Choir! Choir! Choir! Makes Audience Participation Next-Level With Help from Patti Smith, David Byrne & More

Choir! Choir! Choir!
Erizo Booking

Choir! Choir! Choir during a performance with people singing on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border on October 13, 2019.

One of the ensemble's most powerful gigs had a chorus sing in unison on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Daveed Goldman and Nobu Adilman take the stage. Hundreds of people have gathered in the audience, but this isn’t a regular show. The audience is the actual concert.

This impromptu gathering is Choir! Choir! Choir! (C!C!C!). The setup is simple: Goldman is on guitar and vocals, and Adilman conducts the audience, which acts as the choir. In nine years, the duo has gone from playing weekly gatherings at Clinton’s, a local downtown tavern in Toronto, to some of the biggest stages in the country with hundreds of choir participants -- and some famous faces.

David Byrne once joined a lobby full of participants at New York’s Public Theater for a stirring rendition of David Bowie’s “Heroes” -- the same spot where Patti Smith and The Police’s Stewart Copeland (who offered up simple percussion with a Brazilian samba frying pan) led the choir on Smith’s 1988 single “People Have the Power.”

“We didn’t create Choir! Choir! Choir! with an agenda beyond one night hanging out with our friends,” explains Goldman. “At the end of the first night, we just started doing it every single week, and then it snowballed. We realized it’s what people wanted. They wanted that kind of human contact and to get away from their phones and have a real moment with people.”

To date, C!C!C! has shared stages with multiple artists including Rufus Wainwright, Rick Astley, Tegan & Sara, Men at Work’s Colin Hay. Tapping their roster of fellow Canadian artists is what Goldman and Adilman do best, bringing in Joel Plaskett, Kathleen Edwards and Sloan’s Chris Murphy. Recently, C!C!C! went into the studio for the first time at Toronto’s Revolution Recording, along with 1960s crooner Andy Kim, for a sweet rendition of his 1968 pop hit “Sugar, Sugar.”

With or without a guest singer leading the brigade, the duo still has pulled off its choir performances. Nine Inches Nails’ “Hurt”? The pair’s got it covered. It has done Toto’s “Africa,” The Cranberries’ “Zombie” and countless other tunes across multiple genres. To pay tribute to Prince in 2016, it pulled together 1,999 singers -- a nod to the singer’s 1982 smash “1999” -- inside Toronto’s Massey Hall to sing Purple Rain’s “When Doves Cry,” with the proceeds benefiting a local music school.

But on Oct. 13, C!C!C! performed on its most unique stage yet: the U.S.-Mexico border. Hundreds of singers gathered along the Tijuana and San Diego border walls to sing The Beatles’ 1967 hit “With a Little Help From My Friends” after ArtPower, a University of California — San Diego organization that creates diverse cultural events, wanted to address the separation happening in its backyard.

“It just aligned perfectly with our mission to bring people together and in community through song and use those events as a springboard into deeper conversations about our lives,” says Adilman.

There were some difficulties to navigate, including getting clearance from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement so both men could lead a choir on either side -- something that had never been done before. Originally, Goldman and Adilman thought they would both have to stay on the U.S. side of the fence while directing the Mexican singers. ICE also wouldn’t let them set up a stage too close to the boundary on the Mexico side out of concern that someone might try to cross the border, so the stage had to be a few hundred feet from the wall. 

“There were so many potential reasons for this not to work out, but it’s kind of a miracle that it did,” says Adilman. “In the end, the stage, as you can see in the video, is a few hundred feet away from the wall, and it brought in all these audio challenges.

Watch this exclusive clip of the performance at the wall below.

ArtPower handled the on-ground logistics, including clearances for the performance on both sides, and the end result was a dual border choir with 500 singers on either side. After an hour of rehearsals, everyone was ready to sing, but not before a touching moment when the choirs of either side waved to one another.

It was not a political move. C!C!C! wanted to create a moment for people, regardless of whether they supported the current administration’s stance on immigration or not. “Our whole point was to create a moment of beauty in a place that hasn’t had enough of it recently and hopefully bring some hope and a little bit of light,” he says Goldman. “There’s only so much that we could actually do, but we did what we do, and I think people actually appreciated it.”

Goldman and Adilman have a dream list of musical acts with whom they would love to perform: James Taylor with “Shower the People,” Boy George and Culture Club for “Karma Chameleon,” Survivor’s Jim Peterik bellowing “Eye of the Tiger,” Sarah McLachlan, Phoebe Bridgers, Dolly Parton, Alanis Morissette, Neil Young. They remember when, years ago, they almost did a version of R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix),” but after being brought up to speed on the R & B singer’s legal issues, they opted for The Muppets’ 1979 Kermit the Frog-crooned hit “Rainbow Connection” instead.

Nearly a decade on, C!C!C! is still pushing its boundaries. In 2016, it launched the Choir! Choir! Choir! Foundation in partnership with the Toronto Foundation to better intertwine performance with its fundraising efforts. It has raised tens of thousands of dollars for domestic and international charities through such events as a Nov. 25 pairing with Canadian rockers Barenaked Ladies for a communal rendition of “One Week” that raised $15,000 for Covenant House Toronto. The duo also would like to return to the studio, and has a TV pitch for Choir: The Series, a music docuseries in partnership with Canadian TV and film production company Bangor Films that would chronicle C!C!C!’s evolution.

“I feel like we’ve hit our stride after years and years of experimenting with different things, but there was no model that we could follow in terms of what we do,” says Goldman. “The show will reflect all of those things -- everything from the celebrity events to us working with the people who come up to our events, getting their stories out, and just showing how we move through the world with this choir.”

The duo also wants to take C!C!C! international. This past summer, the choir went overseas for the Cork Midsummer Festival in Ireland. Moving ahead, they would like to focus on the United Kingdom and Germany -- two regions where they’ve seen a big following based on their own YouTube analytics. Adilman is also getting ready to release his solo album, TAVIE, in spring 2020.

For now, every Tuesday night still finds both men at Clinton’s Tavern for their weekly choir sessions. Through their growing community, C!C!C! will continue to spread the word and pull people together in song. “People show up from all different backgrounds. There are no auditions to join Choir! Choir! Choir!,” says Adilman. “And the conversations I’ve had when you’re face to face with people are so different than when you’re standing behind a screen. You can actually see them and feel their energy. It really has the power to transcend all the divisive stuff that’s going on in the world.”