Whenever a musical group has the name “brothers” or “sisters” (as in “Smothers” or “Andrews”) you can expect a tight, controlled sound with seamlessly blended harmonies. Close harmony (even if it’s just simple thirds and fifths) can be difficult to sing, and family groups have always mastered it most successfully. After all, the rehearsals don’t ever have to stop.
Such a group is The Guthrie Brothers, who have been singing together “for as long as they remember.” The melodies are perfection, the guitar work solid. They have been a professional act for many years and the seasoning shows.
Bristol Riverside Theatre has invited them to perform for a short run (only five days) and their current show is Scarborough Fair: A Tribute to Simon & Garfunkel. Jock is the one with the longer hair who sings the Garfunkel lines and also plays the difficult lead guitar parts with their memorable Paul Simon riffs. Jeb plays rhythm guitar and sings the Simon lines.
The audience (twice as old as the performers) could remember those years, 1964-1970, when Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel ruled the airwaves. Their massive hits such as “The Sound of Silence,” “Scarborough Fair,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” captured the alienation and loneliness of a generation. This is best remembered through Dustin Hoffman’s confused young man in the culture-altering film The Graduate, which was saturated with S&G music.
The Guthrie Brothers sound amazingly like the famed musicians, especially when duetting in close harmony. Numbers like “At the Zoo” and “The Sound of Silence” are uncanny in their resemblance to the originals. The tribute isn’t perfect: Jeb doesn’t quite get the incisive bite that Simon brought to many of the lyrics, and Jock doesn’t have the angelic high notes of Garfunkel (but then who else does?).
The simple guitar and voice presentation reminded me of the earlier S&G college tours, which consisted of just two voices and a guitar. Simon, who wrote most of the songs, brought memorable lyrics and melodies to Garfunkel’s rich tenor and his own unique growl. Listening to the Guthries was like returning to the old coffeehouses, in that brief period when young people gathered in an old building with cracked tables and mismatched chairs, drank strong but terrible coffee and actually listened to the words.
The second act is not as nostalgic as the first, as the later S&G began performing with a full band. “Bridge of Troubled Water” doesn’t work without a piano.
The early S&G concerts, as I remember attending them, were serious musical affairs. Neither performer had much to say, and they quickly jumped from one song to the next. In true coffeehouse tradition, the Guthries, especially Jeb, have a lot to say. They are not imitators, so they lace the patter with stories of their parents and their life in Wisconsin. They are quick with a wisecrack such as “In Wisconsin you have to say ‘Go Packers’ at least once a day or you lose your daily allotment of cheese.” Unlike S&G they also generate a lot of back and forth with the audience including some pretty successful sing-alongs.
The afternoon’s highlights were unexpected. Act One featured a stunning rendition of “All I Have to Do is Dream,” which illustrated that S&G began by imitating The Everly Brothers. The highlight of Act Two came when the brothers departed from the tribute and sang some of their own compositions. Their style is very different and exciting.
The songs are presented in chronological order starting with “The Sound of Silence” and ending with “El Condor Pasa” which predicts the breakup of the duo as Simon was losing interest in folk-rock, and looking to world cultures to inspire a new musical direction.
Simon and Garfunkel have staged a few reunion tours since 1970, but as they are currently over 75 years of age, it is doubtful we will be able to see them together again. The Guthrie Brothers tribute will do just fine.
Running Time: Two hours, with an intermission.
Scarborough Fair: A Tribute to Simon & Garfunkel plays through Sunday, July 30, 2017 at Bristol Riverside Theatre -120 Radcliffe Street, in Bristol, PA. For tickets, call the box office (215) 785-0100, or purchase them online.