Monday, September 7, 2009

Gates and Goodell and Stephanie Bettman with Luke Halpin - House Concert Review - August 29, 2009

I know I told you all last week that I was through with the worry thing, but here I am back at it! In a previous review I have discussed potential problems with co billed concerts and in another the problems presented by preconceived notions. This night saw a collision of these issues in my brain and presented new challenges to this relatively new and inexperienced reviewer.

This was another concert I had planned on passing on originally. I had heard Stephanie prior to this doing only a couple of tunes and I had been reasonably impressed. But Gates and Goodell were an act I had heard of but was unfamiliar with and the little bit of their music I had listened to on the internet had not convinced me that this show should be on my very busy calendar. Then the weekend before this show, as I hope you've read about in my last review, I saw Luke Halpin appear live with John Batdorf and I was so impressed with his virtuosity on mandolin and fiddle, we decided to come see this show after all. Besides, we like to try to support house concerts and live music in general any chance we get.

So on another warm SoCal evening, we arrived at Scott and Rosemary Duncan's house concert upbeat and expecting another great night of music. And this was another night when the audience at first seemed rather small but soon swelled to capacity or somewhere near it. Becky and I found seats about where we usually like, a few rows back but close enough that we can see fingers on frets, this night opting for seats near the open door for potential cooling breezes.

So first up taking the "stage" were Gates and Goodell, a SoCal staple for several years but this was our first chance to see them. John Gates and Bill Goodell take turns as lead vocalists, sing harmonies with each other and both play acoustic guitar with Bill switching to mandolin, or 12 string guitar on some tunes and adding harmonica on at least one song. The guys started out with Bill on mando and John singing lead on "Hurricane" which carried weather metaphors to their extremes, and then Bill switched to 12 string and took lead vocals on "The River". I loved Bill's voice when he sang harmony but as a lead vocalist his voice took on affectations that bugged me. The next tune, "Ghost" featured John's lead vocal and Bill adding harmonica to his arsenal. Unfortunately it was another song beating its metaphors into submission. The Duncan House Concerts generally take place with no PA system, which has never been problematic when we've been there before, but on this night, both acts had problems with dynamics that would have been helped by some amplification.

Their set continued in similar fashion but I must add that most in the audience were way more enthusiastic than me and many seemed to be there to hear these guys in particular. They did hit a couple of high points for me, the song "Half-Empty Moon" had a neat tropical feel, reminiscent of Jimmy Buffett and John's tune "Brown Paper Bag" had an awkward innocence that was entertaining and Luke Halpin, joining in on that tune and their encore ,"Carolene" on his mandolin, provided a bluegrass flavor that made these songs more appealing.

I never like to give less-than-glowing reviews. My whole reason to be doing this is my love of the music and wanting to share my enthusiasms. And it is only these co billed shows that throw me a bit, when I'm there primarily to see one act. I like to think I keep an open mind, I have even discussed my problems with preconceived notions. I really wanted to love Gates and Goodell. They are personable young men with nice voices, and adequate if not virtuosic instrumental skills. But ultimately for singer/songwriters it comes down to how good the songs are and here I find them a bit lacking in outstanding, memorable, or emotionally moving material. They ended up sounding like those talented frat brothers at the keg party or the guys playing happy hour at the neighborhood bar and grill. And if I wasn't truthful enough to say that, I wouldn't have much credibility doing this, would I? But, please this is only one man's take, and I often have strange taste, and many,many people think these guys are great, so I urge you to seek them out and develop your own opinions.

That brought us to intermission, our usual chance to mingle and eat forbidden treats, this night in the comfortable Duncan backyard. We saw some usual familiar faces from the house concert scene and I saw a couple of friendly faces from the college where I work. The Duncan's hold a raffle at every concert often including goodies from their garden. We didn't know quite what to do or say when we saw a couple munching tomatoes out of the basket we assumed was the raffle prize. We let discretion be the better part of valor and just chuckled to ourselves and went in for the second half of the concert.
So the Duncan's gave the raffle winner their prize (missing a few morsels!) and introduced Stephanie Bettman and Luke Halpin. Stephanie Bettman is a singer/songwriter/fiddler extraordinaire and has been generating a buzz in bluegrass/country circles with inevitable comparisons to Allison Cross and Emmy Lou Harris. She has the chops and talent to back up this hype. And her partner, in both music and love, Luke Halpin, is an awesome talent in his own right. The duo kicked off the set with a fiddle rave-up, Stephanie's "Seed Of Doubt" which let us know the kind of first rate musicianship we were in for. Next Luke switched to guitar on the ballad "Get Close To Me" with Stephanie's vocal recalling Joan Baez at her best (see picture, top left).

The tone shifted a bit with the latinish rhythms of "On a Moonlit Night" with Luke's falsetto vocals amazing us all. Actually the revelation for me this night was Luke's singing voice. I knew all about his instrumental prowess and knew what a great voice Stephanie had but I never had heard Luke's tremendous voice. Whether it was doing harmony backgrounds to Stephanie's lead or delivering booming bluesy leads himself ( I think the song was "The Place Where I Am Going", a little sketchy on some titles), Luke has impressive vocal talents I was unaware of.

Some of the remaining highlights included Luke's incredible guitar riffing in "Keep A Stiff Upper Lip", the up-lifting message song "The Good Silver" and the country ballad "The Letting Go" with Stephanie's vocals putting her in a league with the greats like Emmy Lou yet sounding only like herself. And when the evening ended to the strains of "Empty Words, Broken Promises" ,with John and Bill joining in on background vocals, we were left feeling like it had been a memorable evening after all (see picture top right).

A note about billing. This evening's second act was billed as "Stephanie Bettman" and I notice their upcoming show at Russ and Julie's is billed the same way. Note To Stephanie - The act needs to be "Stephanie Bettman and Luke Halpin" or "Stephanie Bettman with Luke Halpin". He no longer qualifies as your secret weapon, word is out. Do right by your man, give him co billing, at least you'd be keeping it in the family!

Links for Gates and Goodell (please check them out, my opinion is ONLY opinion):

for Stephanie Bettman:

for Luke Halpin;

for Duncan House Concerts

for Russ and Julie's House Concerts (Stephanie and Luke there on Oct 24 ):


  1. I love your folksy style in these reviews. I feel like I'm chatting with you at a table in the back, ha ha! I am definitely going to have to check out one of these house concerts! Kim

  2. Thanks, Kim! We'll do that "chatting at a table in the back" routine and I'll recommend some shows! Meanwhile you can look at my past reviews and click on links to begin your "education".