When Jeff Whiteley first heard Lori Decker sing, he said, “If you sing in the streets of Paris, something will happen.” She surprised him with the reply, “Let’s go see.”
He knew this because, when he could not find a job after college, he went to France with a guitar, opened the guitar case, put it at his feet and worked as a street musician in Paris, hoping people would stop, listen and throw in money.
Lark & Spur, as the name suggests, began as a duo, when Lori Decker (on vocals and mandolin) and Jeff Whiteley (on acoustic guitar) first performed in the streets and metro tunnels of Paris, Munich and other European cities. Some of those early performances were recorded and found their way on to French radio. Those early performances also led to an appearance on French television and an invitation to perform at the Fête de l’Humanité, one of the largest music festivals in France.
Today, the ensemble includes Steve Keen on piano and musette, Rich Dixon on guitar, Alicia Wrigley on bass and vocals, and Jay Lawrence on percussion.
Performance credits include the Montreux, Deauville and Brienz Jazz Festivals in France and in Switzerland, and innumerable performances in Utah, including performances for the Utah Symphony and regular stints at the Stein Erickson Lodge in Deer Valley and at the River Horse in Park City.
Excellence in the Community
But the contrast between Lark & Spur’s experiences in France and their experiences in Europe occasioned serious reflection. In France, each performance led to something bigger and better. In Utah, most of the performances were as background music. And despite being good performances, they didn’t seem to lead anywhere except to more background music invitations.
This discrepancy was illustrated when the Riverhorse owner asked to speak with Jeff Whiteley. Whiteley assumed it was to compliment the group and talk about increasing the pay. The conversation was surprising. “There is something wrong with your group.”
Whiteley was stunned. He thought they were doing a good job.
The owner continued, “People aren’t leaving. They’re sitting at their tables long after they have finished their meals.”
Situations like this led to serious reflection and a growing awareness that the accomplishments of Utah best musicians were generally unrecognized and under-estimated in Utah. The potential for good that those accomplishments represent for Utah communities was largely unrealized.
The contrast between the Parisians willingness to stop and embrace quality, even when it was presented in a busy metro tunnel, and the seeming indifference to that same quality when it was presented in Utah, led to serous reflection and to the creation of the Excellence in the Community concert series.
The first Excellence in the Community concert was a Lark & Spur performance in a concert hall at Westminster College in SLC. That event sold out. With the profits from that concert, Excellence put on another concert, then another. That first event took place over 13 years and 650 concerts ago.
Jeff Whiteley and Lori Decker founded Excellence to create more and better concert opportunities for Utah’s top musicians, essentially to take them out of the background music business and put them on concert stages. Since 2012, all of the concerts have been offered for free. The idea is to harness Utah talent to enrich, enhance and enliven Utah communities. Everyone is invited; all ages, families with children, people from all walks of life. Excellence seeks to enhance and enrich Utah communities by inviting all to come together to share a high-quality musical experience presented by Utah’s finest artists.
In the fall of 2018, Excellence began working with Layne Miller of the Price Culture Connection arts organization. The idea was to bring the Excellence concert series to Price. Thus far, five concerts have been presented at the Price Civic Auditorium, featuring styles ranging from country to jazz to Mariachi.
Lark & Spur will tell the story of their travels and adventures with songs from France, Celtic folk songs from Ireland and Scotland, songs from the Broadway stage, country classics and jazz standards. And a big part of their program will be the Steinway grand piano in the Price Civic Auditorium. It has has remained in a closet too long.
Putting this piano to more regular use is symbolic of the Excellence idea: use what you have for the good of the community. In Utah, we have fabulous talent resources. The Culture Connection and Excellence work to make those resources more visible and more accessible in Price.
Come and see what has come out of that empty guitar case on the floor of a busy metro corridor in Paris. The event will take place at the Price Civic Auditorium on April 26 at 7 p.m.