When forming a band and making music, lots of components come into play — songwriting, recording, genre, and harmony among band members are perhaps the most crucial aspects to a long-lasting and successful group. For members of Valley band feeney/winthrop, creating music is a creative outlet and has been since they formed the band more than 35 years ago. Members are vocalist Matthew P. Feeney, chair, Snell & Wilmer; guitarist and singer is Judge Lawrence F. Winthrop, Arizona Court of Appeals, Division One; piano player Luke Holton; Pat Winthrop; bass player Gerry Garcia; and Ellen McWhirter.
So how did these professionals come together to form the band?
“Back in 1984, when Matt and I were both working at Snell & Wilmer, I heard Matt was a singer and played the guitar,” Winthrop said, “so I introduced myself and basically invited myself into his next music practice, where he auditioned me. That led to a more formal arrangement with three of us, including Ellen McWhirter. We decided to name the band Turning the Tide, which was based on a book by Noam Chomsky, which was a piece of optimistic writing about social change.”
They continued as a trio into the early 1990s. McWhirter eventually left the band and Winthrop’s wife, Pat, joined the group in the late 1990s. Since the early 1990s, they have been known as feeney/winthrop. Holton joined the group five years ago and McWhirter rejoined the band in 2019.
“We’ve found it to be a useful vehicle to make contributions in our community in a variety of ways on behalf of a number of different groups including Andre House and St. Vincent de Paul and now for the last several years, St. Joseph the Worker,” Winthrop said.
The most prominent event feeney/winthrop hosts is their annual benefit concert at Xavier College Preparatory in Phoenix, with proceeds supporting local nonprofit St. Joseph the Worker that serves the homeless and working poor community by helping them find jobs. However, given how current events have been disrupted due to COVID-19, the concert was postponed and feeney/winthrop performed a live stream concert on the night of the already-scheduled benefit concert, March 28.
The 30-minute live stream was performed from band member Luke Holton’s living room in Arizona and feeney/winthrop performed about six songs, had about 750 views, and their fundraising goal was $50,000. On the night of the live stream on March 28, they had raised about $43,000.
Feeney said they ideally would want to reschedule the concert this fall, but given the current situation, it’s possible they might move the concert to next spring. Although they didn’t get to perform in front of an audience like usual, Feeney said the band members enjoyed playing.
“We loved it, it was so much fun,” Feeney said. When they were playing, comments were coming in live during the concert, which Matt said was cool to see when they watched the playback.
They also still worked with St. Joseph the Worker, sharing with people how to watch the concert on YouTube and information about St. Joseph the Worker with a link to their website if people wanted to donate.
“Brent Downs (executive director, St. Joseph the Worker) was watching and he was sending nice notes during the concert, so we are still squarely in St. Joseph the Worker’s court,” Feeney said. “This is the time when St. Joseph the Worker’s work is going to become even more important because with the unemployment rate being what it is, this is when people of little to no means are really going to need that help, so we’re hopeful that people will recognize that this is a wonderful organization to support because it helps people find jobs and people finding jobs especially now is a really important thing and they are still front and center of our minds.”
The band has hosted the concert supporting St. Joseph the Worker since 2008 and through 2019, the concerts have raised more than $450,000. The band came to partner with St. Joseph the Worker when Feeney was involved with Andre House, which is a Catholic worker house in downtown Phoenix, in the late 1980s. St. Joseph the Worker was formed in 1988 by Andre House Father Mike Baxter after some Andre House guests inquired if there was anything the organization could do to help people on the street get jobs.
“I was involved with St. Joseph the Worker heavily in the early years,” Feeney said. “They don’t charge any fees to help the homeless and poor find jobs. It’s an incredible, efficient organization that doesn’t accept any government funding, so the mission is very pure. It’s one of those organizations that you’ll have a hard time finding anybody who thinks it’s a bad idea to find work for people who are interested and able to work.”
Winthrop says the band’s genre has morphed through the years; starting as an acoustic-oriented band with a collective love of traditional folk music, to incorporating a jazz influence into their music when Luke Holton joined the group five years ago.
