Oakland’s Wendy Burch Steel & Redwood to play Sunday in Berkeley
By Lou Fancher
Eight years have flown by since the release of Wendy Burch Steel’s debut solo acoustic Americana style album, “Open Wings,” and rest assured that the singer/songwriter and band leader based in Oakland’s Redwood Heights district has been working at a steady clip.
Steel and her band, Wendy Burch Steel & Redwood, will showcase their new 12-track sophomore album, “In Flight,” in a Feb. 23 concert at Berkeley venue The Back Room. Along with Steel, the band includes singer-songwriter/mandolin player Butch Waller, vocalist/guitarist Glenn Dauphin and vocalist/bassist Allegra Thompson. Special guest musicians joining the band are fiddle master and Berkeley Old Time Music Convention founder Suzy Thompson, banjo player Larry Cohen and composer/guitarist John Schott.
The new album draws on Steel’s steep history as an award-winning musician whose ethereal voice deepens with earthy tones and straightforward lyrics found in its origins singing bluegrass, country, folk and blues music — and the sweet harmonies of traditional barbershop quartet. In an interview, Steel recalls her father’s influence.
“He had a beautiful voice and five children, so when he wasn’t working, he’d play ukulele and teach us harmonies. He’d give us different parts, in the barbershop quartet style.”
She mentions the song, “You Are My Sunshine” and sings a phrase, followed by an outpouring of snippets from others: “Wait Till The Sun Shines, Nellie,” “For Me and My Gal,” “Side By Side” and others.
Given the titles of her albums and her surname, it’s a snap to associate Steel with songbirds and steel. But the poetic metaphors hold truth. Her voice flies with ease in the upper register; pierces through pain-filled lyrics and the misty fog of dark nights of the soul — or a mood — and decelerates in such a way that a breath, pause or a song’s end are never abrupt but seem inevitable; a place to land, rest and rejuvenate. The new CD has eight new songs and four cover tunes. Waller contributed one original, Steel wrote six, and the longtime collaborators co-wrote “More than You’ll Ever Know.”
“Butch just sat down and played the melody for me,” Steel says. “When I was alone, I wrote down words. He liked it, the band worked to arrange it. Butch and I are on the same wavelength, even though collaboration is hard. Why collaborate sometimes? I like what he does, and he likes what I do. Plus, getting a new melody out of the clear blue sky is a gift.”
Steel, who says the new songs inspired by stories she’s lived and dreams she’s had came “flying out when the spirit was strong in me,” hardly suffers songwriter’s block.
“She knows her craft and is a poet, and it dovetails into songwriting. Songwriting is poetry in more ways than just rhyming words. She thinks about what a magical place the world is. She grew up singing, and there’s no better workshop for that than barbershop quartet. She got songwriting early in life, and it’s just there now,” Waller says.
Unlike her first album, mentored and produced by legendary bluegrass musician Laurie Lewis, Waller says her original songs on “In Flight” are “pure Wendy, honest, personal, totally her vision and straight from her heart with no filter.”
“Don’t Wash Me Away” came to Steel during a rainy downpour. Shopping at her local grocery store, she encountered a homeless man she’d befriended over the years.
“He was just sitting in his wheelchair in the rain; it broke my heart. I gave him money, food and hugged him,” she recalls, “When driving home, I kept thinking, ‘Please don’t wash him away.’ I just got out my guitar, and the words came to me. It’s about life, metaphorically. People are always rushing past other people, thinking they have so much to do before their life is over. So it’s about my friend.”
“Sing No Sad Songs For Me” pays tribute to her mother, Clare Quentin Buckley, who died in 2018. “My mother had a poem she loved by Christina Rossetti and would always say a line to us, ‘sing no sad songs for me.’ I got the melody in a dream, woke up, put it down and thought about where she is now. She’s free, like a bird in a mountain tree.”
At a mountain cabin built by her husband, Steel heard a mourning dove that brought to mind her first husband, who passed away in 1998 due to a brain tumor. “He is that bird in ‘Mourning Dove,’ ” she says about the album’s opening track. Steel says the band’s “hive-minded” democratic process includes working on songs for as much as a full year before calling them complete. Covers of tunes composed or performed by the Everly Brothers (“Long Time Gone”), the Carter Family (“My Texas Girl”), Lynn Morris (“Blue Skies and Teardrops”) and Bill Monroe (When the Golden Leaves Begin to Fall) receive nearly equal attention and time on the album. Asked about local and national interest in American roots and bluegrass music, Steel says there’s a widespread, nationwide community eager for Americana-style music.
“There’s a sense of going back to the basics, a yearning for something that feels real in what is such a wild world. Music is healing and soothing.”
Being a woman band leader since the 1970s has established hard-earned confidence that comes both from setbacks and achievements.
“I’ve learned to trust myself,” she says. “I’ve had to learn to be more assertive over time, yes, but I love the creative process and encouraging joy.”