By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR
There is no one formula or blueprint for forming a band. Sometimes it's by conscious design, sometimes it's a matter of happenstance, a confluence of the right factors at the right time.
And then there's Long Time Courting, which combines all that and more.
The all-female Boston-based Celtic music quartet is celebrating its third birthday with the release of its debut CD, "Alternate Routes," a showcase of the enchanting vocals, top-rank musicianship, and well-conceived, intelligent arrangements that have charmed and impressed audiences throughout the Northeast, and elsewhere. The anniversary also has served as an opportunity for reflection among the "LTC" members: Liz Simmons (lead vocals, guitar); Shannon Heaton (flute, whistle, lead vocals); Ariel Friedman (cello, vocals); and newest member Sarah Blair (fiddle, vocals), who handily filled the void left by the departure of original co-founder Ellery Klein last year.
As the four explain it, Long Time Courting represents that elusive, coveted blend of talent and temperament, an ideal union of musical backgrounds and experiences that spur collective creativity and individual growth. In LTC, for example, a classically trained cellist gets to devise an arrangement for a centuries-old folk ballad that came from a Johnny Cash record, a fiddler finds that her voice can be an equally important instrument, and concert sound-checks become a laboratory for cobbling together what is arguably their CD's highlight track.
Most of all, LTC is four people who get a clearly obvious kick out of being with each other, even if those times do not come all that often, given their copious musical activities and family considerations.
"I just feel blessed to play with them," says Simmons, who shares lead vocal duties with Heaton. "Musically, I've grown so much. Working in a band is such a great education anyhow, but I feel I am always learning things from the girls I never knew about music, or myself."
"When I talk about Long Time Courting as a 'work in progress,' I mean it in a totally positive way," says Heaton. "In this band, there is so much room to grow and develop a bond. It's a wonderful place where we can all bring ideas and know they'll be treated fairly, honestly, and with respect."
Fairly, honestly, and with respect also describes how LTC treats the music they play, as is evident on "Alternate Routes," which includes energetic, bravura tune sets, sprightly, smart versions of traditional songs like "Maggie Dean" and "The Miller and the Lass," a soulful, sensitive rendering of Robbie O'Connell's "Islander's Lament" and the elegiac "Barbara Allen," that timeless ballad of love ruined by toxic jealousy -- although there have been countless recordings of it throughout folkdom, the band was inspired by Johnny Cash's version.
That the band exists at all is a testament to the penchant and eagerness for exploration on the part of its members, who are already part of some very rewarding musical partnerships. Simmons is a co-founder of the alt-trad band Annalivia, and performs occasionally with guitarist and vocalist Hannah Sanders; Heaton is half of a highly popular Irish/Irish-American music duo with husband Matt; Friedman frequently plays as part of a trio with American Scottish fiddler Hanneke Cassel, and has recorded two CDs with her sister Mia – she and Heaton also perform with the ensemble Childsplay; and Blair is a member of The Sevens and a regular on the contra dance circuit (Klein played for several years with Gaelic Storm, although she had left that band by the time she joined LTC).
"Ellery and I had done some brainstorming, and played a few times; same thing with Liz and me," recalls Heaton. "It was just a natural grouping, and we felt very excited about doing something together as musicians and as friends. I thought there was really something compelling about an all-female project, after having played primarily with men.
"That's not to say that I mind playing with men; at the end of the day, I really don't care if I'm playing with men or women, as long as they are good musicians. But there is a different chemistry to playing with women, and I loved the idea of a band of all women, who could sing as well as play instruments together, and with interesting, fun arrangements. The key for me in being in Long Time Courting, though, is that they're great musicians."
The trio felt they needed a fourth instrument, says Simmons, and a cello "seemed like a perfect fit" – and Friedman, they believed, was the right person to play it. In some ways, it was an unlikely choice, given that the classically trained Friedman (who studied cello performance from Northwestern) had only been playing folk and traditional music for a few years, in contrast to the far lengthier experience of Heaton, Simmons, and Klein. But Friedman's skills as a musician and singer were without question, says Simmons.
"What I also appreciated was that Ariel is interested in other kinds of music, namely Appalachian and old-timey, which I also like," she says. "So we were able to add that to the Irish/Celtic repertoire we had, which was very exciting. And Ariel is great at improvising, just as Shannon is wonderful at arranging – you're always happy to find an additional element that helps your band have a distinctive sound."
"I don't know a lot about Irish traditional music," says Friedman, "but as we're exploring other genres now, including those which are more familiar to me, I can contribute my knowledge. We all share and learn from one another, and that's why I love playing with Long Time Courting."
