Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The day the music died.

For the last eight years I poured every ounce of my heart and soul into my band, Hudson River School. And as many of you know, this past weekend, we officially said farewell to our friends, family and fans with one last performance in a small theater in Midvale, Utah.

I fully expected it to be an emotional venture. But, thanks to my eldest brother and his family and my second eldest brother who surprised me by jumping in his car and driving all day to attend the show, it was far more than I could have ever imagined.

I intended to write a blog post about the band and this experience, but I received an email notifying me of an article in the Salt Lake Tribune today that I think sums up the band experience much better than I (or anyone else) could ever imagine. And wouldn't you know it, another surprise from my brother Matt.

The article can be read here. But I'm also cutting and pasting it below.

Please enjoy.


"School's Out"

So I did something I'd never done before. And sadly, I won't get the chance to do it again. In retrospect, it's something I probably shouldn't have done (the timing was bad) but I couldn't have stopped myself if I'd wanted to.

Last weekend, at the tail end of a rejuvenating Thanksgiving Break (when I should have been doing other things, like seeing to the needs of my pregnant wife and four young daughters), I drove south from Idaho to Midvale, Utah, to see my younger brother, Steve, and his band play their farewell gig.

At the outset, my weekend fling was nothing more than a chance to say howdy to Steve, a University of Utah graduate and former Salt Lake City resident who not long ago entered the corporate machine in Colorado so he could feed and house his own brood. Steve didn't know I was coming, and so by the time I soared all 75,000 miles of my Dodge minivan over Malad Pass, with "Road Trip," a track from Hudson River School's debut CD, Scenes from a Vinyl Recliner, melting the copper from my feeble dashboard speakers, I began to laugh out loud. Why? Partly because I was looking forward to surprising Steve, but mostly because what I was doing felt so ridiculous but so sublime. The prospect of driving for hours to see an obscure rock concert in an even more obscure venue, Midvale's Main Street Theatre, had unhinged my spirit, and perhaps rattled a few bureau drawers in my psyche. It was a curious feeling. Innocent fun fueled on euphoria. The high-octane grandeur of small epics.

So why did my solo excursion to see America's final River show leave me feeling so melancholy once I returned? It's Monday morning, and I'm still trying to figure it out.

Despite the guilt I felt about abandoning my wife and kids, I drove to Salt Lake intoxicated with a sense of liberation, even destiny, as I traveled down to dedicate my holiday weekend to a littered but deserving back-street episode in Rocky Mountain rock history. Thirty minutes before the show, I cruised into Midvale, passing through the neon-spangled gauntlet of bodegas, tattoo parlors, late-night hair salons, and pawn shops that has usurped Midvale's once picturesque nineteenth-century Main Street drag. Unsure that I had found the right place, I gaped around as I drove slowly through the tree-shrouded shadows. Across from Midvale's impressive historical society museum, which in the company of so many shanty-town facades stuck out like an eyesore, I found a parking space, grateful to step into the placid late fall air and stretch my legs. As I walked south in search of the refurbished vaudeville hall in which my brother would unleash his swan song, I was reminded of how much of the world's history is made every day in the forgotten buildings and down the tin pan alleys that few people visit.

If I returned home from my impromptu junket with feelings of sadness, it clearly wasn't the show's fault. The warm-up act, The Trademark, a Provo-based metal band and long-time HRS devotees, rang the modest crowd's deci-bells with a spine-warping original set, complete with stage dives and audience shout-outs. Despite their rough edges, The Trademark displayed admirable energy and stage presence, especially in the face of such sparse attendance, which included one socially maladjusted scrooge who mega-heckled them in the silence between numbers.

"You suck!" the girl bellowed.

"Hey," The Trademark's stocky bassist countered. "Just so you guys know, I don't think you know how important this show is. This is for Hudson River School. We were just starting when, around here, they were the thing. Up there."

By the time Hudson River School was setting up and preparing to rain sparkling thunder from the rafters, the tiered hall held somewhere between fifty to sixty assorted fans. There could have been as many as one hundred (I can't remember, I didn't take my eyes of the stage for most of the night).

As Steve and his bandmates maneuvered casually around the floor, mixing with fans and family and hoisting their kids in the air, a visual montage of the group's history, assembled by guitarist Spencer Jacobs, eased across a screen at center stage. The pastiche of snapshots told the story of the band's colorful nearly ten-year trajectory of musical experiments and experiences: the live show from the Superdrag tour in L. A.; the late-night recording sessions; and shot after shot of the four lads ("dads" is more accurate now for more than one band member), all sleep-deprived with "road bedhead," eating burgers for breakfast in greasy spoon restaurants. A series of enhanced black-and-white promo pics showed them piloting Big Wheels and other kiddie bikes down a parking garage ramp. These last pictures reminded me of an image currently preserved on one of the band's You Tube "mood pieces" (the guys aiming their expressions at the camera with classic Lennon/McCartney sang-froid as they stand and straddle kiddie bikes on a crosswalk, a la alternative Abbey Road). During the slide show, the room fell silent. It felt as if I'd stumbled into a wedding reception or college reunion instead of a rock concert. The palette of visual memories recalled for everyone the band's signature X-factor: four offbeat guys in perfect synchronicity.

