Photo by Mindi Harkless
The Get Hip Records store on the North Side is a little off the beaten path. Blocked-off streets, tall fences, and warehouse buildings don’t exactly give the impression that this is a musical hotspot. On the chilly, rainy night of February 10th, a crammed parking lot and a small yellow sign out front were the only visual confirmations that this was, in fact, the right place. But as I made my way to the performance space on the building’s third floor, warm acoustic guitar strums and the happy chatter of a packed room grew louder, inviting me in. The occasion? The release show for Chet Vincent’s new solo album on Misra Records, Where the Earth Opens Wide.
In a way, the close-knit community housed within Get Hip’s gritty industrial exterior that night was an apt analogy for Pittsburgh’s music scene as a whole. Beers were poured from a keg and sold in red Solo cups. String lights hung from the ceiling, offering a pretty ambience. Young, talented singer-songwriters on the rise, Zack Keim and Kayla Schureman, opened up the show, to great fanfare. It was a nod to the past, a celebration of Pittsburgh’s present, and a promising sign of its future.
The same could be said of Where the Earth Opens Wide. Comparisons of Vincent to Neil Young have been made many times before, but that’s because they’re accurate. He’s a damn skilled storyteller, able to convey a lot with sharp, punchy, appealing simplicity. (Such as this line from “The Great Divide”: “Never thought I’d miss the sound of your voice/’til those lonesome prairie winds cried/But I’ll hold my head high/and measure my stride/When it’s over, I’ll wish, that I died.”) There’s an old-fashioned, timeless quality to his sound, enhanced on this record by the frequent appearance of multilayered vocal harmonies, and chances for many classic instruments (keys, acoustic electric guitar, steel, and even a harmonica) to shine.
The album brings the authenticity and thoughtfulness you’ve come to expect from The Big Bend’s previous work. In this new context, however, Vincent pulls from a wider variety of influences, and does so successfully. Classic folk/rock is still his main wheelhouse, but his interpretations range from an old-timey country piano ballad (“The Great Divide”), to engrossing psychedelia-tinged haze (the dreamy “Indigo”), to straight-up twelve-bar blues (“Boxcar Blues”), to slower, heavier burns (fittingly, “The Forest Needs the Fire.”) He even dabbles with subtle electronic elements and vocal effects on tracks like “Pillow Talk,” an ode to disconnected lovers.
Of course, he didn’t create these sounds entirely by himself. The band Vincent recorded with has adapted the moniker “Biirdwatcher.” It’s an amalgamation of accomplished local musicians: Josh Carter on drums, Nathan Zoob on guitar and backing vocals, Guy Russo on keys and backing vocals, Jesse Prentiss on bass and backing vocals, and Read Connolly on steel guitar. James Hart plays the organ on the fourth track, “Promises,” while Trish Imbrogno provides bass for “Pillow Talk.” And Alex Herd at Thunderbird House led the recording and production process.
The passion and talent of each contributor comes through, unmistakably, and their experiments prove successful. There’s an adept sense of flow and instrumental layering, as well as a willingness to take risks, that comes with playing and writing music for so long. Each track, and the album as a whole, seems to unwind like a thread from a spool, pulling you along intuitively—even when you’re surprised, you soon see how the surprises makes sense. Vincent goes out on several limbs while acknowledging his established strengths. As in the past, he doesn’t shy away from political commentary (the bitter, tongue-in-cheek opener, “King of America,” is fantastic) or more intimate, emotional fare (such as “Pillow Talk” and the warm, introspective “Promises.”) There’s even a parallel to the title song of The Big Bend’s last album, Celebrate, in the penultimate track of this record, “Laughing Through Your Tears.” Both are somewhat sparse instrumentally, with a lilting, easygoing sound. Both also address the pain and uncertainty of a changing world, and the importance of finding ways to accept this even when it’s difficult. The older song advocates celebrating life’s shifts even though “sometimes they hurt so bad,” while “Laughing” finds endurance in connection: “I can’t pretend that nothing’s changed/Just creation rearranged/But we are stronger, than our fears/Baby, I love you/when you’re laughing through your tears.” It’s a perspective that bears repeating, even more so now than when Celebrate dropped in 2016.
Without turning this into a novel, I have to point out a few more standout moments. “The Forest Needs the Fire” is a killer track, both instrumentally and lyrically. Lower, buzzy guitar and wavering steel riffs unfold over a measured, purposeful drumbeat, while keys dance in mostly minor chords in the background. Its energy is relentless, but not overwhelming, mirroring a slowly encroaching (but ultimately inescapable) fire. The words throughout pack a powerful punch, but the chorus really drives things home: “See the tall trees burning/We are only learning/Nature’s not discerning, or created to inspire…the forest, neeeeds, the fire.” “The Great Divide,” meanwhile, keeps things light, pairing Chet’s voice with keys, a harmonica solo, occasional unfolding vocal harmonies, and nothing else. It’s an unconventional choice to forgo the guitar, but the vulnerability evoked by this sparseness is very effective. This song is also where you can find the album title: “I always thought you’d be there waiting/I thought we had nothing to hide/well isn’t it strange/how quickly we change/fires rage where the earth opens wide.” And my personal favorite track is the gorgeous, immersive “Indigo.” It’s dreamy and hazy, almost ambient at times, with a recurrent effect-heavy steel line that strongly recalls a sitar and repeated acoustic guitar strums that unwind beautifully. The reverb vocal effect and slightly drawn-out singing style Vincent employs are the icing on the cake. It’s a song to get lost in, in the best way.
On “King of America,” Vincent muses about the apparent immutability of the current national landscape: “It makes no difference, what songs we sing.” If you ask me, though, it does make a difference. Maybe not on a grand scale, and maybe not immediately. But music has the power to provide healing, understanding, and connection, both for those who write and perform it and those who listen. The raucous cheers and chants of “One more song! One more song!” which filled the room at Get Hip Records after Vincent thanked the crowd in parting proved that he (and his collaborators) have tapped into that power. Where the Earth Opens Wide is an album with deep roots and wide branches. It’s warm and accessible while taking effective risks. It’s vulnerable and it’s compelling—an homage to classic sounds, while reminding us why Chet Vincent is such a valuable part of the Pittsburgh musical landscape today.
Getting the whole Biirdwatcher gang together for live performances, post-release-show, looks unlikely for the foreseeable future. Luckily, you can now enjoy the fruits of their labor anytime. Where the Earth Opens Wide can be streamed on its very own website, which allows you to explore each song in depth—with artwork, lyric sheets, music videos, photos, and more. You can also find physical copies at Get Hip Records, on 1800 Columbus Avenue.
If you missed the release show on February 10th, you can catch Vincent playing with The Big Bend at the Funhouse at Mr. Smalls on Friday, 2/16. He’ll be opening up for William Matheny, alongside Bindley Hardware Company and Dan Getkin and the Twelve Six. More info on that can be found here.