Occasionally, throughout life, you get the chance to witness the beginning of something destined for greatness. If you’re lucky, you recognize it while it’s happening and avoid the “gee, if I had only known!” syndrome all to common to those of us too wrapped up in our own personal wars to notice much outside of our own skin. Such an event took place on Yianni’s Bar on St. Patrick’s Day, when, amidst the green beer, Guinness, and goggle-eyed students, Athens, Ga. band Day by the River (DBR) treated Tallahassee, Florida to the best version of “jam rock” that I have ever heard.
Day By the River, like all of the current crop of jambands, either directly or indirectly owes much of its inspiration from the Grateful Dead. The Dead, in turn, owed their particular brand of music to an electrified convergence of American roots music matched with the improvisational approach of modern jazz and performed with the rule-breaking spirit of the beat generation, all while tweaking the mix with a liberal dose of perception bending chemicals. Though all of these bands span the breadth of the musical spectrum, the common traits they share are dedication to relentless touring in pursuit of the live experience. Through live performance the bands are able to consummate their passionate interaction with their fans in order to break down some of the barriers between stage and audience, thereby integrating them into the performance. The key for all is evolution from what’s come before to what is about to happen.
Day by the River accomplishes these goals by creating a sound that is by turns ferociously funky and deeply jazzy. They seem to have found that elusive space where the primal beat of rock lives comfortably in the complex rhythmic world of jazz. In many ways the sound evokes memories of 70s fusion perhaps best exemplified by Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters album. But where much of that era of music substituted emotional impact for musical virtuosity, DBR never forgets that they are there to get people moving. This they do without fail as was clear at Yianni’s on St. Patrick’s Day where the always tough to reach Tallahassee drinking crowd could be seen bopping up and down throughout the room despite the attempts of some to treat the band as some sort of distant juke box. Their ability to seamlessly mix jazz, funk, and rock, with a healthy compliment of pop is borne from many years spent growing, learning, and playing together.
Four of the five members of Day by the River have known each other since they were kids growing up in Athens. Singer/guitarist Ted Lahey, keyboardist Walter B. Austin, bass player Patrick McDonnell, and drummer Dave Brockway all hail from that launchpad of successful musical acts. They all crossed musical paths at various points throughout their younger days, developing the early camaraderie that would later result in the fluid sound of their current conglomeration. The band started to coalesce into DBR in the early 90s as several of the members found themselves in south Florida attending the University of Miami’s School of Music. At Miami they began developing the serious and respectful approach they all share with regard to combining the necessary spontaneity of their particular style of playing while at the same time learning the realities of the music business and life on the road as a live act.
Jam sessions at parties around the university soon turned into well-attended gigs at clubs on South Beach during the brief period from about 1992-1994 when Miami Beach actually enjoyed a vibrant live music scene. During this time, DBR released its first CD, the smooth and groovy Shimmy, and began regularly selling out The Stephen Talkhouse, at the time Miami Beach’s premier live music establishment. Sensing the demise of that scene, and in need of a more geographically favorable location from which to tour, the band decided to relocate to their hometown of Athens which has been their base of operations ever since. Within a short time, original lead guitarist Buck Pryor decided to leave the band to pursue his own projects (his first CD is due out later this year). What could have been a devastating blow instead became a boon to the band as they spent a few months playing with the lead guitarist from the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Jimmy Herring, while searching for the right player to fill the regular lead spot. That spot has been filled by Maryland native Jason Rabineau who has brought his own cliff scaling musical talents to the group’s rapidly developing sonic mountain.
The lineup set, DBR focused on growing its solid base of fans. First was the release of the band’s second CD, Fly, which showcased their growing chops and expanding sound. Featuring a sound in the southern-rock vein, one could detect the increasing influence of funk in their songs. As the songs have developed in live performance, they have become full-blown phatty freakouts. Pat’s thick bass thumping combines with Walter B.‘s clavinet to create a genuine throb of sound that would get the shyest wallflower to bust a move. Their George Clinton inspired groove has affected the band onstage and off as messages from the band’s management reaches fans with a return address of “Muthaship.” Regular touring of the southeast commenced as the band nurtured intensely dedicated followings in Miami, Gainesville, Tallahassee, Athens, Atlanta, Augusta, Ga., Wilmington, S.C., and other spots in the region.
The devotion of the fans spurs from the interaction that the band encourages at its live shows. One song in particular from their CD Fly entitled “Naked,” frequently leads band and audience members alike to shed articles of clothing as a reminder of how we all started life, exhorting all to be fearless and open before its challenges. The fans also keep the band on their toes, demanding a fresh approach to originals and the occasional cover song alike (an assortment which ranges from Stevie Wonder to Prince, Frank Zappa to REO Speedwagon). The band also allows live taping and trading of each performance, but perhaps most significantly the closeness among the fans is fostered through the maintenance of a close-knit online community.
