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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
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
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
"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
Unitarian Church at Washington Crossing, Titusville, 609-406-1424.
$12. Saturday, November 9, 8 p.m.
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