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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the November 6, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Perfect Parents Spawn Odd Trio of `Sons’

Call it hybrid vigor, but Sons of the Never Wrong trio

members Bruce Roper, Sue Demel, and Deborah Lader like to describe

themselves as "mixed-up adults of perfect parents of a bygone

era."

Now celebrating their 10th anniversary year, the Sons of the Never

Wrong have just released their fourth CD, "4 Ever On," packed

with 13 new songs. The Sons return to Concerts at the Crossing in

Titusville, where they helped producer Scott Cullen celebrate his

concert series fifth anniversary two years back, with a concert Saturday,

November 9, at 8 p.m.

Odd, witty, and literate story songs that feature unconventional three-part

vocal harmony over mandolin and guitar-driven tunes are Sons of the

Never Wrong’s signature sound. Rich in jazzy syncopation, compelling

counterpoint, and unanticipated detours, they’ve been called "Peter,

Paul and Mary on Prozac."

"That’s one of my favorite descriptions," says soprano and

songwriter Sue Demel from her home in Chicago. Like the Sons, all

three members of the flower power trio wrote their own songs.

"Our biggest strength is based on our oddball three-part harmony.

It’s sort of this magic that happened when we first formed the band."

You can read Roper’s fanciful creation myth about how the band got

its start on the group’s Gadfly Records website.

Demel’s version is a little more down to earth. "Bruce was doing

an open mike, a singer-songwriter thing in Chicago and Nancy and I

had been in a couple of bands together. He asked us to sing with him

at his next gig.

"As soon as we started singing together, that sort of weaving

in and out in time and space sort of happened. And we decided right

then that this doesn’t happen every day — let’s start working

on this. It felt like we were making something really new in an old

format — which is what folk music is." The three musicians

dedicated their next two or three years to defining our own sound.

"We’d get together three or four times a week and just really

bite into the idea of how to layer sound and words, how to write songs

within songs," she says. "We made some mistakes along the

way — and we recorded those. But now people recognize not `that’s

a folk trio’ but that’s the Sons of the Never Wrong."

The group developed a faithful following in Chicago coffee houses

before releasing their 1995 debut album, "Three Good Reasons"

followed by "Consequence of Speech." Demel calls Nancy Walker,

a six-year founding member of the trio, "a huge part of the vision

of the band." Now a solo artist with her first album, "All

These Things," Walker was replaced on the third and fourth albums

by string multi-instrumentalist Deb Lader.

"Now we call ourselves the U.N. of folk music," says Demel,

whose bell-like soprano voice likes to edge over into a falsetto yodel.

"Bruce was raised by methodist minister father, Deborah is from

Cleveland and she’s Jewish, and my background is Italian Catholic."

The new CD, "4 Ever On" is the product of about a year’s work.

Although the lion’s share of the songwriting is by Roper, Demel and

Lader each contribute three songs.

"Bruce’s songs feel like they’re written by a wise old poet but

sung by a child almost," says Demel. "There’s a melancholy

heartbreak, with a wink and a nod at the same time. He makes things

that are hard to say look simple. They make you lean in to listen."

Demel is also a gifted writer. Her "Girl Shanty," a folk anthem

in praise of girls and women, has become a miniature cult classic,

reportedly sung everywhere from high school track meets to christenings

to dentists’ offices. Accompanied only by percussion, the song includes

references to Demel’s mother’s warehouse job and her grandmother’s

work on the Motorola assembly line.

On "4 Ever On" Demel’s new songs are among her best, especially

the regal "Queen of Today." Lader, who writes in a more lighthearted

vein, has a new paean to "Toast" punctuated by the bell of

her pop-up toaster.

Like much of the art made in America during the past

year, "4 Ever On" is haunted by the shock of September 11.

"We recorded most of our tracks at home and when we got together

we noticed that out of the 18 songs we had recorded, 14 were about

other worlds or about death," she says. "Bruce likes to call

it `the lighter side of death.’ This album is really about infinity

— life after life, love after love."

The group has given the CD a subtitle: "Misinformation and Observations

on Reincarnation and Transformation" — or M.O.R.T. for short.

"I find the most beautiful things come out of the most grievous

times," says Demel. "Artists have figured it out, and I think

that’s why we turn to art. Bruce Springsteen’s song `The Rising’ worked

like an aspirin for me. Whenever I felt crummy, I played that song."

True to the Sons’ quirky storytelling powers, the new album features

a song called "Everybody’s Gotta" that starts with the difficult

observation that "Everybody’s had a hard year, everybody’s had

an awkward phase." Yet it uses Calypso rhythm on drums and guitar

to give the words a whimsical feel, and the layering of recorded sounds

extends to background sounds of laughter and confusion.

Much more solemn is Roper’s short anthem "Witness" which opens

with a slow sweet piano melody before the trio chimes in with the

words: "Time falls, it reels and it calls, but I shall be your

witness through it all." The closing stanza: "There is heart,

then there is thought. First take flight then get caught, but I shall

be your witness through it all."

"One DJ told us that our song `Witness’ acted like a balm, a salve,"

she says. "We didn’t realize that music could do so much —

much more than we thought. September 11 made me more certain that

however people can reach out to each other is the way the world keeps

turning."

While the new CD features instrumental contributions by luminaries

of the Chicago music scene, when the Sons appear live in concert they

exude a signature joie de vivre. They perform their songs amidst a

swirl of near-constant movement, fake dance routines, and flourishes

toward each other and their instruments.

With Roper on guitar, Lader on guitar, mandolin, and banjo, and the

diminutive Demel switching off between guitar and two big djembes

they serve up a banquet of sound fueled by their voracious appetite

for life’s ups and downs. Al Ehrich, a well-known Chicago jazz bass

player, will accompany the group on its November East Coast tour that

culminates with a show at the Millennium Stage of the Kennedy Center

for the Arts in Washington, D.C.

Demel, grew up in Addison, just outside Chicago, with

one sister and parents she describes as "hard-working folks."

Her late father worked in a Ford factory, her mother worked in a warehouse.

Her sister now teaches history at a Catholic school for boys.

A member of a church choir for 16 years, she spent two years in conservatory

jazz studies. "I thought I wanted to be a jazz singer, and I tried

my hand but I wasn’t very good at it."

"People always ask how we got from the streets to the glamour

world of folk music," writes Roper in one of his typically tongue-in-cheek

observations. "It’s not an easy story to tell, but I’ll try."

In fact, after 10 years in the business, the Sons is still a subsistence

enterprise.

"The band sustains itself by playing out and making CDs so we

can make the next CD. At this point we don’t take the money home,"

says Demel. "Fortunately we’ve all had day jobs that are flexible.

The work we have chosen supports the work we do the band." Demel

is a freelance illustrator, married to an archaeologist; Roper is

an instrument restorer; Lader is an artist and mother who also runs

a Chicago artist’s co-op.

"I love to sing and I always want to be out. Bruce likes to nest

at home; Deborah is a mom. we don’t play away as much." The band

plays every other week at home. "We used to average 125 nights

a year but now it’s more like 35 to 50. We play more in the year we

make an album."

Demel seems content to serve her art and her audiences despite the

financial challenges. "That’s the coolest thing about folk music,"

he says. "It’s made by the people, for the people, and there’s

something healing and fun about it. I mean coming together as a community

to listen to music and eat snacks — there’s nothing better."

— Nicole Plett

Sons of the Never Wrong, Concerts at the Crossing,

Unitarian Church at Washington Crossing, Titusville, 609-406-1424.

$12. Saturday, November 9, 8 p.m.


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