A Sunday evening on the edge of downtown Durham, a giant fan blows air into Fullsteam Brewery. Tables and benches are lined up, and a band is setting up. A suitcase of black binders holds sheets of song lyrics.
Weekends are traditional times for faith communities to hold services. This isn’t a service, but it is a time comunity gathers together. And they’re singing songs they learned at church or synagogue or by listening to the radio. Durham County Beer & Hymns is a monthly event held most frequently at Fullsteam.
With beer, too.
This isn’t the singing you hear after too much alcohol has been consumed, but more the song in a heart you’re more likely to hear belted in a casual setting.
“It’s a community sing-along. It’s all music we know,” said John Morris, there with Sunny, his Swiss mountain dog. Sunny lay on the floor or dipped his head for a stranger’s hand to pet.
“It’s all traditional music. It’s not just hymns,” Morris added, pointing out songs like “Lean on Me” and “Teach Your Children.”
At the June 4 Beer & Hymns, Morris, who is a regular, was tasked with something new. Jesse James DeConto, who founded the event and performs in the band, asked Morris to hold up a small white board with a number on it. The same way a small church might post the day’s hymn numbers on a board by the altar, the numbers correspond to pages in the songbooks.
Morris held up the board, with “114” written on it. The hymn was “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” Outside on Rigsbee Avenue, past the fan, passersby could still hear the strains of DeConto’s voice as he sang. The sun set behind Motorco Music Hall across the street, which had its own late Sunday evening crowd. Back inside Fullsteam, the crowd grew.
Each Beer & Hymns collects donations to give to a local nonprofit. In May, money raised went to the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. For June, the recipient was the Exchange Family Center, whose mission is to strengthen families and prevent child abuse and neglect through support, counseling and education. Beer & Hymns events have also been held at Linda’s Bar and Grill in Chapel Hill, Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro and now at Trali Pub in Morrisville.
Rachel Galander, director of the Exchange Family Center, contacted DeConto after a staff member told her about Durham County Beer & Hymns.
“I think it’s the coolest thing,” she said. “There’s a power that comes from getting together and singing. We do that in our own faith communities, but this brings everybody together.”
DeConto started Beer & Hymns about two and a half years ago. He’s been a newspaper reporter and a worship leader at local churches, and been involved with music for many years. His current band is The Pinkerton Raid. Most of the Beer & Hymns band are usually from The Pinkerton Raid. In June, the Beer & Hymns band members were DeConto, his brother Steven DeConto, Emily Pate, Tony Salli and Scott McFarlane.
The Beer & Hymns band has just evolved by who has shown up to play and sing, he said. DeConto has found that American folk hymns work best for a community singing event with about 20 songs a night.
“It’s Southern music. Stuff people may have sung on a front porch or backyard,” he said.
“Part of the reason all this works is it helps the bars on a night people aren’t really hanging out in bars,” DeConto said. Alcohol can do a lot of damage, he said, but can also create a togetherness. Beer & Hymns’ Twitter bio says “We sing loudy. We drink slowly. We make friends.”
Sydney Steen works at Fullsteam as a bartender. She has worked a few Beer & Hymns nights, and comes when she’s off work, too. She recalls an especially crowded one around the holidays. It was cool to see so many people come out to something she describes as “pretty consistently fun and a good time.”
“I like that it does both hymns and secular music,” Steen said. “I also love the crowd that it brings out. Even if they don’t drink beer, it’s just a lovely sense of community that happens.” DeConto and Pinkerton Raid are her friends, too, and great people, she said.
If Steen is working the Sunday night of the monthly Beer & Hymns at Fullsteam, it’s a nice change of pace, she said, and people come back.
“It’s always a good time,” she said. “People are happy. It’s just a nice crowd.”