Five songs into the Professor of Bluegrass’s 50-minute set, bass player and University President Peter Salovey turned to the audience and asked what you call a woman on a banjo player’s arm.
“A tattoo,” Salovey said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
That mild-mannered humor pervaded Sunday’s bluegrass concert at Toad’s Place, where almost 60 people turned out to see the Professors of Bluegrass and the Helium Brothers.
The Professors opened for the Helium Brothers, who, like Toad’s, are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year. The Helium Brothers were among the first acts to perform at Toad’s when the venue opened in 1975. The band, which is larger than the Professors of Bluegrass and features a rock-and-roll sound thanks to an electric guitar and percussion, last played together in 2010, at Toad’s 35th anniversary celebration.
The bands have a lot in common. First, the two share a banjo player. Oscar Hill ’79 was an original member of the Helium Brothers, which formed at Yale in the mid-70s, and later joined the Professors of Bluegrass. Hill was introduced to Salovey by Edward Hirs ’79.
Hirs, who is involved in the Yale Alumni Association, said he reached out to Hill to play at reunions. In 2005, when Hill was a practicing psychiatrist on Orange Street and Salovey had just been named Yale College Dean, Hirs encouraged Hill to contact Salovey after seeing a Yale Daily News story about the revitalization of the Professors of Bluegrass.
At that point, the Professors of Bluegrass had actually been around for 15 years already — Salovey had formed the band with fellow psychology professor Kelly Brownell in 1990.
“It was a great way to manage the anxiety in my life at the time,” Salovey said.
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The Professors have gone through four stages of existence, Salovey said. The original era, of which the only remaining member is Salovey, began in the early 1990s. The second era featured then-undergraduates Greg Liszt ’99 and Katie Scharf-Dykes ’99, two members who were involved with the band during its “golden years,” according to Salovey.
When Liszt moved on to graduate school at MIT and Scharf-Dykes went to Yale Law School, the Professors entered their third era. Liszt was replaced with a new banjoist, who then moved on in the early 2000s and was replaced by current lead singer Sten Havumaki.
“[Havumaki] has the best bluegrass voice in New England,” Salovey told the audience.
The bands are deeply connected to Yale. All members of the Professors of Bluegrass were either Yale undergraduates or professors. From there, they went their separate ways as auctioneers in Tennessee, law scholars and professional musicians. Liszt even toured with Bruce Springsteen.
“It’s nice to see the professors out of their element,” said Lisa McDonald, an employee of Yale-New Haven Hospital and audience member.
McDonald has been familiar with the New Haven bluegrass scene since 1977, when a friend brought her to a Helium Brothers concert.
Two of the Professors were absent during Sunday’s performance. As a result, the Professors of Bluegrass had 20 minutes to practice with the two last-minute replacements before going on.
Despite the 11th hour changes, the band went through its 11-song set, which included two encores, without a hitch. Replacement fiddler Dan Stressler and Havumaki hit all of their harmonies.
“It was so perfect,” Harper Loonsk ’18 said. “It was the ideal Sunday venue, just too good to be true.”