Kelly Knapp and Jamie Walker perform “Wheels” during the annual Wall of Grass benefit at Club Passim on Saturday.
There are genre-specific music festivals that bring a galaxy’s worth of stars to the stage. There are charity fundraisers with bands and solo acts pulling together. Then there is Wall of Grass, in which they team together at once, some two dozen musicians sitting in a circle for the biggest front-porch jam imaginable. It is a symphony for the soul; a veritable orchestra of instruments, and a chorus of divine voices united in song.
It is, in short, one of the most uniquely enjoyable musical events on the Boston calendar.
The annual benefit concert was first billed as “an interactive folk collaborative.” Its participants have lovingly coined it as “cluster-folk,” a “folk-chestra” and a “folk flash mob.” Event founder and organizer Joe Donnelly said the name was derived from an early vision of it as “Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound meets Bill Monroe.” This wall of sound runs two to three musicians deep around the song circle. And it is often hard to tell who is having more fun — the artists forming that circle or the listeners gathering ’round it.
As was proven once again Saturday when Wall of Grass celebrated its 20th year with a matinee at Club Passim — the famed Harvard Square club celebrating its 60th year — the corps of drummers alone represented a Who’s Who of the Boston music scene and beyond. Crammed into the intimate framework, we saw players who’ve kept the beat for Paul McCartney, Elton John and Richard Thompson (Dave Mattacks); Aimee Mann, Lori McKenna and Lisa Marie Presley (John Sands), Morphine (Jerome Deupree), and the seemingly tireless Donnelly, whose renowned bands include the Del Fuegos and Swinging Steaks.
Then there were the two transcendent electric guitarists allowed to break the acoustic tradition, Duke Levine, who tours and records with Peter Wolf, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lee Ann Womack and a Grand Ol’ Opry’s worth of Nashville stars, and Stu Kimball — Bob Dylan’s longtime lead guitarist.
Last year, in the initial throes of an American spiritual and political crisis, many of the songs were of the protest-folk variety, hitting on socially conscious themes. Saturday’s nearly three-hour show was still rich with folk and country standards, but had moments of much more edgy energy, including Kimball devouring Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” augmenting his searing guitar with a rare show of lead singing, dynamic at that. The addition of electric instruments in trusted hands was a break with the early tradition. “It was a purely acoustic start in 1999, and coming on the heels of MTV’s ‘Unplugged,’ it was timely,” said Donnelly. “We also had an early policy — ‘If you bring an instrument, you can sit in’ — but it got out of control … so we had to stop that.”
As it is, audience members need to be resourceful in gathering around, but the listener experience never feels compromised. There is a bit of a fly-on-the-wall appeal to it, a chance to see musicians sharing communally “For the Sake of the Song,” as they often do outside performance spaces.
While Donnelly plans the set list “based on the temperature” of society, he said it’s a collaborative process developed through threads of messaging and brainstorming.
“Part of the joy of assembling it is envisioning what will make a good song for the right people,” he said.
Donnelly hit on one master stroke by pairing Swinging Steaks bandmate Jamie Walker and Kelly Knapp of Bristols and Darlings fame. They seemed to be natural combo last year, and again this year were among pairings delightfully recalling the magic of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Chuck McDermott and his Convoy Hickies bandmate Sandy Martin sweetly covered “Love Hurts” in the center of the circle’s embrace. Walker and Kelly reprised the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Wheels” wonderfully, and also Richard Thompson’s “Keep Your Distance.”
Chris Cote, the powerfully strong singer for Giant Kings, brought the temperature of the room up a bit with his soul-stirring version of Little Richard’s “I Don’t Know (What You Got),” drawing wide smiles and testimonial shrieks throughout the room.
There was also the unique joy of seeing 81-year-old master pianist and trombonist Herb Gardner (New Black Eagle Jazz Band) playing literally alongside his daughter, Sarah.
Other highlights included longtime Bonnie Raitt bassist James “Hutch” Hutchinson and Knapp leading the way in a cover of Raitt’s “Baby Come Back,” Swinging Steaks bassist Paul Kochanski absolutely inhabiting Townes Van Zandt’s classic “White Freightliner,” McDermott singing fittingly the Steve Earle affirmation “City of Immigrants,” Chris Pahud covering Tom Russell’s convict ballad “Blue Wing,” an ode to Little Willie John, and Sarah Gardner channeling James Taylor’s reassuring “You’ve Got a Friend.”
Of course, part of the feel-good vibe of Wall of Grass is the charitable component embraced by musicians and listeners alike. Initial shows benefitted feeder systems in the Mark Sandman Music Education Fund and Passim School of Music Fund. Saturday, all the funds went to the Boston Animal Rescue League.
While the series took a brief break in the 2000s, Donnelly does not see that happening again soon. This begs the question, “Will the circle be unbroken?” Donnelly said fear not … he’s already looking forward to assembling the next one.