PHS no more? Boone-based garage-rock duo The Port Huron Statement are now on an indefinite hiatus. Front man Chip Taylor is relocating to Raleigh, and the future of the project looks hazy. The group’s second album, Tory, was released this year. For more information, visit www.porthuronstatement.com.
We sit on the floor of Malaprop’s Bookstore, the cafe now off-limits so the staff can mop the floor. Over the house sound system, James Brown is telling us with some authority to “Get on up,” and seemingly out of nowhere, Sidhe founding member Dawn Humphrey lets out a massive and soulful “Whuuuaaagh! Gooood God!“
There’s a hesitant moment wherein all of us — myself, Humphrey’s band mates, perhaps even Humphrey herself — are taken aback. And then she grins with something not quite pride, not quite embarrassment, and says: “There’s just not enough of that in pop music today.”
But soul is something that bleeds through all of Sidhe’s songs, from their Irish folk tunes to their African chants.
For the past two hours, I’ve been listening to the women of Sidhe (pronounced “she,” from the Gaelic word meaning “fairy” or “elf”) perform their vocal-and-percussion renditions of such varied numbers as the traditional African “Babethandaza” and the Celtic folk ballad “I Am Stretched on Your Grave” to Humphrey’s own socially conscious originals.
Little had I suspected that, all the while, Humphrey secretly wanted to cut loose a la the Godfather of Soul.
“One thing that makes our group real interesting is that we all have different influences,” she notes.
Sidhe member Sharon Ray is into the Celtic and traditional European music, Humphrey explains, while Lisa Foote, though young, is into old rock and folk music, and Laurian Richards is into classical and women’s music — and music with a punk edge.
“I’m into rock and blues and soul,” Humphrey adds. “I really like doing the upbeat kind of stuff. We’re working on some more poppy stuff in a sort of blues vein.”
Humphrey is a latecomer to music. In the past few years, she’s gone from being a relative musical novice to a performing singer/songwriter, recently releasing her first album, You Don’t Have to Wait Until Heaven.
Still, her success surprises her.
“Six years ago I was a social worker who’d never played an instrument in her life,” she recalls, staring off as if vividly remembering the time. “And then these poems just started coming [to me] wrapped in a melody, and I just started writing songs. For me, I guess [it was] a kind of therapy. … It [helped] to kind of [work issues] out. I started doing more and more of the music, and I was like: You know, I think I really, really like this. I don’t think I want to do social work anymore. I think I want to do music for the rest of my life.”
That sweeping decision led Humphrey to explore another dream — the formation of an all-women performing group. For someone with little musical experience, it was a daunting task.
“I had sung in a woman’s choir that had broken up and [had] really enjoyed singing with other women,” Humphrey explains. “I got a real spiritual charge out of that, so I decided to form my own a cappella group.”
As more people became involved in the project, the a cappella concept quickly became more of a vocal-and-percussion thing. The shift seemed a good one since, as Humphrey puts it, “I like to bang; I’m a frenetic person.
“We like to do a lot of shows with kids,” she adds, “and we like handing out instruments and getting people to bang and shake. It’s a good participatory kind of thing.”
Not surprisingly, the Malaprop’s crowd responded eagerly to Sidhe’s strong social and political messages. But while most of the group’s regular fans are supportive of their message, some new audience members have been less than enthusiastic — and not always that clear on what Sidhe is trying to accomplish.
“It takes a select group to really want to listen to [just] the socially conscious stuff,” explained founding member Lisa Foote. “People have been like, ‘All your songs are so political; can’t you sing anything else?’ But we do! It makes it more interesting when you sing a pop song and then a political song.”
As group spokeswoman, Humphrey takes an even stronger stand on the issue.
“We’re righteous, strong, independent and liberal women,” she asserts. “We believe in several political causes, and we believe in peace; we believe in equality and justice for all people in the world; we believe in cultural diversity — all that good stuff. There are [violent] forces [at work] in the world today, and there are things that need to be said about peace and freedom and equality and justice.”
And in the background, James Brown shouts about a brand new bag.