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Sitting just west of New Paltz on Mountain Rest Road—which leads up the ridge to Mohonk—the non-profit Unison Arts Center has served the greater arts community for well nigh 35 years now, offering performance and visual arts programming, personal growth workshops, and recreational, arts and educational activities for children and families. It’s become a vital local cultural venue, its intimate stage a nice place to enjoy a musical or theatrical performance, and often the musicians grant permission to have the concerts recorded. To celebrate their 35th anniversary, Unison has compiled some of the most memorable performances—recorded between 2004-2010 at Unison, as well as at the Studley and McKenna Theatres of SUNY New Paltz—for this special 16-song selection, dedicated to three artists on the CD who are no longer with us: Odetta, Artie Traum, and Betty MacDonald.

The CD starts off, appropriately, with one of Odetta’s last recorded performances (2008), a frisky, decidedly non-folky version of Sippie Wallace’s “You Got To Know How”, making the McKenna Theater sound like a rowdy saloon for a few minutes. This segues into the pristine Celtic tones of Patrick Street, the Irish “supergroup” of Kevin Burke, Andy Irvine, Ged Foley, and John Carty, and you suddenly realize: this is not your average fundraising release of quick-mixed singer-songwriters, guitar plugged into the board. There is some real music here, played by world-class musicians. Patrick Street’s “The Rich Irish Lady” weaves the spell delicately; the story unfolds like a novel in miniature.

Jay Ungar and Molly Mason bring the “Celto-klezmer” sound—with full band, and Molly on piano—on “Slippery Slope, Hobby Horse, & Screaming Memes,” a melodically multi-cultural romp featuring the boisterous double fiddle work of Ungar and Peter Ostroushko. This leads well into a full band performance of Lila Downs’ Oscar-nominated “La Llorona” (from Frida), a rich tapestry of Mexican song and rhythm, enhanced by the bird-like vocalese of the singer. And then, it’s the incomparable Howard Levy (Bela Fleck and the Flecktones), who plays the most oh-my-god solo harmonica version of “Amazing Grace.” I know, I know, you could probably live without hearing yet another version of that song, but really, you’ve got hear this one.

“Violets of Dawn” by Eric Anderson tips a cap to the Dylan tradition of rolling guitar and solo balladry, sung with warmth, and just a little grit. The young Canadian duet Dala—with Sheila Carabine and Amanda Walther—bring their crystal-clear harmonies to the Irish classic “Red is the Rose”, which I always thought was the melody to “Loch Lomond.” Then, it’s a pair of performances from Unison’s 30th Anniversary: Artie Traum leads a sweet slow doo-wop, singing with a nice Mose Allison-like ease on “Rusty Iron Bridge”, with full band, including Jay Ungar on mandolin, and what a fine solo. That same evening also marked the reunion of popular duet Amy Fradon and Leslie Ritter, who perform the reflective “Hymn to Her” —“her” being the Earth—with simpatico backing by Scott Petito and Beth Reineke. Their voices blend and intertwine so naturally; duets like these are rare and special.

Pete Seeger, John Lithgow, and even the Muppets have covered “The Garden Song (Inch By Inch)”, but here, you get to hear the originator, David Mallett, perform it, and it sounds great hearing the audience sing along, at Unison. John Gorka captures the plight of the hardworking American poor in “Mill Town”, with a tempered Springsteen-like honesty, and then it’s Brazil, baby! The Assad Family—eight members in tow—chose Unison to be their first concert of their first US tour as a family, as Oscar and Sergio Assad usually tour as the Assad Duo. Their buoyant “Brazilian Medley” here is a celebration of plucked guitars and family voices: lead, chorus, beatbox. (Unfortunately, the mix falls a little short here.)

Crossing the Atlantic, it’s the solo vocals of Uganda’s Samite, performing “Ndere”, with the help of modern live looping, creating a compelling one-man Ladysmith Mambazo. But then it’s straight back across to Argentina with Pablo Ziegler’s Quintet for New Tango, for a 2007 concert by “the reigning king of Argentine Tango”, playing “La Fundicion.” It’s worth it for the CD for this alone, a delightful eight-minute travelogue—featuring each talented quintet member—that feels like you are being introduced to new friends in exotic places. Then, Betty MacDonald makes you miss her even more with her winsome vocal on the Billie Holliday tribute “Sweet Gardenia”, accompanied by Peter Tomlinson (piano) and Jim Curtin (bass). Singer/pianist Susan Werner closes the set magisterially with her richly rolling “May I Suggest”, as she suggests “this is the best part of your life,” and makes you damn near believe it.

Unison’s 35th Anniversary Compilation gives you something to think about while listening to (literally) the world-class music on this CD. Like, why weren’t you there? Personally, I’ll take this over just about any compilation out there, and look forward to the next. —M. R. Smith

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