Memories of singing organized melodies and harmonies together with a group of people harken back to elementary school for many people.
For a lot of working adults, there’s not enough time in the day to carve out a commitment for something like a community choir. But on a sunny day in late June an estimated 2,000 people showed up at Pioneer Square in downtown Portland for a group singalong to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Prince’s Purple Rain.
People danced and belted their lungs out in the crowded square, decked out in purple garb, as musicians including China Forbes of Pink Martini, modern-day mariachi singer Edna Vasquez and others performed songs from the hit album.
The event was organized by Portland's Low Bar Chorale — a group dedicated to no-commitment, drop-in live music singalongs.
“For people who grew up where they weren’t told they could sing or they sang loudly so they were told to be quiet, it’s really empowering and emotional to realize they can sing,” said Kate Sokoloff, the producer, and one of the founders of Low Bar Chorale. (Sokoloff also founded Live Wire, a show which currently airs on OPB.)
“The places most people go to sing, if they even think they can sing, are going to be church, school or choir of some sort, which requires rehearsals and commitments,” she said.
“And you’re usually not singing the music you want to be singing,” said Ben Landsverk, the group’s co-founder and music director.
Sokoloff grew up with a minister for a father and was entrenched in singing folk songs with her family. She sang in school choirs and the occasional musical when she was younger, but had no place to continue until Low Bar Chorale came to be.
Landsverk also got acquainted with music as a kid, but continued with it throughout his life. He went to Yale and directed the Whiffenpoofs, one of the oldest and most well-known collegiate a cappella groups. Right now he produces music in the band Wonderly, scoring for films and creating songs for podcasts like The New York Times’ The Daily.
For Low Bar Chorale, Sokoloff and Landsverk bring together an array of talented musicians to perform live for audiences and coordinate large-scale group singalongs of songs from the mid-1970s to today.
The type of music played varies a lot — from Aretha Franklin to Nirvana and the Bee Gees to Daft Punk.
As far as choosing songs goes, there’s not too much of a technical process between Sokoloff and Landsverk, but the tunes do have to transfer well to a sing-along.
“I will have heard a song in the car, or Ben will have heard something, and we both, Ben especially, have the killer ear for what will work with a group,” Sokoloff said.
“Songs have to have a pretty strong melody,” Landsverk said. “If they have very emotionally available lyrics — that really, really works and intuitive harmonies too; that makes my job so much easier.”
The songs rotate sometimes as often as the musicians do.
Landsverk says a lot of the people who play with Low Bar are in touring groups themselves.
“We were able to amass really kind of a supergroup of players,” he said. “We have some of the best players — people who play with Blind Pilot and Brandi Carlisle and Todd Rundgren. These are musicians that I’m so, so excited to work with.”
Everything started in 2016 when David Bowie died.
Sokoloff was inspired to plan a Bowie singalong after seeing a video of a group in Canada doing something similar.
Landsverk was the first person she thought of to make it happen. He began rehearsing and Sokoloff got the event set up at OMSI, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. It sold out, with about 200 people attending.
“My favorite moment from that was at the end. We did five songs all together and we ended with ‘Space Oddity’ and it was so beautiful and our ‘oohs’ were sort of drifting out into space as they do and then there was silence,” Sokoloff said. “And someone said, ‘Can we do it again?’”
People didn’t want to stop, Sokoloff said, and neither did she and Landsverk.
Now, three years later, the group does regular performances at Revolution Hall’s Show Bar, usually every other Tuesday night.
They also put on larger events, like an annual holiday singalong. Along with their “Purple Rain” event they also recently performed at the Mississippi Street Fair.
In their three years, Low Bar Chorale has gained a slew of devoted followers.
Melissa Wiley has been singing with the group for a little over a year. She hasn’t missed one Show Bar performance since she started. Her first Low Bar Chorale sing was particularly special.
“Right when I moved to Portland, I had breast cancer. And I spent my first six months here dealing with that and so, this is like three months after I finished and I’m feeling good again, and I’ve come to this place and I’m just happy to be anywhere,” she said.
Singing with Low Bar is not only something that helped Wiley find community, but overall she says it’s just an emotional experience.
“If you’re not a church person, you don’t have many opportunities to sing in community, and I didn’t even know that that was a hole that needed filling. I was so happy,” Wiley laughed. “And you look around the room and everybody is so joyful — the entire room full of adults, which I don’t think happens very often.”
Even though it has a mass of followers, Sokoloff says the group still gets newbies — whom regulars welcome with open arms.
“People are to a bizarre level welcoming. If you even like sniff at the door there, you get these, like, arms coming out and grabbing you and going, ‘Come in!’”
The group’s hospitality is tangible. As people filed into an increasingly crowded Show Bar, a few regulars chatted with me, recognizing I was a new face.
Even though I was there for work, wandering around shooting photos and collecting audio, Wiley shared her songsheet with me and I joined in.
Landsverk acted as a sort of choir director, leading the crowd in the intricacies of Hall and Oates’ “She’s Gone,” at first just with his acoustic guitar, then eventually with the backing of the whole band.
Landsverk said a big goal with this project was to just get more people involved in music.
“People are also out there joining choirs, doing more music, seeing more music, singing more and that’s exactly what we wanted to see with something like this,” he said.
Sokoloff says the group is also about more than just singing. It’s about taking a break from ongoing stress, politics and bad news.
“Stealth activism is kind of our mission,” she said. “We may not have started out that way, but pretty quickly we saw that people need to get together these days. People come here and there’s no agenda other than singing.”
Low Bar’s next singalong is Aug. 6 at Revolution Hall’s Show Bar. They also have another show coming up Aug. 15 at Kruger’s Farm on Sauvie Island, just north of Portland.