Hello friends and family, Katie here again! This time, I won a bit of an arm wrestle and I get to introduce you to Onliest. Toward the end of the first loooooong 12hr day of the spring festival Garden Sessions— also known as Thursday night— we were all, to stick with the “underwater” theme, a little waterlogged. My guess is everyone’s had the experience of going to a great concert and either crying, being completely overwhelmed, or just not knowing how to process it, not because it was BAD, but because SO MUCH GOOD happened at once? (I’ll admit I once cried the entire was from Indianapolis back to southern Indiana after an Old 97’s concert and I still think it was just too good for me to be ready to leave.)
Underwater Sunshine is like that on steroids. You will come, see thirty new favorite bands, and then you’ll have them and several other people stop for Garden Sessions to play three or four songs each. And that first long day is both shockingly blissful and more than a little overwhelming. So there is reverence and joy and also a little hunger and meandering too.
And then there is…well, Tiffany and Ganessa James aka Onliest, twins who have been “singing together since they realized they had voices.” Well, if everyone realized they had these voices, I’d hope they’d sing together, too. Because what happened is they loaded in, we were all sitting around answering email, talking to the previous bands, planning out the next day’s Sessions, etc. They were the twelfth band who played that day, so I was a little distracted. I know I didn’t get to welcome them as enthusiastically as I would have liked.
But…the second Ganessa started playing guitar, all other movement and sound in the house ceased.
I’m going to tell you a few things about to put this magical thirty minutes in context before I can fully explain what this night and that moment meant to me: I’d just been explaining to my friends that I hate my memory since I had my stroke in January 2017. So much is just…missing. The worst part is I don’t even remember what I’ve forgotten. I remember specifically saying I missed Spanish, though. I always loved the sound of it and I used to be pretty good at it. Even when I couldn’t always speak it, I could still understand it. So going into this review, you need to know two things: One — my memory is not good, but when I watched the Onliest Garden Session video it was exactly as I remembered it, down to which songs included percussion and the way Ganessa and Tiffany look at each other during particularly difficult harmonies. And two— I don’t speak Spanish anymore. Not since the stroke.
OK. You’ve been briefed. You’re ready to go. So now you can hear the first words I heard these beautiful women sing.
We fall down, we get up
Wish on the stars, pray for luck
We all search, hope to find
Find a place where there’s kindness
All around, like on that day
When we were safe, safe and sound
I saw the light fall down across your face
And there’s no place else I need to be
Though the hurt and the sorrow have not all been erased
Still, it’s so much better when you’re here with me
I think these were the first lyrics I heard against what started as a deceptively simple folk guitar riff— and immediately jumped to beatific chords and unexpected crescendos and vocal acrobatics. In fact, I’ve been listening to their set over and over for hours now and the hairs on my arm still stand up every single time they hit the part where they sing, “Safe and sound” together in a warm vocal round. This isn’t a song about being perfect, nor is it a song asking for perfect happiness. It’s a song acknowledging that perhaps there’s something deeper than just “happiness.” It actually seems like they’re opposed to any ephemeral emotions. This performance is so indelible for me that, even with all the memory problems, it remains as clear today as when it happened.
So take a second and stop reading my piece right now and watch the video for “Safe and Sound.” You have to hear the unexpected way Ganessa – a bass player by profession - plays guitar. You need to feel the intoxicant thrill of Tiffany lifting her vocal, and Ganessa’s, over the top. And you absolutely have to hear the message of this song. I think anyone who goes looking for what Jason Isbell called “something more than free” might actually find it in this beautiful, folksy soul song.
(Andy was quick to point out, quietly between songs, that this might have been a little what it was like to see Tracy Chapman in the early days, but if there were two of her. Who am I to disagree when he’s right?)
When they get to the end and sing this verse, my eyes water. They did then and they do now; not because I’m sad or because it’s a moment of reflection even but because this is a perfect moment, full of joy. I can’t begin to say how grateful I am that Ehud captured it, especially the visual interplay between the sisters. Their unspoken communication says more than any words I could write about them, though here I am trying.
