Concert review: A Swannanoa Solstice
The Diana Wortham Theatre in downtown Asheville becomes a giant living room every December for the presentation of the annual concert dubbed A Swannanoa Solstice. This year was the 16th annual gathering, hosted as always by musicians Amy White, Al Petteway and Robin Bullock, and the warm connection between audience and performers suggests it will carry on for many years to come.
It really is like sitting in a big parlor on a cold winter night while your talented friends unwind their passions — chiefly instrumental, but with modulating doses of singing, dancing and storytelling. The only thing missing is a crackling fire, although the first half of the show at least offered the semblance of a fireplace, part of an impressive backdrop, giant Christmas tree and props borrowed from the Ballet Conservatory of Asheville’s presentation of The Nutcracker earlier in the month.
The remarkable skills of those gathered needs no further endorsement from a musically skill-free writer. Even the emcee for the two shows Dec. 16, Doug Orr, himself a musician, had some difficulty reducing each player’s resume to a series of 2-to-3-minute introductions.
More worth describing here is the casual intimacy of the show, the sense of sharing rather than “performing,” the sincere feeling that those onstage want those in the audience to experience some of the magic the music brings to their own lives.
The concert began with Bullock on solo guitar — fresh from an all-night drive from Baltimore, where he’d played another solstice show the night before. His set of arrangements of familiar carols and original tunes set the stage, so to speak, for the remainder of the show, which interwove seasonal songs with mountain traditions and samplings of the classical and Scottish roots from which this region’s characteristic music evolved.
Highlights included a couple dual dances from Phil Jameson and Ellie Grace, a charming story about a legendary storyteller from David Holt, and some rousing piping from E.J. Jones and the Piper Jones Band (a trio consisting of Jones on bagpipes, Frances Cunningham on bouzouki and Alex Stewart on percussion). Jones and friends also generously entertained the crowd in the lobby during a leisurely intermission.
The show’s second half opened with a trio of intricate and engaging instrumentals by White and Petteway, accompanied by a grand and gorgeous visual presentation: a video combining the couple’s stunning winter photos with some clips from White’s “creature cams” from remote cameras hidden in the snowy forest where only the woodland animals roamed.
There was much more to the concert, as simple as Grace’s happy original “A Little Sunshine” and as boisterous as the all-hands-on-deck finale of the barn-busting “Breaking Up Christmas,” followed by the wind-down of a sing-along “Silent Night.”
In some ways, even though the show lasted a brisk three hours that seemed half that long, it also served as an appetizer. Each performer undoubtedly left a part of the audience wanting more. Some will certainly want to head to Black Mountain Dec. 22 for Holt’s show with Josh Goforth at White Horse Black Mountain. Many will look forward to next July, when a number of the players can be seen at the public concerts associated with the annual Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College, or the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games.
And, of course, there’s always next year, when Orr assured us that A Swannanoa Solstice will return — for once occurring on the actual day of the solstice itself. What could be more magical?
(Photos from the 2017 A Swannanoa Solstice courtesy of Diana Wortham Theatre)