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Rolling with the Stones: Lindsay Holler, Hazel Ketchum host another fierce, female-led showcase

February 23, 2017 GMT

On any given weekend night, one doesn’t have to bounce all over Charleston’s club scene to find a bar band covering a Rolling Stones classic. Frequently, guitar-based groups handle strummy, funky renditions of old hits like “Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” “Sympathy For the Devil,” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” with ease. Rarely does anyone twist any of these familiar favorites into something unusual.

Organized by veteran Lowcountry musicians and vocalists Lindsay Holler and Hazel Ketchum, Friday night’s big show at the Charleston Music Hall — the “Women & The Rolling Stones: A Tribute to the Stones” showcase — might provide a healthy change of pace for local music fans with a uniquely dynamic and diverse roster of female vocalists and skillful musicians.

The Charleston Music Hall lists the event as “a tribute show to the Rolling Stones featuring some of Charleston’s best female vocalists.” That’s an accurate description of a bill that features local talent such as Lily Slay, Samantha Church, Jill Lewis, Sarah Cole, Zandrina Dunning, Eden Fonvielle, and other special guests from the Charleston scene.

“People are realizing that this music has an emotional scope and musicality that are on par with the musical masters of the centuries,” says Ketchum. “We have a desire to recreate it and hear it live in concert. It’s not enough just to hear the recording. There are generations of people who’ve never heard these songs live.”

Ketchum might be best known for her work as the singer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist with the versatile, string-based combo the Hungry Monks, who specialize in a jazzy mix of folk, blues, Celtic, country, Medieval, and jam-rock styles. Ketchum and bandmate/husband John Holenko also teach music at the Hungry Monks studio in West Ashley.

Birth of a series

Nearly on a whim, Ketchum and Holler initially started putting together plans for the debut “Woman &” series in the fall of 2015 when they collaborated with Charleston Music Hall director Charles Carmody on the idea of a tribute show to bohemian troubadour songwriter Tom Waits. With Holler and Ketchum as co-performers, the show featured an impressive list of lady vocalists, including Cary Ann Hearst (of Shovels & Rope), Jordan Igoe, Aisha Kenyetta, McKenzie Eddy, Ann Caldwell, Lauren Cahill, Danielle Howle and Jessica Mickey.

“This ‘Women &’ series started so casually with Charles and I talking about the idea of a Tom Waits tribute,” Ketchum recalls. “One of the local bands I play drums with, the Harrows, does a ton of Tom Waits, so it was a natural thing. We started thinking about inviting a variety of singers to perform. I was thinking of individual Tom Waits songs for each singer. I wasn’t sure who Lindsay might invite, and she didn’t know every singer I invited, so it was fun for everyone to come together and get acquainted. There’s certainly an amazing wealth of singers in Charleston.”

Holler was an avid Waits fan as well, and she was thrilled to collaborate on that showcase. “It was originally a one-show thing that we wanted to try,” she says. “Charles was really the start of everything, and he’s been very supportive and gung-ho about it ever since. He knew how much we both loved Waits’ music, so we met up, talked about it, and thought it would be a great idea. We had a great time and touched on a lot of different material.”

The Waits tribute consisted of a collective of backing musicians, including drummer Ron Wiltrout, guitarist Bill Carson, keyboardist Sam Sfirri, and bassist Jonathan Gray of Holler’s longtime band, the Western Polaroids, as well as members of Ketchum’s side band, the Harrows (Gray on bass and multi-instrumentalist Bob Culver.

The Waits show went surprisingly well, and the organizers vowed to establish a series of similar tribute shows in the same musical vein throughout 2016.

“When we decided to do several more shows in this way, we thought about new ways to handle the performances,” says Holler. “We’d had a mix of backing musicians at the Waits show, which was really fun, but the idea emerged to have two different, solid backing bands per show. I like that our two-band approach provides more variety to the audience because they’ll get one vibe from one set and another vibe from the next set.”

Pacing themselves to every three or four months, Holler, Ketchum and Carmody followed through with a string of concerts that featured a wide variety of female vocalists and payed homage to the likes of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Radiohead.

