Here’s to the losers
Drag The River seems to be pretty comfortable with the fact that they’ll apparently be playing to barely-filled rooms for their career.
I previously talked about how excited I was to be seeing the Colorado alt-country band for the first time I wasn’t too sure what kind of show it would be but it felt a lot like their previous live albums with a decade or so added on. That is to say they played some songs slower than their recorded versions where the opposite was generally true on their previous albums. They also appeared as a four-piece, a configuration that proved to hamper how faithfully some songs could be reproduced (more on that later).
Perhaps to bolster their frequently-rocky and on-again/off-again status, they sought to reassure the audience that they are looking at the present and into the future right from the opening. They began the set by playing the first two songs on the record that they have stated should be out by the end of this year (although, really, they’ve put out albums as much as two years later than they had previously claimed). I wish I could remember more details about them but I was in an absolutely daft state of euphoria at the time so I haven’t retained much. I vaguely recall them hewing back to the band’s earlier era, the second song (being the first on the new record) referenced the Witchita skyline in a number that called to mind a bit of Weylon Jennings influence.
Another pair of songs followed, this time off their flawless LP Closed, an album it seems they’ve been scrambling to match the quality of for over a decade. “Embrace The Sound” begins that record and it’s a textbook Snodgrass misery-mired weeper (less so in the harder-to-find version he recorded with his “punk” band Armchair Martian). Following in the vein of the songs before it (and most of those that would follow) the band played a very rock-ist version, actually hewing a little closer to the Armchair version than the Closed cut. “Medicine” was a slower, gentler take, but on this night those versions would be fewer and farther between.
Frankly, you could probably draw a delineating line right down the middle of the songs; on one side were the fully-rock numbers, the others the sombre ballads, with only a few straddling the dividing line. Tracks like “Me and Joe Drove Out To California” have and always will be power chord-laden energetic stompers. But numbers like the immortal “Get Drunk” that featured dizzying electric or slide guitar leads in their previous recorded iterations were at a loss here; without the frenzied fretwork of some of the band’s previous lead guitarists it felt like there was an element missing. Snodgrass did his best to re-work some of those lead parts but when a human dynamo like Zach Boddicker has played on your recordings that’s just a bell that can’t be un-rung.
Some of the most thrilling moments came with the half-dozen new songs that were presented, particularly those on the band’s latest 7″ single. “Losers,” previously heard on the acoustic demo recording 2010 Demons (a German vinyl-only release), has softer moments and harsher rock passages; it’s also one of the few songs where Snodgrass and Chad Price trade off lead vocals (if not the only one; the version of The Replacements’ “Portland” that features both of them is actually spliced together from two different recordings). It’s a great idea that worked fantastically on their version of Sam Cooke’s “Having A Party.” “Marooned,” which is also on the new 7″ but was previously released on a split single with Chris Wollard & The Ship Thieves, is another slow-building number that hits some great rock notes eventually. “History With History,” a terrific solo acoustic Snodgrass number on the demo record, was also rendered as a near-punk number with the tempo accelerated and the chords all power.
After closing with the one-two punch of “Lizzie” (maybe the most blatantly rock song they’ve done) and “Get Drunk” the band ditched the stage. Thanks to a small but ravenous group of die hards/drunks who wouldn’t stop shouting, however, Chad Price wandered back out to do not one but two additional songs. The haunting ballad “Beautiful & Damned” was a show-stopper on It’s Crazy and it remains so in the live setting; Price closed his eyes, digging deep within himself to convey the painful circumstances of yet another deeply-damaged character. His singing is throaty and hoarse but he captures melody through passion alone, willing the right notes to come out and imbuing his songs with extreme pathos. That’s a big part of what makes this band so great; there’s no posturing with them, they write about what they know and what Price knows is a shit-ton of pain and bother.
