May 7, 2010 Volume 24, Number 04
A "ramshackle sing-along" that's disarming and honest
By D.S. Martin | ChristianWeek Columnist
What you see is what you get. There's no pretending who The Welcome Wagon might be, or what they're about. "Pastor and wife join voices in sacred folk songs for All Ages," reads the album cover. It might be harder to decide how to take their kitschy 1950s graphics of Sunday school children showing off their Biblesor of a slick-haired pastor who, according to the caption, preaches from the Bible.
To put it plainly, The Welcome Wagon sings simple church music in an unpretentious folk style. The graphics are a way for the Reverend Vito Aiuto and his wife Monique to laugh at themselves and the self-indulgence of making a record.
This CD, however, is something to be taken seriously. First, it was produced by Sufjan Stevenswhose CD Illinoise was selected by alternative music mag Paste Magazine as the best album of the past decade. Secondly it was released on Stevens' own celebrated label Asthmatic Kitty Records. Thirdly, and most-significantly, Welcome to the Welcome Wagon is a worthwhile project in its own right.
The songs are an eclectic mix of traditional lyrics set to new tunes, original songs and covers from surprising sources. The opening track "Up On The Mountain" is Vito's take on Christ in Gethsemane, on Calvary and in heaven interceding for us.
They also cover the 1969 Velvet Underground song "Jesus," written by Lou Reed: "Jesus help me find my proper place / Help me in my weakness / 'cuz I'm falling out of grace." More surprising is the 1987 song "Half A Person" from The Smiths, which doesn't have anything particularly Christian to say.
Musically they remind me of the group Ordinary Time. The songs are built around simply sung melodies, augmented with instrumentation that might not be expected in folk music. Welcome to the Welcome Wagon has plenty of horns, with little hint of jazz. Theirs is a white, mid-western sound, influenced by hymns and marching bands, yet with plinking banjo and ukulele and leaps of rollicking rock guitar.
In the liner notes, Stevens does not try to create a false impression or over-state anything. He calls the group "a ramshackle domestic sing-along enterprise of an ordinary husband and wife, neither of whom have much natural talent." So why would he produce them? It's because he saw a particular beauty in their sincere faith, understated melodies and humble voices. There's a lack of hype in everything they do.
Deep were his wounds, and red,
When, on a cool April evening, I recently had the opportunity to see The Welcome Wagon live, they demonstrated their humble, quirky approach to performance. The venue was the Ladies Literary Club in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. The club suited them perfectly: a 19th-century house-like building with a vaudeville era stage, chandeliers and worn theatre seating.
Vito and Monique faced each other across a span of about 12 feetnot really looking at the audience, as if they were nervous. Young guitarist Alex Foote and his brother Jay on upright bass, revealed through their excellent musicianship that the slipshod appearance of the Aiutos is really just a disarming veneer. I was delighted to see that they had added a pianist and a sextet of background singers from nearby Calvin College for the show. The young singers delivered their part as if they were the original "choir."
Some of the other musical elements from the CD were not repeated in the live show, but the mood was certainly replicated. Where else could you go to a concert and have the chance to go right up to the stage to receive a gift of baked goods from the performers' Polish neighbourhood in Brooklyn?
If you're open to music that's a little off the beaten track, that somehow makes small town Sunday school seem cool and clearly proclaims our faithbuy a copy of Welcome to the Welcome Wagon.
D.S. Martin is the author of the poetry collection, Poiema (Wipf & Stock, 2008), available at www.dsmartin.ca.