The Southern Bhav rose again on Day 2 of Chantlanta on the altar-cum-stage of the Druid Hills Baptist Church in Atlanta, the backdrop for a line-up of regional bands that showed the depth and diversity of the “unknown” bhakti bands in the Southeast. (We use the quotes on “unknown” because they’re only unknown to those not in the know, you know what we mean?) And we want all y’all to be in the know, because these bhaktas really deserve to be known…you know?
So here’s Part 2 of our series on Chantlanta’s “Unknown” Bhakti Bands. Read Part 1 here. (More Chantlanta coverage linked at the bottom.)
This was an unexpected treat. First up on Day 2 of Chantlanta, the Kirtan Bandits stole hearts with a mix of Sufi prayers and Sanskrit mantras set to trancey tabla-driven rhythms. The Bandits were new to us, but the Chantlanta crowd sure seemed to know this sextet of multi-instrumentalists from Rome, Ga. Jeffrey Lidke, a go-to tablist for the region who gets the prize for most stage time at Chantlanta, led the troupe, with Jen Corry sharing lead vocals.
Even against the vocal finesse and seasoned musicality of Lidke (tabla and harmonium) and Corry (flute and keyboarding) — both of whom are professors at Rome’s Berry College — young bassist Chris Korb shone on the 25-stringed sitar in a Maha Devi chant punctuated by scat-like call-and-response vocal exchanges between Lidke and Corry (watch it here). With John Graham and Jesse Burnette on guitar, and Hari Siddhadas on clarinet and cymbals.
Kirtan Bandits just released five songs recorded at Chantlanta 2013; check ’em out here.
Soon-to-be-newlyweds Michael Levine and Bonnie Puckett, aka Sunmoon Pie, have been bringing Hebrew chants into the Chantlanta mix since the the first fest in 2010. (At one point Levine cheekily pointed out the irony of singing Jewish prayers at a kirtan festival in a Baptist Church.)
He on guitar and she on the keys, they led us through a stirring sequence of chants based loosely on the prayers recited in a traditional Jewish Shabbath celebration. Each was layered over the band’s own original melodies…or in the case of the last prayer, borrowed melodies: Paul Simon’s “Sounds of Silence” provided the musical score. (Video coming soon.) Larry Blewitt laid the drum beat, and Victor Johnson wailed on the electric fiddle.
Sunmoon Pie has a 5-track digital EP out, recorded at Chantlanta 2012. Personal favorite: Modim Anachnu.
Phil McWilliams brought us back to India on the wings of a bluesy/folksy singer/songwriter and the guitar that never left his lap. We’re already on record as loving everything we’ve heard from McWilliams and his Journey of Sound, so you might know where this is going. And we can’t seem to stop ourselves from using the warm-blanket metaphor to describe the feeeel of this music. But we’ll try, for your sake, dear reader.
The vibe was soft, deep and warm (oops) — but not in a way that made you want to lie down and go to sleep. You wanted to capture every word, every chord, and wrap yourself up in the rhythms (sorry!). There’s an authenticity to McWilliams’ music, a yearning in the voice that borders on melancholy yet feels soothing, not sad. And just when you thought you might drift away on a prayer of a melody, McWilliams & Co. kicked it up a notch, punctuating the set with a sublime, slow-build Mahamantra whose ecstatic peak seemed to shake the rafters in the soaring Druid Hills sanctuary. It was all holy.
The Journey of Sound featured Amanda Feinstein on vocals; Susan Stephan and Nakini Groom sang back-up. With Rob Kuhlman on bass, Michael Levine on electric guitar, Larry Blewitt on drum kit and Brihaspati Ishaya on percussion. Phil McWilliams’ first solo album is Signs of Peace, and yes, we’re in love with it. (Personal favorite song: “Holy Now”) Okay I give up: it’s like goose-down for the soul. Snuggle in.See www.philmcwilliamsmusic.com for music and events (he’s opening for Dave Stringer and Donna DeLory for their SE mini-tour), and www.bhaktimessenger.com for Universal Prayer, the CD by McWilliams’ previous band project (with Ian Boccio), Bhakti Messenger Kirtan.
Blue Spirit Wheel
More than any other, this was the band we wanted to experience live at Chantlanta. By the time Blue Spirit Wheel came on to close out the afternoon, the crowd was primed. Ian Boccio (vocals and bass) and Stephanie Kohler (vocals and harmonium) are kind of the hometown heroes, and have each been instrumental in making Chantlanta happen. The Atlanta kirtan community was out in force — and they were pumped. The forestage was packed, dancers weaved at the edge of the altar, children played limbo under saris…
My notes on the scene read: “Rockin’ it! Joyful chaos. Dancing at edges. Kids everywhere.”
Chaos in the church be damned, this pair of mantra mavens took us deep, orchestrating a trance-inducing mash-up of overlayered mantras drawn from their debut CD, adi. They “wanted to do something different” for their hometown followers, Kohler told us afterward, so she devised this long thread interweaving the individual chants they’ve been leading for the last year or so. The mantra mash-up. Judging from the response they got, we’d say the homeys liked it. The post-chant silence was eventually broken by a single “Wow,” giving us all the permission we needed to applaud. Loudly. And that was just the first chant.
Grounded by Jeffrey Lidke and Brihaspati Ishaya on percussion and Lindsey Mann on back-up vocals, Blue Spirit Wheel proved why they’ve become one of metro Atlanta’s favorite mantra bands. But you don’t have to be in Atlanta to experience their bhav live; the duo starts a six-week most-of-the-US tour May 30, including Bhakti Fest Midwest in Madison, Wisc. July 5-7. If they’re coming anywhere near you, check ’em out. And don’t miss the magical mantra trip that is adi.