“Each show is tailored differently based on the artist we are paying tribute to,” says Carmody. “For instance, we had a more stripped-down feel for the ‘Women & Bob Dylan’ show, whereas for ‘Women & Bowie,’ we had a lot of fun with costumes and projections and lights and a big band sound. We also collaborated with Entropy Ensemble for the ‘Women & Radiohead’ performance, which was a blast. If you know me, you know I am all about that collaboration.”

Recreating the masters

Ketchum delights in trying new things with well-known material as well. “It’s fascinating to see which songs allow for flexibility and which one don’t really let you try any crazy thing with them,” she says. “You’re taking something that everyone can hear in their heads already — familiar songs by famous artists — but then you have a wild dynamic of voices doing different takes on the songs.”

“John (Holenko) and I were training in recreating the masters over the years,” Ketchum adds. “That’s what you go to a conservatory for. You learn to look at a score, figure out the instruments, the tunings, and all these things about the performance, then you recreate it, whether it’s Beethoven, Mozart or Bach. I find that it requires all the same skills going into this series. I think the audiences are responding to that so far.”

From show to show, Holler and Ketchum invite a cross-section of vocalists and allow each to pick the songs they’d like to render. It’s then up to their backing bands to learn and arrange the music to support each vocalist’s version. Sometimes, the music clicks and comes together quickly and easily. Sometimes, a few extra intense rehearsals are required.

“For me, as a music fan, I enjoy hearing different versions of songs that I’m very familiar with,” says Holler. “The shows are ultimately guided by the singers. I think the Bowie tribute was the most dense and challenging. It was very difficult to prepare the arrangements for that one, but we pulled it off pretty well. In this situation, some people haven’t worked together before, so there’s not an established rapport, but that’s kind of what I like about it.”

Half of Friday’s “Women & The Rolling Stones” event will be anchored by the current lineup of the Hungry Monks with Ketchum and Holenko on guitars, John Kennedy on bass, Dennis Ware (of local rock quartet Josh Roberts and the Hinges) on drums, and Bob Culver on keys, guitars and fiddle.

Vocalists Sarah Cole (of Sarah Cole and the Minors), Zandrina Dunning, and Eden Fonvielle (of the V-Tones and Amazing Mittens) will each headline mini-sets of Stones’ hits and deep cuts with the backing of the Hungry Monks. Ketchum says she plans to sing lead on early-era Stones’ hit “The Last Time” (with an emphatic nod to the original Staple Singers’ 1958 original, “This May Be the Last Time”) as well as on an edgy rendition of B-side gem “Ventilator Blues” from the “Exile on Main Street” album.

The other house band on Friday’s bill comprises members of Holler’s long-running group the Western Polaroids and her latest experimental rock project, Matadero. The roster includes Gerald Gregory on keys, Mackie Bowles on guitar, George Baerreis on bass and Jack Burg on drums.

“For this show, we wanted to make sure we had some dedicated back-up singers for support, rather than just the members of the band chiming in,” says Holler. “There are some intricate vocal parts that can get a little overwhelming, so we’ve enlisted Brittany Puite, Beattie Porter, and other guests to be on stage with us as official back-up singers.”

Holler and company will welcome three more featured local singer-songwriters, including Lily Slay (of the Royal Tinfoil), Samantha Church (a busy local busker downtown), and Jill Lewis (a classically trained concert performer and professor of vocal music). Holler is set to sing lead on the ballad “No Expectations” (from 1968′s “Beggar’s Banquet”) and the piano-driven rocker “Loving Cup” (from 1972′s “Exile on Main Street”).

“During our last Western Polaroids’ rehearsal, Jack and I were talking about our favorite Stones album,” Holler says. “He’s very much behind ‘Let It Bleed,’ and I’m firmly in the ‘Exile on Main Street’ corner. After that rehearsal, I went home and listened to both albums, back-to-back, which was great! I hope these shows would prompt more spirited debates, further research, and revisiting of the music.”