One of the pleasures of old-time music is that it acts as a force-field repelling shallow notions of hipness and callow ironic stances. In the hands of a generous artist like Nell Robinson, the specter of kitsch is banished by an abundance of soul.
Next week Robinson, a tremendously gifted singer in the throes of a late-blooming career, joins with her musical partner, guitarist Jim Nunally, to inaugurate Aurora Theatre’s new cabaret space, Harry’s UpStage, with “A Down Home Christmas with Nell and Jim,” which runs Dec. 13-21. Featuring original material, seasonal standards, and sundry songs that seem appropriate, the show is new, but the concept is old indeed.
“We’ve done a lot of singing at the holidays with family and friends,” says Robinson, aka long-time Berkeley resident Hilary Perkins. “We’re taking the music that we love to sing in our living rooms and bringing it into the new Aurora performance space, hoping to make it feel like a living room, singing music people will know, and some new stuff we’ve written.”
Steeped in old-time music, Robinson and Nunally will be drawing on the deep well of traditional American songs, hymns, and the occasional American Songbook standard (“I love ‘White Christmas,’ Irving Berlin was a genius”).
Nunally, also a fine singer, has plenty of experience in expansive duos. A two-time Western Open Flatpicking and Master Picking Champion, he’s performed and recorded with guitarist/vocalist Bruce Dix, though he’s probably best known as an essential part of the bluegrass scene through his work with two mandolin legends: John Reischman and the Jaybirds and the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience. The duo with Robinson showcases his wide array of gifts.
“Our duo has got a very rich sound,” Robinson says. “We’ve got a nice vocal blend and do a lot of harmony singing. And of course Jim’s a phenomenal guitar. He’s bringing a Martin B-18 that he was given for Christmas in 1976. His father was a musician, and Jim grew up singing and playing with his family. He hadn’t had his own guitar, and his whole family pitched in for this one.”
Robinson also hails from a musical family, but she never anticipated a career on stage. The family relocating often to accommodate her father’s various postings in the Air Force, and Robinson attended UC Berkeley as an undergrad. She spent decades working as a progressive activist, and only started performing after a mid-life epiphany when she ginned up the nerve to reveal her covert pleasure.
“All those years I secretly sang in my car,” Robinson says. “I had a pickup truck that I drove up and down California while running voter registration drives. With no radio, I sang for hours by myself.”
Determined to challenge herself, she decided five years ago to perform a song for her husband at a party for a milestone anniversary. She took some vocal lessons without telling him, hired a country band for the event, and serenaded him with Randy Travis’s “Forever and Ever” on the big day.
“I was really scared to do it, and it was even scarier to do it in front of friends and family,” she says. “But by the end of the song I felt, don’t you dare take that microphone from me!”
Tapping into Berkeley’s brimming pool of old-time talent, she quickly connected with some of the area’s top players. Adopting her grandmother’s name as a stage moniker, she released her widely hailed debut album “Nell Robinson In…Loango” in the fall of 2009, which launched her as a national artist.
Over the last few years she’s performed at high profile events at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the Strawberry Music Festival, and the Kennedy Center, where she presented her moving show “Soldier Stories,” a production exploring the experiences of the men on the frontlines and the families back home through two centuries of songs (her Scots-Irish relations have fought in just about every American conflict since the birth of the nation, right up through Iraq and Afghanistan). With “A Down Home Christmas” she turns her attention to the blessings of peace.
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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