The last couple of weeks Northern California has been treated to some much-needed relief from the atmospheric rivers that dumped on the west coast. Jerry Wicentowski & the Wiseman Institute, made up of Jerry plus Bay Area stalwarts Jody Stecher, Paul Knight, Chad Manning and Keith Little, did just that and more for the enthusiastic and often sold-out crowds. The tour as previously announced on Bluegrass Today was a mix of house concerts, the East Bay JCC, and the Sonoma County Bluegrass and Folk Festival all supporting Jerry’s new CD Thanks, Mac! featuring the songs of Mac Wiseman.
The final show at the East Bay JCC in Berkeley added some unusual material of Hebrew Sabbath songs set to well-known bluegrass melodies such as Hold What You Got, I Steal Away And Pray, and When I Stop Dreaming. These songs were often referred to as really old-time and the combination of Jerry, Jody, and Keith’s voices formed something of a Jewish Bluegrass Trinity. Keith, who said he was raised Methodist, confessed he might have switched had he heard these songs when he was young.
Some crowd favorites from the Thanks Mac! CD included a wonderful version of Love Letters in the Sand, best known as a Pat Boone hit from 1957. At the Alameda house concert, fiddler Chad Manning and his student, 2017 California State Fiddle Junior champion Miles Quale, played a beautiful twin fiddle section on this. They also did Smiling Through, a popular ballad from the early twentieth century that Mac adapted to bluegrass, adding his sweet vocals and the signature twin fiddles. To round out the shows, the others added some numbers of their own. Jody led a call and response duet of Sleepy Eyed John, Chad played Pretty Little Indian, and Keith sang a beautiful version of the 19th century folk classic Shenandoah. Paul Knight provided his usual steady drive to bring it all together.
The tour took on a different feel and significance after Mac Wiseman passed away just before it started. I was lucky enough to catch up with each of the band members to get their comments, and feelings about it all. Here is some of what they had to say.
“Wow! I don’t know why I had never heard this beautiful voice and powerful guitarist before. Everyone should check out Jerry’s music. He really embodies everything I love in old-school bluegrass. It was also great revisiting Mac Wiseman’s recordings as I imagine lots of folks are doing now. The emotional drama in his singing is obvious and I’ve always enjoy the lift and swing of the rhythm in Mac’s song choices as well. Adding the Jewish songs and prayers to the sets really made for a diverse and joyful concert. You don’t have the be Christian to enjoy Gospel music and you don’t need to be Jewish to enjoy these songs. You will hear them sung from the heart.”
“The tour with Jerry was very special. I’d really been looking forward to hearing Jerry sing in person, and of course I always look forward to any opportunity to make music with Jody, Keith and Paul. There was no doubt that we would have a blast playing together, but the recent passing of Mac Wiseman added another layer of meaning to the tour. In preparation for the shows, I had been consuming Mac Wiseman’s music. I was literally working out fiddle parts to Danger! Heartbreak Ahead when I received an email from Jerry that Mac had died earlier that day.
Jerry has dedicated so much of his music to honoring Mac Wiseman, which Mac himself greatly appreciated. Now that Mac had passed, the mission was the same, but the feeling of respect, honor and love was even more palpable. Before Jerry and I met in person, we had already agreed that the tour now felt sacred. It was a real honor to be part of this process and to play some meaningful bluegrass music with some of my favorite musicians.”
“Jerry’s music is sincere. When a musician is both able and sincere it can — under the right conditions — bring out the best in those who make music with that individual. Jerry sings the z’mirot beautifully. Naturally I tried to sing in a way that would complement that beauty. This show, like the others on the tour, was an opportunity to make music with Chad, Paul, and Keith. I don’t get to do it often and I love how we make music together.
We did 6 shows in 8 days. We did what I was told was impossible. The accepted view is that if a band plays a house concert in the Bay Area, there will be low attendance at a public concert, and that more than one house concert in the area is madness. We did 3 house concerts on 3 successive days, we played a festival as the headliner, we did a bar gig, and we ended it all with the JCC concert. In all cases attendance was high. The house concerts were sold out.
“I truly enjoyed working with Jerry this past week, and am looking forward to his return to Northern California. His obvious love for the singing and playing of Mac Wiseman is well known at this point, with his vocal prowess being a performance standout. We also just scratched the surface of Jerry’s interest and skill in adapting Jewish sacred text and ancient melodies to bluegrass instrumentation, which was a wonderful experience for me.”
I was able to ask Jerry these follow-up questions as well.
How did the recent passing of Mac Wiseman change the tenor or vibe of the tour?
“I was aware that Mac had been in poor health as early as December of last year. I perceive myself as Mac’s student, and the tour as an avenue to inform those who were unaware as to how beautiful Mac’s singing was, and how respected he was by his peers and fans. I wanted to tell him about the tour, and the central role his music was to play. I anticipated that he would be pleased. His passing changed all that. With him gone, the book describing his creativity has reached its end, and the urgency of the message described above is heightened. The band talked about this and there was a sense of additional responsibility that we all felt.”
Were you pleased with the delivery of the Hebrew Sabbath songs at the JCC performance?
“I was very pleased with the enthusiasm of my fellow band members; they were all so supportive! Special kudos to Jody who spent weeks learning the lyrics to his harmony lines through transliteration of the Hebrew, and also went to the trouble of reading the translation so that his singing could properly reflect the meaning of these poems. I was very encouraged by the audience’s reception. The bluegrass fans were tickled by the new settings for melodies like that of Hold Watcha Got, and those more familiar with Jewish culture and practice perceived the process by which that culture was enhanced by the music around us.”
Were there any songs that were particularly poignant for you?
“Among Mac’s songs, one that has special appeal to me is Smiling Through. It’s a winning love song, such a rarity in country music, but it’s more than that. It’s a song of love that endures and grows over a couple’s lifetime, that age and time cannot diminish.”
What’s next for your musical journey?
“If there is support on the part of venues for the Shabbat z’mirot material, I would like to base a recording project around it, but the two must go hand in hand. As it relates to the Mac Wiseman songbook, I plan to continue featuring it in personal appearances, but will introduce other material as well, both old and new. My style will always be informed by Mac, but I’m not capable of, or have the wish to slavishly copy him.”
You can purchase Thanks, Mac! or Jerry’s previous album Lucky Break from Jerry’s web store or the usual music services.
All photographs taken by Katrina Lee and provided by JCC East Bay.