There's a saying -- a rather cliché one -- that you learn something new every day. Or maybe it's that you should learn something new every day. Either way, spend some time with the Vintage Wildflowers -- coming to a SummerStage stage near you soon -- and that ends up being true.
In this case, a lifelong musician who happens to write about the performing arts for Tulsa's coolest magazine learned that the Celtic music for which this trio of Tulsa women is famous is closely related to the bluegrass music so many of us in the South (and Okies in particular) are fond of.
"Bluegrass grew out of the music of Appalachia which was settled by people from Ireland and Scotland," said Dana Fitzgerald Maher, who plays the Celtic harp and sings harmonies with the group. "So there is actually a direct musical connection between Oklahoma and the Celtic lands -- much more direct than most people realize."
The fact that Maher's family is of Celtic decent explains her interest in that style of music, and from a quick glance at the group's C.V., one quickly ascertains that they're really good at this whole Celtic music thing.
The Vintage Wildflowers, consisting of Maher, multi-instrumentalist Abby Bozarth, and Audrey Schmidt, who plays the upright bass and provides lead vocals, have played around the country, and their music has been heard around the world. They've made stops at our own prestigious OK Mozart festival, they've been guests in Kentucky on Lexington's Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour, and they've rocked the Kennedy Center in our nation's capital. As for airplay, they've been heard on Celtica Radio out of Wales, myriad NPR shows, and on Belfast's Celtic Roots Radio (and if that's not legit street cred in the Celtic music world, especially for three chicks from Oklahoma, I don't know what is).
The Vintage Wildflowers come to Tulsa's SummerStage festival in a few days to provide its fourth performance for the festival in as many years. Maher praises the festival, the Performing Arts Center, and the ever-expanding fan base the trio continues to amass due, in part, to these specific performances.
"Obviously the PAC is a great venue and our SummerStage audiences always end up being full of new fans," she said. "The festival really helps raise awareness about the different performing groups who participate."
In an effort to keep pleasing returning fans, the Wildflowers continue creating new music, though not at the expense of the stuff that the people who have seen them before want to hear.
"We always make a point of having new music to include in the show, but we're well aware of the music we do that has become favorites of our fans," Maher said. "They let us know what they love to hear from our repertoire, and we always try to oblige."
While that sounds like there might be people in the audiences shouting, "Freebird!" it's not quite that kind of atmosphere. That said, Maher referred to the nature and the roots of Celtic music, and said that this music isn't exactly designed for stuffed-shirt concert affairs complete with opera glasses and tuxedos.
"Most of the time, my favorite performances center around evenings where we really forge a connection with the audience, and the whole evening becomes more of a social experience than a musical concert," she said. "Celtic music was originally intended to be more about people gathering at the pub to socialize, not a stage performance."
It stands to reason, then, in this type of situation, that fans would be able to make requests or call out for favorites without breaking terribly with concert etiquette.
"The evenings where the audience comes expecting a concert but we actually all end up feeling like we hung out and got to know each other are the ones I like the most," Maher said.
That doesn't necessarily mean any Vintage Wildflowers performance is a free-for-all, though. There's a setlist the group follows, but there's also, of late, at least one element putting a new spin on things.
"This summer we have been transitioning since we have a new lead singer," Maher said, referring to newcomer Schmidt. "That has allowed us to put a fresh spin on all the music we've been doing, plus add new things to the set list. It's been great fun. We all three really enjoy interacting with the audience and with each other onstage. As far as musically, it's been fun having Audrey's bass grounding our sound on the low end."
Having brought her bass and her voice to the trio barely two months ago, Schmidt replaced founding member Melissa Schiavone and made her public debut with the trio in June at a fundraiser at the Tulsa Glassblowing Studio.
According to Maher, so far, so good.
"Audrey is a wonderful performer and musician with a great sense of humor and easy rapport with the audience," she said. "Abby and I just simply have a great deal of fun being on stage with her, and that certainly comes across to the audience."
Having found each other at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas a few years ago, Bozarth and Schmidt have been friends for some time.
"Audrey and Abby have known each other through the northeast Oklahoma music community for a few years," Maher said. "It just happened that Audrey was looking for a band to sing with, and we were looking for a new lead singer at the same time."
The fact that the group is always coming up with new arrangements and new music for its fans begs the question of how they do it, and what makes it different from the tons of other Celtic groups out there around the world. Maher credits the individuals that make up the Vintage Wildflowers.
"Most of the music we do has never been written down," she said. "That really starts you off in a freer place, because you're never confined by what you have seen written on a page. As we begin to work on something we try to be respectful of the traditional rules about performing this music, while at the same time putting our own twist on it."
Maher also waxed a bit philosophic when it comes to this music she loves so much.
"I love this music," she said. "It's my roots music. I would be performing it no matter what because it really matters to me. It gives a voice to my great-grandparents, who came to America at the turn of the century, and earlier forbears."
But this isn't a selfish musical venture for her. There are lessons to be learned from history, and Maher made a case for music helping along those lines.
"I think the music helps us to see history through others' voices. Their lives may be different in many ways, but the issues they dealt with are the same as what we deal with now -- love, loss, struggle, realizing dreams," she said.
Okay, so there is a little selfishness in what she's doing with her bandmates. But just a little.
"Performing this music is great fun," Maher said. "Since everything is our own arrangement, there is a lot of ourselves invested in every performance."
The Vintage Wildflowers invest themselves in a performance this Thursday, July 19 at 7:30pm in the PAC's Robert J. LaFortune Studio. Tickets are $10 and are available through the usual avenues: myticketoffice.com, in person at the PAC's 2nd Street box office, or by phone at 918-596-7111.
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