It was billed as a tribute to sibling duets, and last week's death of Charlie Louvin lent gravitas to expectations. But anyone attending who anticipated museum-quality reproductions would walk away disappointed—were they not first infected by the harmony, both musical and metaphysical. Halfway through the second set, as Chris Brashear introduced a traditional ballad involving a double-suicide, he pointed out that old-time music can be a comfort in hard times, no matter how harsh the subject matter.
References to the Louvin Brothers, Charlie and Ira, surfaced in just two songs, the Fred Rose classic "Low and Lonely," for which both Brashear and Peter McLaughlin played mandolin, and the traditional "Katie Dear." In one of the few history lessons the concert offered, Brashear said this ballad no doubt came from English traditional storytelling. It's a tale of headstrong teenagers like Romeo and Juliet.
The pair favors an even earlier generation of duos than the Louvins—especially the Delmore Brothers—but they gamely nodded to the Everly Brothers with "So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)." The sustains make the Everlys' catalog challenging for vocalists, but the music is more difficult than it seems, too. "It ain't easy music, let me tell you," Brashear told the crowd.
The duo covered the Stanley Brothers and Monroe Brothers, and name-checked Jim and Jesse McReynolds. They even credited famous duos of the genre who were not siblings, including Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, and the Carter Family. "Most of the time, it was just Maybelle and Sara," Brashear noted. Those two were related only by marriage to Carter brothers.
Much of the set, though, was devoted to close-harmony duets about Arizona from McLaughlin and Brashear's own catalog. Both have been artists in residence with the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and many in the audience seemed familiar with their work. Particularly strong were Brashear's "Wanderlust" and McLaughlin's "She Knows the River," about folk singer and Glen Canyon activist Katie Lee.
Saturday's concert was the third held in Rhythm and Roots' new indoor venue. The black-curtained space recalled the intimacy of the hungry i in San Francisco's North Beach, ground zero for the West Coast folk scene of the '60s.