The loss of a founding member can be a traumatizing experience for a close-knit band, but LTC was able to weather the departure of Klein – who moved to Israel with her husband and children in 2010 – with grace. "The transition was organic and positive, a real testament to the bond we have," says Heaton. "We talked through it, and while we were sad to lose a musician of Ellery's stature, we were very happy for her and her family to have such an incredible opportunity. We brainstormed as to who could be our new member, and Sarah was our first choice; it was Ellery's idea, too."
"They were all really good players, and a very congenial group of women," recalls Blair, who knew Klein and Simmons and was somewhat acquainted with Heaton. "I thought it would be a good experience to be in all-female band, especially one with such beautiful arrangements, particularly for their songs – I hadn't had a lot of opportunities to play with singers. My only disappointment was that Ellery and I couldn't be in the band together."
As the other LTC members aver, Blair did more than step into the space formerly occupied by Klein; she transformed the band through the addition of her contra dance-influenced repertoire and ability, as well as overall approach to music. It's not that she made LTC "better," per se, but rather enhanced its existing qualities while enlarging the dimensions within which the band works – one example of her impact is the "Polska efter Elias Tallari" track on the CD, which marries a strikingly beautiful Scandinavian tune to two Irish polkas.
LTC also provides a fascinating case study for what might be called the "my other band" effect. All four members were already accomplished musicians, who thoroughly enjoyed their respective ongoing bands and collaborations, when they came together in Long Time Courting. But over the past three years, with mutual encouragement and support, they've found new facets to their music.
"I think, at the beginning, to some degree we saw this band in terms of how it differed from our other bands, rather than appreciating it for its own sake," notes Simmons. "But that’s changed. We're more selective now about what songs and tunes we decide to play, and how we arrange them."
Adds Heaton, "I love playing in a duo with my husband, of course, but I also have found it liberating and instructive to share tasks with three other people. I've learned to listen more, to be more patient, and I have an incentive to work on stuff geared for a quartet instead of a duo, and all that has definitely helped me to grow musically. My solo project, 'The Blue Dress' [which she released on CD last year], was partly inspired by being in LTC."
Blair, for her part, hadn't had much opportunity, or much of a predilection, to consider her vocal talents. "I have the No. 4 voice," she laughs, "but it's great to learn how to sing with other people, and to hear how we harmonize."
Friedman feels she has strengthened her grasp of traditional music through her LTC association, yet she also has been able to contribute her own expertise. The arrangement for "Barbara Allen" is one example of her influence, as is the "Alternate Routes" set – when the band transitions from the set's opening tune, "The Morning Dew," to "Alternate Routes" (a Heaton original), Friedman and Blair combine cello and fiddle to produce an exquisitely harmonized, slowly shifting counterpoint to the agile melody of Heaton's flute.
"With 'Alternate Routes' and 'Barbara Allen,' we went for a 'stringier' kind of sound than what we had done in the past," says Friedman. "As you continue to settle into a band, you start seeing more and more different possibilities, and with this band there is a lot of freedom to explore those possibilities."
The "Alternate Routes" set stands out for another reason, as Heaton reveals. "We don't always have a lot of time for rehearsal, so we've used the sound checks at our gigs to arrange some of our material. We worked out the set when we were preparing for a concert in Binghamton, and although we were tired and hungry we were able to do it all, and it came out beautifully. It's a case of making the best possible use of your time, whether you're with family, or with friends, or working on a project – you seize the moment."
Another, even more recent measure of Long Time Courting's evolution is an as-yet-unrecorded song the four collaborated on. "It was such a refreshing experience," says Heaton. "We all had ideas for it, but there was not one dominant person who took command; it was literally a group effort."
Musical rapport is one thing, and perhaps ultimately the key thing, for a band, but interpersonal dynamics go a long way to making it seem more like a gathering of friends than a labor of love. Long Time Courting excels in this respect, too, say the four members. Friedman may not match the demographic profile of the other three, who are married with children, but she doesn't feel the odd one out in the group: "They live vicariously through me because I'm younger and single," she quips.
"We do live vicariously through Ariel," laughs Simmons. "We talk about kids and marriage, but we also talk with Ariel about her life, and we offer our insights. And we end up giggling our heads off and staying up way too late."
Heaton notes, "A band is approximately 25 percent rehearsing and performing, 75 percent scheduling, driving around, and hanging out, so it really does help if you get along. I think we're fortunate in that we have a diversity of stories to tell, and we enjoy listening to one another."