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Berklee students cover the Great American Songbook of Nashville

Berklee College of Music, Boston, February 27, 2011

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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The Great American Songbook covers a lot of ground, so it was probably about time Berklee College of Musicheaded south to Music City, aka Nashville.

And that meant the concert performed almost entirely by the highly competent students of Berklee - the professional musicians of tomorrow (in at least one case today) - tackled everything from Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash to Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Carrie Underwood.

"We tried to pick songs that were really important," said a Berklee professor in introducing the evening.

Well, that wasn't entirely the case since there was no songs performed from the likes of Garth Brooks or to bring the genre totally up-to-date, Taylor Swift. It's also doubtful that anyone ever called Life is a Highway, the rock song from Canadian singer Tom Cochrane done country pop by Rascal Flatts "really important."

What the crowd was left with over 80 minutes was a slew of highly proficient performances both singing-wise and musically.

The highlight actually wasn't by a student, but Dennis Montgomery III, a Berklee professor, who turned in a powerful, heart pounding version of Can't Stop Loving You, made famous by Ray Charles. One got the sense in listening to Montgomery that the students could take in a few lessons right there. Interestingly, a number of the songs picked tended to have a soulful feel to the vocals (Lonestar's Amazed with Dustin Hyatt singing and Reba McEntire's Why Haven't I Heard From You with Erika Cole).

While certainly always proficient, the student singers tended not to have the vocal abandon, yet control displayed by Montgomery. Naomi Gillies of Lancaster, Pa., was a definite exception in her takes on Underwood's Last Name and Tammy Wynette's Stand By Your Man. Gillies sang with attitude and took over the stage, moving about, unlike many of the performers.

Melissa Wright also stood out with a good chunk of twang in her voice and vibrancy on Loretta Lynn's Don't Come Home a Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind) and teaming with Brittany Kennell, one of the night's liveliest singers, and Jennifer Waris on Darrell Scott's Long Time Gone, made famous by the Dixie Chicks.

The songbook also included a bluegrass medley of Monroe's Blue Moon of Kentucky, Cash's Folsom Prison Blues and Alison Krauss' Every Time You Say Goodbye (written by John Pennell) Mike Barnett on fiddle, Nick Disebastian on acoustic guitar, Lukas Pool on banjo and Spencer Stewart on bass crowded around the mic to give a different, vibrant feel to the night. (Sierra Hull was slated to join them on mandolin, but she was busy the night before, playing the Grand Ole Opry with Krauss and could not make it back in time).

The playing was stellar throughout with professor Mike Ihde on pedal steel leading the way. String and horn sections occasionally punctuated the music.

The vocalists came onstage together at the end in different formations for On the Road and The Race Is On with everyone joining on the bouncy >Jambalaya, a nice close with three songs at the heart of country.

The quality of student performances at Berklee are pretty much guaranteed to be of extremely high quality. This night of country and bluegrass proved to be no exception.