Occasionally a flower rises up out of the garden of humanity that stands alone in its beauty and inspiration. In this case, it does so in the form of the Barton Hills Choir out of Austin, Texas. Headed by elementary school choir director, Gavin Tabone, BHC made their big splash onto the music scene through the Dead Covers Project. Submitting refreshing renditions of “Touch of Grey” and “Ripple,” the Dead family was instantly charmed by these talented young vocalists. “And it’s been snowballing from there,” states Gavin. “And I’ve got to say; the Grateful Dead community is just fantastic!”
Not limited to just Grateful Dead music, these songbirds fill the entire jungle of music history with their voices; exploring the likes of David Bowie and the Nutcracker, Peanuts and the Flaming Lips, the Muppets and the Beatles. Opening for Dark Star Orchestra, and playing with the likes of Roger Waters, David Gans, Belle and Sebastian, and almost Bob Weir himself (if it weren’t for logistical problems) proves these cats are the real deal. “They’ve had some really cool opportunities to play with some amazing musicians. They get to experience what it would be like to be part of a band—touring, going to different gigs, rehearsing, coming up with arrangements. They have this kind of ownership of it, which I think is pretty cool for them to see and experience.”
Collaborating on many songs with Austin’s totally rockin’ Dead cover band, Deadeye, the Barton Hills Choir took it to the studio, producing the album, Grateful Dead, Volume I, as well as smoking-hot YouTube videos, including “Scarlet Begonias” and “Cassidy.” “We did enough Grateful Dead songs to release a CD,” says Gavin. “And we’re working on enough to release another one (Volume II). We’re about six songs in, so we have three or four more to go, shooting for this summer. We’re actually doing our first out of town show. This summer we’re flying to Wyoming to perform in the Evanston Bluegrass Festival. David Gans will be performing with us, and we’re planning to release the CD then.” For the price of postage, it’s yours for the asking, and if you’d like to help in the promotion, Barton Hills suggests you send stamps so they can continue to mail out their album free of charge. How’s that for being Gratefully Deadicated!?
Providing a marvelous consistency of talent, despite (or perhaps enhanced by) the continual flow of new faces, these young singers not only project an excellent voice but also a surprising comfort with the microphone. “I start them very, very young,” explains Gavin. “They start doing solos in first grade, when they’re like six, so by the time they’re older they’ve had a lot of experience performing in front of people."
But it’s not all fun and games; these young artists work extremely hard. “There’s a lot of after school stuff, a lot of early mornings. I get into the cafeteria around seven in the morning and sit at the piano, and different fifth and six graders will come over and we’ll kind of work on stuff there. Then after school, choir rehearsals are once a week, where we’re either recording or working out tunes. I work them pretty hard; I can be pretty strict.”
While the quality of their videos is blazingly obvious, their happiness is what’s truly infectious. Whether taking their camera to the river where they play to a wonderfully fresh rendition of “Brokedown Palace,” or to the park, as they run about to their own voices singing “Eyes of the World,” or to the playground, dancing and climbing to a vocally crisp, tie-dye flourishing version of “They Love Each Other,” these kids bring joy into the lives of any who choose to watch and listen. “The Kids enjoy being part of the recording and arranging process,” Gavin informs me. “When I start with a song, I just love the process. I bring in a few kids, and we work on the melodies. Then I might bring a few more kids in, and we work on the harmonies and adding some counter melodies. Then we start thinking of where the solos are going to go, what the best key is, a lot of different things go into arranging these tunes. Then when we get to the finish line, it’s very satisfying to make that final video and get it out there."
Transforming classroom into studio, the Barton Hills Choir produce fantastic visual recordings of their talent and creativity. Offering a truly unique impression of “Fire on the Mountain,” with xylophone and kazoo, or Day-Glo renditions of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” and the Foo Fighters’, “Times Like These,” or whether it’s a delightful version of “Box of Rain,” these kids show they’re not just something for the future, but here in the now, filling this listener with nostalgia, inspiration, and true joy. Not stopping there, BHC also brings stop animation, artwork, and a screen full of lips, among the many other artful innovations to their film shorts, including their latest interest, live streaming, where the students operate the iPad controlled cameras.
Joined in-house by the likes of David Gans, playing a beautifully accompanied, “Uncle John’s Band,” or Nakia, who just tears it up with Bowie’s “Golden Years,” we can’t possibly imagine the mind-opening affects this has on the members of the choir, or the musicians who have the fortune of partaking in this dynamic program, but we all instinctually recognize that the Barton Hills Choir is most certainly something special. In a day when playing with Bobby or Phil offers the right-of-passage to so many artists, I can easily say, it won’t be long before being able to say you’ve played with Barton Hills is what makes you cool.
These savvy young artists don’t just sing the lines either; they ponder them. “We spend a lot of time talking about the lyrics. The kids love the stories of the songs. Now, a song like “Ripple,” we will talk about, and I try not to tell the kids this is how you should feel about this line. I’ll ask very open-ended questions so the kids can come up with their own meanings for the words, especially with a song like “Ripple,” where everyone has their own view of that song and what it means to them. We’ll take a certain line, and I’ll ask the kids, ‘What do you think about this line? What do you think Robert Hunter meant by this, or wanted you to think?’ We’ll have discussions about it.”
With such an endearing program in the works, it’s not surprising to find the graduates returning, sometimes for a song. “I keep in touch with a bunch of them, they come back, help with choir camp—they’re camp councilors—and so I thought it would be fun to bring the girls in and record them doing a tune. So all the girls on that, “Going Down/Rider,” are all alumni of the choir. They’re all juniors and seniors in high school now. When Gans was here, he loved playing that with us.”
“We’re working on some pretty crazy shows right now, there’s this new Elvis documentary coming out on HBO that’s premiering at the South by Southwest Music Festival, and the kids are singing at that, so I’m coming up with an Elvis medley. And there’s a Dolly Parton tribute show, so we’re working out Dolly Parton tunes. We do have a good variety, but the videos that get the most action are the Dead videos, but that’s not all we do, though Dead tunes have definitely gotten us the most exposure.” They’ll also be performing at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, where they have become quite the regulars.
In a time that can seem so dark, it’s not surprising to find that when we turn to our children—these bright young artists—we’re offered comfort and light in return. The world will be theirs, and I see no better stewards than what is produced by the fountain that is the Barton Hills Choir. Keep it up guys—you’re an inspiration to us all!
“I may not have the world to give to you, but maybe I have a tune or two.”