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No surprise, these Berklee students can sing

Berklee Performance Center, Boston, February 24, 2019

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

If anyone was surprised about the quality of the performers at the Berklee College of Music's tribute to Dolly Parton, one had to wonder why.

After all, the Boston-based school is one of the premier music institutions in the U.S., and this evening - billed as the "Great American Songbook: The Music of Dolly Parton" - provided ample proof of that as students were afforded the opportunity to showcase their talents on songs associated or written by Parton.

This was not your typical concert as there was a moving cast of characters going on and off the stage, taking lead vocals either solo or as a duet or trio. A sextet of back-up singers often accompanied the singer(s) with a backing band mainly of students (Avery Merritt on fiddle and Ethan Setiawan on mandolin were particular standouts) anchored by Kevin Barry on lead guitar and lap steel.

Parton's country songs were emphasized more, but the night also featured the pop side of the musical icon along with a few soulful songs. Jordyn Elliott was a particular standout in the latter category.

Perhaps the most challenging song of the two-hour show was also one of most beautiful. "I Will Always Love You" remains one of Parton's best songs, but is an iconic song thanks to the late Whitney Houston.

Bottom line - if you're going to sing the song, you'd better make absolutely, 100-percent sure you're going to do it justice. The powers that be at Berklee doubtlessly knew that as well. Da'Dreion Murrell did not disappoint in a pleasantly slow and soulful reading of the song. While no one will match Houston, Murrell was up to the task here and on his duet with Alyssa Fuller (she was a standout in her own right on a few other songs as well) on "Islands in the Stream," the pop ditty Parton sang with Kenny Rogers.

"9 to 5" is a particular highlight of a Dolly show, and that proved to be the case tonight as well in an ensemble performance. For good measure, guitarist Marty Walsh was in the house. The Berklee teacher also happened to play guitar on the original recording session.

The duets and trio readings of songs were standouts as well. Hearing the blending of voices of Aliyia Williams, Laufey Jonsdottir and Lauren Gehle on "To Know Him Is To Love Him" from the "Trio" album of Parton, Emmylou Harris and Lind Ronstadt was a prime example.

The closing ensemble performance of "I Saw the Light" only underscored the joy of the evening.

About the lone negative was that it would have been nice to hear the students talk about the particular song they were singing or the influence of Dolly. That only happened when Paula Cole, who is on faculty at Berklee, was at the piano playing "The Grass is Blue" and talked about having an afternoon with Dolly while recording "Heaven Door" for Parton's "The Grass is Blue" album in 1998 thanks to an equipment malfunction. "She did not disappoint," Cole said. That was the only direct reference to Parton.

A number of songs were done as two- or three-song medleys as well. Hearing the full length would have been even better.

Perhaps more importantly, this was a night to celebrate Parton and the Berklee students. Parton was not in the house, but one suspects she would have been mighty proud at how the next generation of musicians honored her.