The Westerlies and Theo Bleckmann, In a New Collaboration, Reflect on 'Another Holiday'

Aug 31, 2018

The Westerlies, a young brass quartet at the intersection of new music and progressive jazz, has teamed up with the equally broadminded vocalist Theo Bleckmann for a pointed new project, Songs of Refuge and Resistance.

Developed during a residency earlier this summer in Putney, Vt., it’s a concert-length suite of songs, some of them by canonical American songwriters like Woody Guthrie and Joni Mitchell, and others composed by the musicians at hand. In the latter category is “Another Holiday,” a sober ballad by Bleckmann that has its video premiere here.

“Another Holiday” is a song of complex shading, in both musical and emotional terms. There are lyrical details that feel well attuned to the atmosphere of a holiday weekend like this one. “Another holiday / It’s barbecue and pie,” Bleckmann sings. “The kids will run around / And I’ll sit on the side.” But the mournful cast of the melody, and the haunted care in the vocal delivery, hint at deeper, darker considerations.

Bleckmann wrote “Another Holiday” in June of 2016, shortly after the devastating mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. In a press statement, he put the song in context:

Unlike my often long and intensely critical editing processes when writing music, “Another Holiday” seemed to appear almost fully formed. This is a not a protest song but a song about being without refuge, of being isolated from your family because of whom you love.

He sings the song in a deliberative cadence, as in the treatment of a Protestant hymn. Behind him, and all around him, The Westerlies create a sonic canvas at once beautifully consonant and tinged with melancholy unrest. For the first couple of minutes, the ensemble — Riley Mulherkar and Zubin Hensley on trumpets, Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch on trombones — plays a slow toll of arpeggios, like church bells.

After the two-minute mark, they introduce a new wrinkle, phrasing their long tones in a way that suggests studio backmasking, like what George Martin famously did on portions of The Beatles’ Revolver. By three minutes in, the arrangement has taken on a double-time feeling; by four, it has moved on to a quality of swarming agitation, with the players employing slurs, double buzzes and other so-called extended brass techniques. (Some of those same strategies are a factor in the group’s Tiny Desk Concert, from 2016.)

There has been a personnel change in The Westerlies since the video above was shot. Hensler has taken a hiatus to focus on producing; his replacement, who joined the group just in time for the summer residency, is Chloe Rowlands. Among other things, she has led the orchestral brass section for Loft Opera, and plays in the indie band Cape Francis. Like every other member of The Westerlies, she originally hails from Seattle.

The public premiere of Songs of Refuge and Resistance will be on Sept. 22 in Seattle, at the first annual Westerlies Fest. According to Clausen, the ensemble plans to record the project early next year, and bring it on a concert tour in the 2019/2020 season.

Elsewhere in the suite, political resistance is brought more to the foreground. A piece called “Thoughts and Prayers” was created for this project by the experimental composer Phil Kline, who incorporated a speech given by Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School survivor and activist Emma Gonzalez early this year.

As for the undertow of elegy in “Another Holiday,” it feels all the more appropriate in a political season rife with talk of family separations and rampant civic disunity. Toward the end of the song, Bleckmann presents a heartbreaking permutation of the opening verse:

Another holiday

It’s barbecue and pie

How could it be the same

Without you by my side?

Then he voices the central wish in the song, which turns out to be articulated by its title. “I want just one holiday,” he sings, moving into his falsetto register. “Just one,” he repeats. “Just one.”