Multitalented duo puts funk into folk

Anchorage Daily News, April, 2004

By J. Mark Dudick

Karen Savoca and Pete Heitzman run an ashram in upstate New York. From their church-converted-into-a-home recording studio, they teach enlightenment through the tending of goats.

At least that's how back-porch storyteller, Greg Brown announces the couple before their arrival onstage. Though more an indication of endearment, the tall tale flirts with the truth. The entertainers' multifaceted performances inspire transcendence similar to that found in obscure Hindu communities.

"We still get e-mail from fans asking about openings in the ashram," says Savoca, taking a breather between loads of wash and packing suitcases for the duo's epic tour of Alaska - so many venues that Savoca worries about finding time to do her laundry.

"It's harder to look at the tour schedule than to do it."

Indeed, the duo's fifth visit celebrates a break-up tradition, though the daffodils popping through New York soil rival the weather here.

"We are so ready for it," Savoca says. "Besides, it takes so much time and planning to get out there, we figure to pack in as much as possible."

The trip also affords reunions with friends such as Pat Fitzgerald and Robin Dale Ford. Career-wise, the Fairbanks couple mirrors Savoca and Heitzman: mesmerizing voice and stellar songwriting partnered with a guitar-engineering wizard.

"They are the real thing - as people and multitalented performers," Ford says from her recording-studio home.

Ford met Savoca in 1999 at the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Nova Scotia and immediately volunteered for Savoca's husband-wife performers workshop. Later, Savoca on congas and Heitzman on guitar blew them away with a jaw-dropping performance.

"Pat and I couldn't believe that these were the same warm and unassuming couple we had spent a couple of hours chatting with that afternoon," Ford recalls. "I mean, they were still warm and unassuming but with BIG TALENT."

Ford and Fitzgerald discovered that night what critics have known since Savoca's 1988 debut, "Walkin' The Bridge." Reviewers such as Jane Bow of the Peterborough (Ontario) Examiner have echoed: "She can sound like a lusty, deep-throated man, a reed instrument, the whistle of a train, like the yearning, searching soul that lives inside each one of us."

Even old pal Brown spouted: "If she were a Native American, her name would be Sings Like Two Birds."

Speaking of Brown, the Iowa singer songwriter recently released "Live At The Black Sheep" with Savoca, Heitzman and Garnet Rogers. Savoca recalls the disc - recorded during two hot, swampy nights in August, 2002 in Wakefield, Quebec - as "very improvisational and really seat-of-the-pants, we'd never heard most of the songs!." Brown, with his deep-as-the-bottom-of-a-well voice even sang falsetto.

"It was exciting and frightening, and we surprised each other, " Savoca says. "And it just goes to show that when you love the other performers, the whole thing takes on a life of its own."

That attitude oozes from every Savoca -Heitzman performance," Ford says. "For just the two of them, they sound like a whole band. Karen's the groovemeister; while Pete churns out minimal guitar. They give you what you need for a song. Fans liken that style to "puttin' the funk in folk." Savoca responds to the description with a mantra worthy of an ashram. "Dancing is healing. It's an important part of life. I love music that makes me wiggle."

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