Started in early 1997, fans of Day by the River began communicating online through a listserver where all who sign up can post messages related to the band that are received as emails several times a day or a digest once a week. These fans, who have dubbed themselves River Rats (scientific name Rattus Groovicus) have become a fairly tight knit group who through their shared interest in the music of DBR have developed bonds of their own that transcend simply visiting each other, going to the shows, and trading tapes. The fans have taken it upon themselves to act as independent marketers of the band by spreading the music through the tapes, advertising local shows, contacting assorted media outlets, and generally “putting the word out.” The power of this online form of communication has forged a remarkable link among the musicians and their fans that has inspired the band to take a leap of faith that at present is unprecedented in the music world.
On May 10th, DBR released a new independent CD compiling live performances collected over the past several years called Watermarks. That in itself is not in any way remarkable. What is remarkable is that Watermarks is the first ever full-length CD released in the internet based format called mp3. Well-known to fans of jambands, mp3 is a technology that allows music files, which are generally too cumbersome to store and transfer online, to be compressed to a manageable size so that they become easy to deal with on an average sized computer. This now allows properly equipped individuals to record, copy, and transfer CD quality music as easily as sending an email. Websites such as “mp3.com” have become second only to porn sites as online destinations. Once there, it’s a relatively simple task to download any among the thousands of songs now available. Many bands of the jamband genre have collections of mp3s available on their websites.
As expected, music industry executives are concerned. Their typical claim is that mp3 poses a threat to the copyright that a band enjoys to control and distribute its music. To an extent, this is a valid concern since standard CDs do not contain any mechanism that can stop it from being recorded in its full digital glory to a computer hard drive then copied over and over. The argument, however, rings a little hollow though when considering the source. The industry labels serve three basic purposes: 1) to provide money to produce a CD; 2) distribution of the CD and; 3) promotion. At bottom, the label is interested in providing money for production of music that they can promote to radio stations and make lots of money through lots of sales. Of course, as we all know, no label has been creative enough in its thinking to figure out how to market studio recorded music as eclectic as that created by a jamband despite the fact that they fill clubs and halls across the country with a dedication not seen on this side of a Star Trek convention. The key for a jamband is not to limit the amount of material so that scarce resources get snapped up quickly at bloated prices. Instead, the key is to get as much out as possible as widely distributed as possible so that more bodies will show up at the live shows and sustain the band at the real source of its creativity. With Watermarks, Day by the River is about to pierce the fog of industry authority, taking control over its own music, demonstrating once and for all that the labels are often nothing more than a middleman concerned more with its own bottom line than in fostering the spread of good music. By using live recordings, the band has avoided the prohibitive and time eating cost of producing studio recordings. It is through enormous studio costs that labels, by “advancing” those costs, wrest control over content and quality of product. Once an advance is given, the band becomes obligated to pay it all back before ever seeing a penny in royalties. It also gives the label the ability to direct how the music ends up in its final form since it can always say a CD must conform to a certain category or genre of music so it can be marketed. This makes life difficult for bands such as DBR that are more musically sophisticated than a standard pop or rock band. Finally, if a label changes its mind about marketing and promotion, an album can disappear before it even appears, leaving the band eternally in the hole with that advance left unpaid. Day by the River is avoiding these strictures by promoting Watermarks through its online community, intense self-promotion in conjunction with start-up company Lauan Records, and constant touring. In support of Watermarks, DBR is about to embark on its first tour of the west starting in St. Louis on June 25th, and getting out to the west coast, culminating in the holiday blowout at the High Sierra Music Festival before continuing on and working their way back east.
In addition to all this, the mp3 format allows enormous amounts of information to be stored on the single disc. Watermarks contains over 4 hours and 20 minutes!! of music, and also contains all the software necessary to play on any computer using Windows, Mac, or Linux. It has a web formatted viewscreen to help users through the installation process, and contains other graphics, art, and other assorted information about the band, in addition to links to sites on the internet. All this for a retail price of $10.00. No wonder the labels are worried.
As one band member told me, “this is a pretty scary thing we’re doing, basically putting our whole catalog out at once.” I responded that though that may be true, Watermarks can’t help but be noticed in just the right communities, such as jambands.com, to make the venture worthwhile. Certainly other artists will be inspired to try the mp3 route than already have. The labels have already been caught behind the curve in their ability to prevent the spread of the technology, so it will have to accept mp3 as a force to deal with. The Rio player, a device allowing mp3s to be played like a Walkman, has been available for several months now, defeating legal attacks from the industry, and car and other home players have started reaching the market as well. As with so much involving the world of internet services and products, this is just the beginning. But with DBR at the front, it’ll be fun dancing into the future.
Bryan lives somewhere between here and there in Tallahassee, Florida where he occasionally behaves like a lawyer, a history doctoral student at FSU, a musician (drums mostly, some acoustic geetar, vocals and blues harmonica), and when pressed can whip up a mighty rad gumbo. He is still recovering from the String Cheese Incident show at Tipitina’s during Jazz Fest in New Orleans because as Hunter Thompson noted long ago “there is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge.”