After seeing the amazing WonderYears rock chorus rehearsing at their ‘headquarters’ in Virginia Water, and after listening to the warm praise and unabashed acclaim for their enthusiastic and memorable live shows, I was very keen to meet the dynamic personality behind the WonderYears – The Senior Rock Chorus and Band. So on Monday I met the founder and esteemed musical director of the project, Dave Thomas. Dave is a modest man, warm and confident. He is clearly passionate about his creation, and he cares deeply about every single member of his troop, acting like a rock n roll pastor to his flock.
From the outset, Dave stressed that the WonderYears are not a choir, but, to be precise, a chorus. “We don’t harmonize – we concentrate on musicianship, live performance and self-expression. Our performances are always energetic and entertaining “ He tells me. “So the chorus embraces the true values of rock music?” I ask. “Exactly” he tells me. “And it is important to explain that our four-piece band is an integral part of our overall sound – they are the engine room for our performance and they distinguish us from groups like the Rock Choir, who tend to use backing tapes”. The 24 members of the chorus- comprising of 14 ladies and 10 men – plus 4 in the band, and the sound people, are all ‘Seniors’. “The average age of the chorus is 70” says Dave “and the oldest member is 86 – we are the UK’s only seniors rock chorus and band.”
Keen ‘Radio 1’ and ‘Magic FM’ listener Dave sang in choirs in his childhood and later turned to opera. He got the inspiration for The WonderYears from the 2008 documentary film ‘Young@Heart’ by Stephen Walker. The documentary focuses on a New England based choir who take up singing the old classics and contemporary rock and pop songs together. So Dave placed an advert locally, inviting older people from the Surrey community to help form a Seniors Chorus and to be prepared to leave their comfort zones- and to become excited by the world of rock music.
Dave says he is a ‘supporter’ and ‘motivator’ rather than a conductor. And members of the chorus agree, saying that they feel thrilled and energised by his ever increasing levels of enthusiasm and verve. Audiences report that the feel good factor ‘overcomes you’ when you attend a WonderYears concert – and they say that an evening spent with WonderYears is every bit as good for you as a night out seeing a West End show like Mama Mia!
“Are there any consequences or unusual complications in the management and operation of a choral group comprising of seniors – rather than ‘young’ performers?” I was keen to know. Dave is kind about his team, and he raves about their individual talents. He is generous about the contributions that each individual makes to the overall sound, but he admits that there have been some small difficulties to overcome, and that the project is still evolving. “For example, I realized early on that I need to split up the choruses and the solo parts – in order that the songs become memorable and easier to learn and to master …. As you get older, it’s harder to remember things – especially lyrics – and so we tend to break down the songs into more manageable pieces. And we also tend to choose songs with ‘proper’ and ‘appropriate’ lyrics for our later years. Nothing too suggestive or too muddy”. The group have, in the past, rejected some songs, because, perhaps, they are too cloying in a sentimental way – or because they are distressing for the older singers to perform. “Where have all the Good Times Gone” by the Kinks and “Dance with My Father” by Luther Vandross were two numbers that proved unpopular with the chorus members.
But the words of some well known rock songs often have surprising connotations or take on fun new meanings and special significance when performed by older singers. Take for example The Who’s “My Generation” or “I Wanna Be Sedated” by The Ramones.
Although he admits to loving the ‘big hair’ rockers of the 1980’s such as a ‘Journey’, Dave also ensures that the WonderYears Chorus address some rock pieces with rougher edges, including a good dose of punk. “Our most popular number is the Killers song “Human “.
“In addition, we always get a great reaction from ’Should I Stay or Should I Go.’ “Burt (aged 86) does an astonishing solo on “Let the Good Times Roll” and Tom does equally well on the Stones number “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. Other audience favourites include the Bee Gees hit “Stayin’ Alive” (another song that reveals new meanings when performed by a group of seventy something seniors) and “It’s My Life” Bon Jovi. “I ain’t gonna be just a face in the crowd. You’re gonna hear my voice, when I shout it out loud….”
Dave admits that he receives a lot of stick for the constant introduction of new songs to the group. “But I need to keep feeling that our Chorus is refreshed and rejuvenated” He says, “We must keep our energy flowing.”
Exciting times are ahead for the Surrey based outfit. Guilfest has invited them to come back to perform after a great success last year. They are also scheduled to perform at the Wokingham Food and Drink Festival. They even registered for this years Glastonbury festival. “Who would you like to share the top of the bill with – if your dreams come true?” I asked, “Bon Jovi” says Dave, without pausing, and with a glint in his eye.
“But it is always a great honor to play live music to any audience, anytime, supporting any performer. Obviously, we want to ‘go all the way’ and play all the big venues and all the big festivals. But we also realize that we owe our local community a huge debt of gratitude for the support they give us. For example, we owe Christ Church, the community church of Virginia Water – a great big thanks for allowing us to practice there every week. We are not a church choir and we have no ties to the church, but they allow us to practice in their area and that is very precious to us. Every year we do a benefit concert to thank the church. We will never forget our local community and the warm support that our neighbours give us.”
“Twenty-four singers is an ideal size to provide the power and emotion that our songs require.” says Dave. “Only once, when we took the Chorus to County Sound Radio (to do a live broadcast), did we did experience a little ‘difficulty’. We discovered it was a bit of a ‘squeeze’ to fit us all in. And then we could not hear our music properly, the sound was coming through the cans. We have a reliance on our live sound for the rhythm and structure. But because we couldn’t hear our live band sound, it all went a bit wonky!”
Dave says that it involves a lot of hidden costs and logistical support to take the band plus 24 singers and sound engineers onto the road. The WonderYears are currently looking for a sponsor to help with expenses. Currently the choir is self funded – the members pay a regular subscription. But there is no shortage of new volunteers. “We currently have 8 women and 3 men on our ‘wait list’ – but we keep our choir at the optimal size.”
“Our audiences range in age from grandchildren to great grandparents. Our songs appeal to everyone.” says the official WonderYears publicity officer, Maureen Grogan. “Just because we qualify for a bus pass, it does not mean that we are over the hill”. She smiles. “Last year we developed a very popular Christmas show and we did several performances of it. But in the end we had to turn down requests to perform it because everyone wanted it! We are becoming a big success.”
“We have performed at the Hackney Empire and we were in the windows for the Phones 4 U (ad) so we are now getting the recognition we deserve.” But Dave is quick to point out that committing to about eight concerts a year is ‘right’ for the Chorus. “We are working on 24 numbers for our 2011 our show- and 19 songs are brand new for this season – so each song so has to be learnt and rehearsed.” He says. “We rehearse each week and expect all of our members to attend all rehearsals. Eight big performances a year is quite an ambitious goal for us.”
Founder and Musical Director of the WonderYears, Dave Thomas was talking to Neil Mach
© Neil Mach 2011
The WonderYears will be performing alongside PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED and others on the GOOD TIME GUIDE STAGE on 17th JULY at GUILFEST 2011
Wokingham Food & Drinks Festival Saturday 27th August