Joanne Shenandoah had the Lied Center audience literally dancing in the aisles Friday night. Early in the evening's fare of native music, she encouraged the audience to hold hands and move in a round dance or friendship circle. Although many in the crowd seemed initially quite uncomfortable, eventually there were smiles all around as people stepped and swayed among the seats.
The unexpected dance was evidence of the power of music that Shenandoah celebrates. The sound of the human voice raised in song can inspire and educate; encourage protest or promote peace; celebrate life or grieve loss. Shenandoah said that as a young girl, she was "deeply impressed with the infinite ways in which music was used as a primary means of expression."
"Everything," she suggested, "has a voice and a song."
A member of the Wolf Clan, Oneida Nation, Iroquois Confederacy, Shenandoah performs a unique combination of traditional native music and contemporary ballads. Using music as a conduit for cultural commentary, Shenandoah sings songs in praise of women, of responsibility to earth and family, and of joy in living.
Shenandoah opened the concert with several native songs, many of which reflected the Iroquois' traditionally matriarchal society and praised women's power, wisdom and strength. Clearly a source of inspiration is her sister, who performs as backup vocalist and percussionist in the band. Diane Shenandoah's vocal harmonies created interesting color and complexity when added to her sister's often-crystalline sound.
The band also featured the instrumental and vocal talents of Tom Wasinger, whose performance with Shenandoah in "One Silver, One Gold" was especially fine. Some of the most stunning and musically satisfying moments of the evening occurred in a cappella numbers in which Shenandoah sang in close harmony with her sister and Wasinger. Joined by percussionist Mark McCoin's delicate touch on drums, these numbers were quite lovely.
In addition to interpretations of native chants and traditional Iroquois songs, Shenandoah performed many of her own compositions, including "Watch Me Through the Night," a song written in praise of healers, and "I May Come to You," a piece that was used on an episode of the television series "Northern Exposure." She gave a particularly moving performance of "Your Spirit Lingers On," a song she wrote several years ago in response to the removal of American Indian graves to make way for development.
In a departure from her primary musical fare of the evening, Shenandoah performed the humorous "Coyote Song," written by band member Erik Hokkanen and featuring his considerable talent on the guitar. She also gave a respectable rendition of Patsy Cline's "Crazy."
It was not always an atmospherically comfortable concert; there were a few sound level glitches, and the follow spot light operator had some trouble keeping track of who in the band was being featured. An unintentional and largely unavoidable glare from the spot light bounced off the instruments on stage and around the auditorium, creating a distraction.
Shenandoah also seemed thrown off track by the appreciative but fairly taciturn audience as she attempted to coax them into joining in on some songs. She persisted, however, and by the end of the evening, many in the crowd could be heard singing along, a testament to the truth of her message that music is an irresistible and unifying force.