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Jim Bishop | Reunion Vocal Band speaks musical volumes

It was a memorable trek down musical memory lane, with certain melodies still lingering gentle on my mind long after the encore numbers were sung.

The occasion: a Saturday evening (Oct. 10) gathering in Harrisonburg of a diverse group of musicians who came together for the first time 20 years ago.

For two-and-a-half hours, the musical aggregate known as the Reunion Vocal Band flooded Lehman Auditorium at Eastern Mennonite University with magnificent music. Their repertoire ranged from familiar gospel numbers to jazz-rock fusion to original works, some sung a capella, others accompanied by pedal steel guitar, drums, mandolin, guitar, harmonica and piano.

Audience members of all ages responded enthusiastically, clapping along and offering several standing ovations.

It came to pass because James R. (Jim) Krabill, an EMU alumnus from Elkhart, Ind., returned to the states after some 14 years of missionary work in Europe and West Africa with an irrepressible urge to “do music.”

In high school, Krabill was a member of “Sons of Jubal,” a folk-flavored group that released an album in 1969 of songs largely written by Mennonite young people and published in “With,” a magazine for young people. A resident of Elkhart at the time, I wrote the liner notes and took photos for the album (I still have a playable copy of that vinyl recording).

While attending EMU, Krabill was vocalist and guitarist and wrote material for the highly-acclaimed folk-rock group, “Rebirth.” They went on two national tours and made several recordings. Four of the five original members – Krabill, Dean Clemmer, Lancaster, Pa.; Rob Eby, Scottdale, Pa.; and Elaine Warfel Stauffer, Hinton, Va. – were part of the 20th anniversary reunion concert.

In consultation with other former “Rebirth” members, Krabill drew up a list of about 40 musicians from across North America and contacted them. Eighteen showed up one weekend in September 1989 in Harrisonburg to get acquainted, share their personal and musical journeys, play spontaneously in small groups and engage in a lengthy jam session.

A second meeting in Harrisonburg on Jan. 25-27, 1991 included an intense session on what to call the formative group. From a list of some 150 possibilities came “Reunion Vocal Band.”

For the next 18 years, band members reassembled annually, usually at Laurelville Mennonite Church Center, Mt. Pleasant, Pa., to reminisce, share personal updates and make some incredible music together.

The Vocal Band program that was part of EMU’s fall homecoming program was the largest gathering – some 19 members – since the musicians’ initial meeting in 1989.

It was great to talk again with Vocal Band member Rob Eby, a Harrisonburg native now living in Scottdale, Pa. He played a guitar like Johnny B. Goode in the mid-60’s when many around him weren’t sure how appropriate it was to listen to classical music, unless it was the grand chorales of Bach and Handel.

I can still see Rob exuding high energy on stage back then, performing Murray Kellum’s “Long Tall Texan” – “Er uh, er uh, is that your HAT???” – as well as an obscure song, “Little Brown Egg” by The Nightcrawlers. I happen to still like both slightly warped songs – any surprise?

I could hardly believe it when the band opened their second set with . . . “Long Tall Texan” Eby’s and his comrades’ rendition sounded better than the original 1963 recording. I wanted to jump up and join in.

Reflecting on the genesis and journey of the group, James Krabill said that the Vocal Band “represents a coming together of people who share much in common although we represent much diversity in terms of our backgrounds and musical roots.

“Even though many of us didn’t know each other when we first got together, we quickly discovered some cultural affinities and connected with each other as we explored our musical interests and shared our personal and faith journeys,” he said.

Fellow band member Jim Croegaert, today a hospital chaplain in Evanston, Ill., went on the road as a musician after one year of college – “I don’t recommend that,” he quipped.

“The songs I’ve written reflect my personal life and in the process helped me survive some difficult times,” he said. “It became a connecting point with other people and ultimately to God.”

At one point in the program Saturday night, as Croegaert performed his signature song, “Hunger for Beauty,” I leaned back in my seat and closed my eyes, mesmerized by Dean Clemmer’s haunting pedal-steel guitar opening and the group’s hushed, harmonized humming on the poignant verses. Call it a kairos (supreme) moment, as the music swept over my being and ministered to my spirit in a way I can’t fully comprehend or explain.

The tight harmonies of Reunion Vocal Band – sung a capella and accompanied by steel drum, mandolin, guitar and piano – riveted the nearly full house in Lehman Auditorium for more than two and a half hours. “It was a great experience to be together like this in front of such a fabulous audience,” enthused band member Dennis Maust of Lititz, Pa. His brother, Robert Maust of Keezletown, Pa., sings vocals and plays harmonica in the group.

For James Krabill, who had the initial vision for assembling a musical entourage that has sung together and supported each other in various combinations of people over the years, reuniting for the 20th time with the largest group ever was “a dream come true.”

And as the music played on this historic occasion, this aging boomer felt the same.

 

– Column by Jim Bishop

 


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