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Eric's Heroes: Neighborhood band makes music to make a difference

The group had the joint rocking at Mary's Place, a shelter for homeless women and their children. Learnin' to Fly plays where music is needed the most. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE -- There is a home on a hill in Montlake. It's a nice home that is surrounded by flowers and trees.

And if you chose the right night and slipped onto the porch for a listen, you would hear a special kind of joy being built from the ground up, right there on the spot.

There is a mandolin strumming and a violin piecing together its part and a guy waving his arms to an imaginary beat and another guy trying to figure out chords on an acoustic guitar.

A woman in a striped shirt who's playing a banjo-lele (a cross between a banjo and a ukulele) approves of the violin part and says, "That's awesome ... sounds good."

The guy with the mandolin agrees, "Yeah, it's all hanging on that 'D' part ..."

And if you stayed there on the porch listening for long enough, once they got their parts figured out, and the timing and their solos, and once the harmonies were tight, you would hear that joy come to life.

They launch into CCR's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain."

"Someone told me long ago ... there's a calm before the storm ... I know, and it's been coming for some time ..."

There are seven of them and their voices blend nicely and the instruments flow and it's a folky, organic sound that is immediately pleasing and warm.

There on that porch, before you even realized it, you would be singing along with them. How could you not?

Ron DiGiancomo, a retired professor at the University of Washington says, "We try to be positive, upbeat, good message ... you know, THOSE kinds of songs."

He's the guy that put the group together.

He heard John, the mandolin player, playing in church, and approached him.

John brought in his niece, Melissa, who plays violin.

Ron heard Lou sing and play guitar at a party.

Lou got Phoebe, the banjo-lele player to join.

Ron already knew that his friend Bud played keyboards.

And he recruited his wife, Maureen, to climb aboard and sing, too.

They called themselves "Learnin' to Fly," and they started to practice.

The idea was never to get a recording deal and make pop hits.

This was about playing and singing together for the fun of it. For the love of it.

Lou, who is so comfortable in Ron's home that he was playing keyboards in his socks, says, "There's nothing I'd rather do than play and sing with other people. It's just joyful."

Phoebe adds, "To me making music together is a way to affirm humanity of all those people in those venues."

Ah yes, "those venues'."

After practicing twice monthly for a few months, they wanted to play some small gigs.

They decided to play where they would be needed most.

"My feeling is we got to go there," says Ron. "You know, no matter what the circumstances. I just feel a compulsion to go there."

Learnin' To Fly plays shelters and prisons, and rehab facilities and halfway houses.

Phoebe says, "I think it breaks down the boundaries, I guess, of people in different circumstances. It gives joy and hope to people."

They play rooms where other groups won't, for people who NEED music.

For people who need hope.

We were there when they showed up to play at Mary's Place, a shelter for homeless women and children in emergency situations.

They showed up carrying their instruments and music stands.

Bud said, "Should be a lot of fun." as he walked in.

A couple members of the band had scheduling conflicts and couldn't make it, so Learnin' To Fly would be shorthanded.

They tuned their instruments, and set up the one microphone they use for guest vocals.

By the time the show was ready to start, there was only a hand full of women gathered to listen. Some of them looked bored, as though had there been anything better to do, they'd be doing it instead.

Ron spoke into the mic and said, "We want to thank you for having us here ... it's our privilege to be here."

He asked the audience to sing along, and said that if anyone felt like coming up and singing with the band, she should definitely do it.

Their first song was an acoustic instrumental, just to get warmed up. It sounded folky and quaint almost.

When they finished only about three people clapped.

Lou said, "Alright, everybody!"

The show was off to a lukewarm start.

The next song was "Brown Eyed Girl," though, and everything changed. As the mandolin and the two guitars strummed Van Morrison's impossibly catchy chorus, a woman named Denise Grundy was suddenly on her feet, right in front of the band, dancing and strutting and liberating her soul from whatever problems haunt her life.

She clapped and then raised her arms and swayed to the song, and when the band sang, "You ... my brown eyed girl ..." she pointed to both of her eyes, which were brown, nodded knowingly, and continued clapping.

Denise had lots of necklaces and bracelets, and she stayed up there in front, dancing away.

"Do you remember when ... we used to sing ..."

By now a woman in white named Karen was moving back and forth, clapping.

And so was Mary Jane Bester, who said when the song ended, "I love it! You get to move, you know? I love it!"

The next song was John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." And it wasn't so much a concert as it was the kind of after dinner impromptu sing-along that we sometimes imagine happening all the time out on the prairie in the Old West.

The instruments weren't electric. They weren't amplified. The singers weren't singing into microphones. It was just the sound of the music traveling unobstructed and unaugmented into the audience's ears.

There was something organic and pure about the whole thing.

Denise was out of breath after dancing, and she said, "I felt so good being up there, man. And I totally enjoyed myself! Totally!"

Then the band started in with "Sweet Caroline," and she was back on her feet again, this time heading straight for that microphone that was unattended, just waiting for her.

Only one problem. Denise didn't know the words. It didn't matter. She hummed and made up her own words. And the band smiled and played on, because this show actually had very little to do with the performance. It was about the audience's REACTION to the performance. And this woman was having the time of her life.

And so it went, through "Proud Mary" and into "Take It Easy" and "Guantanamera."

Towards the end they sang "Stand By Me" and Woody Guthrie's immortal "This Land Is Your Land."

It was, in the end, a humble offering of song for a handful of people leading complicated, chaotic lives.

The performance wasn't flawless. Neither were the audience members.

Maureen said afterwards, "We're amateurs, and we've rehearsed and we did our best. We hope it makes a little bit of difference for people."

I wonder if, on its best day, Carnegie Hall itself ever played host to a show that made such a difference?

Because this performance on this day at this venue was pitch perfect.

Editor's Note: "Eric's Heroes" is a weekly series airing every Wednesday on KOMO News in the 6 p.m. newscast. If you have a good story about a good person doing good things for the right reasons, share it with Eric by sending an email to heroes@komonews.com.

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