A young Portland jazz group evokes musical memories of the swinging 1930s
This weekend, the Walters Cultural Arts Center is once again taking a live trip down memory lane with a performance by Portland vocal jazz sextet the Stolen Sweets, a group featuring three-part female vocal harmonies backed by a bounding jazz soundtrack.
Although the Sweets play many jazz standards, the group is anything but standard. Dressed in full 1930s garb-including evening gowns for the group's three main vocalists and dapper suits on their male accompaniment-the Sweets offer an experience in musical theatricality, transforming the stage into a traditional supper club of yesteryear, complete with conversations with the audience, inside jokes and a little glitz added to the glamour.
'It's about evoking a bygone era,' said vocalist Jen Bernard, who also plays flute. 'I don't know if things were simpler, but maybe people treated each other a little better. This was the Depression era, and it provided a ray of hope during this really dispiriting time. The music has inherently built into it a sense of cheering people up a little bit.'
The Sweets main source of inspiration-and the group's genesis-is grounded in the works of the Boswell Sisters, a three-part harmony act from New Orleans that reached their height in the 1920s and '30s. The group used its good-girl image to take chances considered daring in its day-offering winking innuendos set to a male-dominated jazz beat.
'It's hard to describe because they encompass so many musical genres, but it was the pop music of the time,' said Bernard. 'You had this hot jazz musical backdrop, and then you had this three-part vocal harmony dancing on top. They drew from so many cultural stems and created something completely unlike anything you'd ever heard at the time.'
The Sweets formed in 2004 when guitarist Pete Krebs approached Bernard and fellow vocalist Lara Mitchell with the idea of a one-night-only Boswell Sisters tribute show. But when the group started working on the sound, Bernard said they knew they had something that would last beyond a one-off performance.
'It was unlike any music we'd ever heard before, said Bernard. 'It's cool to listen to, it's musically challenging, inspiring and exciting. We put hours and hours into learning this stuff, and we fell in love with the material. There was no way we were going to do this just once.'
Eight years later, the Sweets-Bernard, Krebs, Mitchell, bassist Keith Brush, vocalist Erin Sutherland and guitarist and vocalist David Langenes-have become an institution in Portland and beyond, playing shows in seven European countries, Mexico and throughout the United States.
Saturday's performance marks the Sweets' first show at the Walters Center, and cultural arts program supervisor Carl Annala said the group - which he has wanted to book for some time now - fits perfectly into the venue's programming.
The Walters Center has a history of throwback performances, with such groups as the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra and the Oregon Renaissance band performing niche classical music and groups like the Midnight Serenaders and Marianna and the Baby Vamps evoking the Roaring 20s and doo-wop, respectively.
'There has been a lot of retro stuff here in general. In entertainment in general, there's a lot of looking to the past for some renewed interest,' said Annala. 'We've generally gravitated toward it. It's appealing to the age of the practitioners, which is young, and it appeals to our general demographics, which is a little bit older. I'm trying to give the arts center more eclectic offerings.'
Bernard agreed that there is a vintage vibe floating in the undercurrent of popular music, and her group serves as another ensemble that brings fans of retro music to the forefront and draws in others who wouldn't otherwise listen to it.
'There's this pan-vintage thing going on-swing dancers are included in this, too-and when you connect with those people, whether it's in Mexico or Belgium or Michigan or New Orleans, they feel like your people, like your family,' said Bernard. 'There's an appreciation there, and they take care of you. There's a desire to connect with something a little more organic.'
There's also a strong theatricality to the band that extends beyond the music, providing audiences with a performance that includes not only vintage, authentically performed music, but also costumes and conversation with the audience.
For Bernard, stepping into her character-the vamp of the group, she said, complementing Sutherland's flirt and Mitchell's croquet-that brings a certain sort of magic to the audiences and the performers alike.
'Women these days can't pass up an opportunity to get dolled up and be sexy and sultry,' said Bernard. 'There's just something fun about getting dolled up and suspending disbelief. It's theater, and it's fun to be in character. There's a lot of thinly veiled innuendo in our songs. That's part of the appeal. We're talking about something dirty without being explicit. It's good, clean fun.'
Having played a diverse amount of venues-including a career highlight show at New Orleans' legendary Preservation Hall-Bernard said the group relishes in performing for smaller communities and large concert halls alike.
'We love smaller towns. Four of us are from really small towns. That's who we are,' said Bernard. 'There is a sense of connection for people in smaller cities. People want to talk to you, tell you about their lives. We will go to the merchandise table and talk to everybody who is available. It's really gratifying. It feeds your soul.'
Next up, the Stolen Sweets continue their drive for authenticity with a vinyl recording on vintage equipment coupled with the group's seemingly endless string of performances throughout the region and beyond.
But Bernard said all the hard work essentially results in a series of paid vacations, and the Sweets will continue on their mission to delight audiences by exposing them to vintage music from a nearly forgotten era, sung in three-part harmony by skilled musicians who embody the very essence of what made the music fresh to begin with.
'We have landed accidentally on something that really reaches people. Not everybody, but most bodies,' said Bernard. 'When you come to one of our shows, you're going to see 80-year-old people and little kids and punk rockers and people from Beaverton who made the trip in. You're going to see an incredibly diverse demographic. It's fun, it's cool. It's just a great equalizer.'
The Stolen Sweets perform Saturday, July 25 at 7 pm at the Walters Cultural Arts Center, located at 527 E Main St in Hillsboro. To learn more, call 615-3485 or visit ci.hillsboro.or.us/arts/wcac.