It all began with David Bowie.
Shortly after the pop icon’s death in early 2016, Portlander Kate Sokoloff was looking for a way to channel her grief. A friend sent her a video of a massive community choir in Toronto—more than 500 people—singing “Space Oddity.”
“It just broke my heart,” says Sokoloff, founder and former producer of radio show Live Wire! “And all I could think was, ‘I want to do that.’”
Within a few weeks, she had masterminded a Bowie sing-along at OMSI’s planetarium. Attendees painted lightning bolts on their faces, and Sokoloff recalls one septuagenarian in a white pantsuit and silver disco boots. All 200 tickets sold. In the run-up to the tribute, Sokoloff organized optional rehearsals at Revolution Hall’s downstairs bar.
“By the end, I had people clawing at me and crying and being like, ‘We need to keep this going!’” she says. “And it wasn’t because of David Bowie. It was because they didn’t know it was fun to sing.”
Keep it going they did. Three years in, the group has become the Low Bar Chorale: a no-skills-required, drop-in adult choir that meets bimonthly at Revolution Hall to sing an ever-changing lineup of hits—maybe George Michael, Tom Petty, or Earth, Wind & Fire, with some Haim and Sia in the mix—with backing from a full band made up of professional musicians. (Up until recently, they called themselves the OK Chorale; they changed it to avert trademark disputes with other identically named groups.)
They’ve held many themed sing-alongs since, from a now-annual holiday show to a three-years-and-running Jesus Christ Superstar bash. Up next: Low Bar’s first official all-ages event, a free Prince sing-along at Pioneer Courthouse Square on June 22 to mark the 35th anniversary of Purple Rain, with the masses led in song by China Forbes (of Pink Martini), Edna Vazquez, and others. Expect that album nearly in its entirety (“Darling Nikki,” for obvious reasons, will be skipped), plus other Prince hits.
Since the beginning, Sokoloff’s partner in crime has been Ben Landsverk, who serves as the Chorale’s music director. An accomplished multi-instrumentalist and composer—among other credits, he’s half of Wonderly, which provides the theme music for the New York Times’ The Daily podcast—Landsverk works up original arrangements for every song he brings to the Chorale, a process that takes four to five hours per tune. “I want to really understand the song, what makes it tick,” says Landsverk, who grew up in Portland and got his start as a conductor at Wilson High School. That might mean transforming Lady Gaga’s stripped-back power ballad “Million Reasons” into something suitable for 70–80 (mostly untrained) voices to belt. Other times, it’s even more involved, like when Landsverk mashed up four Duran Duran songs into a monster, seven-minute medley. (His favorite lyric: “The reflex is a lonely child / waiting by the park / her name is Rio / and she’s hungry like the wolf.”)
Landsverk’s main goal? That the group not sound like bad a cappella: “Too many egregious oohs and aahs or doo aahs, you know?” (Landsverk has the pedigree to back it up—as an undergrad at Yale, he served as musical director of the Whiffenpoofs, which claims to be the world’s oldest collegiate a cappella group.)
To truly understand the chorale, you must see Landsverk in action. A bear of a guy, with hair past his shoulders and a long, gray-flecked beard, he commands the room with preternaturally gentle but decisive authority. A member once whispered to me that Landsverk reminded her of Muppet Rowlf the Dog. Sokoloff, for her part, likens him to Mister Rogers. He is unfailingly patient at the front of the room, demonstrating the melody and each part of the harmony and occasionally refocusing this nonprofessional troupe—most of whom have a beverage in hand—when they get too chatty. And when they nail it? “Jeez!” yelped Landsverk at a recent sing, jigging his sneaker-clad feet in a stutter step of excitement. “Oh my lord! That was really cool! You guys remembered those parts really well!”
A member shouted back: “We have a really good teacher!”
That’s the overriding mood at Low Bar Chorale events: animated, supportive, and almost disgustingly heartwarming. It’s a rare bubble of wholesomeness in our harried, often rancorous world, and the group’s most dedicated members (which is most of them) speak of it with borderline-evangelistic zeal. “I’m not a churchgoer, but it’s like church,” says Shannon Grosswiler. “I’m crestfallen if I accidentally miss a week.”
Melissa Wiley found the group during her recovery from breast cancer. She showed up to the Duran Duran night last year—“they had me at hello,” she says—and hasn’t missed one since. “As adults, we do not sing with other people,” she says. “It’s a big deal. It’s energizing. I would come, honestly, just to look at people’s faces. I have no other experience in my life of being in a room of all adults where everybody is feeling joyful.”
There’s science behind what Wiley describes—studies have shown that singing releases feel-good hormones like endorphins and oxytocin. And the chorale’s effects haven’t been limited to the amateur singers it draws. The group, at both the casual Revolution Hall meet-ups and the bigger sing-alongs, is always joined by professional musicians, including members of the Decemberists, Blind Pilot, and Brandi Carlile’s backing band.
“There are regular occasions when we’re playing where I’ll go to sing along with the crowd and not be able to do anything because I’m choked up,” says Eels bassist Allen Hunter, who’s played with the chorale since the Bowie tribute. “Because this shit is magical.”
7 p.m. Sat, June 22, Pioneer Courthouse Square