Red Horse: Phillips Center Upstage
The word “supergroup” is thrown around a lot. It’s come to mean a collaboration of musicians with independent successful careers. The trio Red Horse have been carrying that label as folk singer/songwriters since they released their first album in 2010. Eliza Gilkyson, John Gorka, and Lucy Kaplansky have had long professional careers and were well-known in the Americana/folk music world before they recorded together.
Gilkyson grew up around music. Her father was the notable folk singer Terry Gilkyson, member of the Weavers (with Pete Seeger) and leader of the mid-’50s band The Easy Riders, who had a number one hit with “Marianne” (think “all day, all night, Marianne”). He later went on to write songs for Disney and garnered an Oscar nomination for his song “The Bare Necessities” from The Jungle Book. Eliza actually sang on some Disney soundtracks as a teenager. Based in Austin, the songwriter/activist has released twenty-three albums since her first in 1969; two were Grammy-nominated. Her songs have been covered by Joan Baez, Tom Rush, and Rosanne Cash. She was inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame.
The New Jersey-born Minnesotan has released 15 albums, five of them on High Street, the revered imprint of Windham Hill, which released a greatest hits album of his High Street songs. He’s been recording with Red House records since 1998 and is a cult figure among folk music fans. A collection of his Red House songs called “The Gypsy Life” included a DVD performance. He is a remarkable wordsmith with insightful lines written within occasionally cryptic songs.
Born in Chicago, Kaplansky moved to the Greenwich Village folk scene at age 18, where she met Gorka. A few years later she decided to study psychology while playing as a duo with Shawn Colvin but gave up music to practice psychology until 1994, when Colvin offered to produce an album of her songs, and Kaplansky decided to return to music as a career. She was involved in another early folk collaboration with Richard Shindell and Dar Williams as the group Cry Cry Cry. She’s released 11 albums and sung on many others, providing backup singing for Nanci Griffith and Suzanne Vega among many others.
After a Red House Records anniversary celebration in 2010, the three agreed to record together. Taking their name from one of Gorka’s best-known songs, “Flying Red Horse,” ironically they never added that to their album. They decided that a hallmark of their collaboration was to perform each other’s compositions, and this mantra carried over to their wonderful set at the Phillips Center Upstage venue (more about that later). Their spare accompaniments fit perfectly with the focus on their songs. Switching off on guitars, piano, and mandolin, the finely crafted songs were the major focus, and their wonderful harmonies never intruded or got in the way of the songs.
While the set (and their album) kicked off with Gilkyson’s cover of Neil Young’s “I Am a Child” and Gorka singing his haunting classic “If These Walls Could Talk,” much of the set was performers lovingly covering each other’s songs. Kaplansky sang one of Gorka’s more complex songs, “Blue Chalk,” followed by Gilkyson performing Gorka’s introspective idealistic “If I Could Forget to Breathe.”
I will rid the world of sorrow
Stop all wars and pain
I will tell you of tomorrow
As I rule the wind and rain
I can do it all it’s true
But only when I’ve done all that
Oh will I turn away from you
Only when I’ve done all that
Oh will I turn away from you.
Gorka returned the compliment, singing Kaplansky’s “Don’t Mind Me,” written for a major motion picture that was never released. One of Gilkyson’s best known songs, “Sanctuary,” is being re-released as part of her newest album, Secularia, which she describes as a “gospel album for atheists.” Kaplansky has been performing that song for some time and moved to the piano to provide an inspiring rendition.
Through desolation’s fire and fear’s dark thunder thou art with me
Through the sea of desires that drag me under thou art with me
Though I’ve been traded in like a souvenir
On love’s sanctuary thou art with me
Gilkyson then did another song from the same album, “Through the Looking Glass,” an aspirational yet weary look at love. Gorka moved to the piano, singing “Down in the Milltown,” which perfectly captures the painful existence of many factory workers.
And if my dreams treat me badly
And I cry out at night
Shake me to my senses
And I will be alright
Yes, I will be alright
Kaplansky sang a song written for her daughter, “Sixth Avenue,” a cautionary tale about preparing for the wistful maturing of your young children.
We always tell you when you’re older
You say that won’t cut it anymore
Begging to get a slice with your friends
Alone with them, your own money to spend
So I let you cross Sixth Avenue
Soon the crowd is all I see
I keep on looking, I can’t let go
And I know you’re not looking for me
Just how it’s supposed to be.
A new song by Gilkyson, “Sooner or Later,” demonstrated her determined political activism. Gorka followed up with his newest song, “Particle and Wave,” a song he wrote while watching the March for Life after the Parkland school shooting.
I see children marching
There is goodness in the world
I listen to them speaking
There is goodness in the world
You can’t beat fear with fear
You can’t beat hate with hate
Only love can do that
It’s not too late
Though justice seems to hesitate
Kaplansky then sang her ode to a love that survives time in “Ten Year Night,” the title song from her newest album.
We’re ten years older I know we are
Than the night we met in that downtown bar
You thought I was some kind of star, that’s what you said
I felt your skin, I felt the heat
As you pulled me out into the street
And you kissed me there till I was weak ’cause I asked you to
Going eighty on the highway
we’re all rushing somewhere
But the way I feel tonight
It’s like I’m already there
They finished up the evening with two chestnuts, Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” a perfect conclusion to the folk-oriented audience; during the second set a number of local musicians were in attendance.
It was a great evening for singer/songwriter fans, and the setting was perfect. The Phillips Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Florida hosts traveling Broadway plays (The Book of Mormon just finished a run), dance companies (Paul Taylor on March 6), major performers (in the past such luminaries as Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick, Dolly Parton, the Bolshoi Ballet and Dave Brubeck) and many other attractions. In late 2017 they began a new program called Upstage to provide a more intimate setting for smaller acts. With the stated goal of mimicking large-city jazz clubs, the massive soundstage is transformed with tables and chairs, a cash bar and hors d’oeuvres. Artists perform at two separate seatings at 7 and 9. Seating is limited to around 180 people per show. Using the wonderful sound system, the acoustics are unrivaled. For an acoustic act like Red Horse, it’s a perfect venue. Some upcoming acts include jazz stalwart Catherine Russell, blues phenomenon Jontavious Willis, and cellist/jazz singer/songwriter Shana Tucker. For details about their upcoming schedule, see the link below.
Red Horse is a wonderful collaboration of seasoned pros. Their harmonies, instrumentation and stage patter (they clearly enjoy laughing at each other; Gorka is especially hilarious) make for a great evening, but the songs themselves are the real payoff. Don’t miss a chance to see them.