Cornell goes pop with student hits

By Julian Wise - April 27, 2006

Maribeth Mohr at the Katharine Cornell Theatre. Photos by Ralph Stewart

"POP Culture," the concert presented by students at the Contemporary Music Center at the Katharine Cornell Theatre Saturday night, offered the Island community a chance to witness the talents of this year's crop of students. The Contemporary Music Center (CMC) is an accredited semester-long program that offers students from Christian colleges across America the chance to study songwriting, performance, and the business side of the music industry. The program is based at FOCUS off Lambert's Cove Road in West Tisbury. The Katharine Cornell Theatre concert was a real-world experience in concert promotion and performance for the students that augmented the studies taking place on the West Tisbury campus.

The opening artist, Maribeth Mohr, sang a five-song set of punk pop numbers that blended covers ("Dirty Little Secret", "Flavor of the Weak") with original songs ("I Refuse," "Linebacker"). Her backup band (Chris Leonard on drums, Dan Ankney and Stephen Sebastian on guitar, Mike Shannon on bass) crafted a rocking sound with a propulsive rhythm section that drove the songs forward. Special credit is due to drummer Leonard, who managed to inhabit the songs without overpowering them. Ms. Mohr appeared slightly tentative at first, then came alive at the conclusion of the set by giving her full-throated vocal technique a worthy workout by the final song, "Linebacker."

Next on the bill was Dan Ankney, a Midwestern singer/songwriter and CMC student whose vocal style suggested a fusion of Edwin McCain and Ed Kowalczyk (Live). Backed by Jarod Shamp on piano, Mike Shannon on bass, Stix Ayers on drums, and Stephen Sebastian on electric guitar, Mr. Ankney strummed his acoustic guitar with a stuttering rhythmic style reminiscent of jam bands past and present. On songs like "Over and Over and On," "Stay On," and "I'm Waiting," Mr. Ankney presented an earnest artistic presence eager to communicate personal thoughts and reflections through music.

Mike Shannon (left) and Chris Leonard, part of the Maribeth Mohr band.

The evening's final act, Jill and Kate, featured Jill Pickering and Kate Rapier, two students who met at the CMC several years ago and continue to perform together. Backed by Mike Shannon on bass, Stix Ayers on drums, Stephen Sebastian on guitar, and Jarod Shamp on piano, the duo blended their acoustic act with a full band sound. Songs like "Let This Go On" and "Save Me" made use of the full band, while "Another Friend" was a subtle acoustic ballad exploring the canard of the line "let's just be friends."

The duo have the benefit of several years performing together, and the comfort and ease of their artistic relationship shows. In a visual industry, Ms. Pickering has the inborn advantage of looking like a prettier version of Reese Witherspoon. Fortunately, she and Ms. Rapier have voices to back up the good looks. The band hit a transcendental moment during a medley of cover songs by crooning the chorus to "Drift Away," suggesting Jill and Kate could ignite with the right soundtrack opportunity or catchy single. The pair ended their set with "Pop Song," a semi-catchy number that showed the uneasy relationship this current batch of young musicians has with the concept of popular music, wanting the memorable and far-reaching aspects of popular singles while making an artistic statement that seems antithetical to the reams of pop pablum clogging the airways today.

Watching the CMC concert is an act of witnessing protean talent beginning to take shape. Like college students across all disciplines, the students are in a state of becoming, learning their craft by trying new ideas in a learning environment. While none of them should quit their day jobs yet, neither should they quit their dreams of quitting their day jobs.

Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and the performing arts.