After a few clipped prefatory remarks from Bobby Brinton, the group's lead man, the River crew released a torrent of delightfully amplified melodies. For most of the show, I remained to the side, balanced on a railing, so I could get a good view of Steve and his bass guitar. As the show progressed, raising the mercury in the rock thermometer with every punchy backbeat and swooping power chord, I removed my hooded sweatshirt and proudly displayed my "HRS" T-shirt in the purple glare of the ultraviolet lights. Looking around, I saw many other fans, both old and young, wearing similar T-shirts. It may have been at that moment that the first inklings of sorrow struck me. It was over, I realized, before it had begun. Here I was, grooving to this fabulously soul-elevating sound with so many strangers who felt like family, and it was all because we had come to say goodbye.

If rock concerts can have themes, that may have been the one for the night: family. At times, I was struck by the make-up of the motley mob that had gathered in Midvale and adopted me for the night. Next to the guy with egg-beater hair and pierced nose, a grandmother in loafers and lacy vanilla sweater was getting jiggy, her ears corked with yellow foam ear plugs, her fingers tapping the cover of a library book. The girl in denim skirt, fish-net stockings, and Pat Benatar coiffure was careful not to skewer her stiletto heels through the toes of the tow-headed eight-year boy in collared shirt and jeans who kept banging his head against the air and throbbing his body like a trout taking shock therapy. It truly was a case of mulligan stew for the American soul. And I thought to myself, as I failed repeatedly to control my body's contortions, what other band in America could have drawn all this diversity under one roof on the same night? In the sold-out Vanity Fair of America's self-indulgent, absurdly nuanced, and overly niched music market (in which you are only a cowboy, skinhead thrasher, or Satanic misanthrope) where can you find artists whose appeal welcomes all age groups, cultural arenas, and musical tastes?

At Midvale's Main Street Theatre last Saturday night, that's where.

With each song, the band became more loose, animated, and unified. And with each song, we roared our approval. However, even as I hopped in happy chorus with my fellow tribesmen, women, and children, I looked around and saw that, despite our boundless energy, a nagging unsatisfaction still plagued us. We all seemed to be asking the same thing: Why didn't somebody sign them? Why hadn't they landed a major recording contract? It was the question that, along with every snappy River riff, lingered in the air. At one point, this shared undercurrent of proletarian angst erupted between numbers from a back row.

"Clive Davis is a fool!" someone shouted.

Those in attendance understood this fan's reference. Over three years ago, Clive Davis, a Sony recording executive, flew Hudson River School to New York for an audition. The trip resulted in a studio-produced single, the infectious and hip track, "Useless," and the possibility of a full CD contract, depending on how "Useless" played on American airwaves. For whatever reason, Davis chose not to sign them, and they returned home to finish self-producing Rise & Fall (so aptly and tragically titled), their professionally packaged follow-up CD, which they recorded in drummer Andy Patterson's studio and sold for six dollars the night of the Midvale concert.

On stage, however, the band only smiled at the bitterness expressed by its most vocal fan of the night. Uninterested in treading sour grapes through the winepress of the past, Bobby Brinton thanked us all for coming after each number, only once commenting on their hard luck.

"We almost made it," he said during a pause in the action.

In fact, in the Rise & Fall liner notes, the philosophical four thank Clive Davis for the chance to record with him at Sony. The words to one song they featured in their farewell set, "Don't Keep Me Waiting," a track not included on either Scenes or Rise & Fall, but released to fans via the Internet, summed up a moment of Zen enlightenment for the band and us. In this driving, exuberant celebration of future hopes, Brinton sings, "Don't waste time / Expecting what you had / If you give it up now / You'll never reach it / Stay in line / Forget about the past / If we live it up now / We'll always feel it." And as Brinton and his band advised those of us who gathered to witness the send-off, we lived it up and are still feeling the exhilaration of what we saw and heard in that backstreet theater. To end the show, Brinton played a solo acoustic version of "Rise & Fall" (a mesmeric folk-rock ballad that serves as an anthem for the band and, in many ways, the American quest for meaning). "They tell me it's part of the territory," Brinton sings, "Well, I don't know why you'd be sorry / Believe in me / When the hope we carried / Is broken, buried / Please keep me in your sight."

To my brother Steve and Hudson River School, I say you have nothing to be sorry about. You gave us more than we deserved, and you got far less than you should have received.

