Apr 25, 2017

Forgive Us Our Trespasses: Public Space and Passing for Wealthy

This article originally appeared on the Love Wins Community Center blog.

Even though there are almost no public bathrooms in downtown Raleigh, I can stride through any restaurant or coffee-shop towards their bathroom and nobody would think to stop me. This is because I pass for wealthy. I am white, have all my teeth, wear clothes that I picked out, and am usually reasonably clean. A barista sizing me up in the doorway would conclude that I am middle-class, could afford to eat there, and am probably hurrying to a table where I am meeting a friend. Passing for wealthy also carries the manipulative privilege of Threatening to Complain. If the barista were to accost me and tell me that they didn’t have a public bathroom, I could throw a hissy fit and announce that they had just lost a faithful customer. Just to clarify, I have never done this, but only because I have never been stopped when using the bathroom in a restaurant.

Not only am I culturally allowed to be in this public place, my privilege allows me to push its boundaries with impunity. This has made me realize that the concept of “public space” really only applies to the middle-class, or those who can pass as such. Before I started working at Love Wins I was unaware that somebody could be arrested for being homeless, but it is a frustrating reality. If you live outside there are very few places where you are legally allowed to be (if any.) If you are caught sleeping on the street, in the park, behind a building, in a yard, under an overpass, or anywhere else, you can be charged with second-degree trespass. North Carolina law states that, “A person commits the offense of second degree trespass if, without authorization, he enters or remains on premises of another: (1) After he has been notified not to enter or remain there by the owner, by a person in charge of the premises, by a lawful occupant, or by another authorized person; or (2) That are posted, in a manner reasonably likely to come to the attention of intruders, with notice not to enter the premises.” [source] This faulty logic is extrapolated to other charges such as prostitution. Criminalizing prostitution does nothing to help solve the problem of exploitation or make the community safer; it only removes vulnerable people from public view and forces them further underground.

Every morning before we open up the center, I look through mugshots from the night before to see if anybody from our community was arrested. If I recognize somebody, I feel concern rather than fear because I know that so many of the charges have to do with simple lack of privacy. My friend Tom was excited to go out drinking on Friday night, just like the rest of Raleigh, but because he didn’t have money to go to a bar or throw up in an Uber he was arrested for second-degree trespass and public intoxication. If a public intoxication charge was really just about being drunk in public there would be no beer festivals, jam band concerts, or bars at sports arenas. The less money/privilege you have, the less privacy you have. Living a life in public means going to a public library to use a computer, taking showers in public facilities, eating at a crowded soup kitchen, riding the bus, and being unwelcome in public places because you can’t pass for wealthy.

As a kid I thought that churches always remained open so that people could sleep on the pews and “take shelter” in that romantic Disney Hunchback of Notre Dame way. There is also the sentimental perception that homeless people construct tiny houses out of cardboard and sleep in alleys. In reality, conspicuous poverty is criminalized in cities. It’s why so many people take to the woods with tents, tarps and sleeping bags instead of spending the night in crowded, dangerous shelters that kick you out early in the morning. I know that having my own space makes me feel more human, less anxious, and able to recharge before I go back out into the world. If that safe space was taken away from me I would certainly endure driving rain, camps of strangers, and raccoon roommates in order to get it back.

Living literally “on the street” is in some ways an oxymoron; if you are homeless you are not allowed to exist anywhere in public unless you are on your feet, on your way to somewhere else. And even if you are given space, it can be taken away just as easily. My friend Jade, who has a permit to stand by the side of the road and “fly a sign” to ask for spare change, is told by police to make herself scarce when a politician or celebrity comes to town. They don’t want her presence, a visual reminder of poverty and inequality, making Raleigh look bad.

The core of Love Wins’ mission is to offer “a place to be,” where everyone is welcome. It’s the first phrase out of my mouth whenever people come in to ask about our program (there isn’t one) or services (they vary depending on our resources.) People come here to take naps, sit and talk, gossip with their friends, drink coffee, talk to themselves in the mirror, make PB&Js, charge their phone, use the landline, read, chain-smoke outside, soliloquize to anybody who will listen, take a sink-bath in the bathroom, and a multitude of other things. We do this because one of the most immediately apparent realities of homelessness is that no public space is meant for you, not even the sidewalk. You will be hustled out of coffee-shops, public bathrooms, stoops, buses, churches, libraries (if you fall asleep or sit on the floor), and told to keep moving or you will be arrested. But we believe that existence should never be a crime.

