The Roches' Sweet Croonings Fill Finney Chapel
Maggie, Suzzy and Terre Roche filled Finney Chapel with sweet sounds last Saturday night. It was almost a full house — while not every seat was taken, a good number of them were. It’s no surprise: the Roches are a well-established name in contemporary folk music and they’ve got credentials. They sang back-up on Paul Simon’s album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and made an appearance on Philip Glass’s Songs From Liquid Days.
Suzzy’s daughter Lucy Roche, OC ’03, was the opening act, singing soft and steady three-chord songs in her breathy, straight-tone voice. There were no acrobatics on the part of her voice or guitar playing, but simplicity made her performance elegant and enjoyable. She played several songs and then covers of Richard Shindell and Fleetwood Mac. In between songs, she spoke a little about her experience at Oberlin. She set the mood, preparing the audience for the sweet comforts of contemporary folk music.
When the Roches first walked onstage, the audience greeted them with welcoming applause, as if seeing beloved old friends. The three women donned colorful clothing that enhanced the mood. Maggie, on stage right, alternated between piano and guitar; Suzzy stood stage center, sometimes playing guitar and piano; and Terre stood stage left picking lead acoustic guitar. The songs performed spanned their whole career.
They sang their second song in unison, sort of a bouncy “theme song” in which they introduced themselves and made jokes: “We don’t give out our phone numbers / Sometimes our voices give out.”
The Roches’ instrumentation is very spare — Maggie only played bass lines and very sparse chords on the piano, Suzzy played rhythm guitar and Terre played simple but tasteful lead licks. The three voices blended together in perfect harmony; their style is precise and their musical philosophy seems to be “less is more.”
The Roches only recently became a trio again after a long hiatus. During the break, Terre and Suzzy put out solo albums. Suzzy sometimes collaborated with Maggie, most notably on an album called Zero Church, a collection of prayers set to music by the two Roche sisters.
One of the highlights of the show, a prayer from Zero Church, was written by a fireman. Their voices sang each syllable of the beautifully melodic prayer in perfect time. Meanwhile, Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” was definitely an audience favorite. The group sang a startlingly perfect a cappella three-voice arrangement. It brought the house down, just as that piece is known to do.
The Roches’ sound is something to get accustomed to. Because of their reedy singing style, I feared that their voices might actually give out as their theme song warned. Their tight three-part harmony singing is reminiscent of a female barbershop trio with its quirky style. The Roches’ songs themselves do not adhere to typical songwriting conventions but rather follow the paths of conversational lyrics on rambling journeys. In this sense, I felt like I was witnessing music that was more honest than impressive, and it was very satisfying. The women come across as everyday people who just happen to know how to sing and have some interesting thoughts to share.
Their personalities were shining on stage. They recalled all kinds of anecdotes and demonstrated their indescribable sense of humor. Terre talked about how she does not own a television; she threw it out the window of her New York City apartment one day in a fit of frustration.
“No one said anything,” she said. “Perhaps they couldn’t; I don’t know.”
Despite the absence of a television in her home, Terre walks past stores that have fifty or sixty screens on display in the window. Once, she saw something interesting through the window: “An image of a dog, floating down the street on a lampshade. And I got a song out of it.”
And they proceeded to play “Only You Know How” off their latest album, Moonswept, to be released on March 13th. This song is a fine example of the Roches’ strange but poignant style. They sang, “You might be a puppy dog and you might be a cow/Only love can save you and only you know how.”
Despite the concert’s overall strength, it seemed that after the first two numbers the audience was thirsty for a pretty song. While we did get to hear them, they were not quite what I expected. They didn’t play flower girl anthems to make you swoon as one might imagine female singer/songwriters like Judy Collins or Joni Mitchell would do.
The Roches began performing in the ‘60s and ‘70s; their first major label recordings came out in 1979. The style of those recordings was clearly lyrically different from other female folk musicians. They are a little more goofy and self-conscious; musically they highlight their part-Celtic, part-barbershop three-part harmonies, and explore a whole range of song styles.
Another possible reason for the absence of “pretty songs” in the Roches’ set could simply be due to their ages. Joni Mitchell’s most recent recording of the song “Both Sides Now” is a reworking of the old singer/songwriter standard, better suited for her lower, husky voice and the aura of wisdom surrounding her character. The Roches, too, are aging artists, so their newer songs are reflections of a different perspective as compared to those of their younger years, and perhaps their older songs sound different performed now than when they were first written.
I’m intrigued by their sound and approach to music. Maybe they strive to write songs that thwart our expectations of what female folk singers are all about. Maybe the Roches strive to be different, or maybe they just are. In any case, they certainly made the audience happy with their unique style of music and their engaging personalities.