At the end of the show, which featured a pillar-shaking rendition of "The Great Mistake," the lights showered the hall with pale brightness, and we all squinted and looked around like homeless pets, not wanting to leave. Yes, the great mistake, I thought, as the band mingled with the fans on the floor like marines through a village of refugees, was that those who were in a position to didn't sign these guys. Reluctantly, we said our goodbyes, got our autographs, and trudged out of the Saturday night smoke and rubble of a dream unrealized. In the lobby, I took a moment to talk to Steve.

"So how's it going?" I asked, masking the rising whimper in my chest.

"All right," he said. "We made enough tonight to pay the rent on the place, so that's good."

Ah, little brother, the corporate dad. Here's me, blubbering like a dumped teenage crush, rending my T-shirt in sackcloth-and-ashes because of the demise of one of America’s most innovative mini-meccas, and he's concerned about keeping the ledger tidy.

On the drive back, I thought about Steve's cool reaction and wondered why I had become so emotionally involved in something that had started out as a simple favor to my brother. Listening to "Rise & Fall" again in my car, I realized why the tune had sounded so familiar, and I remembered that the Midvale show had not been my first River gig. Years back, when they were just starting out, Hudson River School played at Craigo's Pizza, a college hangout near the campus where I work. With a flash of recognition, I realized that Bobby had played "Rise & Fall" as an acoustic number there as well, that the song had to be at least a decade old, and that, after the Craigo's gig, the band had crashed in sleeping bags on our living room floor. The theme? Family.

Aficionados of nineteenth-century American art history will tell you that the Hudson River School, which included such painters as Thomas Cole and Asher Durand, became known for their sweeping landscapes that inspired awe and filled viewers with a limitless expanse of vision. Somehow, these painters walked out into the world, which for them was the pristine Hudson River Valley, and found that art was a matter of recording what you saw, and that what you saw in the outside world could enhance your inner life. Then, at the onset of the twenty-first century, a group of upbeat twenty-somethings in T-shirts and skatepunk shoes lugged their amps around the urban plateau of the greater Salt Lake area, and beyond (all the way to the Hudson River, as fate would have it) and splashed their rock canvas with a similar blend of inner and outer landscapes. In my car, past Pleasant View, I made the mistake of playing "Road Trip" again, to take me home. In this song, Brinton dabs minimalist notes and words like a plein air enthusiast cracking open his portmanteau of pigments at roadside on a desolate American highway: "Faded lines / Stretched to the sky / It's just the same design / Forever / Say your goodbyes / It's time to return back / To our former lives / Endeavors." At which point, I pulled off onto the shoulder and wept like a child.

At home, I sat in the car and listened to as many songs as I could before my wife came out and made me come in the house. Somewhere out on the road, I realized why I had felt so despondent.

It just wasn't fair.

We all know that the storage units and basements of the world bulge and rattle at every moment with the hopeful earthquake of garage bands that deserve larger audiences. But Hudson River School is not, and never will be, a garage band. When an amateur band forms and gives it a shot, we cheer from the aisles and wish them well. But when a band tries for nearly ten years (through college, work, marriage, family, and children) and when the music that band produces is really good, somehow we question the ethics of the universe. Anyone who listens to Hudson River School's music will conclude that their failure to secure a record deal is a reflection of the perverse and capricious standards of the popular music industry, rather than a commentary on the band's lack of creative talent. It's hard to say this, but in the end, Hudson River School might be better off not lumped in with the cookie-cutter, mail-order cliches that festoon and undermine contemporary music in America. Perhaps it is best that they won't share air time with all the moussed boy bands, cross-eyed emo jump-monkeys, and people who, rather than learn to play their instruments, feel the most musically remarkable thing they can do is streak buck naked through a ghetto in front of a prurient army of digital cameras.

So I've done something I've never done before. I've turned off my radio. All my Hudson River School CD's and EP's are set to perpetual autoplay in my car. Perhaps this is the final guerilla action that can deliver a breath of lasting justice. By not listening to the industry that wouldn't listen to my brother's band, I will replace the music of the moment with a river of enduring tunes.

Though much of what Hudson River School accomplished lies broken, buried, I will still believe in them and keep them in my sight.

5 Comments:

Blogger Connie said...

Wow! What a tribute!

4:38 AM

 
Blogger Hailey Happens said...

There is nothing that can be said after that! Amazing

6:15 AM

 
Blogger Roger, Roger said...

I told your bro those were the EXACT same words that I was going to use in the DVD liner notes. Now I have to actually make something up.

11:40 PM

 
Blogger M. Babcock said...

Well done, brothers, well done. Hopefully you'll find some solace in the devotion of your eight year-old neice, Mia, who also attended the farewell gig. This week she decided to don her HRS shirt and bring her copy of "Rise & Fall" to second grade show-and-tell.

7:25 PM

 
Blogger Anderson Family said...

It sounds like you have a great bro.
It is astounding that you guys were never signed.
Rock on!

10:39 AM

 

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