The Home Tour featured in The New York Times on 7/5!
The New York Times – July 5, 2015 – “Home Tours” Take Mary McBride Band to Zones of Conflict and Calamity
On a dusty stage at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, the Mary McBride Band was playing one of its signature songs, “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?” Ms. McBride, 45, the group’s founder and lead singer, cleared her throat and launched into the lyrics, as the guitarist Paul Carbonara, the keyboardist Jon Spurney, and the rhythm section of bassist Greg Beshers and drummer Mark Stepro found a groove. American soldiers in the country to fight the Taliban swayed and sang along, for once not weighed down by their 45-pound bulletproof jackets.
The show was part of what the band calls a “Home Tour,” in which it plays not at typical concert venues, but in homeless shelters, supportive housing for people with mental illness, prisons and global zones of conflict and calamity like Bagram, a key United States military airbase about 40 miles north of the Afghan capital, Kabul. The concept is to bring live music to places it rarely goes and to people who would otherwise not get to hear it. The band, Ms. McBride said, wants to “bring music home, wherever your home is.”
Mary McBride and a bandmate, Greg Beshers, before flying to Pakistan in April. Credit Nancy Borowick for The New York Times
The day in 2012 when the band performed at Bagram came during a particularly dangerous time in Afghanistan, as the sun-scorched afternoons and hot nights echoed with gunfire. The band had been scheduled to play on a different day, but postponed its appearance when it could not reach the base amid threats of a Taliban attack. And one did take place: A Taliban suicide bomber attacked the Kabul airport, killing many of the security guards who had been protecting the musicians.
“All the guys we hung out with had been killed,” Mr. Spurney said. “That really brought out the severity of the situation.”
The day after the attack, the band played anyway, flying in by military helicopter. “It was a different day and a different occasion,” Mr. Spurney said.
Ms. McBride began her music career more conventionally in 2002, in clubs in New York, where most of the band members live. She gained notice singing “No One’s Gonna Love You Like Me” for the 2005 film “Brokeback Mountain.” The New York Times once said her voice was “part angel, part truck driver, as if to say sometimes you power through sadness, and sometimes you just hope for a miracle.”
She had the idea for the first Home Tour in 2010. She was inspired by two women she met at a center for older adults called We Are Family in Washington, where she volunteered. One of them, over 90 and housebound, said, “Oh, we wish you could come play in our living room, because we never get to hear live music.”
“It was a light bulb moment,” Ms. McBride said. “In that moment I realized I had to change course of what I was doing.”
The band was soon performing for free at orphanages and shelters, before expanding to trouble spots around the world. Since then, what started as an uncertain journey without financial support has transformed the band into a kind of roving humanitarian mission. “It’s the most meaningful thing in my life, and in my music,” Mr. Kengla said.
One of the first tours stopped at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, the 5,000-inmate prison on a former slave plantation. “Angola had been on my radar for a long while, because my uncle was a poetry teacher to prisoners,” Ms. McBride said.
Pursuing unconventional audiences has required the band members to make major sacrifices. “When I started the Home Tour, we didn’t have any support,” Ms. McBride said. “We were penniless.” She had had a commitment ceremony with the fashion executive Leslie Klotz in 2007, but the couple split in 2012. “There’s no question that being on the road is a personal and professional balancing act,” added Ms. McBride, who is now in a new relationship.
The band’s first corporate sponsor was Starwood Hotels, which donated rooms for the musicians as they toured the United States playing at long-term care centers for veterans, women’s centers and supportive-housing communities. “Their support was huge,” Ms. McBride said.
Later, the New York artists Eric Fischl and April Gornik, a married couple, offered the band significant financial help. “They gave us our first big grant, which allowed us to get through our first year,” Ms. McBride said.
The first international trip, in 2011, was financed by the State Department, which has since sent the band around the world through its cultural exchange programs.
By now, the band has played thousands of shows, not just for embattled American soldiers, but also for victims of conflict from Vietnam to Pakistan. It has performed for refugees in Iraq and disaster victims in Haiti, and for the underprivileged in small towns and villages in places disrupted by violence, across America and in 25 other countries. Occasionally, the band still plays at New York clubs: On Thursday night, it was set to appear at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in NoHo.
In addition to playing their own music, the band members pick up cultural influences wherever they go. Playing at the Daniel Pearl Music Festival, founded in honor of the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter, in Karachi in 2011, Ms. McBride sang “Dil Dil Pakistan,” a sort of national pop anthem whose Urdu title translates roughly as “love for Pakistan.”
Ms. McBride in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Credit via Mary McBride
The band often performs for audiences that have never heard live music before. At a senior center in Baghdad, one woman danced all night, Ms. McBride said. After the concert, while Ms. McBride was being cheered by the crowd, the woman came up and kissed her hand; it is an Iraqi tradition for a host to kiss the hands of her guests. When Ms. McBride asked where the woman came from, she said, “I have come from garbage,” the singer recalled.
“It turned out that the people at the senior center had found her literally in one of those big garbage cans. She had been out in the sun.”
Sometimes, the band tries to impart skills that may help the local people set up their own music nights. “We want the music to go on, much after we are gone,” said Mr. Kengla, the guitarist.
“We want this to be sustainable in their lives,” Ms. McBride added.
This fall, the band plans to travel to the Philippines and Honduras as part of a tour sponsored by the State Department. In Honduras, the musicians will stage musical and youth leadership programs in San Pedro Sula, one of the world’s most dangerous cities. Next year’s plans call for the band to visit Pakistan, India and the United Arab Emirates, playing for people with mental and physical disabilities. The band also plans to release a new album inspired by songwriting workshops it has had with people with mental disabilities.
The ultimate goal, Ms. McBride said, is to multiply “the human connection and the power of music in the unlikeliest of places.” She added, “I’m still a believer.”
For Mr. Kengla, the tours have been transcendent. One of his most prized souvenirs is the memory of a disabled boy at an orphanage in a small town in Pakistan where the band played this year. Not once during the performance did the boy, his eyes locked on Mr. Kengla, stop playing an imaginary guitar. He looked as spellbound as the musician felt.
“It was so amazing,” Mr. Kengla said. “I literally felt I touched his life, as he touched mine.”