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Let there be music — lot's of it

The new year has gotten itself off to a decidedly musical start here in the Rogue Valley. The past weeks have treated us to so many musical delights it hardly seems possible for one person to take it all in. And maybe that's a good thing.

First up was the annual Rogue Valley Blues Festival, a three-day celebration of the distinctly American sound that has spawned all manner of progeny.

If your tastes run to classical, there were several concerts ranging from solo piano recitals to the Russian piano virtuoso Alexander Ghindin performing with the Rogue Valley Symphony.

Coming up this weekend is a concert featuring the 63 young members of the Siskiyou Violins who prove that classical music does indeed have a future, and a bright one at that.

And just when you thought you had seen and heard it all, on Wednesday, more than 350 singers will take the stage in a concert featuring four local choral groups and they'll all end the performance singing the "Hallelujah Chorus." Sounds like a natural for the half-time show at the Super Bowl.

While all of this musical munificence was playing out, there was plenty of good old rock 'n' roll to be heard.

Just the other night I stopped into my favorite club to hear my favorite band and my favorite guitar player. Right there on stage was the Mail Tribune's Editorial Page Editor Gary Nelson playing the trombone along with the band. The band's former keyboard player was on hand, too. A night to remember.

But when it came to being truly inspired by music, the winner last week was the American Soul & Rock & Roll Choir concert in the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater. Rock 'n' roll music seems an unlikely place to turn to for soul comfort and inspiration. The genre has reveled in its role as the bad boy of music. Rock stars — and those who wish they were — have adopted rock's adolescent rebelliousness and "I don't give a damn" attitude.

But what if rock music actually did give a damn? What would that sound like? It would sound a lot like the songs sung by the American Soul & Rock & Roll Choir.

Every rock song on the program had a life of its own years ago as a hit single. We sang those songs as we listened to them on the radio in our cars, at home on CDs, cassettes and records or danced to them at clubs. We still know all the words.

But when the American Soul & Rock & Roll Choir sings those familiar tunes, we quickly realize we might be hearing what they say for the first time.

Darrell Brown, the show's musical director, arranger and producer, found creative ways to incorporate gospel sensibilities into about 75 different rock songs. He left the words intact, allowing them to speak for themselves.

And he still pulled out the stops for the four-piece band and nine vocalists — fabulous harmonies and show-stopping solos, screaming guitar and thundering drums punctuated by a driving bass interwoven with deft organ or piano touches. Good old rock 'n' roll, served just the way we like it — and then some.

For some people's tastes, the music was too loud. But that's pretty true of many rock concerts indoors and out. Too bad, though, because when you have really talented singers and musicians on stage, a wall of sound is not what you want to hear.

Even if you're busy boogying down in your little piece of the dance floor, you still want to pick up on the musicality, the subtleties, nuances, harmonies, dynamics, etc. Louder doesn't equal better. At some point, it no longer equals just louder, either. It becomes muddied and its indiscriminate presence is measured in decibels rather than tonality. The bad boy strikes again.

Then there's folk music. For a couple of decades, Brian Freeman has been one of the champions of an annual tribute to Robert Burns, or at least the music of his beloved Scotland.

And to think, in all those years, I, who have actually lived in Scotland and dearly love the music from there, had never been to one of those concerts. That changed in this magical musical week.

Freeman's concert was relaxed, genuine and — dare I say it — lilting. He has such a soothing voice and disarming stage presence. It reminded me a bit of the gentle repartee we used to hear from singers in tiny folk clubs back in the '60s.

Joining Freeman was his daughter Kailey and longtime singing buddies Christine Williams and Jim Finnegan. Freeman played the octave mandolin and guitar accompanied on piano by Don Harriss.

About 140 of us had quite a pleasant evening sitting in the First United Methodist Church of Ashland and just taking it all in. I found myself singing the chorus of the last song all the way home.

And then there's next week, which leads us into February. It may be the shortest month of the year, but don't count on February being short on music. After all, it's the month of St. Valentine. And if music be the food of love, you can be sure that people will play on. And judging from these past few weeks, that's a good thing.