Harry Chapin at 80: A Retrospective – Starring The Chapin Family
Mayo PAC – Morristown, NJ – November 4, 2023
Review & Photos – Rebecca Wolf
I can vividly recall where I was on that summer day in 1981 when I heard Harry Chapin had passed away. That day the world lost not only an incredible singer-songwriter but a philanthropist and passionate activist against hunger. Chapin co-founded the organization World Hunger Year, now named WhyHunger, and was involved in and inspired multiple anti-hunger projects across the nation. Harry Chapin’s fight against hunger lives on in the organization he co-founded as well as the humanitarian awards and foundations that have been created in his honor. And, Chapin’s musical legacy lives on by way of his devoted fan base, as well as through his musical family members, who’ve been doing benefit concerts with Harry’s music over the years. Now with Harry’s 80th birthday having recently passed on December 7, 2022, the whole musical family has convened to pay tribute to Harry in a concert tour billed as, “Harry Chapin At 80: A Retrospective – Starring The Chapin Family.”
The concert includes Harry’s younger brothers, Tom and Steve, both singer-songwriters, as well as members from Harry’s original band, bass player John Wallace and drummer Howie Fields. Wallace has been said to have a five octave range and sings the stunningly beautiful high notes in “Taxi” as well as the dramatically touching low notes in “Mr. Tanner.” The familial vocal abilities have continued into the next generation, and the daughters of Harry and Tom have created musical careers of their own. Joining the tribute performance is Harry’s daughter Jen, and the musicians from her trio, as well as Tom’s daughters, Abigail and Lily, also known as The Chapin Sisters. Additional members include, Clark Wallace (John’s son), on guitar, and a new cellist.
The evening of November 4th at Mayo PAC was a sold old performance for the “Harry Chapin at 80: A Retrospective,” an indication of how beloved Harry Chapin and his music remain. Consistent with Harry’s commitment to end hunger, patrons were asked to bring nonperishable items for the Morris County Interfaith Food Pantry, and fans obliged, filling collection bins in the lobby. The packed audience was abuzz prior to the start of the performance, erupting in applause as the band arrived onstage. Steve Chapin was featured on vocals and piano, accompanied by the beautifully dramatic cello, opening the evening with Chapin’s 1973 hit “W.O.L.D.” It was a perfect number to immediately engage the audience, as everyone who knows the song was inspired to emphatically join in singing the refrain “W.O.L.D.” Fan participation continued with the upbeat, smile-inducing “Sunday Morning Sunshine,” featuring Tom Chapin on vocals and guitar, Steve on backing vocals and piano, and had audience members happily swaying in their seats. Tom continued on leads vocals with “Story of a Life,” from 1980’s Sequel. What a fitting title for a song on the last album Harry completed before his untimely passing.
Tom welcomed the enthusiastic crowd, thanking all for coming to celebrate Harry’s music. “When we were speaking to the agent she said to us, ’Right now the thing that is selling the most are cover bands. And, you’re the ultimate cover band!’” There was pride in Tom’s voice and a broad smile across his face as he introduced “Big” John Wallace on bass and vocals, who was with Harry from his debut album in 1972, as well as Wallace’s son Clark on guitar, Howie Fields, on drums, who joined Harry in 1975, and of course the youngest Chapin brother, Steve. Tom shared stories about the brothers’ beginnings in music, including tales of Harry’s passionate, amusing, and sometimes single-minded ways.
Tom’s pride extended to his daughters, Lily and Abigail, The Chapin Sisters, who joined the band onstage. The sisters released their first E.P. in 2005 and have continued to create alternative, folk music with beautiful harmonies and sweeping melodies, including their latest single, “All Through the Night,” released this August. The sisters’ heartfelt vocals perfectly showcased Harry’s “Remember When the Music,” from Sequel, a melancholy number whose lyrics remain so heartbreakingly relevant in this current day and age, “For we believed in things, and so we’d sing.” Each Chapin sister has a gorgeous voice individually, which Abigail showcased on Harry’s “Old College Avenue” from, 1973’s Short Stories and Lily on “Angeleno” a number from The Chapin Sisters’ 2015 album Today’s Not Yesterday.
“You all might remember Harry’s album Greatest Stories Live, Tom said with a big smile, receiving raucous applause. “You might have noticed a song that didn’t sound exactly like Harry. Harry didn’t really like anyone knowing that,” he shared with a chuckle. As Steve began to play piano and sing “Let Time Go Lightly,” as he did on Greatest Stories Live, his voice still sounding beautifully smooth and warm, leaving the audience in a quiet, mesmerized state.
As the audience sat, recovering from this touching moment the band exited and The Jen Chapin Trio arrived onstage. Chapin introduced her band members, Jamie Fox on bass and Stephan Crump on upright bass, who she’s been performing with for the past twenty years. “We’re going to do something different with this next song,” she said, as the trio performed a jazzy, soulful version of Harry Chapin’s classic number “Flowers Are Red.” Chapin’s vocals have a rawness to them; they have texture and depth. Speaking about her job as a HS history teacher and sharing the meaning behind the songs she performed, “Satyagraha” and “Feed Your Baby,” it was not surprising that like her social activist father, Jen Chapin remains very involved with social causes.
The family returned to the stage with an announcement that it was Abigail’s birthday. Along with the announcement came Abigail’s and Lilly’s children and husbands and a candlelit birthday cake. All in attendance sang “Happy Birthday,” before a stageful of family members led the audience in “Cats In the Cradle.” It was amazing to watch the little girls (another generation) holding hands and singing along to this iconic song. How wonderful to see that they are hearing and learning the music of their incredible great-uncle. Surprisingly, this was only the first set of the evening.
The second set opened with Tom on banjo and lead vocals during “Pass the Music On,” a spirited, upbeat folk tune from Tom’s 1994 album So Nice to Come Home. Abigail and Lily returned to the stage, each singing lead on a number, including “Saturday Morning,” from Harry’s 1974 album Verities & Balderdash, before Steve and John Wallace performed the beloved “Mr. Tanner.” It’s amazing that almost 50 years since the release of Short Stories that Wallace is still able to hit the incredibly deep, soulful low notes. The Jen Chapin Trio returned to the stage to perform several numbers, including “Tangled Up Puppet,” from Harry’s 1975 album Portrait Gallery and Jen’s song “Passive People,” from 2004’s Linger. Tom, Steve and John joined in for “Well I Wonder,” a song from the soundtrack Cotton Patch Gospel, written by Harry for the musical that premiered off-Broadway in October 1981, shortly after his death.
If singing the low notes on “Mr. Tanner,” wasn’t enough, Wallace was charged with singing the extremely high notes on Chapin’s biggest hit, “Taxi.” “I have a cold,” Wallace shared with the audience. “I’m going to need help on the high part!” he exclaimed. The audience was enraptured, most singing along, many lost in the memories that hearing this song sung live likely brought, as Steve sounded an awful lot like Harry. As the song reached the piercingly high notes Wallace began to sing, waving his hands to the audience to join in and help carry him along, which the crowd obliged. Wallace continued to sing lead on “Last Stand,” from The Last Protest Singer, an album released posthumously in 1988, from material Harry had been working on when he died.
The performance culminated with the beautifully touching, “All My Life’s a Circle,” reuniting all generations onstage. More than four decades since Harry’s passing, the Chapin family continues to come together to share the legacy of Harry Chapin. What a wonderful way to keep the music alive and to assure Harry’s “life’s a circle.”