Audiences who think they know what Karon Click is all about sometimes get thrown for a loop. The time she sang “Rockaria” in a Vagabond Saints’ Society concert of songs by ELO, for instance.
“That was fun to watch, because not a lot of people knew her more classical training,” said VSS leader Doug Davis. “I remember she stepped into the spotlight on that, and I got to see a lot of jaws dropping when she jumped into fake-opera mode.”
Click will bring an ambitious new project to the Willingham Theater in Yadkinville Saturday night. Karon Click Presents New Torch Radio will put a swing jazz twist on popular songs from A (Ariana Grande) to Z (ZZ Top).
“Not just vintage, but making it sound vintage,” Click said over a beverage at Coffee Park Arts. “Taking things that might not necessarily be in our wheelhouse and putting them squarely in our wheelhouse.”
It’s a big wheelhouse. Over the years Click has sung everything from opera to Gillian Welch. She grew up in Kentucky singing in musical theater and came to Winston-Salem to attend Wake Forest University. There she studied psychology and music and founded the Demon Divas. She got her start in the broader local music scene singing jazz at open mikes.
“I have to sing,” Click said. “It’s important for my soul. You don’t go to Wake Forest because you sing.”
Matt Kendrick, jazz bassist, composer and educator, has taken Click on the road for seven years with a touring revue called “Carolina Live! Our Musical History.” It’s presented by Carolina Music Ways, a non-profit organization based in Winston-Salem that works to educate North Carolina students about the state’s musical history and encourage them to participate in it.
Click puts on an entertaining show and connects well with kids, Kendrick said. She’s a mother herself and is married to opera singer Jason McKinney.
“She’s got a great range and she knows how to use her voice,” Kendrick said. “She’s got a really strong mid-range, lower alto/high tenor voice. She can also sing very high.”
Click and her band, the Hot Licks, have played around the Triad for more than a decade, performing at downtown festivals and venues such as 6th and Vine, the Old Winston Social Club and Foothills Brewing. Josh Baranowski, Foothills general manager, first met Click when he was a bartender there in 2013.
“They bring a ton of energy to the room,” he said. “They’re real interactive with the crowd. And the style of music — they’ve got the kind of ’20s and ’30s vibe going on. It’s a real fun band. They feed off each other, and you can tell they’re having a blast.”
Several Hot Licks will back Click for the New Torch Radio show on Saturday, along with a couple of new faces: Tommy Jackson, leader of the house band at the Reeves Theater in Elkin, will play keyboards, and John Wilson will play drums. Rounding out the band will be Travis Williams on bass, Luke Payne on guitar, Mary Ellen Watson on violin and backing vocals, and Anne Donovan Green on lead and backing vocals.
“The three-part harmonies have really been our staple for the last 10 years,” Click said. “When we first started singing, I was like, ‘We have to practice separately from the boys, because they don’t need to listen to us do this painful process while we work out our harmonies. It could be very unpleasant for them.’”
The end result is a different story, of course. Green loves the women’s three-part harmonies, reminiscent of the Andrews Sisters, a popular trio during the 1930s and ’40s known for such hits as “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me).” New Torch Radio will take that tradition to another level, she said.
“It’s the favorite part of what the Hot Licks have done in our history, combined with this new music re-imagined in different styles,” Green said. “It makes you really think about the lyrics when you flip it out of what the song normally is.”
She credits Click with pushing her well past what she thought she could do as a singer. Green had sung in choirs before, but never sang solo until Click brought her onstage one night during a holiday show a decade or so ago. Click approached her during a set break and asked if she could sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
“She’s always that way with other performers,” Green said. “She brings them in and brings them up and gives them a space to learn the craft.”
Now Green performs with two other bands besides the Hot Lick: Anne and the Moonlighters and Wild Blue Elixir.
Besides their music, Click and the Hot Licks are also known for their costumes and props. Click is “very crafty,” Green said, making good use of antique and costume jewelry and peacock feathers. Fans who drop money in the band’s tip jar often get something in return: a brush from a feather known as the “tip tickler.”
“They pull out these feather boas and get a little risque,” Baranowski said. “They’ll go to older guys in the crowd, mess around with them and make people blush.”
Click and her band have played Halloween shows at Foothills dressed as characters from “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and “The Wizard of Oz.” This New Year’s Eve, they will ring in 2020 with a tribute to a decade from a century before: the roaring ’20s.
They will go all out for New Torch Radio, a show inspired by Lindsay Craven, former cultural arts center director and theater manager at the Willingham. Craven now works for Wilkes Community College and MerleFest.
“Lindsay said, ‘I really want your stuff out here. I think this audience would love it and love you. I think if you reinterpreted some modern stuff, it might help,’” Click said.
She’s excited about doing a show that blends classic swing music with songs by the likes of Prince and Aretha Franklin.
“My deep hope when people come to musical events is that they leave feeling more themselves than when they came in, having laughed or connected,” Click said.
The Willingham setting will help make that happen, taking her back to her roots in musical theater.
“I know enough about theater to be dangerous,” Click said, rubbing her hands together like a cartoon villain. “They gave me a theater!”