Part concert, part historical tour, The Wires Alternative String Duo presented a unique Thanksgiving Eve performance that paired an inside peak to a celebrated Missouri painter with their winsome string stylings.
“A ‘Hart’warming Thanksgiving,” filmed at the Thomas Hart Benton Home & Studio Historic Site in Kansas City, Missouri’s Roanoke neighborhood, was the second installment for the duo’s Underground Virtual Concert Series. As all groups have had to do, The Wires reframed their season to accommodate safety measures due to COVID-19. But The Wires—Laurel Morgan Parks, violin, and Sascha Groschang, cello—have often suited their music to season and place, and this concert series expands on that habit, giving the viewer a personalized view through storytelling as they explore the backstory of their location and offer music to suit that narrative.
Historian Steve Stitton, director of the Thomas Hart Benton home, opened the performance with a brief tour of the home’s highlights. The home is one of Kansas City’s hidden gems, often overlooked by locals and hard to find for out-of-towners. Since the home is currently closed to visitors, this snippet of the presentation was an appealing reminder of the importance of place for artists, not only for good light and comfortable surrounds, but for safe spaces and support to create and experiment and fail and try again.
The concert started out in Benton’s studio, a converted carriage house with a wall of large, north facing windows. This was where Benton painted, and where he died in 1975, putting the finishing touches on the work “The Sources of Country Music.” The space was kept nearly exactly as it was when he died, with sketches, works in progress, paint in the jars, and a canvas on the easel.
The concert featured 13 tunes and ran about an hour. Most of the pieces are original compositions by Parks and Groschang, with some traditional folk songs, the sort of songs Benton would have known and perhaps hummed as he worked, invoking the Ozarkian persona he sold to the world.
The duo’s original work was presented with a story, setting, or an attitude, accompanied by the tale of its creation, bringing inspiration from all over the world. Despite some disjunct, clipped edits during the conversation between Parks and Groschang, the music editing was clear and the instruments came through excellently. The studio’s acoustics served them perfectly.
From the windswept melodies of “Sligo” and “Steps” to the frenetic “Coho” and highly varied “Snap,” they gave a joyous, appealing concert, immensely listenable. Their groove-laden aesthetic, aided especially by Groschang’s percussive abilities on the cello, grant the duo a wide palette. “Campbell Street,” their newest tune, mixed pop-sensibility and dramatic statements with prismatic, quick-change textures.
Over the years, these two have honed their partnership, creating a dense, multilayered sound field. Both musicians work in various Kansas City music spheres, from classical to rock, and they bring those sensibilities to this project: collaborative, versatile, watchful.
Midway, the location changed to inside the residence, with a few of Benton’s paintings on the walls in the background. Benton appreciated music (and was a skilled harmonica player) and depicted musicians in many of his works, from country folk around a fire to city dwellers of the jazz age. This set included the tune “Frankie and Johnny,” a tragic story out of Saint Louis, which Benton included in his 1936 murals for the Missouri State Capitol Building, along with the hills’ tune “Sourwood Mountain” (also featured in Benton’s work), followed by the familiar, lonesome “Ashokan Farewell,” by Jay Unger (featured in the Ken Burns’ documentary “The Civil War”).
“Native,” one of the duo’s earlier works, completed the show, with a winding melody on violin and robust supporting rhythms on cello.
The Wires present their next Underground Virtual Concert on December 20, filmed at Pilgrim Chapel, in leu of their annual Solstice Concert. The performance, which is free, also serves as their release party for their latest album, “Winter.”
Concert recording released November 25, 2020 and reviewed November 29, 2020. Learn more about the Thomas Hart Benton Home & Studio State Historical Site. For more information on the Underground Virtual Concert Series visit thewires.info.