Mad River Union
Sure, the Belles are beautiful women. Sure, their voices are as sweet as songbirds in a flowering tree. Sure, their songs are so old they sound new. But that’s not what makes their music so compelling and addicting. No.
It’s the close and intricate harmonies that they weave so expertly with their voices and instruments. Close harmonies that take practice, care and skill. Close harmonies that warm the listener's ears and heart.
Beverly Twist, Nola Pierce and Tina Garsen are the three harmonizers who channel the Boswell Sisters, songstresses of the 1930s, in voice, in song choice, in stage presence and in beauty.
To listen to the Belles of the Levee is to be delighted, uplifted and entertained. The group’s eponymous CD, taped at Moldspore Studios in 2016, recreates the fun they have on stage. Yes, taped; the CD was made on a reel-to-reel recorder and definitely has that old-time feel.
Belles of the Levee includes three Boswell Sister hits, “Shout Sister, Shout” (1931), “Roll On, Mississippi, Roll On” (1930) and “It's the Girl” (1931). Other songs include the risqué and funny “Egyptian Ella,” (“Ella was a dancing girl who started getting fat ...”) and the booty-shaking celebration of “Sister Kate” (“I wish I could shimmy like my Sister Kate ...”). The entire CD is nostalgic but remarkably current, full of joie de vivre and storytelling songs.
How do they do it? For one thing, all three women are music historians. They reel off names and song titles from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s with familiarity and respect. They have all paid their dues playing in lots of other bands and in other genres. But the close harmonies are what bring them together, as women musicians and as performers. The group uses copies of transcriptions of harmonies and also transcribe their own.
“We’re perfectionists,” Twist said.
Twist and Pierce met at a jazz camp in Orleans. Pierce had played with Aka Bella, Deja Vu, Moonpine and Vintner’s Daughters, to name a few. Twist spent years with the Bamboozlers and a group in Reno called Hobohemia. When they joined forces, they went straight to the source. They’ve been playing together for four and a half years; Gersen joined them about a year and a half ago.
“We met at a Joni Mitchell tribute at the Arcata Playhouse,” Gersen said. “I’d seen Nola and Beverly play at the Siren Song and I thought they were amazing. I thought they were perfect as they were but when we met at the Joni show they said they’d been looking for someone to play horns.”
Gerson, who plays clarinet, soprano and alto sax, bass clarinet, guitar, percussion and a little bit of keyboards, has a band credit list even longer than her instrument list: Skyline Swing, SoHum Girls, Square Peg, Barking Dogma, Hunk of Funk, Samba Amore and Orjasmic, among others.
She first came to Humboldt County in 1984 and knew “I wanted to be here.” She recently played four shows a week in the local Ferndale Rep production of Beauty and the Beast. “It’s great to be immersed in the music,” she said. “We played a ton of music and it made me super happy to do that.”
Happiness is what the Belles are all about. “The music makes people really happy,” Pierce said. “We like to say it shows that it’s so old, it's new.”
Even the group's name comes from the cradle of American roots music. Twist sings a bit of the lyric to illustrate, “Eadie was a lady, the belle of the levee, they say she was some tasty dish ...” from a song made famous by Ethel Merman.
The Belles recently went on a tour of several states, “creating a little circuit,” according to Twist. “We heard from a lot of young women fans who liked our music. It’s fun to spread that joy.”
Twist is the seamstress of the group, sewing the beautiful dresses for their stage appearances. The dresses are enhanced by vintage and charming little hats, giving the Belles a recognizable look. Recent appearances at the Folklife Festival in Blue Lake and the Arcata Playhouse’s Fervor Festival were crowd pleasers. Get your hands on their CD before the rains start, to keep your outlook sunny. Catch them at Cafe Mokka Friday, Sept. 29 from 8 to 11 p.m. and than again Saturday, Sept. 30 at the Friends of the Dunes fundraiser, Wine by the Sea, from 3 to 6 p.m. Check out their Facebook page and listen to their songs on Sound Cloud.