The last song was a slightly drawn-out version of the same album’s “Mr. Crews,” which sounds like it’s about this guy but lyrically is more about this one. It got plenty of hoots and hollers from the couple dozen people up front. That’s what was so cool about the show, really; the die-hards and drunks. See, I figure that’s why Drag The River is okay playing to maybe 60, 70 people after more than 15 years of pretty consistent touring. Drag The River are die-hards; they’re also drunks; their die-hard fans are also pretty much drunks, as far as I can tall. It’s like Price sings:
Here’s to the losers. We’ll drink from the bottle like there’s no tomorrow; there may not be.
Or, as he also sings: I love to get drunk. And I love this band.
Oh, and I’d like to talk a little about one of the show’s openers, Vancouver fellow Ben Rogers. He definitely made an impression on me and my pal.
Rogers fancies himself a true folkie. I mean, a serious folk artist. He’s got a thing about Woody Guthrie; he might even, in his less lucid moments, think that he is (a) Guthrie. His album, Lost Songs, is a collection of raw music; the songs are just acoustic guitars, harmonica, and his alternating howling and crooning.
Like so many prominent singer/songwriters it’s the voice that gets you. Rogers started his set audaciously; as the curtain was pulled back after the gear change-over Rogers simply muttered a gruff “Hello” before he started strumming and howling a high-pitched whine. And brother, I mean howling. As my friend Terrence described it it was almost painfully high-pitched and piercing, absolutely. He then proceeded to growl out a story-song about a small town boy coming to the big city and falling into drug dealing to get by.
His vocal delivery is all-encompassing, regardless of how assertively he uses it; I don’t know if it’s an affectation but when he sings his songs he sounds like the grizzled old prospector or Carolina coal miner he writes about in his antiquated lyrics. He growls, he whispers, he hisses, and it’s all incredibly evocative. He’s a very young man but he has the voice of his grandfather caught in his throat and it’s fighting to get out every time he opens his mouth.
Like I said, his songwriting is trapped in yesteryear. He writes dusty murder ballads, stories of the unsettled prairie and the dangers that set it apart. Unfortunately he relies on outdated nomenclature in what feels like a cheap shock value tactic. It starts in the liner notes for the record, which is actually a really well-constructed homemade chapbook-style package. In it he explains how he fell in love with Woody Guthrie’s music. He also recounts what was apparently a formative story his grandfather once told him about his granduncle; it ended with the man mistakenly shooting a “squaw” and being killed by the local First Nations tribe for it. It continues with the reprehensible song “Cowboys and Indians,” which prominently features references to “prairie n_____s.” You know. The n-word?
That might seem like a bold artistic choice to some but hearing it on the record kind of made me want to throw up. And it’s a shame because it draws attention away from bolder and more successful songs like “The Dealer” and more Guthrie-like campfire sing-alongs like the laid-back and gorgeous “Kingdom Come,” a song I honestly think Woody would’ve been thrilled to have written.
I honestly think Rogers has more potential than any young musician I have seen perform in a long, long time. A long, long time. And I have no problem with artists that are into a throwback sound. But good god do I never want to hear another song that uses such a blatant racial slur, regardless of context (or genre; part of the reason Shad is my favourite rapper is because he doesn’t go anywhere near that nonsense). Write all the historical fiction you want, throw the past mistakes and atrocities of the white man back in our faces if that’s what you’re into, just find a more tactful way of doing it, if it isn’t too much trouble. Okay?
If you’re into Drag The River visit their web site and BUY BUY BUY!!! They just announced the release date for their new record as Nov. 5! HOW EXCITING!
Ben Rogers’ album can be found on Bandcamp.
Oh, and if anyone cares here’s the DTR track list:
2nd song on upcoming new record
1st song on upcoming new record
Embrace The Sound
Me and Joe Drove Out To California
Leaving In The Morning
Calloused Heart Pt. 2
Tired and Fired
Booze ‘n Pills
Song For Robin Reichhardt
What about you?
History With History
Beautiful and Damned