Backyard music: The Gazebo Concerts turn 5

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by Jordan Green

Seated in her motorized wheelchair, Teresa Staley occupied a station at the tee of a network of wooden ramps. The leg in front of her ran to an ornate, wooden gazebo decked with Christmas lights, while a length to her left ran to the house, and a section behind her dropped down to the driveway where her van was parked.

Staley lives with muscular dystrophy, and a paid caregiver would periodically lift her chin or arm to make her more comfortable throughout the evening. As Doug Baker and Mark Dillon, a duo who specialize in traditional Piedmont music, checked their mics at dusk on Sunday, guests stopped to greet Staley before making their way to the backyard, where a dozen plastic lawn chairs were arranged in two rows.

This summer marks the fifth season of Staley’s Gazebo Concert series at her place in the Greensboro neighborhood of Lindley Park. Her mother was in declining health when she staged the first concert in 2010, and the series resolved a challenge — instead of getting her entourage loaded in the van for an outing, Staley figured she could bring the musicians and fans to her.

At first, the acts were mostly friends, but after Staley’s mother died, she suddenly became bolder and started approaching musicians with whom she had little previous contact.

“I was taking grief therapy,” Staley recounted. “I’m a bit shy, although I’m not introverted. I said to my therapist, ‘What happened to me? I started asking people to play in my backyard.’… I asked my counselor: ‘Is that normal?’ She said, ‘Absolutely. When someone dies you realize how short life is.’”

Staley got up the nerve to ask Sam Frazier, a veteran Greensboro guitarist with a unique style that fuses jazz and pop, to play in her backyard when she encountered him on the sidewalk outside the Green Bean coffeehouse. Another prominent booking was Lowland Hum, a Greensboro husband-and-wife folk duo who have rocketed to national acclaim in the past two years.

Laila Nur, a singer-songwriter whose material highlights LGBT empowerment and other human rights issues, played her first-ever concert at the gazebo.

Over the series’ five-year lifespan, the police have only showed up once to respond to a noise complaint — a double bill of Matty Sheets & Jessica Pennell with Megan Jean & the KFB.

Artists often try out new material at the summer gazebo concerts and their winter complement of house shows in Staley’s living room. A house concert by Molly McGinn, a local songwriter with a soulful voice and a maverick sensibility, comes to mind. “She said, ‘I haven’t had a chance to play this one out,’” Staley recalled. “To me, that’s the perfect setting.”

On Sunday, Baker and Dillon, respectively a music teacher and a UNCG doctoral student, were in woodshedding mode, making their performing debut as a duo act and working out the kinks in some new material. Having previously played in a larger acoustic ensemble, they decided to pare down and had been practicing for three or four weeks, they said, with Baker on guitar and Dillon alternating between mandolin and lap steel.

Their set drew heavily on the American folk and blues songbook, with Baker supplying between-song color commentary. One of the more vivid of the duo’s performances was “Duncan and Brady,” a song about a trouble-seeking lawman who meets his demise at the end of barman’s pistol after interrupting an illegal game. The song is cut from the same badass lineage and St. Louis milieu as traditionals like “Stagolee” and “Frankie & Johnny.” They also performed one of Baker’s originals, a tender ballad about aging love with the plaintive line, “What is love supposed to look like now?”

Tony Low, a veteran power-pop artist and New York transplant, played old and new selections from a deep and spellbinding catalogue. Low’s voice was pitched almost to a falsetto in “Where Are You Now?” — an effervescent pop gem of 1986 vintage that owes a distinct debt to Big Star. Even performed with only an acoustic guitar for accompaniment, it was easy to imagine a Phil Spector-like wall of sound, with a kick drum and propulsive bass powering the song. But more recent material displayed the same pop songcraft enhanced by a more mature sense of lyricism. Case in point was “Adonis Fell,” which reflects on the actor Sal Mineo, who was murdered at the age of 37 in Los Angeles, and his mother, who continued to run a health-food store in Mamaroneck, NY after his death.

“Cries shatter the night, now he lays all alone,” Lowe sang. “He’s been out of sight, 3,000 miles from home.”

Jessica Pennell, who has previously performed both solo and in tandem with Matty Sheets at the Gazebo Concert series, gave a transfixing performance of her own in the final set of the evening. Rhythmically and melodically, some of songs carry an old country feel in the vein of classic female vocalists like Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn, while others tend towards the spare quality of early Lucinda Williams or lean directly on the 12-bar blues. Lyrically, Pennell’s songs abound with vivid imagery and startling word play, as in the juxtaposition of losing one’s virginity and her mother to cancer in “Train of Ghosts.”

“Sorry all my songs are so depressing,” Pennell apologized.

A shy laugh slipped from within her, and she turned to towards Teresa Staley.

“How is it, over there in the VIP section?” she joked.