in performance: the refugees (updated)

the refugees: deborah holland, wendy waldman and cindy bullens

the refugees: deborah holland, wendy waldman and cindy bullens

Todd Snider’s loss was The Refugees’ big, big gain at last night’s taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour.

Both acts were onstage at the Kentucky Theatre as the program began. But soon into The Refugees’ opening tune, Snider quietly snuck offstage and never returned. The explanation: an undisclosed illness. That meant The Refugees were the sole performance guests. And did the trio of veteran female songsmiths – Wendy Waldman, Cindy Bullens and Deborah Holland – ever make the most of the opportunity.

Maybe it was having a healthy promotional forum for a just-released indie debut album, Unbound (from which seven songs were performed), that put in the trio in such high spirits. Maybe it was a genuine tightness of group spirit exhibited in both the Roches-style harmonies as well as an animated and familial stage presence that fueled the fun. Or it could have been a knack for songwriting that stemmed, in Waldman’s case, back three decades to a string of sterling albums for Warner Brothers and song cameos on records by some of the label’s then-premier artists (like her extraordinary Mad Mad Me on Maria Muldaur’s self-titled 1973 debut album).

Then again, it could have been the simple surprise element of becoming, totally on a lark, WoodSongs’ only guest last night. Whatever the reason, the performance was a blast.

The Refugees’ makeup is predominantly folkish. Bullens (a one-time Elton John singer with numerous ‘70s and ‘80s albums to her credit) switched from guitar to faux rock star posing on mandolin while Holland (of the underrated late ‘80s progressive trio Animal Logic with Stewart Copeland and Stanley Clarke) juggled guitar duties with support work on electric bass. Mostly though, the music revolved around the singing. That, in turn, was rooted in effortless group harmonies with shades of pop and, at times, bluegrass. But the mood of the music remained warm, informal and inviting.

The Unbound material covered considerable ground. Recently penned group originals, such as the album’s Americana-rich title tune, sounded like Mary Chapin Carpenter in an atypically chipper mood. But there were also solo compositions written far earlier in the singers’ respective careers that were reworked for back porch harmonizing.

Of the latter, Holland’s Animal Logic gem (There’s a) Spy in the House of Love was especially striking as it took on a plaintive but regal country air. Similarly appealing was Waldman’s Save the Best for Last. Initially a monster pop-soul hit for Vanessa Williams in 1991, The Refugees wrapped the first half of the tune in a cappella chill before setting it afloat with whispery acoustics.

Bullens’ newer Jellico Highway was comparatively darker and vastly more restless in design as it traced a tale of escape and heartbreak across the Kentucky-Tennessee border.

Great songs, greater harmonies and a thoroughly unassuming stage presence – the trio had it all. Add in a WoodSongs lineup change that worked heavily in its favor last night and it was no wonder that The Refugees seemed so at home in Lexington.

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Tuesday, 5:17 p.m.: Several emails and phone messages arrived today asking the same thing about last night’s WoodSongs taping. All came from vocal Todd Snider fans. All asked the same question.

In short, what was the deal with Snider’s disappearing act?

The Nashville songsmith, who is a veteran of numerous Lexington concerts, including a 2002 WoodSongs appearance, bolted from the stage last night as the program began, leaving the show’s other guest, The Refugees, to fill the hour.

WoodSongs host Michael Johnathon mentioned after the taping that Snider was ill and opted not to perform. He elaborated today:

“Todd wasn’t feeling well when he came to Lexington. He still wasn’t feeling well when he came to WoodSongs. He began feeling worse as the show went on and was not able to perform. We were very happy, however, that The Refugees were able to help out and put on such a spectacular hour.”

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