Folk Mindfulness Comes To mActivity

“Good evening,” Sylvia Tyson’s alto coasted over a growing crowd at mActivity Fitness. “Long time, no see … I’m going to start by taking you back to those wonderful days of yesteryear: the ‘50s.”

Saturday night, nearly 70 guests filled mActivity’s Nicoll Street cafe for the latest iteration of the East Rock Concert Series, the young brainchild of music manager Fernando Pinto. As raindrops licked large, street-facing windows that glowed blue, green and pink, Scarlet Rivera positioned her violin between her chin and shoulder, and Randall Kempf ran his fingers along the thick strings of his electric bass. 

The band struck up a song called “Same Old Thing,” a tune that recalled “boys in their daddies’ trucks/ high heeled girls with their hair pinned up.”

It was an interesting song to start with. Tyson walks the line of doing the “same old thing” delicately and skillfully. As one half of the famed 1960s duo, “Ian & Sylvia,” the musician made her mark on popular folk music when it was at its height, and she still plays some of the duo’s most popular hits. As she dug into her set, she drew on those old favorites, including “You Were on My Mind” and “Four Strong Winds.”

 Scarlet Rivera and Randall Kempf. Gabriel Mortali Photos. 

Scarlet Rivera and Randall Kempf. Gabriel Mortali Photos. 

But since then, her career has spanned decades and media. Her works have been in print, on the theatrical stage, on radio and television, and her musical collaborators are varied and many. Saturday, her focus did not appear to be on her stardom, but honesty; not on her persona, but on the desire to explore life’s truths. 

The folk storytelling tradition is ingrained in Tyson’s music. Ages, locations, and memories are recalled in her lyrics, and she regarded the room as one filled with friends gathered for an intimate evening.  

In contrast, the billing of the event made very clear the musical pedigree of the two women at the front of the group. Rivera is well-known for her road and studio work with Bob Dylan, but the feel of the evening was not dictated by the titanic pasts that these musicians have had. On stage, she discussed the musical maturation that occurred after, not during, her time working on the “Rolling Thunder Revue,” “Desire” and “Hard Rain.” 

She talked about her subsequent journey exploring musical styles of the rest of the world, and the new age and roots genres. She accompanied Tyson’s songs, added a few selections of her own, and gracefully thanked the evening’s sound engineer Hannah for a job well done. These two women were neither riding the wave of previous success, nor the coattails of former collaborators, they had songs to share and an audience of people who wanted to listen.

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As she mesmerized the crowd, Tyson sang naturally. Her presentation was undoctored, a trademark of her style. In her songs are stories about unexpected people—the early women of the Calgary Stampede, her father who fought in both World Wars, Janet and her garden. But within those songs she sings of the generalities that can be found in both the simplicities and the difficulties of the human experience. 

In “Spring of 45,” written and performed with her group Quartette, her character recalls that “so many lives were changed forever/so many young men lost and gone.” In “Pepere’s Mill” she sings “the wheel turns round/the corn is brown/there’ll be bread on the table in the morning.” 

Rivera followed the form of the songs; her notes hanging heavily, deftly among chords of Tyson’s guitar and Kempf’s tactful bass lines. Only at the right moments would she add a flourish of flare. When Tyson played her accordion, Rivera shifted shapes and danced lightly along. 

That feeling—intimate but informal—is what the series is all about. “True fans will pass the word on and on,” said Pinto at one point in the eventing. 

It’s likely they will. At intermission and at the close of the concert, the three musicians did not retire, but mingled with those who had come to see them. One attendee named Noah said he’d driven all the way from Boston to see Tyson and Rivera—that he would pass the word on. Others had walked there from around the neighborhood. They, too, said they would pass the word on. 

Next up in the series, Japanese singer/songwriter Miwa Gemini and Shelton-based Lys Guillorn come to mActivity on Aug. 19th. Then on August 26th, Fanna-Fi Allah will bring their sounds of traditional Sufi Qawwali music. For the series’ full schedule, click here