“We are all about harmony,” says Brooklyn slide guitarist Pat Wictor.
He’d run into his eventual bandmates, Boston-based pianist Greg Greenway and Chicago guitarist Joe Jencks, at folk concerts and conferences for years. And when they decided to book a show together a few summers ago, everything fell into place. “There wasn’t any trouble from the get-go with blending the voices,” says Wictor. “With an hour of rehearsal, it worked. The second we opened our mouths, this giant chord came out.” He drifts off for a minute, taking pleasure in reliving the moment.
And thus the folk trio Brother Sun was born.
“We came into this with the musical skill set we needed to make a harmonizing band. Joe Jencks is conservatory-trained in choral work. Greg Greenway worked the pop circuit for years,” says Wictor. “I studied voice with an eclectic teacher, mostly art songs in French, German and Italian. Voice training is so you can sing well even on a bad day.”
But where was the common ground? Gospel and soul — two styles that work well for serious-minded providers of uplift and encouragement. “Particularly me and Greg, we are pretty influenced by black music,” continues Wictor. “My ideas are from old-school jubilee, congregational-style field recordings that Alan Lomax did, the older gospel quartets like the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Golden Gate Quartet. That stuff, it informs how we put our harmonies together.” If you’re still not quite clear on the Brother Sun sound: Crosby, Stills and Nash were an inevitable influence as well.
Their first album was self-titled and a massive hit with folk broadcasters, and made beaucoup best-ofs lists last year. Then it started another climb on the folk charts — yes, they exist, don’t laugh! — after the holiday season. Most of the songs are originals, reflective and encouraging in one way or another.
“Go Tell Mary” is the gospel from Martha’s perspective, a slinky shuffle with voices sliding in slippery, tight harmony from one blue note to the next. Finger popping is the only accompaniment to Wictor’s “Love is the Water”: “You say your heart’s been turned to stone/ … Love is the water that wears down the rock/ Love is the power that won’t be stopped.”
“We begin our shows a lot with [Greenway’s] ‘What Must Be Done.’ We mean it as a wake-up call, to invite people to engage the world, to take stock of their personal lives, to also take responsibility for what is happening around them. We can do something together,” says Wictor. “I learned as a child there’s two ways to see the world — as it is and how it could be. Some people say, ‘That’s not my problem.’ Some people do what must be done.”
Brother Sun plays the Philadelphia Folk Festival Fri., Aug. 17, 7 p.m., pfs.org.