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Out & About: Judy Collins, Wailin' Jennys

Lifestyle

Out & About: Judy Collins, Wailin' Jennys

Two top national acts are booked into Portland over the next few days.

Best known is Judy Collins, a singer who’s been connecting with audiences since the early 1960s. She’ll be the featured guest when the Portland Symphony Orchestra wraps up its 2014-2015 "Pops!" season with performances this Saturday and Sunday.

The Wailin’ Jennys comprise three women – two Canadians plus a native Mainer – who perform string-based roots music with exquisite vocal harmonies. They’re heading to Portland on Tuesday.

The Nordic Fiddlers Bloc comprises three men who hail from Norway, Sweden and the Shetland Islands. They’ll be appearing this Saturday as Portland Ovations nears the end of its 2014-2015 season.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

“Tears and fears and feeling proud, to say ‘I love you’ right out loud.” That hauntingly evocative line from “Both Sides Now” was penned by Joni Mitchell, but the most memorable recording was by Judy Collins, whose 1968 rendition copped the Grammy Award.

Collins will be the featured guest artist when the Portland Symphony Orchestra wraps up its 2014-2015 "Pops!" season this weekend with Saturday and Sunday performances. On the podium will be assistant conductor Norman Huynh, who explains that this concert represents the apex of the PSO’s programming.

“For our 'Pops!' series, we do our best to bring you the best acts or tribute bands to pay respect to your favorite artists of the past,” Huynh said. “Occasionally we get the real thing.”

That’s the case with Collins, who was a classically trained piano prodigy – her symphony debut was at age 13 – before the folk revival of the 1960s, when she switched genres and adopted the popular girl-with-guitar performing model and appeared in New York’s Greenwich Village folk clubs. Her long recording career began in 1961 on Elektra Records with “Maid of Constant Sorrow.”

During the 1960s Collins performed mostly solo on the folk circuit, interpreting traditional songs and covering a number of songwriters of that time period, including Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton.

Her two best-known recordings were powerful and memorable vocal interpretations of tunes written during the 1960s and 1970s. “Both Sides Now” was the Grammy Award-winning hit from her 1968 “Wildflowers” album, while “Send in the Clowns,” from 1976,was a cover of a Stephen Sondheim Broadway ballad. (Sondheim won the songwriter Grammy that year, based on the popularity of Collins’ recording.)

Collins has written and produced many songs and albums, for herself and others, plus she has a popular Christmas show that she tours every December. I fondly recall attending one hosted by Portland Ovations about 15 years ago.

Collins remains active on the international music festival circuit and gives frequent performances with symphony orchestras. In preparation for this weekend’s concerts, Huynh has been studying recent video recordings. They’re inspiring to his own much younger generation, according to Huynh.

“At age 76, she still has a voice of pure gold,” he said.

This weekend’s PSO set list includes “Gypsy Rover,” “Danny Boy,” “Send in the Clowns” and “Both Sides Now.”

Catch Judy Collins in concert with the Portland Symphony Orchestra for two performances at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall: 7:30 p.m. April 25 and 2:30 p.m. April 26. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Wailin’ Jennys

The Wailin’ Jennys is a rootsy female trio that was first organized for a one-off performance in Canada in 2002 and was whimsically named after the late Waylon Jennings, an American country music icon.

But the once-informal ensemble has long outgrown its near-accidental beginnings, and is now an international force with a cross-genre musical style that embraces bluegrass, roots, jazz, Americana and country.

The three women are known for vocal harmony and multiple string instrumentation. The ensemble comprises soprano Ruth Moody, mezzo-soprano Nicky Mehta and alto Heather Masse. They’re normally accompanied by a lone male: Jeremy Penner, who plays mandolin and fiddle.

Moody and Mehta are Canadians, while Masse is a native Mainer who grew up in Lovell, and once lived in a yurt in that profoundly rural Oxford County town. Masse studied jazz performance at the New England Conservatory in Boston.

Now a New Yorker, Masse frequently returns to her home state, sometimes appearing with other Mainers in Joy Kills Sorrow and Republic of Strings. Back in New York, she’s released a recording with her own Brooklyn-based group, Heather & the Barbarians.

Featuring multi-instrumental accompaniments – a typical concert will include half a dozen string instruments plus Celtic drums – the Jennys also perform a number of a cappella songs. They’re also noted for spare but powerful three-part vocal harmonies. Each member also contributes to the Wailin’ Jennys’ songwriting efforts, and each enjoys a flourishing musical career outside the group.

The Wailin’ Jennys have won two Juno Awards – “Canadian Grammys” – and their best-selling album, “Firecracker,” enjoyed much airplay in the U.S. and Canada. “Bright Morning Stars” is their newest record, dating from 2011.

The Wailin’ Jennys perform April 28 at 8 p.m. at the State Theatre, 609 Congress St. in Portland. Call 956-6000.

Nordic Fiddlers Bloc

Another international ensemble, this time from Europe, will be visiting Portland this Saturday.

The Nordic Fiddlers Bloc comprises three men who sound like half a dozen when playing together: Olav Luksengard Mjelva from Norway, Anders Hall from Sweden and Kevin Henderson from the Shetland Islands of Scotland.

Considered three of the finest young fiddlers working in the international folk music scene today, they will perform reels, polskas and ballads with mesmerizing fervor and graceful bowing.

The Nordic Fiddlers Bloc brilliantly integrates old traditions with innovative ideas and expressions while blending their own individual styles to create a sound that is distinct, expressive and invigorating. Hall was the driving force that brought the trio together in 2009, and since then the formula has proven successful on the international folk circuit.

Reviewing for The Scotsman, Norman Chalmers commented: “Not just for fiddle heads, the dense, rich harmony and pulsing cross-rhythms of this trio are endlessly varied, powerful and beautiful. Sweden’s Anders plays viola and fiddle, Shetlander Kevin sticks to the fiddle, while Norway’s Olav handles octave fiddle and the resonant stringed Hardanger fiddle, together producing a shimmering display of accurately pitched, highly skilled musical accomplishment.”

Catch the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc at 8 p.m. April 25 at the Abromson Community Education Center, 88 Bedford St., on the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus. Call PortTix at 842-0800.