She rocked the house. With an amazing band featuring Blondie’s Paul Carbonara on guitar, singer-songwriter Mary McBride delivered an impassioned and inspirational show Tuesday night for the lucky residents and staff of L.A. Family Housing’s Valley Shelter.
And not only did this internationally-acclaimed artist provide a rousing two hours of great music to this lucky crowd right in the midst of their current homes, she gave even more: several of the residents were invited to sing with the band.
“We started doing that in shows a few years ago,” Mary said in an interview prior to the show. “There are a lot of really talented people out there with a lot of musical history, so we open the flow for them to tell their musical stories. Now we do it in every show.”
And they do it well. Part of the trick is to enlist top-notch musicians, who can easily handle any style. In addition to Paul Carbonara on guitar, she’s got rock vets Greg Beshers (Rhett Miller) on bass and vocals, and Mark Stepro (Butch Walker, Ben Kweller) on drums. “These guys can play anything,” she said, and it’s true. Carbonara lit the night on fire several times with incendiary rock guitar solos, while also shifting to pure country and then pulsating funk above the steady rock-solid groove of Beshers and Stepro.
“This is special,” said Lamar Holliday, a New Orleans native who was one of the chosen singers. “To hear live music of this caliber right here where we all live, it’s fantastic! She could be playing the Hollywood Bowl, and instead she brought her band here, to play for us. And she sings like an angel – a honky-tonk angel!”
Asked how it felt to sing with the band, he got a faraway look in his eyes, smiled, and said, “It felt like a dream. A dream I’ve been dreaming my whole life.”
It’s a dream Mary’s been bringing to homeless men, women and children throughout America since she started her own non-profit, TheHomeTour.org, in 2010.
Like other singer-songwriters, she was busy doing what musicians do: write songs, make records, do gigs, get songs placed in TV shows and movies (she performed her song “No One’s Gonna Love You Like Me” onscreen and on the soundtrack of Brokeback Mountain), and go after the breaks necessary to propel a career. And she got lots of them. She’s opened in concert for many luminaries, including Joe Cocker, Jerry Lee Lewis and Maria Muldaur, while Sir Elton John invited her to perform at the 35th Anniversary Concert of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
But her life changed when she went to the We Are Family organization in Washington D.C. “It was right after the Obama inauguration. Through them I visited a lot of home bound and elderly in Washington – When I told them I was a singer-songwriter they said to come back and sing. I wrote a song “Home” and called my album The Way Home. And I thought it would be a good idea not to do a regular tour, but go to the places where people live.”
She’s talking about the places where homeless people live, but as always her focus in not on the negative – that they have no homes – but on the positive, which is that they have a place to live. They are off the streets. It’s why she rarely uses the word ‘homeless.’ Instead the word she chooses to use the most is ‘home.’
And at LAHC, and other organizations around America, the aim is to provide service as well as shelter, to launch them on a trajectory towards a permanent home.
“I thought that I would do both,” she explained, “some club dates and some Home Tour shows. And we ended up doing almost all Home Tour shows. After doing these kinds of shows, which are so emotional each night, the club dates were so dull.” She discovered the connection that comes when an artist, as Woody Guthrie wrote, “injects himself directly into the bloodstream of the people.” When you get in people’s blood, you reach their heart.
(Lamar Holliday singing)
So after her first Home Tour in 2010, Mary formed a non-profit called TheHomeTour.Org to create ongoing tours of shelters and such. Her diligent and ingenious fundraising led to garnering the substantial support of the Starwood Hotel, which donates hotel rooms for the tour, the Gibson Foundation, the Enterprise Foundation and the Fischl-Gornik Foundation, established by the artist Eric Fischl.
“I was close to getting a bank to sponsor it,” she said. “I realized that they want to sponsor poor people. But not this poor. They want to sponsor people who they think they can help get their first mortgage. They are not a charitable enterprise.”
Acquiring the support of charitable foundations also proved to be initially challenging due to the intangible nature of this project.
“The foundations want to know what the impact is, and it’s hard to gage the impact when you’re not delivering meals, you’re delivering music. So it became a matter of finding people who understand the value of music, and who feel everyone has the right to live music. A lot of people love music but don’t have the resources to hear it. It’s empowering for us to come to them, and it validates where they live.”
