight.  And Halpin plays each as if it was the only instrument he spent his life learning to play.  And when he sang a set, expressing his long-past tribulations with alcoholic beverages, he commanded the stage as a true artist.  (I might add that, even if he’s less than half my age, his acknowledgement of his challenges with drinking brought me closer to him… another kindred spirit.)

Joining the duo on stage for this anniversary concert was Bettman’s original guitarist, Danny Ciarfalia who demonstrated his prowess at exquisite leads.  Noah Matthews played bass.  Wendysue Rosloff joined on percussion, and Ryan Elwood, a man who’d they’d only very recently met, provided additional percussion.  Through it all, my heart and soul were buoyed by their lead vocals and the harmonies they each provided to the other.

Many times I’ve found myself lamenting that I was born without musical ability; or any talent at all, for that matter.  Now I know where it went.  When it was my turn to be reincarcerated on the planet, I have a vague recollection of someone saying to me, “Sorry Bill, we’re saving up the musical talent for the next 30 years and giving it all to Bettman and Halpin.”  Well, okay.  If they received all of the musical talent, at least they shared it with me that evening.  I’ve been to concerts from some of the top professionals in the industry, but I can’t recall ever being so moved by a performance.  By the end of the program, I found myself hoping that, the next time I’m dead, the Angels will sing to me as beautifully as Stephanie did.

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