Has it really been over a decade since The Chapin Sisters last toured the UK? That made it all the more pleasing to reconnect with their unique harmonies that weave together gentle strands of Appalachian, folk, classic country rock and pop. Sibling harmonies describe not only Abigail and Lily Chapin but their support The Ocelots – twin brothers Ashley and Brandon Watson from Ireland via Leipzig. And where better to appreciate such a feast of vocal precision than in a church? Atmospheric both to the ear and eye, formerly the Church of St Alban the Martyr and now The Landmark Arts Centre in Teddington, south west London, offered the ideal setting for such all round sonic perfection. Any fears that an acoustic duo might get swallowed up by its size were swiftly dispelled as the sisters propelled their melodies far into its interior.
The set felt a very complete return to The Chapin Sisters as they started with some of their earliest songs before introducing new material and then moving on to their various influences, both musical and family. From their second album, ‘Two’ the sisters opened with ‘Sweet Light’, an unaccompanied hymnal so perfectly suited the surroundings. Harmonies soared into one as they immediately drew their audience into a bucolic world far away, “Where you planted seeds/ And the grass will grow/ But the land will know/ You will always be there.” Turning to another great sibling duo, the sisters followed up with a lovely version of ‘If I Could Only Win Your Love’ by the Louvin Brothers.
From their first full length album ‘Lake Bottom’ came ‘Bird Song’ and from their first ever recording, ’The Chapin Sisters’ EP, ‘Don’t Love You’. Each retained its freshness as with no more support than the lightest guitar Abigail and Lily harmonised almost telepathically. That first recording was nearly 17 years ago and while their growing families have quite rightly taken precedence over their music, listening to these stalwarts of the Chapin canon did prompt the question is there anything new on the horizon?
Abigail, who did most of the talking, put minds to rest. As for so many artists the pandemic had played havoc with their lives. To entertain families with young children over what was thought to be only a couple of weeks in isolation the sisters joined forces with their father Tom to make their online show, ‘Mornings With Papa Tom and The Chapin Sisters.’ Running to 200 episodes, like the lockdown, this proved a longer project than anticipated. But not so time-consuming they could not write new songs. ‘Bergen Street’ is a muse about the life they had left in Brooklyn for their new home in the Hudson Valley. ‘Blue Indigo’ ran deeper than their love of blue jeans as the sisters recalled their mother’s fondness for making clothes and the struggles faced by those whose livelihood depend on traditional crafts.
For the second stage of the show the sisters took their cue from another sibling duo by dipping into their ‘A Date With the Everly Brothers’ album singing ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ and ‘Crying in the Rain’. The original intention had been to record a couple of songs to hone their skills as a duo after half-sister Jessica had left to start a family, but the project gathered momentum into a full LP. Stripped of any production and at a slightly slower tempo these pop songs sound completely different as attention focuses purely on the way two voices can interact.
The show’s third, and most emphatic phase, came with their songs of protest and activism. Abigail spoke tenderly of their uncle, Harry Chapin, who died tragically aged only 38 in 1981. As well as his timeless music he will always be remembered for his ceaseless work to eradicate world hunger. ‘Remember When the Music’, was an inspired selection. Not just for its rueful nostalgia of, “Remember when the music came from wooden boxes, strung with silver wire” but the sincerest hope of, “Oh, all the times I listened and all the times I heard/ All the melodies I’m missing and all the magic words”. We must never let the music stop.
Abigail recalled how this musically rich family embraced the protest songs of the 1960s as she and Lily recreated the relentless sense of never giving up in ‘God Bless the Grass’, written by the 1960s folk singer and activist Malvina Reynolds. Their vocal strength added equal heft to Don White’s ‘One Little Drop’. Both songs have particular resonance today.
Though stripped of the recorded version’s pedal steel, ‘Angeleno’ still had a jaunty country feel before they slowed the tempo to finish with the pared back ‘Ferry Boat’ and ‘Palm Tree’. Regardless of the songs’ origins all were bound by the sisters’ total absorption in their vocal intricacies. Lily switched from guitar to banjo, Abigail stayed with guitar, both took turns leading, both sang unaccompanied as they harmonised with utmost purity throughout.
Before signing off, a quick word about support The Ocelots. These brothers are young but already have a couple of releases under their belts. Assisted with only acoustic guitar and banjo, they too harmonise beautifully. As well as their own songs they have keen sense of where they come from as they paid tribute to the Mayor of MacDougal Street, Dave Van Ronk.
It was a huge pleasure to see The Chapin Sisters again. From a great musical lineage, their blend of country and folk sparkles as brightly as ever. We look forward to the new album.