Briana Manalo was fine minutes before taking the Durgin Hall stage.
She knew the song – Melissa Manchester’s “Through the Eyes of Grace.” She had more than a dozen members of the Riverhawk Harmonix a capella vocal group behind her. They’d been rehearsing the song since January.
Then she heard the crowd on the other side of the curtain. The spotlights glared.
“Hey,” said her best friend Morgan Llorens, sensing Manalo’s anxiety. “Don’t worry. You will be fine.”
And she was. Stunning, in fact. Manalo’s honeyed vocals dripped all over the succulent background of the Harmonix. Sweet victory.
“She got me through,” Manalo said after the performance of Llorens, a senior music major. “My best friend.”
Friends. Songs as friends. Songs as “soul currency.” Lyrics as a healing balm. Teacher as student and student as teacher.
So ended the three days of Grammy-winning pop singer-songwriter Melissa Manchester’s residency at the university, in which – at the behest of her lifelong friend and Big Apple soul sister, Music Department Prof. Gena Greher
– she mentored music department students in songwriting and vocal technique.
On Feb. 28, students performed versions of Manchester’s songs, then Manchester treated the crowd of 600 to a 75-minute set, rendering both her hits and selections from her new (and 20th) album, You Gotta Love the Life. It all wound down with 100 or so performers onstage, and a larger-than-life, all-ages rendition of Manchester’s un-recorded, “Plant a Seed.” Nearly two dozen students from the String Project performed, along with dozens of choir members from Lowell public schools.
All About the Songcraft
Manchester, 64, worked the stage like a woman half her age, even as old clips of her singing the bubbly pop of her Grammy-winning 1982 smash, “You Should Hear How She talks About You” flickered on a screen behind her. Onscreen, a Spandex-clad singer skipped around the stage like an aerobic-age sprite, while the wiser, mature and less glammed-up version of Manchester belted the song with undiminished power.
“Let’s just for a minute discuss those shoulder pads,” she mocked her fashion choice of more than three decades ago. “You could serve lunch on those.”
If the previous two days were a tutorial, Saturday night’s performance was Manchester’s practicum.
Following the student tributes, she showed them how it is done, with grace, humor and hard-won perspective. Also, backing tapes. In addition to Sue Holder on vocals and percussion, and keyboardist/vocalist Frank Strauss, Manchester fleshed out her sound with pre-recorded music. Early in the set, she sang to a track and video of her late friend, composer Marvin Hamlisch, as they rendered the Oscar-nominated theme song from Ice Castles, “Through the Eyes of Love.”
She chatted between songs about how they came to be. It was an evening over a “large bottle of wine” shared with Kenny Loggins that helped birth “Whenever I Call You Friend,” a smash for Loggins and Stevie Nicks.
It was always about the songcraft, be it within the slinky, “Feelin’ For You,” her new, Keb Mo-produced single (inspired by an overture from a drunk bar patron), or such ballads as “Midnight Blue” and “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” She sang a salsa-fied medley of Great American Songbook classics by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, and a slowed, seductive version of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.”
Generous and big-hearted, Manchester’s performance was part Brill Building, part Fame and part Glee, as if set in a cabaret.
“It’s been three days of sheer heaven,” says Greher, whose parents were best friends with Manchester’s. Manchester grew up in the Bronx, Greher Queens, and their bond has never weakened. While Manchester scaled the charts, Greher produced commercial jingles before joining the university. A few years ago, the University of Southern California invited Manchester to teach a music class. She still does.
“We were talking about how our paths have been so diverse over the years,” said Greher. “But we find ourselves doing the same thing in terms of working with kids and giving back.”
“The students here I found very earnest and curious to learn,” Manchester said after the show. “They are just starting their adventure. I remember it when it was exciting and new.”
She was moved by interpretations of her songs. Backed by student and alum players, music students Eve Folden sang “Bright Eyes” and Rachel Driscoll did “Happy Endings.” Alumna Jaclyn Soep did a spirited “Sing, Sing, Sing” dedicated to Joyce Pang, a close friend. Senior Laura Altenor led the UMass Lowell Gospel Choir
in a fervent rave-up of “Heaven.”
On Feb. 26, in Fisher Rehearsal Hall, Manchester told her first class that songs were “soul currency.” That what songwriters do might be noble, but don’t expect anyone to take you seriously.
“When we go to work, we go to play.”
And yet, she added, “This is serious business.”
Over her 45-year career, she noted, “I have seen songs which society has dismissed that have changed a life, changed a mind and galvanized a nation.”
At 17, in 1970, she was selected for a songwriting class at New York University taught by Paul Simon. But first, she had to audition.
“Play something,” he said.
“Play one more.”
Manchester did one more song.
“You listen to Laura Nyro a lot, don’t you?” asked Simon, citing one of the most successful young songwriters of the time.
“All the time, every day,” she said.
“Well, it’s time to stop now,” he said.
His point was this, said Manchester: “All the stories have been told. It is the way you tell your story that is your stamp of authenticity.”
When a student asked about teaching a girl whose main subject was her mother’s abusive relationship, the singer told him about Woody Guthrie.
When he wanted to write a song about the dustbowl, the Depression and devastation, “he didn’t pick at that scab,” she said. “He wrote this land is your land, this land is my land.” It was a metaphor for hope.
“A blade of grass breaking through concrete stops me in my tracks,” she told the students. “I can’t believe it’s possible.”
Spending Soul Currency
During the class, Laura Altenor and fellow senior Sam Descoteaux performed for Manchester and the other students. Descoteaux accompanied himself on piano on his “Cavalier” and Altenor performed her song, “Why.”
Sitting on the lip of the stage, Manchester offered constructive criticism.
“That was inspirational,” said Altenor later. “I’m encouraged that I’m in the right field, and this is what I want to do.”
In addition to the classes, Greher showed her friend around campus.
“I even took Melissa around to rehearsal rooms and popped in on the kids. You should have seen their faces. And all the different permutations of her music blew her away. The a capella arrangement. And a piano trio. She never imagined anyone doing that with her work.”
Rachel Crawford is a music teacher at the Bartlett Community Partnership School
and 2004 music studies alum, earning her master’s in music education in 2006. She noticed the excitement her young charges felt just before taking the stage for “Plant A Seed.” They were to sing with a Grammy winner. Their parents were out there. There were lights, cameras.
“This is the big time,” they said to one another.
“Yup,” said Crawford. “Until you get famous and come back to visit and perform for us.”
Some would call it karma, some paying back. The students here call it spending some soul currency.