Look out, Valentine’s Day. There’s a new holiday tradition in town that just might overshadow the fancy dinners and pink-hued candies that typically get all the attention in February.
The Groundhog Day Concert at the Charleston Music Hall reaches its fourth installment Saturday, solidifying itself as the reason to look forward to an otherwise unremarkable holiday in Charleston. Featuring an all-star cast of local musicians who don’t often find the time or opportunities to play together, the performance is essentially a pu-pu platter of Charleston’s diverse music scene.
It wouldn’t be unusual, for instance, if Cary Ann Hearst of Shovels & Rope took the stage for a song with Charlton Singleton of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra and Jonathan Gray of Jump Little Children.
And it’s also likely that the song list will take a tour through various genres and eras under the direction of Bill Carson, the local musician and chief architect of the program.
“The theme is, there’s no theme,” Carson said, explaining that’s one of his favorite aspects of the show. “It’s like, ‘Let’s try to do all these different things and include this zydeco song just because we can.’”
The first Groundhog Day concert was never really meant to repeat itself every year.
In 2009, Carson scored some original music for a few promotional videos for the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, and Halsey director Mark Sloan was so impressed, he asked Carson if he’d be interested in putting together a concert to raise money for the arts organization the following year.
So, Carson looked to multi-instrumentalist Nathan Koci and percussionist Ron Wiltrout — his friends and band mates in the local trio, The Opposite of a Train — to help him develop the program.
Their mission was simple: create a set of songs they want to play and hire the musicians they want to play it with. It sounds almost too simple, but Carson, Koci and Wiltrout proved to be masterful curators. Their cast of musicians represented a variety of backgrounds; their song choice spanned decades and styles, and their delivery was consistently surprising.
For example, “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin was performed with jazz horns and even a banjo, with lead vocals by Joel Hamilton (Mechanical River, formerly of The Working Title) and Wiltrout playing the iconic mandolin part on marimba.
Still, for as much fun as the whole group of musicians had that year, Carson said it seemed like a bust at first.
“There weren’t that many people there. It was a Tuesday night in February. It was at the Memminger, a venue people weren’t used to going to (at that time),” he said.
Encores didn’t seem likely.
Three years went by without another Groundhog Day concert poking up its head. And in its absence, it became clear that the show really had made an impact on the community.
“For a long time, I would see people like, three years later, and they’d be like, ‘that Groundhog day show,’ ” Hamilton said. “Andrew (Higdon), the guy who did sound, every time I’d bump into him he’d be like, ‘Man, I recorded that Groundhog Day show we did a few years ago, and I listen to it all the time.’ And Andrew’s doing sound at shows almost every night.”
In 2014, the Halsey’s 30th anniversary presented the opportunity to bring back the concert, and now, it’s safe to call it an annual affair.
Carson said the beauty of settling into a tradition is that there’s a stronger sense of teamwork among everybody playing in the group.
“I feel like it’s become a real band because it’s most of the same folks who have gotten together ... So, as it sort of started to feel more like that, it’s also felt more collaborative and more ideas have come from other members of the group besides me,” he said. “It’s a dialogue. It’s not like, ‘you’re hired to do this and I’m in charge.’ ”
This year, Hamilton will introduce one of his new songs with the group, as will Charlton Singleton. There also will be traditional American songs, some instrumental tunes and some unusual covers. Carson hinted at doing a Nina Simone song in the vein of the indie-rock band Spoon.
“I feel like (the set list is) pretty accessible, or has pretty broad appeal,” he added.
The 16-player cast will include some familiar faces such as Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent of Shovels & Rope, Michael Flynn of Slow Runner, Lindsay Holler of Matadero and some newcomers, including local singer Aisha Kenyetta.
“While, for sure, people that play on this show play together often, there are still some folks that wouldn’t necessarily cross paths musically throughout the year. And it’s fun for me just to watch that happen,” Carson said.
Hamilton said it’s that kind of cross-pollination that makes the Groundhog Day concert such a memorable experience.
“Whoever’s doing it this year is clearing out their schedule to do it because there’s a magic that happens whenever you play with someone you don’t typically collaborate with,” he said. “You learn and grow, and there’s a whole other level there of spontaneity and being inspired by somebody that is into the same thing as you, but maybe in a different way.”
Carson agreed, adding that he’s personally benefited from the collaborative spirit in Charleston’s music community. When he first started performing his own music at low-paying gigs around town about 15 years ago, he says the more established musicians in town were quick to offer support.
Singleton, a jazz trumpeter who now fronts the CJO, and Jonathan Gray, who was in Jump Little Children at the time, played on some of Carson’s first gigs.
“I feel like that sort of helped shape me as a musician — learning from people like that, who were so open and supportive,” Carson said. “I can’t imagine being a part of a musical community that is different, that didn’t have that kind of dynamic.”
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.