Mary feels it’s as rewarding for the musicians as for their audiences.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for us as musicians because musically we switch it up. We see the room and we change the music to fit. These guys are great, they can play everything, and it’s so much fun to do a big range of music, whether it’s a Ray Charles hit or hip-hop or a Christmas song.
“Also, it’s the only tour where you know you’re gonna be in a better mood when it’s over than when you began. That’s pretty rare. Every day is a new adventure – you never know where you will be, or who will be there, who will sing with us. There’s no pretension at all, it’s so bare-bones, we have like one amp. Paul, who has played with Blondie in huge arenas around the world, loves doing this just as much, and maybe more. There’s nothing else like it.
“And the people who run these places, they are angels. We get here and they’re so appreciative. We’ve been touring since 2002, and had a lot of great breaks. But nothing like this. So now we hardly ever play clubs, and that is great. If I don’t have to deal with a grumpy club owner all year,” she said with a smile, “I’d be happy.”
She strives to provide something for all ages. “Performers more often come and do shows for the kids. But there are a lot of adults who need music, too. So we perform for kids a lot. But also for adults and the elderly.”
Indeed, she has taken The Home Tour to an astounding range of recipients, from the seniors in Washington, DC to Navajo families in supported housing in New Mexico to the kids of the Treme’ district in New Orleans to farm workers in rural Washington State to recovering vets living indefinitely at a VA hospital in Long Beach, CA. And it goes on.
“It’s endless, really, all the places that want us to play. Just here in L.A., it’s a little like Sophie’s Choice having to decide which one to do. Because they are all incredible, these amazing organizations. We try to have diversity: women’s groups, kids, the elderly.”
On this night, Mary’s allowed some of the Valley Shelter’s secret stars to shine. Patricia Carter, who suffers from autism, was dressed in a pretty pink gown to join Mary onstage. But unlike the other singers who sang with the band, she sang “O Holy Night” a capella, with no accompaniment, and brought down the house. When she began, a hush fell over the crowd, and you could sense the nervousness of her friends in the audience unsure if she’d triumph. But that hush quickly turned to cheers as Patricia’s beautiful voice soared through the night, stunning the crowd.
Afterwards people lined up to hug and congratulate her. “I didn’t even know she could sing,” said her friend and fellow resident William Muse. “She knocked my socks off!”
The mother-daughter team of Veronica and Kayloni Long sang a sweetly gentle version of “Little Drummer Boy,” while Lamar Holliday got everyone dancing with a voice as sweet and soulful as Smokey Robinson’s.
Resident Gwen Bender came onstage and began to sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” a little weakly and off-key, as if her nerves got the better of her. The crowd shifted uneasily, sensing her boat about to sink. But it was just a trick: she then turned to the band, said “Gimme some funk,” and as they laid down a solid R&B groove, she launched into a great soul rave-up with all the soulful swagger of Chaka Khan or Aretha Franklin. The audience loved it. “I tricked you,” she said later with a gleeful grin.
On their own, Mary and the band provided a great range of music, from her own originals like the poignant “Home” through contemporary standards like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and a hauntingly beautiful rendition of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonely I Could Cry.”
When I asked her earlier if there is any kind of music that universally got people everywhere happy, she answered immediately. “Gospel. Everybody seems to love gospel. Even if they don’t think they do, we start ‘Swing Low Swing Chariot’ and everyone gets into it. You’ll see. And then there’s always straight-ahead rock and roll.”
It’s an experience that has transformed her own life as profoundly as it has the legions of people throughout America who have been touched by her music. And it’s changed her own definition of success.
“We played at City of Hope for two people who were about to have bone marrow transplants,” she said. “Because of their condition, only two people could come in at a time. So we did a whole set for two people. Through our regular prism of what is a successful show, you know, did we pack the place? Did we sell out? It’s different. You’re playing a show for two people. But as a musician you know you are touching someone with your music, and it doesn’t matter if it’s one person or if it’s 5000. We’re reminded of that each day. So your measure of success becomes very different, which is a blessing.”
(Paul Carbonara, Mary McBride and Greg Beshers)