IN AND AROUND THE BERKSHIRES – AN ONLINE RESOURCE
by KATHRYN BOUGHTON
October 25, 2018
Ask Wanda Houston where she comes from and she hesitates. A few moments later it becomes obvious why. She’s been just about everywhere.
But it is also clear that the singer with the big voice has not lost her joie de vivre and curiosity.
Wanda with Eugene Uman, Dave Pichi
and Jon Fisher at Firefly
“I’ve always had that travel bug,” she said, “and I still, have it. I’ve got a whole new bucket list.”
Houston, who was actually born in Chicago to a father who ran his own theater company and a mother who directed the church choir, fully embraced the performance heritage of her family. She has enjoyed a career that has taken her around the world. But perhaps improbably, this woman who has performed on stages internationally and lived in major metropolises on three continents has, for more than a decade increasingly made her home and forged her career in the Berkshires.
“When I was a child, my family would go camping, and we would drive through these little towns and I would think, ‘What do people do here?’ Now, I know,” she said. “I love living in a small town. I’m having the time of my life.”
Which is not to say that she hasn’t enjoyed her time in big cities. “I love both the city and the country,” she said. Getting “lost” in the Berkshires, discovering new little towns and breathtaking panoramas is paralleled by her appreciation of cityscapes. “There is a place on 34th Street [in New York City] where, if you catch the sun at just the right time, it shoots right down the road and you can just soak in the sun. My friends will laugh and say I am ‘pulling a geographical,’ but you can go anywhere and be anywhere if you know who you are. The beauty of it, is we can come back here.”
video credit: Jon Potter
"I've Got It Bad"
Wanda with the Clair Arenus Trio
Coming back is a large part of Houston’s life right now. She is kept busy touring the East Coast from Florida to Maine, maintaining a grueling schedule of appearances, the next one of which will be November 1st at the Colonial Theater in Pittsfield MA when she will perform in a tribute concert to Aretha Franklin.
Houston explains that her transfer from big city performer to rural chanteuse began virtually remarked in 2001. She had been living and working in New York for years after moving there from Australia. “I had almost stayed in Australia,” she explained, “but I thought, ‘I haven’t lived in New York yet. I wanted to do that before I got too old.”
She settled into the New York City scene, appearing in numerous venues. “It closed out my youthful bucket list. I worked on Broadway, off Broadway, underneath Broadway, over Broadway. I did all kinds of crazy stuff.
I opened Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, sang at Liza Minelli’s wedding, crazy stuff.”
The big shift began in 2001, two weeks before 9/11, when her friend, Michael Berkeley invited her to appear in his annual “Diva” revue at Sharon Playhouse. That led to multiple visits and appearances on the Sharon stage.
video credit: Joe Belmont
Wanda in the Joe Belmont Experiment
It was while she was appearing locally in Ain’t Misbehavin’ in 2006 that drummer Jay Bradley suggested she move full time to the Berkshires. “He said he thought we could get some work,” she recounted. “And I was like, ‘Where?’ But I had already started singing at the Wake Robin Inn and he took me around, and that was how the HBH Band—Scott Heth, Jay Bradley and me—came to be formed.” Thirteen years and many performances into their collaboration, the trio is now cutting an album.
Through Heth and Bradley, she met another group of musicians in Great Barrington and formed the Wanda Houston Band with Robert Kelly, Jeff Stevens and Bradley, who plays with both bands. “Now we’re playing all up and down the Eastern Seaboard, from Florida to Maine,” she said, rattling off a series of upcoming dates that would have most people asking, “Where am I today?”
In addition to the November 1st tribute to Aretha Franklin, she will appear November 3rd at the Berkshire Hills Country Club in Pittsfield with Michael Brown at the NAACP Freedom Fund Awards Dinner; at regular local gigs at such venues as the Firefly Inn, Gateways Inn and The Barn in Lenox, MA; No. 10 in Great Barrington; at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge; with Samirah Evans doing classic duets at the Next Stage in Putney, VT on November 14th and finishing out the year at the Fife ‘n’ Drum in Kent on New Year’s Eve. In between singing, she carries on her role as the choir director for the Goshen Congregational Church.
And that is her “off-season” schedule. “In the summer, oh dear God!” she said. “Jay Bradley was right. I am far busier here than I could be in New York City.”
The singer has found an odd symmetry in her move to the Berkshires. She remembers that as a young child — “just shy of being a spark in my daddy’s eye”—she watched the movie, Alice’s Restaurant. “I loved it,” she recalls. “All those black people and white people, all living together. I wanted to be in that place. Now, I live in Sheffield and my neighbor’s family was in that movie. I have played at the Guthrie Center in that church. When the 50th anniversary of the movie came around, it was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m here. I’m home.’ I’ve been wanting this since I was a kid. I’m just glad to be here."
She said she finds satisfaction everywhere. “I love opening and closing the music season at The Mount,” she said. “I always loved Edith Wharton and I can’t believe I get to sing on her back porch. This is the most beautiful place to live. I could not be happier.”
photo credit: Sean Alan Morris