On a mild mid-November night I ventured up to SPACE in Evanston with my friend and colleague Judy Raddue for a show by the po-mo folk trio Sons of the Never Wrong -- not the first for either of us (far from it), but the first we'd attended together. There was a sense in the air, almost of competition, as sometimes happens when fans of the same band come together on holy ground; an unspoken "who loves them more" kind of thing -- though it's notable that Sons can inspire this kind of cultishness in persons well beyond the first blush of youth. In the long run, I had to cede the night to Judy. But I gave her a run for her money.
For those of you who have yet to be initiated -- how to explain Sons of the Never Wrong? ... Well, let's start with the name. Where does it come from, what does it mean? A few years ago, after one of their gigs, I asked Bruce Roper, the group's token Y-chromosomed member, if it was a deliberate corruption of "Guns of the Navarone." He just gave me a poker face and said, "That's an interesting theory."
There you go: Sons in a nutshell. Maddeningly coy, disarmingly clever, and many times smarter than you are. Which isn't to paint them as a novelty act -- say, a folk analogue to They Might Be Giants -- because Sons are the real deal: they write about heartbreak, they write about longing, the write about loss. Fine, they also write about toast. My point is, you can't pigeonhole them. In an increasingly compartmentalized music market, Sons are too slippery to be successful. (They also won't fly, which keeps them pretty much a Chicago phenomenon.) Even "folk" isn't a mantle they wear easily; their lyrics often have the narrative complexity of Leonard Cohen or the nimble wit of Noël Coward. But they wear their urbanity lightly, especially in performance, where their patter is so deft and funny you begin to think they could just drop the music and work summers cracking jokes on the Borscht Belt. (That isn't a suggestion.)
Roper and Deborah Lader are recognizable folk types -- both lean and lanky, with a kind of unconstructed chic and wry, characterful voices. In fact, they look alike; they could be brother and sister.
And then there's Sue Demel. You see her onstage with the others and what comes to mind is that old nursery song, "One of these things is not like the others." She's as diminutive as her colleagues are tall; as animated as they are laid-back; and she dresses like a post-millennial glove puppet. There's nothing shaggy about her; even her hair is close-cropped. But her appearance isn't nearly as singular as her voice: a rich, athletic, octave-hurtling instrument that purrs and growls, rocks the foundation and raises the roof. She's there for the cheap seats. Roper and Lader are porch swings; Demel, a well-tuned Maserati.
This isn't to suggest that Demel is the star; in fact she vastly benefits from context. Much of her appeal depends on the reactions she elicits from her more laconic partners, who occasionally display the kind of "What can you do?", hair-fallen-out-of-curl exasperation you see in drawings of Dennis the Menace's parents. Demel gives them something to react to: a focus for their dry asides, a set-up for their punch lines. Tonight, the chemistry is in evidence from the moment they take the stage, when the following exchange occurs:
DEMEL (noticing something that's been left atop her drums): Oh, good! Swabs! (She happily displays them to the audience.)
LADER: Sue has a phobia about germs.
DEMEL: I use these to wipe down my harmonica between sets.
ROPER: You know, the only mouth that touches it, is yours.
DEMEL: (beat) It doesn't matter.
But all this, really, is incidental to the music, which is a rich feast indeed. On this particular night, as on many others, they launch into their first set with "Maybe Just Maybe," one of the great show-openers of all time, and yes I'm aware of the dangerously facile hyperbole there. But I really mean it. "Maybe just maybe you can dance with me," urge the lyrics, and goddamn if you aren't ready to, never mind that you've hardly even touched your drink yet. Watching Demel and Lader cut a caper about the stage only makes it more contagious.
After this, we can ride for a while on sheer momentum, as the Sons and pianist Jane Shilling plunge through seventeen years of the Sons' songbook--most of which is known by heart by the audience, not the least of whom is Judy, who has pretty much the entire Sons catalog written into her DNA, sort of like if the Bionic Woman were programmed with iTunes. My personal favorite tune, "#253 In the Red Book," comes up early; it's a haunting plea to a departing lover to just go already, that midway through twines with Simon & Garfunkle's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" -- which Demel delivers with such a resplendent shimmer you almost expect her to blink into a column of light.
Then there are the stand-up-in-your seat songs, like "I Shall Be Your Witness," the mordantly funny send-ups like "Everybody But You," a superbly reinterpreted cover of Steve Goodman's "I'll Fly Away" (which the Sons sang at the Old Town School of Folk Music's fiftieth anniversary concert), and one or two completely singular, genre-busting numbers, most notably "Girl Shanty," Demel's feminist yodel-rap-anthem, which she sings largely with only her own furious bongos for accompaniment. It's so irresistibly infectious that a male member of the audience was emboldened to get up and declare, "I want to be a girl!" A potentially awkward moment; but Demel turned, gave him a quick appraisal, and said, "You're in."
Mention should also be made of the stream of instruments that flowed through the Sons' inexhaustibly dextrous hands during the night, which included their various guitars, a mandolin, a slide banjo and the aforementioned harmonicas and bongos; and also of the gorgeous three-part harmony that has become their vocal signature. They employ it sparingly, but when Roper's astringent croon, Lader's plangent warble, and Demel's athletic purr twine together like a braid, you can just about keel over from ravishment. Fortunately, SPACE is so crowded, there's nowhere to keel over to; the worst that can happen is a sort of semi-collapse onto your neighbor's shoulder. With any luck he's someone you already know.
Claudia Schmidt joins Sons for their rousing final number; earlier she'd opened the show for them. I'm embarrassed to say I'd never heard of her, because she's apparently been around for decades, and based on the almost volcanic eruptions of adoration she drew from the crowd, she's a living legend. What can I say, we've all got gaps in our education. I liked her enormously; she not only sang and strummed (both guitar and dulcimer), she recited poems and told stories. She seemed, in fact, to be an almost perfect amalgamation of Joni Mitchell and Lynda Barry; she even manages to look like both.
My favorite Schmidt moments were: a tune called "Chickadee Blues," which, as she explained it, comprises "minor thirds a half-step apart," though she admitted this is "a bit lugubrious for birds;" a song called "Be Nice," which she introduced by deriding the increasing coarseness of our national conversation, which she labeled "a vortex of vitriol" -- a term that has stayed with me; and finally, a story, "Basic Hygiene," about a woman who is seen to bake a pie without having first washed her hands, which initially disconcerts the narrator until she realizes "Ethel wore the earth like her Sunday clothes." You can just imagine how Sue Demel felt about that.
Visit Sons of the Never Wrong at their website, www.sons.com