As the musical force behind Lit Moon Theatre and the Gove County String Quartet, bassist and composer Jim Connolly strolls around town like a long-haired Clark Kent, tuning people’s pianos and then slipping off to his boat, where presumably he makes the change into his superhero identity of master musician and band leader. The concert at Center Stage Theater on Saturday night was named It’s Only Gravity That Makes Wearing a Crown Painful, after one of the pieces Connolly has composed, and it began with Connolly and his chief collaborator, Anna Abbey, onstage to present a dozen short pieces that he calls “Tea Lights.” It’s a clever name for a genre at which Connolly excels. He packs more ideas into some of these “Tea Lights” than many would-be Liberaces can get out of candelabras. The instrumentation for these pieces, while relying largely on Connolly’s bass and Abbey’s piano, nevertheless ranged as far afield as melodica and toy piano, both of which were used to great effect. At times, it sounded as though Augustus Pablo had booked a studio session with Gavin Bryars.
After the consecutive performance of the “Tea Lights,” which appear as interstitial “palate-cleansers” on the new Gove County CD, Abbey and Connolly were replaced onstage by the Gove County String Quartet proper, which features Sally Barr and Laura Hackstein on violins and Nick Coventry on viola, in addition to Connolly on bass. Connolly has made something of a specialty out of adapting familiar tunes for string quartet in surprising and charming ways, and this night was no exception. His “Why Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a set of variations on the theme to the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood program from PBS, and it’s a classic of its kind, full of sneaky twists and turns. Other highlights for the quartet included the eloquent “Bobo Is Hungry” and a beautiful piece called “There Are Some Things Even a 500-Year-Old Tree Has Not Seen.” At one point, Connolly grabbed his bass and scrambled up the aisle of the seating platform to play from the back of the audience, but soon enough he was back onstage, plucking with verve, and even jumping in with Barr and Abbey to make a third at the piano. Throughout the 12 short pieces and the seven quartet pieces, Connolly kept up an amiable and droll commentary on the whole thing, sharing with the audience the joy and friendship that’s at the heart of his tunes.