“So we’ve expanded what we’re doing, we still do a number of traditional folk music tunes but we’ve also tried to bring the setlists into the 20th and 21st centuries and I would add that both Matt and Luke are very talented songwriters, and over the last several years, every performance we’ve given has included a number of original songs as well,” Winthrop said. Feeney/winthrop has also released five albums through the years and are available on Apple Music and Amazon.com.
Although the benefit concert is usually the only set performance by the band each year, Feeney said they also play a handful of times for certain groups throughout the year in a charitable capacity such as the U.S. Court of Appeals Christmas party.
“We’ve been privileged to play at a number of interesting venues over the years for a variety of groups, so, for example, we’ve played at the MIM (Musical Instrument Museum) three times, most recently we played at Taliesin West in Scottsdale for a group. Generally speaking, it’s for a nonprofit organization or an organization with which Matt or I are affiliated,” Winthrop said.
feeney/winthrop has two main goals when they’ve hosted their benefit concert: one is raising funds, as Feeney said St. Joseph the Worker can make financial contributions go a long way, and the second is to raise awareness with people who show up to the concert about food banks and the work that St. Joseph the Worker does to assist with alleviating homelessness.
“St. Joseph the Worker is a 31-year-old nonprofit in the Valley,” said Brent Downs, executive director, St. Joseph the Worker. “Our main goal is to connect the willing participant with employment as fast as possible, so we ring a bell every time someone gets a job at St. Joseph the Worker,” Downs said, “because there’s only one way out of poverty and off the streets and that’s self-sufficiency, which comes through employment and a paycheck. So we really focus on connecting our clients with quality employment that will get them to self-sufficiency.”
Downs said eight years ago the organization was serving about 600 people a year–now in 2020, they are helping close to 600 people a month, which is equivalent to 6,000 people a year. Downs credits the growth to sticking to their mission and increased awareness of the organization from the feeney/winthrop concert.
“St. Joseph the Worker has grown and been innovative within the employment space,” Downs said of the organization’s growth. “We provide dignity and respect and that purpose in working because most of us work for more than just a paycheck. We get a sense of dignity and purpose when we go to work every day, and so we want to provide that to our clients and we do that every day.
“I’m so grateful for the feeney/winthrop concert because when the band is up there singing and talking about St. Joseph the Worker you feel the mission in their words,” Downs said. “We have a mutually beneficial relationship and it’s kept us focused on our mission, all about community support, and the awareness of our organization with 550-600 people attending the concert is tremendous for St. Joseph the Worker.”
Winthrop said part of the leadership in the community to support the benefit concert has come from APS, their presenting sponsor for the last 13 years.
Both Feeney and Winthrop have different perspectives as to how the band, creating music and making a difference in their partnership with St. Joseph the Worker has impacted their lives.
Winthrop: “I truly believe music enhances all of our lives, both individually and collectively and it’s such an important form of communication and it really allows us to connect with each other. And often at these concerts, Matt will tell a story about Pete Seeger, a well-known folk singer and activist. He mentions that people come in as individuals or as couples but through the power of music and sharing a common interest in a particular goal or set of ideals, everybody leaves as a community, and that’s the feeling we have when people come to the show and they exit because they’re talking about our responsibility to the less fortunate and the power of collective effort is so much greater than anything we can do individually and it’s a feel-good experience for everyone.”
Feeney: “At the Musical Instrument Museum, as you walk in there’s a quote on the wall that says ‘Music is the language of the soul,’ and I think that all of us in the group believe that, there’s a connection as performers that you feel with the folks that you’re performing with, but there’s also this magical connection with the audience and between members of the audience and it just happens and I don’t know if there’s anything else that works in quite that same way that music does, and as Larry said, this notion of building a community within that Xavier concert hall is the best part of this show.”
Feeney said he hopes the band will continue to play together for a long time (they have been playing together for 37 years). “We still have fun doing it, we spend a lot more time playing in each others’ homes just practicing than we do playing publicly. I just want to keep doing it and continue to write songs and record music and to put it out there so at the end of the day we have a body of work that will make it clear to people that making music was very important to us.”