Thursday January 3, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Who is Beulah, and why are they saying such terrible things about her?

Those were my first questions as I sat down with Arthur Davis, one of the four young men who make up the Washed Up Beulah Band.

It turns out Beulah comes from the title of one of the first songs the group’s members ever did together, and "Washed Up" ... well, there’s a reason for that, too.

The quartet came together while its four members were part of a larger Northern Harmony group taking part in a two-month tour of Corsica, France, Switzerland and Great Britain.

Veterans of Village Harmony singing for years, and all with Vermont roots, Davis, Luke Hoffman, Kenny Shimizu and Wheaton Squier began singing jubilee-style radio-gospel music from 1930s and 1940s while on the tour. It didn’t take long for them to realize they had a good sound.

"There was a moment where we sort of said ‘We should keep doing this afterwards, because this is really fun,’" recalled Davis.

Coming up with a name for the group was a little harder.

"We had this brainstorming session ... with varying degrees of seriousness," said Davis.

They picked Beulah because of the song. "We had this vision to have a laundry-themed name because the first place we ever really rehearsed was in this old stone house in Corsica, in the basement in this old laundry room," he said.

Somehow, "Washed Up Beulah Band" came up, and the name stuck. The only trouble is this quartet is far from washed-up. They’re just getting started.

And this Friday, the group will perform at New England Youth Theatre, 100 Flat St., at 8 p.m., as part of a three-weekend tour that will also bring it to Ashfield, Mass., and the Vermont town of Shrewsbury this weekend, Gloucester and Acton, Mass., and Montpelier next weekend, and Chicago for a workshop and concert with the Chicago Children’s Choir the weekend after that.

For the uninitiated, like me, the jubilee gospel style of music has its roots in old 1930s and 1940s southern radio shows, in music made famous by The Golden Gate Gospel Quartet, The Selah Jubilee Singers, the Kansas City Gospel Singers and the Soul Stirrers, for whom Sam Cooke once sang. The influences include gospel, soul, blues, jazz and ragtime, and the music is rhythmic, spiritual and fun, by turns stirring and humorous. One of the aims was to spread gospel music to a wider commercial audience.

"The music itself is just really fun to listen to and fun to sing. One reason we’ve gotten good response is it’s pretty accessible music. It’s really bouncy and fun. We have a really good time," said Davis, who is excited to be singing it in Friday in front of a hometown crowd.

The son of Robin and Andy Davis, Arthur, now 20 and halfway through his first year at Oberlin College, grew up steeped in traditional vocal and instrumental music.

"I definitely feel like I have a strong connection to the place that I came from," Davis said.

After graduating from Brattleboro Union High School in 2011, Davis took a year off, in large part so he could be one of the 15 singers on the Northern Harmony tour of Europe. Davis was one of the youngest singers in a tour of 20-somethings, but he bonded in music and in friendship with Hoffman, Shimizu and Squier.

They began singing jubilee arrangements Hoffman and Shimizu were familiar with, and their quartet became an added feature of the Northern Harmony concert sets.

To keep things fresh, they began learning more songs and soon had enough repertoire to record a CD, which they made in a day in a community center in England while on tour. Copies of the CD will be for sale at Friday’s concert.

When the Northern Harmony tour ended, the four young men faced a big question: Now what?

They put together some concerts in November and December 2011 and performed some more in New England last January, including a stop in Putney at Sandglass Theater. But the group faces some serious logistical challenges.

Davis is off at Oberlin, where he hasn’t yet declared a major but has discovered a passion for geology and environmental studies -- he also plays in a contra dance band there. Hoffman had been living in Oberlin, Ohio, as well, but is in the midst of a transition out of town. Squier lives in the small Vermont town of Tinmouth, and Shimizu calls Brooklyn, N.Y., home.

"We’re all in different places in life, which makes things kind of complicated. Our plan for the time being is to do things when we can," said Davis.

Tickets for Friday’s 8 p.m. show at NEYT are $15, $10 for students and seniors. For reservations, e-mail arthurphilipdavis@gmail.com.

For more about the Washed Up Beulah Band, there are videos on YouTube, and you can find them on Facebook.

"We’re probably the only ‘Washed Up Beulah Band’ on Facebook," Davis said.