VISITING ACT: Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion 

The Family Gospel: Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion play at the altar

Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion
w/ Mark Bryan, Danielle Howle
Fri. Feb. 13
7:30 p.m.
$22, $17/adv.
Circular Congregational Church
150 Meeting St.
(843) 577-6400
www.circularchurch.org
www.sarahleeandjohnny.com

"When the Lilacs Are In Bloom" from the album Folksong
Audio File

From when Sarah Lee Guthrie was two years old, her father, Arlo, would bring her out on stage to sing with him. It's a family tradition that began with Woody and continues today.

Husband and wife team Johnny Irion and Sarah Lee released their live CD/DVD set, Folksong, late last year, and the title track (a Woody song) features their toddler-age daughter Olivia singing with them. In a special event presented by Suncoast Promotions and the Bridge at 105.5, they perform at the Circular Congregational Church this Friday.

On the phone from their 100-acre homestead in the Massachusetts hills, Irion laughs about his daughter's stage presence.

"My mother lives down in Beaufort (S.C.), and every time we go down she'll say, 'Will you guys sing a couple songs?'" he says. "There's a song on our new kids' record called 'Show and Tell' that we wrote with Olivia's kindergarten class. She kind of sang (to grandma), but wasn't really singing it, and (Sarah Lee) said, 'You know your grandmother doesn't see you a lot,' and gave her a little talking to. She went to a back room, and Sarah Lee went back and said, 'What's the matter?' And Olivia says, 'It's just, I have a hard time singing when there's not thousands of people there.'"

Weeks before, Olivia had joined her proud parents on stage at Carnegie Hall, and the kids' album is tentatively set to be released this year on Smithsonian Folkways.

"We were interested in making a kids' record that won't make you jump out of the minivan," says Irion. And when the Guthrie clan makes a family album, that means Pete Seeger's over, hanging out in the living room and leading kindergarten-aged cousins through a handful of their great-grandfather Woody's songs.

"The girls were in a good mood," says Irion. "We gave them sugar and let them go crazy on the mics."

Friday's show is a homecoming of sorts for the Irion/Guthrie family. Irion formed his first band nearly 20 years ago while living on Isle of Palms, which lasted as long as one frat party and featured City Paper's Ballard Lesemann on drums. He soon moved to Durham, N.C., building a reputation as a rocker with college-rock groups like Queen Sarah Saturday.

Guthrie and Irion met after Irion's band opened for the Black Crowes on their 1996 European tour. The Crowes' Chris Robinson guided him into another band, which secured a slot on the Further Fest tour, at which Sarah Lee was performing with her father. The pair met in a dressing room and never looked back.

Before their recent relocation to Massachusetts, Guthrie and Irion lived in Columbia, S.C. for six years. On their last visit back, they performed at a Lutheran church on a Saturday night, and the organizers insisted they return on Sunday morning. The couple complied, even getting up to sing a few songs during the service. Irion says he's excited to play venues like the Circular Church.

"I grew up playing rock and roll at the Music Farm and Cumberland's and those kind of rooms all over the country," says Irion. "For what we do now, we try to find rooms that have great acoustics. When Live Nation and Ticketmaster are getting together to rule the world, it's cool to find your own venue and create your own circuit. Granted, it's tedious, but it's rewarding. And it's a good way to connect with people who are looking for something you can't get on TV."

This week's show was organized by Suncoast, a local booking agency that often seeks out-of-the-way venues that are well-fit for a particular performer. Although Guthrie and Irion have utilized a backing band on previous tours (and on the studio release, Exploration), this tour is focused on the interplay and harmonies between them.

"We're not plugging in anymore," says Irion. "Songs like 'Never Far,' 'When the Lilacs Are in Bloom,' 'Folksong' — we tried to record those in the studio, but to put a band around these songs — it felt good just to get those out of the way and it's kind of freed up the way the next record will go. I think the next batch, well, it's definitely folkier, but it's weird. It's like eating ginger and following it up with a California roll."

The live DVD, Folksong, is the best indication of a duo Guthrie/Irion show. Sarah Lee shares lines her grandfather said ("I pretty much just play Gs and Ds, but every once in awhile I throw a C in there to impress the ladies") and Johnny jokes about his wife's wandering mind while driving. Then they break into a mesmerizingly beautiful harmony of guitars and voices.

It's soothing, almost like church.


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