Monday, December 10, 2007

Erin Gibson LaClair Band

For the past three years, Christmas has not begun for me as the stores stock for the shopping season, or as we begin to purchase gifts, or even as lights spring up in the snow covered New England countryside. The event sparking off my own relighting of the Christmas spirit is a small concert sponsored by the Kiwanis Club in Ellenburg, NY. Here, Erin Gibson LaClair teaches second grade in Northern Adirondack Central School and gives a Christmas concert with one of the bluegrass world’s greatest backup bands, her brothers Eric and Leigh Gibson with their band mate Mike Barber on bass. We drove across snow covered Vermont, cutting through the mountains on I-89 and then ignored the GPS’s oft repeated orders to take the ferry to Plattsburgh, preferring to drive through the Lake Champlain Islands and to cross the lake at Rouses Point. From there it’s only a short stint to Ellenburg, a dot on the map a couple of miles south of the Canadian border. This part of the world is less than thriving, and the cold and snow don’t cover the costs of the dead agricultural economy which once existed in New York. Road signs pointing north lead to towns with French names in nearby Quebec.
As we entered the high school, we were greeted by elves wearing red hats and seasonal sweaters, now familiar faces to us as we were here for the third consecutive year. The stage was dressed with snowmen, red packages, and other seasonal decorations. The Gibson’s took the stage to the enthusiastic applause of the audience and kicked off the show with “Christmas is A’comin’.” It took no time at all to sink into the pleasure of hearing the familiar close harmony of the Gibson brothers enhanced by a lovely third voice perfectly complementing theirs. Erin Gibson LaClair, her hair darker than we’ve become accustomed to, has a lovely clear, clean voice which blends perfectly with her bothers, as only sibling vocal chords can. In addition to mostly secular seasonal fare, she selected songs by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Gordon Lightfoot, and others. She also sang “The Lighthouse” and, from their new album “Gone Home,” both of which she has recorded with her brothers. Particularly in “Gone Home” where she sang harmony, the closeness of their voices and her marvelous harmonies shone through. Her voice is clean and pure, her delivery unaffected, and her stage patter developing, enhanced by her brothers’ teasing. While Erin has chosen work and family over professional performing, it is easy to hope a Gibson Family album lies not too far on the horizon. The chilly outside world evaporated in the warmth of this family’s presentation. Eric’s eleven year old son Kelly made his surprise stage debut on the mandolin, ably playing “Whiskey before Breakfast” when Leigh fortuitously broke a string.










There was an interesting moment early in the second set that attests to the growing national stature of the Gibson Brothers. At such events the sponsoring organization often supplements the ticket sale receipts by sponsoring raffles, including a 50/50 drawing. Hilda Danforth, president of the Kiwanis, introduced this portion with a story. It seems that Kiwanis’ national dues enable the organization to purchase inexpensive event insurance. When Hilda called the national office in Indiana, she spoke with a woman who asked, “Is this insurance for Mel or the Brothers.” On hearing that it was, indeed, for the brothers, she joyfully told Hilda how much she loves their music, so much so, in fact, that each year she and her husband take part of their annual vacation to attend a Gibson Brothers performance.

Late in the second set, Eric and Leigh excused their sister, whose voice has not developed the endurance strengthened by daily performance, to perform a couple of their own songs. Their new CD, called “Iron and Diamonds” will be released by Sugar Hill in March or April. They chose to share two new songs from the upcoming disk. “Angry Man” looks at how much stays the same in troubled times when people are looking for something new. The song is clearly not political in a partisan sense, speaking instead to the general aura of disappointment and unease people feel in some of the directions taken being taken by our society and their feeling of powerlessness in being unable to affect the directions we take. The singer says, “I’ve been sittin’ here for a long time thinkin’ that the world would change. I’m older now but it’s still the same. Must we all fight ‘till kingdom come? I’m an angry man, am I the only one?” It also talks about the singer’s disappointment in himself at his own sense of paralysis. At the same time the song expresses hope rather than despair, a characteristic of Gibson songs.

“Iron and Diamonds,” the title track of the new CD, is a love song to the miners of Lyon Mountain. Lyon Mountain, up into the sixties, was a center of northern New York’s iron mining heritage. Men drawn from immigrant groups as well as long time inhabitants have enriched America through their toil in the dangerous and exhausting work of the deep miner, emerging only on Sunday for church and their afternoon baseball game. Adirondack sports, especially baseball and soccer, are notoriously hard fought, and the miners of Lyon Mountain won more than their share of games. The song pays tribute to their strength and dignity, as well as the importance of the game’s giving them an outlet for expression and freedom. “They dug into America, down a hole deep, dark and cruel…with pride and dignity…in the bleachers and the batter’s box, the miners could be free…A life of iron and diamonds was all the miners knew.” This sneak preview of these two great songs, with their haunting sounds can only make a listener salivate for the new CD and its seven new Gibson Brothers songs. The concert concluded with Erin returning for a lovely rendition of “Silent Night” and their encore, “Gone Home,” also from the new album, a traditional gospel piece.

We drove south into the looming Adirondack Mountains filled with the sense of having heard some of the best giving their best to the home town crowd. Does it get much better than this?