Feb 17, 2017

Our Morning Coffee

This article originally appeared on the Love Wins Community Center blog. I am working there for a year through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

Every afternoon at closing, I make a 100-cup pot of coffee and set it on a timer to brew at 8 am the next morning. If I falter or am forgetful at any point in the process – if the timer isn’t set correctly, the pot isn’t switched on, the filter isn’t cleaned out – then I have to tell a crowd of tired, cold, and hungry community members that it will be another 45 minutes until they can have their first cup of coffee. It also means that I will have to stumble around until then, getting hygiene kits and putting away donations in a bleary haze. Coffee is very important.

In many ways, coffee is the great equalizer. A senator needs his morning Starbucks with the same ardor and intensity as the person on the sidewalk outside the Starbucks waiting for his spare change. It’s the first requirement for an office, an A.A. meeting, a church reception, a soup kitchen, a diner, a college dining hall, and for Love Wins. When I meet somebody who is visiting us for the first time, I always offer them a cup of coffee from the kitchen. It’s an invitation to relax, stay a while, and partake of our community in a small but significant way. The warmth of the cup in your hands imparts a feeling of comfort and stillness while the subtle lift of caffeine makes staying awake a little easier.

There’s cultural meaning encoded in a cup of coffee. It’s what you drink when you need to wake up, focus, and get things done. I have a cup of coffee beside me as I write this. It helps you to face the challenges of the day, to feel like a functioning adult. Your coffee can also tell a lot about your class and attitudes. We use powder creamer for our coffee, and pour sugar from a plastic jug. Carrying a latte in a white paper cup gives a much different impression than holding a ceramic mug filled with drip coffee. At Love Wins, we all drink from the same pot and pick from the same gallimaufry of donated mugs.

Since the function of our space is primarily a place to be during the day, we don’t promise to have a great many amenities. We will always have a public agender bathroom, space to take a nap, books to read, a community phone; and we will always have coffee, creamer, sugar, peanut butter, jelly, and bread. These are the building blocks of hospitality, from which we can make Love Wins an open and welcoming place for all.

Jan 19, 2017

Notes from a Southern Sojourn

This article originally appeared on the Love Wins Community Center blog. I am working there for a year through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. 

It snowed in Raleigh and I missed it. I was up in Vermont, visiting family for the holidays and catching up on sleep. I read more and drank less coffee. I was getting chilling reports of black ice and freezing temperatures from my friends back in Raleigh and getting so worried for the land without snowplows and -tires. I dug through boxes of storage in my mom’s house to find my winter coat in order to survive winter in New England and the South. Of course, since I’ve had it here with me we have had 40-60° weather. Such is life.

As I was going around Vermont catching up with friends and ex-co-workers, the one question everyone kept asking me was, “Raleigh! What is that like?” The first thing I always say is that the food is better in Raleigh. We Northerners still haven’t gotten down the delicate art of deep-frying things (although we do try) and there’s always the irritating Puritanical strain of health-conscious asceticism that is blessedly absent from the South. I can’t describe my delight at coming to the Love Wins Wednesday lunch and hearing men encouraging women to eat more. There seems to be comparatively more tolerance for fat here, which makes my heart glad.

Since living here I have tried fried okra, frozen custard (shout out to Goodberry’s,) North Carolina BBQ (both Eastern and Western,) pimento cheese dip, collard greens, and fresh Krispy Kreme. The savory aroma of Bojangles fried chicken biscuits greets on the morning of our weekly staff meeting, bleeding grease from a paper bag. While working here I have also become reacquainted with the dependable, essential goodness of peanut butter and jelly. I can’t afford to go out to eat much at all, so whatever gastronomic adventures I’ve had have been someone else’s treat or an irresponsible splurge. I often fall back on PB& J, apples, and coffee.

Language was the main difference I expected when moving to the South. I was not wrong about that. I still occasionally struggle to understand the mellifluous, smooth regional accent with its dropped suffixes and meandering vowels. I’ve also learned that a “toboggan” is a winter hat, rather than an old-timey sled and have caught myself saying, “Get you some of that.” Honey, sugar, sweetie, and baby are pervasive and not worth getting indignant about. I also hear them used interchangeably between genders, which makes me feel a bit better. My favorite thing is a bumper sticker our director Hugh has on his car that reads, “Y’all means all”. It’s a protest of the absurd HB2 transgender bathroom law, but has a greater message of equality. “Y’all” is far superior and gender-inclusive than the inadequate “you guys” I learned to say while growing up.