We all are one, and we deserve
To be held, to be heard
We make mistakes, we break the glass
And there’s times where we need to ask
To be absolved, to be relieved
Like on that day, when we were safe…
Every once in a while, you’re sitting in a room when someone says something like that and everyone in the room tries to make eye contact at the same time. We all looked at each other and… THIS IS WHAT JOY LOOKS LIKE, I thought. Not happiness. Not a fleeting thing but something real and concrete. At the core of Onliest is a collision of sound and harmony that can ONLY be explained as joy.
I felt myself physically relaxing as they continued to play. I also noticed that, without realizing it, I’d somehow gotten up from the dining room table and moved to the Garden to be closer to them.
I defy you to watch Ganessa’s full grin as she opens and plays “Lovely One” without smiling along yourself. No one in the room at the time could stop tapping their foot or smiling. We were transfixed. This is a much funkier song. Tiffany plays shaker percussion, which gives it a completely different element, but she also uses her voice as a percussive instrument. Every so often Ganessa joins in and they sing a long, sweet note together. The electric guitar made it feel kind of jazzy, but no less sacred, to me. And while this song isn’t funny, there are certainly moments of humor— but instead of pulling back to make it feel more serious, Onliest does what they do best.
They lean as hard as they can into joy.
When they lock eyes on the bridge, it is a delight. The way they smile and interact with overlapping, changing vocals makes me smile and, at the same time, makes my head spin. And then it all slams back into shocking focus when they— and I’m not kidding— do something as simple as count to twelve. But the way they do it? I could have listened to them forever. Go to about minute 3:09 in the video (not that I’ve been watching) and tell me you wouldn’t have watched them sing that one line a hundred times. I am not sure a hundred would have been enough. Their “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve” - punctuated with Ganessa’s laugh - probably disarmed just about everyone in all of Manhattan.
I remember, in an unrelated context at the last festival, Adam said, “Humor is not the enemy of profundity.” (I’ve quoted him several times, he’s absolutely right, and - more importantly - that’s a damn good line.)
You are my lovely one, I love you so
When I’m around you, I’m glad I found you
I’ll never let you go
Lovely one, I need you so
Say that you need me, you’ll never leave me, no
And with a chorus like that? How can you not become convinced that Onliest is your lovely one? I was captivated. By the time we got to “Lovely One,” I was barely breaking eye contact with them. Whenever I did, it was to happily squeeze whoever was closest while mouthing a silent Can you believe this? We all needed to make sure it was exactly what we thought it was.
It was. Perfection.
So I admitted my memory is bad, sometimes so bad that I can’t fully remember what I’m doing at any given moment. I can be looking at a document and forget if I’m writing or editing. But my memory is good enough to tell you this: we all decided they should play *five* songs, because we didn’t want to stop listening— and maybe more remarkably, when they went into “La Espera,” I understood the song.
…. which is in Spanish.
That might not sound like much, but it was everything to me. Onliest gave me back a part of myself, if only for a few minutes. They gave me the promise and hope that it would come back, that I didn’t lose an entire language I’d been fighting to keep for years because I saw it as a part of my Texan identity. Onliest took me home and on a guided tour through my memory, right there in the Garden with my friends.
I never wanted it to stop. For a few minutes, I got to feel like myself all together in one body again. I also knew immediately that this summer I was going to start listening to Spanish again, not playing around on apps and Rosetta Stone, but genuinely listening, looking up, exploring, studying that way. Because I apparently didn’t lose it. Or if I did… Onliest found it again for me.
Who knows what they’ll find for you?
At the end of the show, I rushed them - probably like a very verbal border collie - to tell them that, as people, they were nothing but just pure, unadulterated joy, and that the light they brought into an already beautiful, lush space for me was a gift they couldn’t know they had given me. I must have said “Joy” seventeen times before Tiffany, with her beautiful smile, rolled her wrist over to show me the bracelet she was wearing.
It said JOY. And of course it did.
Please join us in welcoming Onliest to the Underwater Sunshine family. Listen to their music and remember what a joy it is to be alive, even when things are hard, because this kind of experience… it’s rooted in a far deeper place than happiness. I probably could have cried all the way to Texas.
Oh, and Tiffany and Ganessa? Gracias por darme una parte de mi. No puedo “gracias” lo suficiente. I’m butchering something beautiful — but you both inspired me to try again…with joy.
Find them on twitter @onliestmusic
And on Facebook http://facebook.com/onliestmusic