Illinois State Museum concert rings melodically

Paul Watson, Lamp staff

Acoustic music, singing and humorous banter filled the Thorne Deuel Auditorium in the basement of the Illinois State Museum.

Wil Maring and Robert Bowlin performed original compositions and covered Americana, folk and blues songs for the March 14 installment of the Music at the Museum series which is produced by Chris Vallillo.

Vallillo opened the concert a little after 7 p.m. He explained to the audience of about 50 people that the series features acoustic musicians whose music resonates with the history of Illinois.

In Vallillo’s introduction of the performers, he said that Maring grew up in Southern Illinois, that he currently lives in Cobden, and that he has won a songwriting contest.

He said Bowlin had worked in Nashville and performed with Bill Monroe, a bluegrass music pioneer, as well as appearing on stage with other country artists. Both Maring and Bowlin have appeared on the Grand Ole Opry.

As soon as the duo took the stage, the light-hearted homespun personality of Maring engaged the audience with her humorous banter and well-intentioned ribbing with Bowlin. Maring sang most of the repertoire and played the bass lines on an upright bass for most of the songs. Occasionally, she would play rhythm on an acoustic guitar.

Maring wrote the majority of the songs performed. “Rows” is an example of her lyric writing style. She paints word pictures for the audience to see with their minds’ eyes, transporting them to a remote time and another place:

Rows of daffodils roll across the hills.

Rows of blackbirds on the line.

Rows of wild red roses, climbing oak fence posts.

My life lies in rows.

Most of the audience seemed to be familiar with some of the original compositions.  For those who were not, they would have found themselves tapping their feet when Maring and Bowlin performed “Bottomlands,” Maring’s 1998 songwriting-competition-winning entry. The song’s country-music style “boom-chuck” rhythm encouraged the foot tapping.

Maring’s singing voice easily fits in the mezzo-soprano range.  Her songs are reflective, so there is no need for a vocal workout.  One of the pleasant surprises of the evening occurred during the first set’s closing number: a cover of Etta James’ “At Last.” Maring worked her diaphragm as she belted out lyrics reminiscent of James. One could almost imagine James singing a duet with her.

Bowlin sang a song or two, contributed occasional backing vocals, and played violin on two songs, but primarily played acoustic guitar with a flat-pick. Bowlin knows the fretboard well and uses it to sound like two people are playing the same instrument. He plays fluidly, making the job look effortless.

Bowlin showcased his technique with his instrumental titled “On the Border.” While he played, Maring sat at the edge of the stage listening along with the audience.

Bowlin played violin on “A Dance to the St. Anne’s Reel,” while Maring played acoustic guitar.  Bowlin began the song using the violin bow percussively against the violin strings. During the instrumental solo the audience applauded Bowlin’s playing. The solo clearly reflected the song’s melody. Both Bowlin and Maring sped up the tempo as the solo turned into an outro.

Bowling played a 1920s violin made in Italy, which he repaired himself. Maring wrote the words to a folk dance tune called “St. Anne’s Reel.”

Vallillo, who is also a guitarist and singer, opened the musical performance with a cover of Claudia Nygaard’s “His Left Side.” He accompanied his strong baritone vocals with a resonator guitar played with fingerpicks.

To begin the second set after the intermission, Bowlin joined Vallillo to play a cover of the song “Steel Guitar Rag,” which Bob Wills recorded in the 1930s in a Western-swing style. They performed the song as an instrumental to spotlight Vallillo’s slide playing on a resonator guitar and Bowlin’s lead playing on a vintage Larson guitar.

During the intermission, cookies and coffee were available to the audience. Maring and Bowlin chatted with attendees and sold CDs of their music. Maring also sold her artwork.

Maring and Bowlin were booked to replace Vivian Nesbitt, who was scheduled to perform “Mother Jones in Heaven,” a one-woman musical about labor organizer Mother Jones. Nesbitt had broken her leg more than a month earlier and had to cancel her March concert dates.

The next installment of the Music at the Museum series features Suzie Vinnick, a roots and blues singer from Canada from 7 to 9 p.m. April 11, 2019. Admission costs $10 for adults and $8 for museum members and children under 12.

Paul Watson can be reached at [email protected]