small potatoes

Working in Harmony  Chicago Tribune

by Laura Hill Vasilion   (9/27/99)

It's a warm, still summer evening, and it's even warmer inside the crowded Newport Coffeehouse in Bannockburn. Sure, the coffee's good.  But tonight the attraction is potatoes. Small Potatoes, that is.

Sandwiched between sacks of coffee beans and crowded cafe tables, stand Jacquie Manning, 45, and Rich Prezioso, 38. A husband and wife folk-singing duo, they are better known to their fans as Small Potatoes.

Dave Humphreys, manager of the Two Way Street Coffeehouse in Downers Grove, is one of them. For 28 years, he has showcased the best in folk and acoustic music. His audience is a demanding one.  Small Potatoes, he said, never fails them.

"It's exciting music -- so exciting, I'll pay to see them," he said. "Their music is diverse. Their show is well-paced and has depth and humor. But first and foremost, they are excellent musicians."

Performing together for 6 years, Small Potatoes has opened or shared the stage with such folk music stars as Tom Paxton, Greg Brown, Michael Smith, Steve Gillette, David Wilcox, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Cheryl Wheeler and Trout Fishing in America. The duo has a cassette, "Raw," and a CD, "Time Flies," both on Folk Era Records. Always on the road, they are favorites at folk festivals, concerts, coffeehouses and clubs across the country.

Manning and Prezioso's music almost defies description. A melding of their vastly different musical backgrounds, it is a blend of Celtic, cowboy, jazz, swing, blues and folk. They play everything from mandolin, acoustic guitar and concertina to the Irish flute, tin whistle and bodhran and a host of percussion toys.

"Our music is the result of years of careful indecision," Prezioso said. "We're really just eclecto-maniacs."

Manning and Prezioso also write a number of their own songs. One of them, "The Waltz of the Wallflowers," was written by Manning when Prezioso was out of town attending a workshop.

Written in clever counterpoint, the song is a tender tale of first love.  The boy's and the girl's stories are told together, in interweaving lines. It was a winner at the 1998 Kerrville New Folk Songwriting Contest in Kerrville, Texas, a prestigious contest that has launched more than one songwriter's career.

"They sing it so effectively, weaving the lines together," said Phee Sherline, who books acts for the San Diego Folk Heritage Society house concert series and annual folk festival. "It is complex, sophisticated, totally charming, hauntingly beautiful."

A 30-year veteran of the folk music business, Sherline has heard a lot of music. She said much of what she hears today lacks depth, intelligence, drive and wit. But not Small Potatoes. 

"I have never been so fascinated by a singing duo," Sherline said. "They're original, funny, energetic, profound, always respectful of the music but always daring to try new things. When they get their hands on music, rhythmically and harmonically, it just takes off." Sherline booked Small Potatoes for three house concert series and the society's annual folk festival. They'll be returning for another concert in October. "The audience here loves them. It's a stand-up-and-shout kind of love," Sherline said.

Thanks to Fred Kaiser, fans in Philadelphia have been equally charmed by Small Potatoes. In 1996, after hearing them perform at a small club, Kaiser booked Small Potatoes for the Philadelphia Folk Festival, one of the largest folk festivals in the country. They were so popular with the crowd of 10,000, Kaiser invited them back this year.

"What I like about Small Potatoes is the variety of their music. They're not afraid to experiment and play cowboy tunes, old standards, even their own," Kaiser said.

The one constant in Small Potatoes' unique blend of music is the couple's tightly woven, flawless vocals. Whether singing raucous swing tunes, haunting Celtic ballads, pounding cowboy songs or tender ballads sung a cappella, their voices never falter. "I find their harmony and a cappella work particularly engaging," Kaiser said. "They have a very good understanding of each other's voices." Easy-going and self-effacing on stage, they're the first ones to poke fun at themselves.

"We don't know where the humor comes from. We just feel a good show gives you a bit of everything, whether you're laughing or crying," Prezioso said. "I think it's more the established world of folk music. You're more than an icon on stage. You talk to the audience with your eyes. That's very important."

Manning is a former cheerleader at West Aurora H.S. and says she was a Girl Scout until she was 30. A self-proclaimed loudmouth, she claims she learned how tobelt out a song at Girl Scout camp.

"They always chose me to lead songs. I thought it was because I was loud, not good," she said.

Manning's mother, Dorothy Blevins of North Aurora, knows better. Of her three children, Blevins said Manning was the musical one. She played the flute in grade school and in 7th grade Manning got a guitar. "She took it everywhere with her and taught herself to play," Blevins said.

In 1976, Manning launched her folk music career as a singer/guitarist and became a regular at Chicago's Earl of Old Town, Somebody Else's Troubles and Holsteins. After a few years, she switched gears and experimented with country and rock 'n' roll. For a while, she was a member of a '50s/'60s girls band called Mickey and the Memories, then got interested in Celtic music and was a member of an Irish band. For 10 years, she performed at Renaissance Faires.

"I was the Queen of Tarts," she said. "The music meant very little. What you needed to do was be vastly engaging. And/or loud and stupid. It was a great lesson. It taught me a lot, like what an audience wants and how to perform in front of 1,000 people without a microphone."

Meanwhile, in Ft. Lee, N.J., Prezioso was immersed in very different music. Prezioso turned to bluegrass music in high school. In college, he studied classical guitar and received a liberal arts degree with a concentration in music from Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. After college, he played in rock 'n' roll bands and blues bands.

He came to Chicago in 1986 to write radio and television jingles -- "I was doing commercials for Cap'n Crunch cereal,"-- when he met Manning. They were both nurturing solo acts at the Village Squire in West Dundee, but they didn't actually meet until friends urged them to come to listen to each other's show.

"It was just about music. No romance," Prezioso said.

Actually, it was about business.

"Rich was looking for a female voice for a commercial he was doing," Manning explained. “He heard me, liked my voice and hired me."

Though the commercial wasn't a hit, Manning and Prezioso were. Three years ago, they married in a back-yard wedding at their home in Cary. According to Jon Past, a neighbor, the whole neighborhood was invited to the wedding.

"They are so genuine," Past said. "It's not just their music, it's them."

Knowing the difficulties couples encounter when they perform together, Manning and Prezioso never considered working together until they both found themselves out of work. Surprisingly, things worked out better than they ever dreamed. The only hard part was deciding which kind of music to play.

"Basically, there's no real crossing in our musical backgrounds," Manning said. "So we decided not to decide. We just played all the music we like because it's all good music."

Financially, the first few years were tough, and sometimes Manning and Prezioso returned home poorer than when they left. But their early struggles gave them something they still have: their name.

"One Monday night, we were playing this steak house," Prezioso said. "The crowd wasn't paying attention to us at all. So, during the break, Jacquie came up with the idea we should call ourselves Small Potatoes. It seemed to fit. We thought if we ever become famous, it'll be a great joke. If not, it'll be true."

Nowhere are fans more loyal than at home. One of them is Didi Hoskins. On this night Hoskins is perched on a stool at the Newport Coffeehouse, swaying gently to the music. Eyes closed, a smile on her face, she admits she's an unabashed fan. "I love their music," Hoskins said. "But I come because it's them. I really love them."

Manning and Prezioso, in their usual humble manner, shrug and smile.

"If there's anything we want to share with the world, it's a love of music," Manning said. "All we're trying to say is lighten up, listen to this. Isn't it great?"

Yes, it is.  

Laura Hill Vasilion is a freelance writer for the Chicago Tribune





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