by Len Lear
The DeMasi Brothers are probably one of the most interesting and entertaining musical acts you may have never heard of. The 65-year-old twin brothers, who will perform Friday, May 17, 8 p.m., at The Folk Factory Coffeehouse in the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Mt. Airy, 6900 Stenton Ave. (at Gorgas Lane), are contemporary folk singers, songwriters and recording artists (Joe on guitar and John on fiddle and guitar) whose music is imbued with humanitarian values and hard-hitting progressive politics.
Joe and John began their folk music career in the folk clubs and coffeehouses in and around New York City, where they were born and raised. As part of the ’80s’ folk music revival scene they appeared regularly at Greenwich Village’s famed music club “the Speak Easy” and were featured performers on the “Fast Folk” music series. They shared the stage with such folk legends as Tom Chapin, Christine Lavin and Oscar Brand and have appeared regularly on National Public Radio. They currently travel the country performing concerts at folk clubs, progressive churches, retirement communities and concert halls.
John now lives in Trenton, New Jersey, and Joe now lives in Valley City, North Dakota. How on earth does a New York Italian kid wind up in North Dakota, of all places, not known for its bustling music/entertainment nightlife?
“People ask me that question a lot,” said Joe. “They want to know what a nice Italian boy from NYC is doing living in North Dakota, and I tell them I’m in the witness protection program. I was hoping for Hawaii, but I ended up here! Actually if you are going to move someplace cold, I say do it for love. We were born in Brooklyn but grew up on Long Island. We started our singing career playing the folk clubs, coffee houses and wine and cheese places of the New York area.
“In 1992, we teamed up with our good friend Chris Burke, the actor with Down Syndrome who played ‘Corky’ in the hit ABC-TV show ‘Life Goes On.’ We met Chris while working as music counselors at a recreation program for kids with disabilities on Long Island. Chris attended the program. We put a musical group together, got a record deal with BMG/Kidz, recorded four CDs for children and families and toured the country with our show promoting ability awareness and inclusion.
“When we were doing a show in Grand Forks, North Dakota, I met my wife-to-be. She also works with adults with disabilities. I have been living out here for 22 years now. It has certainly been an adjustment to move to a very rural area, but I am on the road a lot, so I still get to enjoy New York pizza and Philly pretzels!” (John has lived in Trenton for 15 years, where his wife grew up.)
The May 17 appearance in Mt. Airy is part of a tour throughout the Northeast, Midwest and South. The folk music scene was big in the 1950s with acts like The Kingston Trio, Peter Paul & Mary, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. Some would argue that the folk music scene is now dead or at least moribund, but John insists the opposite is true.
“Now is a great time to be a folk singer and performer,” he said. “There are so many important issues to sing and write songs about. I think that folk songs that make us think about the world we are living in are needed just as much now as they were in Woody Guthrie’s time or Pete Seeger’s time or during the Civil Rights era.”
Interestingly, for the first 15 years of his life, Joseph was about as far removed musically as one could be from folk music.
“I was a classical music geek! We both started on the violin in the 4th grade. We were well schooled in Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and Rachmaninoff. We found, though, that we also loved to sing, so we taught ourselves guitar and started singing folk music. We were attracted by the messages that folk singers sing about. It is wonderful to be able to express ourselves through our music and talk about issues that are important to us, such as gun violence, the environment, religious liberty, human rights and so much more … but I still love listening to instrumental classical music, symphonies, concertos, string quartets and so on.”
Since the brothers sing “message” songs, have they ever had a problem with an audience member who did not approve of their message?
“Not yet,” said John, “although one time after a performance a lady came up to me and said, ‘That song you sang about the Vietnam War wasn’t good.’ I thought she was going to lecture me, but she then added, ‘It was great.’ Then she smiled and walked away.”
Although performing for the public is always risky and unpredictable, John said that “musically the hardest thing I ever had to do was run a music class for kids who were deaf when we were working at Camp Anchor (in Hempstead, Long Island). That was a challenge!”
Which talent that they do not have would the twins most like to have?
Joseph: “Actually, we have a lot of humor in our show, but I have a secret desire to do standup comedy. It looks like so much fun. My problem, though, is that I can’t remember jokes!”
More information about the May 17 performance at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-848-6246.