Local Music Quarantine Challenge yields three attempts at ‘Serenity’ 

As singer-songwriter Jackson Cavalier thought of how he could help financially support fellow musicians during this alienating COVID-19 pandemic, he landed on the idea of a challenge. One in which local musicians play each other’s songs.

The premise of Cavalier’s Rochester Local Music Quarantine Challenge is simple: a local musician interprets the song of another artist in the area and posts the resulting video, thereby nominating that person or band to join the challenge. The nominated musician, in turn, has the option of returning the favor and covering a song by the first musician, before picking a new, third artist to cover and bring into the process.
click to enlarge Tyler Westcott (left) and Rædwald Howland-Bolton (right) have each covered "Serenity Song" by Benny Bleu (center), as part of the Rochester Local Music Quarantine Challenge. - SCREENSHOTS VIA YOUTUBE
  • Tyler Westcott (left) and Rædwald Howland-Bolton (right) have each covered "Serenity Song" by Benny Bleu (center), as part of the Rochester Local Music Quarantine Challenge.
This all plays out in the private Rochester Local Music Quarantine Challenge Facebook group that Cavalier launched for his friends on April 6.

The project is akin to a musical chain letter, only much less obnoxious and self-serving. Each song posted in the Facebook group seems to contain an implicit, unifying message: You’re not alone. Even though we can’t see or hear you in person right now, your music matters.

Contributors to the project include Tony Gill of Archimedes covering Pleistocene’s “Settle Up the Chain,” Sam Snyder performing “Beige Corolla” by Beef Gordon, Julia Egan covering “Dirt” by Shep Treasure, and Yarms playing Snyder’s “Confusion."

What has intrigued me most is that two musicians — Tyler Westcott and Rædwald Howland-Bolton — chose to take on the same tune, the aptly titled “Serenity Song,” by Americana artist Ben Haravitch. Under the moniker Benny Bleu, Haravitch first released the song on his folksy 2019 album “Warm Prickly.” In a live performance from last year at Rio Tomatlán in Canandaigua, Haravitch said that “Serenity Song” was about putting aside feelings of guilt when a loved one dies suddenly. With a somber and introspective tone, the music carries a quiet poignancy that recalls the straight-forward folk ballads of Dave Van Ronk. There’s a touch of old-timey, back porch blues in this roots song.

Westcott, a Buffalo-based musician most familiar to Rochester audiences as the frontman of the raucous roots-jazz act Folkfaces on April 12 posted his take on “Serenity Song.” It’s a decidedly sleepier version, and not just because Westcott opens the performance with a couple of hearty yawns. Rather than accompany himself live on guitar or banjo, he pre-recorded himself on those instruments as well as bass, trumpet, harmonica, and jaw harp using a loop pedal, which sounds if it’s being run through an echo-laden flange effect. This makes the music sound one step removed from the live source of the sound; the song is like a long-lost memory conjured in the mind. The melody and tempo of Haravitch’s original are intact, but Westcott’s spacy ambiance is a poignant comment on the reverberant quality of melancholic memories that didn’t exist in the song before.

Rædwald Howland-Bolton released his version of “Serenity Song” on April 23, a slightly more faithful rendering of the ninth track on “Warm Prickly” than the previous one. Howland-Bolton, Haravitch’s bandmate in The Crawdiddies, focuses the song with rich, fingerpicking guitar figures similar to those on the original Benny Bleu recording. While the guitar work is slightly more ornamented here, the real nuances come in Howland-Bolton’s vocal delivery. He sings with suppleness and ease. A subtle vibrato emerges in key moments when the highest note in each verse is held.
Haravitch gave us “Serenity Song,” Westcott made it ethereal, and Howland-Bolton imbued it with sympathy. In this emergent era of infinite quarantines, this third version of “Serenity Song” is a fresh urging to make peace with the current situation, and perhaps, to properly mourn the loss experienced as a result of the coronavirus — whether it be loss of life, livelihood, or simply time.

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY’s music editor. He can be reached at [email protected].
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