[pullquote1 quotes=”true” align=”center”]Husband-wife duo blends music, painting in avant-garde show at Arts House[/pullquote1]
I went down the steps to the basement of the Arts House in my usual Friday “headphones-on, the surrounding-world-off” state, when I was greeted by a stranger waving and saying something to me. Jolted out of my Pink Floydian reverie, I took my headphones off to listen to the guy, and all he said was, “Welcome to the show, I’m glad you came.” I was a regular at the House but had never seen this person before and, dressed in jeans and a gray T-shirt, and he looked like just another college student. “Well that’s nice, I guess the House has got someone to welcome people now,” I thought to myself and continued to the seating area, i.e. the floor.
I took a spot, and people poured in slowly. Eventually, that strange and somehow mutually-agreed silence, which sweeps the room when everyone can sense the band, in this case Pocket Vinyl, is about to take stage, took over. The “welcome guy” was now sitting next to me. The place wasn’t full yet and so the opening act, consisting of Chris Bemis ’14 and Elizabeth Sullivan ’13, both F&M students and regular performers at the House, took the stage to buy some time.
Every genre of music has a cliché look attached to it, and, for bearded, acoustic folk rockers, we have our very own Chris Bemis, complete with his whispered vocals and flannel shirt. But he has considerable talent, which he displayed by constantly oscillating between old-school folk and modern day Americana. His whispered vocals, however, contributed in a similar fashion as he was kept busy, switching between a banjo, a classical guitar, a ukulele, and an acoustic guitar. The bulk of the singing was done by Sullivan, with her relaxed, crystal clear voice, which, by no stretch, often evokes a younger Joni Mitchell. The highlight of their performance was the cover of Peggy Lee’s “Fever.”
I was getting more and more captivated by the duo when Sullivan eventually introduced Pocket Vinyl, and to my surprise “the welcome guy” stood up and took the stage with his wife! It turned out Pocket Vinyl is a husband-wife duo. The unique thing about them was the husband, Eric Stevenson (aka the “welcome guy”) sings and plays the piano while his wife, Elizabeth Jancewicz, simultaneously paints on stage.
Speaking to Stevenson after the performance, I realized the lead singer standing at the entrance and welcoming everyone perfectly summed up his personality. He kept the audience engaged with funny anecdotes and at one point said, “You know those friends you just kind of share lame jokes with and laugh for hours, well I know we haven’t known each other for so long but that’s the relationship I want to have with you guys,” which obviously got him a lot of “awwws.” “I am adorable,” was his response as his wife looked at him and gave him an I-married-a-clown smile.
But this apparent niceness contrasted with the music we heard. Lush, expressive melodies were violently yoked with jarring slamming on the keyboard in most of the songs. The initial notes of each song were playful, but the dark lyrics gave you the sense that Stevenson was holding back something terribly painful.
“Sing if you wanna sing/ I don’t, praise if you wanna praise/ I won’t, it’s hard to see with a blind mind’s eye,” were Stevenson’s first lyrics, masked by joyful indie-pop tinkering on the keyboard. The second song started the same way and quickly became hauntingly beautiful. He stood up and continued singing but with dramatic actions this time, almost as if in a musical. And if the audience didn’t believe the pain still, he ended with a loud angry scream, shouting “go away,” and spat on the floor. I knew I picked the right night to come to the Arts House as I was in for some serious avant-garde music.
A song called “A Little Joke” followed, making the room lighter with its mischievous sing-along chorus: “It’s an honest mistake, and I am sure it won’t happen again.” The dramatic actions continued through the rest of the show. At one point Stevenson put his back against the wall and one of his legs up as if staring into the distance in a pastoral scene. He was jolted out of it by Jancewicz, painting all along, who shouted “Hey,” out of the blue and cleverly made the audience aware of her presence. Stevenson continued sitting in his pastoral scene while playing the keyboard nonchalantly with one hand until the end of the song.
“And now I’m going to tell you guys our secret,” he said after ending the song, returning back to his ‘adorable’ persona. “The secret, guys, behind everything, the deep meaning of our act which you guys have probably not figured out yet.” Seeing that his joke had worked, he held the face with which he ended the sentence — mouth open, hands frozen, eyebrows raised, the whole act — for quite a while. Amid laughs, he finally explained the secret, which finally turned out to be the couple is essentially fighting on stage the whole time. Jancewicz tries to distract the audience from Stevenson by painting while Stevenson reciprocates by stripping her of attention with his music!
The night had its low moments, too, as the formulaic pairing of colorful melodies with jarring endings got redundant towards the middle, but the subject matter and lyrical prowess kept shining through. What followed was a meditation on death, which took three songs, and two love songs — the only two intentional love songs Stevenson has written, he explained. “I know we have our faults and kinks but we sure do make a damn fine drink,” he sung in the penultimate song, exposing how fragile love can be and how little it takes to get it back sometimes.
Before the last song, Stevenson thanked the audience by sharing how the couple sleeps in their car sometimes and plays in empty bars. He quickly declared it is “awesome, and we are living their dream” before any sign of pity was shown, explaining that he only shared the experience to show how much it meant to have the audience present there. If it wasn’t somehow evident until now, the final song “I Hear Colors” confirmed Stevenson’s genius. It expressed his passion for art so one could see precisely why he loves music. That constant radio playing in the musician’s head, the eyes that are always probing for meaning in ordinary experiences, the incessant striving to make wholes from insignificant halves was all evident in the lyrics of the songs. The keyboard assumed a melancholic role and Eric started: “I listen to the colors run, colors that drip right off this tune/ This song is pink, this song is blue.”
lizabeth had finished painting a golden grand piano but Eric continued: “In the notes, in the beats, in the piano seats/ In the wood, in the brass, in the street.”
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