Local group The Opposite of a Train's Bill Carson walked onto the stage at the Memminger Auditorium on a recent evening, wearing a vintage-style brown suit, thick black frames, and carrying a old six-string. He didn't look the part of a traditional master conductor or academic concert music director. But then, the elaborate Groundhog Day Benefit Concert on Feb. 2 — a fundraiser for the CofC's Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art — wasn't exactly a traditional affair.
Switching between acoustic and electric guitars and banjo, Carson stood with his left side to the audience as the program kicked up. With Ron Wiltrout to his right on a jazzy drum kit and various percussion gear, and Nathan Koci across the stage on brass, accordion, and Wurlitzer, Carson guided the music with simple glances, hand signals, and musical cues.
"I was totally thrilled with the concert," Carson said last week, speaking from a post-Memminger mini tour which started in Columbia, winded through New England, and concluded at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage in Washington, D.C. "It was definitely the most I'd ever worked on a performance. It exceeded my hopes for what it was going to be. I feel like it ended up being cohesive, even though it was really all over the place."
While they usually perform as a trio, the Train upgraded to deluxe status at the Memminger with the addition of bassist Kevin Hamilton, horn player Charlton Singleton, saxophonist Wilton Elder, and tuba player Clint Fore. The gang resembled a traditional concert band as they took their spots.
At the concert, I sat next to Chris Wyrick, an old friend and an accomplished visual artist who currently runs a gallery in Athens, Ga. After the third piece of the program — a piano-driven duet featuring guest vocalists Joel Hamilton and Stephanie Underhill — Wyrick leaned over while applauding and said, "Man, I wish something like this was going in Athens right now." Not long ago, it would have been the other way around.
Whether they admit it or not, Carson, Koci, and Wiltrout enjoy a strong reputation for bold creativity, thoughtful productions, and musical technique. All three have contributed to the success of New Music Collective-sponsored events. With The Opposite of a Train, they could easily increase the level of artistic expression.
"I believed in what we were doing, but I didn't know how it was going to go over," Carson says of the Groundhog Day gig. "Most people came not really knowing what the set was going to be like. It turned out like we were a real band, the 12 of us. It has potential to be a Charleston thing."
A long time in the works, the Groundhog Day Benefit Concert featured stunning vocal performances by Cary Ann Hearst, Michael Trent, and Lindsay Holler, including a rowdy game of patty-cake during a rendition of a children's playground chant in 1969, documented from Johns Island in a field recording. Hundreds attended. The whole thing went over terrifically.
"I was happy with the balance of written parts and improvisation," Carson says. "I think everybody on stage was comfortable with both ends of the spectrum. I loved playing with the big band, but there's a different kind of satisfaction the comes from just the three of us as well."
Next week, he goes back on the road with Hamilton, Hearst, Trent, and other colleagues from the Shrimp Records gallery for showcase gigs in Birmingham, Mobile, and Atlanta.
"We're all talking about film work, new gigs, and the next big concert," Carson says. "We're figuring it out."
It seems they've figured things out quite well already.