Chenille Sisters returning for New Year's Eve at The Ark
But that show was so popular that the Chenilles were booked again the following year. Fast-forward a few years, and one can now safely say that it’s become a tradition: When the group helps to bring in the New Year on Thursday at the club, it will be the Chenilles’ fifth consecutive NYE show at The Ark.
“But the truth is, it’s cool to play the Ark any time,” says Morand. “As someone who has traveled all over the country, I can say that The Ark is one of the coolest venues in the country.
“But, yeah, the New Year’s show is fun. It’s enjoyable, and light-hearted, and humor-driven, but it’s low-key at the same time. It’s not a wild, rocking New Years’ Eve show. We do our regular-length set, and at midnight, they break out the champagne, and the audience is out of there by 12:15 or so.
“Since it’s a special event, though, we’ll try put a different spin on the show, with some new material, some new shtick, and we’ll break out some of the songs we haven’t done for a while, for the benefit of those who’ve seen us a lot. We want this show to be a bit more distinctive.”
Morand wouldn’t reveal which evergreen songs they’ll be reviving for the show. “We want to keep it a secret,” she says with a sly laugh.
She does say, however, that a couple of the new songs they’ve added to their repertoire are “one by Cheryl Wheeler, which is a very thoughtful song, and one by Mary Chapin Carpenter. One thing that’s cool about having been together for so long is that we have this really eclectic repertoire, and we’re able to shake things up, and juxtapose more thoughtful songs with the more silly ones.
She’s not kidding about the group’s long tenure. Next year will be the Chenilles’ 25th anniversary.
And ever since the group formed in 1985, zany/wacky humor has been a big part of the their appeal, whether it was the ornate stage sets of the late ‘80s — which included a 30-foot-long pink Cadillac that hauled them on and off the stage — or their musical parodies. Over the years, the Chenilles have appropriated many hit songs for their own comic use.
For example, in the '80s, the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian” was reworked as “Walk Like a Beautician,” with the gals using combs, brushes and blow dryers for “percussion.” And Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It” was re-jiggered as a comically-calorie-counting “What’s Chub Got To Do With It,” during which Huber stuffed a cupcake into her mouth while unsuccessfully trying to stifle her laughter.
They don’t do those two particular song parodies in concert any more, because Morand says the original songs now seem dated. One parody, though, that has worn well is “Blowin’ in the Wind: The Female Perspective,” in which the group takes Bob Dylan’s iconic social-commentary song and turns it into a laundry list of the things that men do that annoy women.
One passion the the Chenilles have pursued in recent years is tracking down, learning, and performing vintage jazz tunes written by female songwriters from bygone eras (mostly the ‘30s) — like Dorothy Fields’ “Pick Yourself Up,” Nelley Lutcher’s ‘Hurry On Down” and Una Mae Carlisle’s “Walking by the River.”
“Billie Holiday also wrote a couple of songs in that style that we really like,” says Morand. So, when the Chenilles decide it’s time to make a new album — their last release was “May I Suggest” (’06), recorded live at that ’05 New Year’s Eve show — it will probably plumb those vintage jazz forms, guesses Morand.
“We don’t have studio time booked yet or anything, but I could see us doing a record with players from the (vintage-jazz) ensembles we’ve performed with over the years, like the James Dapogny Jazz Band and the (local) Royal Garden Trio.”
The live show continues to be a mix of folk, pop, jazz, retro-style vocal harmonies and humorous songs, however. That mix won the hearts of many acoustic music fans, both locally and in other regions of the country — as the Chenilles began to build a sturdy fan base in the ‘80s, assisted by their appearance “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Listen to the Chenille Sisters on “A Prairie Home Companion” in October 2007 (segment begins at 58:45):
Morand remembers that, at one point in ’86, the group was so popular that she made several trips to the old Schoolkids Records shop, lugging boxes of the group’s then-new album. At Schookids, she remembers, the Chenilles were outselling many national artists. They became so popular that they quit their day jobs and embarked on tours that criss-crossed the country, doing 100 shows a year at the peak of their national popularity.
But several years ago, when the first recession of the ‘00s hit, concertgoers cut down on ticket purchases — and in turn, performing arts centers began booking fewer shows. So, the Chenilles each returned to working day jobs (Morand is a hair stylist, Huber is a speech therapist for the Washtenaw County public schools, and Dawdy is a grant writer). So, these days, they do about two shows a month.
“It’s funny,” muses Morand. “Initially it seemed like a drag to be cutting back to doing it part-time. But in a way, I feel like we’re ‘grown-ups’ now. We did the whole national touring thing for several years, and that was exciting — but we didn’t necessarily enjoy every gig. When you’re depending on your live bookings to make a living, you sort of feel compelled to take a gigs like playing at supermarket openings, and those weren’t that much fun.
“So now, we get to choose the shows we really want to do — the ones we know we’ll enjoy. So now, when we do a show, they feel a lot more special.”
PREVIEW Chenille Sisters Who: Beloved local trio that celebrates its 25th anniversary next year. What: New Year's Eve show by a group that mixes folk, pop, jazz, humor and pristine, retro-style vocal harmonies. Where: The Ark, 316 South Main Street. When: Thursday, December 31, 10 p.m. How much: $35. Details: 734-761-1451 or The Ark web site.