Valuing collaboration over competition is what makes any community better. Nine out of any 10 times in pretty much every arena, we are stronger when we band together. That’s true for building a barn, running a race, or even raising a kid. And it’s certainly the case when it comes to making music.
So when Luther Dickinson rounded up Amy Helm, Allison Russell (Birds of Chicago), Shardé Thomas, Amy LaVere, and the Como Mamas to be his Sisters of the Strawberry Moon and make a record together, you can imagine that it was bound to be a wonderful and wonder-filled affair. With Solstice, the reality tops even the imagining of what such a collaboration might yield. Indeed, each of the band members brings so much soulfulness to the project that it could’ve rightfully been titled SOULstice.
For his part, Dickinson keeps mostly to the shadows, producing and playing, but never stepping to center stage. Instead, he lets the Sisters do it for themselves. And, boy, do they ever. Recorded live over four days in only one or two takes each, the songs carry and convey their singers’ spirit with a fascinating blend of instruments backing them up: Helm added her mandolin, Russell brought her banjo and clarinet, Thomas threw down some fife and drum, and LaVere plucked her upright bass.
The scene is set right off the top with the sweet ache of Russell’s “Superlover.” The opening lines speak of horror and hope in one fell swoop: “Tears of rage, tears of grief, from Englewood to Nairobi. We need a super love. Are you a superlover? … The night, so cold. Who among us dreams the dawn? Who could count the flowers in your heart?” In this world so torn apart by forces of cruelty and greed, still grows the flower, still sings the song, still loves the heart. That’s easily the Strawberry Moon mantra.
On the next track, “Fly with Me,” Thomas makes her own brand of magic with a spunky fife and drum bop that oozes with sass. She hands the musical baton to LaVere and the retro slink of “Hallelujah (I’m a Dreamer),” and then Helm with the casual swagger of “Just Like a Songbird That Has Fallen.” Further in, the Como Mamas go straight-up gospel on “Hold to His Hand.” The second half of Solstice works in much the same beautiful way.
While those takes may seem inconsistent, if not incongruous, they aren’t. Not at all. Somehow, the alchemy of this particular collective makes the record feel both organically earthy and other-worldly at the same time. Not all the credit should go to Dickinson for this magic, but some of it certainly should. It’s a great gift, knowing who to put in a room together, let alone knowing how to catch the lightning they spark in that bottle. Kudos to him for having that gift, as well as the feminist-minded generosity to amplify some truly special voices. The Sisters of the Strawberry Moon are a truly wondrous example of collaboration at work.