In 1986, a holiday music tradition began in Baltimore with modest expectations.
At the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer on North Charles Street, the traditional music trio Helicon put on its first Winter Solstice Concert. One problem: They forgot decorations.
"We were a little bit ill-prepared," member Ken Kolodner said on the phone last week. "So we grabbed a ladder that they just happened to have in the closet and we decorated it with Christmas lights."
Ambience has improved since, but this concert, which celebrates its 30th anniversary with two performances Saturday at Goucher College, has never needed a fancy light show to get fans in the spirit. It's the seasonal music — performed by Helicon members Chris Norman, Robin Bullock and Kolodner — that attracts fans year after year, Kolodner said.
"It's really surprisingly meaningful in many ways to the fans who come to this thing," he said. "We hear it over and over again, that this is the start of their holiday."
Helicon formed in 1985, when the three friends combined their love of traditional folk and indigenous music from all around the world, including Africa, Scotland and Appalachia. This would later earn them the label as a "world music" act.
"When we started, we didn't really call it 'world music.' All we were doing was, we would hear music from a particular culture and say, 'That could really work for us.'" Kolodner, 61, said. "We had no illusions that we were going to play [like musicians from other countries]. So we would just make it our own while trying to retain some of the integrity of the music."
The members have gone on to become some of the most respected players at their instruments. On Saturday, Kolodner will play hammered dulcimer, fiddle and hammered mbira. For Norman, it's wooden flutes, tin whistle, small pipes and piano, while Bullock will play guitar, cittern, mandolin and piano.
For an act putting on its 30th annual concert, Helicon does not operate like a typical band. After years of touring around the world, the group disbanded in 1999 so members could pursue solo careers. (All three remain touring musicians for other projects.) Despite no longer regularly playing together, the band continued to put on the Winter Solstice Concert.
Each year, the preparation of the Helicon setlist begins electronically, since only Kolodner, a Guilford resident, still lives in Baltimore. Norman, 51, currently splits his time between his native Nova Scotia and New York City. Bullock, 51, resides in North Carolina.
"We have email rehearsals," Kolodner said. "We'll send each other videos to listen to the tunes we might be doing. It all pulls together somehow."
Helicon's first and only rehearsal of the year takes place the Wednesday before the show.
As in years past, Saturday's Winter Solstice performances will feature special guests, including U.S. National Scottish Fiddle Champion Elke Baker and Irish step-dancer Jonathan Srour, who toured with Michael Flatley's "Lord of the Dance" show.
Helicon will also perform with the local acoustic roots quartet Charm City Junction, which features Kolodner's son, Brad Kolodner, on clawhammer banjo. ("A little nepotism there," the father said with a laugh.)
While there are stylistic differences between his group and his son's, Ken Kolodner sees a younger version of Helicon in Charm City Junction.
"It's a really different sound than what Helicon presents, but they're doing a similar thing where they're blending different genres in a really interesting way," Ken Kolodner said. "That's basically what Helicon was doing way back in the day."
The plan, he said, is to record both Saturday performances, keep the best takes and then release a new album, their first recording since 1999.
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"Our approach this time is just to go for it live and see what happens. If it's not where we want it to be, we won't release it, but we hope to," Ken Kolodner said. "We think the excitement of a live recording could be really fun for folks and us."
A record is a new goal, but it is not the show's purpose. For Helicon, the reason to keep up the tradition — years after the group ceased touring — is the connection the concert has made with fans.
"The fact that this band has not toured since 1998 and we still get close to 2,000 people to come out is really a wonderful thing for us," Ken Kolodner said. "It really is, personally, a great feeling to see all of these folks come out. For all of us, it is the highlight [of our year] for everyone who plays in that show. … This one is special to all of us."