Posted by Billyjam, April 27, 2007 01:25am | Post a Comment
When it comes to stories of how bands formed, most groups have at least semi-interesting tales of how they first got together;  some more interesting than others.  But very few can match the unique story of San Francisco's Conspiracy of Beards  - the 30 member,  all male, an
a capella group that exclusively cover  Leonard Cohen songs - who formed five years ago, inspired by the vision of a dying friend of theirs.

Originally an octet who intended to do just a one-off gig, they have since not only stayed together but grown both in membership and in popularity. More importantly the Beards have transcended being merely a musical group to becoming a supportive community of men with a shared passion for music and life.

Peter Kadyk,  who died in 2002, was the inspiration for the group.  And Daryl Henline, the Conspiracy of Beard's musical director,  described him as, "A shining inspiration for a lot of us. He died at age 30 of HIV....Over the years, when we were all hanging out in his kitchen playing music, Peter used to say 'You know we should start a men's choir singing the songs of Leonard Cohen and it should be called A Conspiracy of Beards.' And after he died Pete's wife Annah said to Pete's brother Pat and I 'Why don't you guys put that choir together.'"  So they did. In 2003, a year after their muse's death, eight of them formed the Conspiracy of Beards with the intention of doing a one-off event in a Mission District club.

"It had been a 'vision' of Peter's; a bunch of men with long beards singing the songs of Leonard Cohen," said Andrew Kushin, another old friend of Peter's and original choir member. "Personally, I think in Peter's mind - it was all mixed up with some scenes from (Russian film director) Tarkovsky's cutting room floor... something from a dark, frozen, 19th century Russian winter. Somber, grey, and hairy... harsh shadows and all that... the grave visual, eastern companion to Cohen's poems."  Like many of the original members Kushin, who plays bass in Live Human, protested when he was invited by Peter's brother Pat to enlist for that original one-off performance at the Lab (16th & Capp) saying that he wasn't a singer.

"My first reaction was like - No, man - I don't sing.  And he's like - sure you can.  And I'm like:  No- you  don't understand: I really can't. And he's like 'Look of all the fellas I've called - do you know how many told me they can't sing?  And I'm like: How many? And he says: pretty much all of them." And hence the Conspiracy of Beards was born. Not all of them had long beards but that didn't stop them either.  And that one gig led to another and another - and soon others joined the all male choir to sing Leonard Cohen songs in styles that range from barbershop, traditional men's choir type of arrangement, to classical music styles, to jazz and experimental.

 "Singing Leonard Cohen's music has changed us as people," insists musical director Daryl.  "Even though he might be ironic in some of his words and things. But what we're doing is not ironic at all. If we were just singing the songs of Foreigner or Van Halen or whoever it wouldn't be the same. But Leonard Cohen's music has a very special connection to men. At least to guys like us....It flavors. It infuses what we do."  And who are the 'guys like us' in the Conspiracy of Beards?  "Just guys from many walks of life; tradesmen, computer programmers, people who work in shops and stores, whatever," said Daryl who is a carpenter by trade but has been singing in choirs since age five and as such is the most musically trained of the Beards. Many had no training whatever before joining, he said. "And seeing them transform themselves into performers that sing and interpret these words and these songs is really cool and something I think Pete would be behind."
Member Andrew remembers taking a few month's hiatus back in the early days of the group before it started to grow in numbers. "And when I came back to Sunday rehearsals...there were like all these dudes who I'd never seen before. I mean, I don't think most of them knew Peter personally. Most had heard his name mentioned but that was no longer the point. There was something resonant in Peter's vision...a collectively-felt, darkened, North American male, and Jewish, experience," said Andrew. "And by Jewish  I mean those who find themselves amongst that de facto set formed by those excluded from "the group." Hey, I'm not saying that we're all Jewish. Not all of us grow beards.  But you get my meaning. Whatever, it worked and apparently it stuck because here we are five years and who-knows-how-many incarnations later."

They meet every Sunday at 7PM for practice, taking the summer months off.  And then every second weekend in September they meet up and head out to the woods of California for a weekend of feasting and drinking and just hanging out and learning new music around a bonfire and welcoming new members into the fold as part of their open membership.  "It's kinda like a men's organization for guys who don't normally join men's organizations," laughed Daryl. "It's an exercise in community."  "Music has brought us together but when we got together we found more than we were looking for. We found a sense of community....It's mostly friends of friends of friends but we have never told anyone that they cannot join this group. Some are not singers or not very good singers but they have learned to sing inside the choir," he said.

Daryl's hope is that people will come to them to ask how to start their own choir. They've already been instrumental in helping get a counterpart all female a capella choir started. Called the Conspiracy of Venus and about as many strong in numbers as their male counterparts this Bay Area all female group do songs by such artists as Joni Mitchell and Bjork, said Daryl.

The Conspiracy of Beards do about 25 shows a year performing at places as varied as the Great American Music Hall, bookstores, Buddhist centers, and on the steps of City Hall. One time they performed at the hospital bedside of a dying Leonard Cohen fan whose request was to hear songs of his favorite artist performed live.  Lately they've been doing a series of benefit concerts to help offset expenses for their travel out to New York next month where they will be doing two concerts at the Bowery Poetry Club (March 21) and the Highline Ballroom (March 22).

Their next Bay Area concert is a free show at Hang Annex Gallery at 567 Sutter in San Francisco on March 6th.  For more details on shows click here and for music samples (from their forthcoming 5 song CD) and more general information check out their MySpace  And to get a nice visual taste of them singing in a Bay Area bookstore follow this link to a video clip courtesy of KQED who did a nice piece on them.