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“First Flight” at Shakespeare & Co: Berkshires Duo Takes Off

By Robert Burke Warren

We live in a noisy, often dissonant age. Harmony is all too rare, so when we happen upon it, we’re captivated, especially if it emanates from the up-and-coming Tyringham, MA, duo (and devoted couple) Oakes & Smith. They’re bringing that sweet sound to Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre in Lenox, MA, where they’ll be celebrating the release of their debut CD First Flight, on Saturday, November 23rd, at 8 p.m. Like Richard and Linda Thompson, Ian & Sylvia, or current sensation The Civil Wars, Oakes & Smith’s combined voices offer a unique tonal blend, greater than the sum of its parts, showcased perfectly in their heartfelt, acoustic-based material. (Video for their single “Being Broken” HERE.)

Since meeting four years ago, guitarist-vocalist Robert Oakes and vocalist-visual artist Katherine Smith have been working toward this moment, performing anywhere and everywhere they could, honing their distinctive brand of melodic, lyrical folk. They’ve played bars, festivals, concert halls, and street corners, most often as a have-guitar-will-travel duo. Need an act to appear unplugged and un-miked at the Guthrie Center? Check. Require musical accompaniment in a “yoga for love” class? No problem.

Although the duo format is most common for Oakes & Smith, the release party for the impressively fleshed-out First Flight will be a rare full-band show, in a proper listening room with a stage, lights, a backstage… the works. “We wanted to create an event,” says Oakes. “We wanted it to feel like a show. The Bernstein Theatre is in the round, and seats about two hundred people. It’s intimate. And Shakespeare & Company is presenting It’s A Wonderful Life as a vintage radio show in December, so the stage will be set for that. The set will look like an old-timey studio.”

Old timey suits the duo, especially Katherine Smith, who comes from a family steeped in choral church music. While most twenty-somethings’ first musical memories comprise TV, pop CDs, and/or the radio, Smith recalls singing harmony with her parents and extended family in a group of mostly adults called Mass Production. This background gives her a rich, resonant vocal presence, confident and assured against Oakes burnished baritone. Still, she’d not considered making a stab at singing professionally until she met Oakes, a journeyman rocker looking for artwork for his 2009 solo CD, Heart Broken Open.

“I was working on my album, and Kate and I started to brainstorm ideas for a video,” says Oakes. “She drew up beautiful sketches, then we started singing together, and it was a revelation. It was like ‘whoa.’ When the chemistry between two voices works, it’s profound. It was so exciting for me. I hadn’t been performing a lot, I just was recording. But when we made this discovery, it was a rebirth. All I wanted to do was perform with Kate as much as possible.”

After wowing the room at a 2010 performance workshop conducted by famed singer-songwriter-keyboardist Joy Askew (Joe Jackson, Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson), Oakes & Smith was born. “Joy said, ‘You guys have something special,’” Oakes recalls.

Like many acts, both established and new, Oakes & Smith launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund First Flight. By producing a brief, entertaining video, and offering rewards like signed CDs, prints of Smith’s artwork, and a house concert at which they will also cook the donor dinner, they succeeded in raising a little over six grand. (Note: In a Kickstarter campaign, acts must raise their desired amount in a specified time, or they get nothing.) “It was nervewracking,” says Oakes. “Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing platform, and we had six weeks to raise six grand. We really put it out there, really made a case and, toward the end, people started to respond. In the last week we tripled the amount of money we raised. My high school class even started a Facebook page to help raise funds. The final hours of the campaign were like New Year’s Eve. But we got what we needed. It was incredible, very heart-warming.”

Oakes sees Kickstarter as part of the new paradigm between indie artists and fans: “Kickstarter gives people an opportunity to be a part of the process, and allows the funding of more things than the traditional model, which included gatekeepers who decided what got done and what didn’t. Now, if you believe in an idea enough, and can make a good case for it, you can get what you need in advance.”

After such an outpouring of support, Oakes & Smith are eager to give back as good as they got, starting at the Bernstein Theatre.

Oakes & Smith
CD Release
Saturday, November 23, 8 p.m.
Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre
70 Kimble Street
Lenox, MA

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