In Vermont, you will see a white guy in camo jackets with salt-stained boots, dragging on a cigarette as he walks by you without making eye contact. At most, you will get a brief, tight smile. In North Carolina you will see the same thing but there’s a higher likelihood the guy will be non-white, the boots will have mud instead of salt, and you might get a deferential nod in your direction. People actually smile at each other on the street here; it still freaks me out. But I also like it. If somebody doesn’t hear me, they will say, “Ma’am?” in a way that makes me feel like a schoolmarm. It’s a whole different world of mannerisms here.

Hospitality is another thing that I have become extremely conscious of. There’s still hospitality in the North, like at the Crossroads diner in White River Junction where my 5-year-old sister has called one of the servers Aunt Julie since she was a baby. I wouldn’t say that people in New England are ungracious, but definitely more aloof. The word “hospitality” is not used much, but people are people and relationships will always matter. However, practicing hospitality in everything you do is a distinctly Southern thing, and a principle that informs the social service agencies I have come into contact with here. Maintaining relationships, remembering someone’s name, putting out plenty of coffee and food, and doing little extra things to make people feel comfortable in your space goes such a long way for us at Love Wins. I’m beginning to think that it’s one of the best basic human practices to cultivate.

Dec 14, 2016

Adventures of an Agnostic in the Weird World of Catholicism

This piece originally appeared on the blog Sick Pilgrim, here.

When my roommates first told me that they were going to get time off their Purgatory sentence by going to confession, praying for the Pope’s intentions, and walking through a holy door in a church downtown, I didn’t know what to do with my face. I asked a lot of questions that night.

I’m a volunteer in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and I often feel like a fraud because I don’t believe in God. I want to, but I don’t. With my Gideon bible and plastic rosary hanging as decoration on my mirror, I flirt with religion but can’t claim it as my own. I live in intentional community with five other volunteers working at various non-profits, we pray before meals and have Spirituality Night once a week, and despite my willingness to take part I still sometimes feel like an anthropologist with a notebook in my back pocket.

Thankfully JVs are not obligated to go to mass every week, pledge our celibacy, or proselytize to those we serve (I’ve realized that Catholics aren’t as into that as other Christians can be.) There’s no way I would have joined the program if that was the case. But I obviously knew there would be spirituality involved, and knew that I would be around a lot of Catholics. I finished my B.A. degree at a Catholic college, DePaul University, but I was drawn there more for Chicago and their American Studies program than Jesus. During the two years I spent there, I learned about JVC by taking service trips and decided to sign myself over to the Jesuits upon graduation.

I grew up a discontented Episcopalian girl who read books in her lap during the service and skipped out after Communion to plonk around on the musty piano in the fellowship hall. I remember being furiously indignant that I had to say things aloud in services that I didn’t understand or believe – I felt like I was being made to agree to a contract I hadn't read yet. I don’t remember any time in my life when I labeled myself as a Christian. My father is a Christian author and I knew how to speak the language because of him, but never felt comfortable in that world. We lived in Vermont, a fairly irreligious state, and I didn’t know many people my own age who believed in God. The only friend I had who was interested in discussing religion with me was an older boy on the bus who identified as a Satanist.

I have always been intellectually drawn to religion, keeping it at arm’s length through the lens of academia. I especially love learning about the dark and weird corners of religion, like snake-handling churches in Appalachia or the sky burial of Tibetan Buddhist monks (look it up, you won’t be disappointed.) Catholicism is just dripping with history, with more than enough darkness and morbidity in its past to satisfy any curiosity. I feel like I can move in religious circles because of my upbringing, but always as a politely interested outsider taking notes on everything that is new to me. For months I worked at a New Age crystal shop in Massachusetts, and although I dabbled in Tarot cards I did not find a belief system that made sense for me. It was also the most petty, dysfunctional, back-biting work environment I’ve ever been a part of and that soured the whole philosophy a bit.

I have had religious experiences in my life. I have felt a sense of the sublime while reading about space and astrophysics; beautiful music can do the same thing. And the Eucharist can move me to tears for reasons I can’t fully explain. Whenever I decide to attend mass with my roommates, during communion I have to walk up the aisle with my hands crossed over my chest like a mummy and stand before the priest while he says a blessing over me. This happened during my second week in JVC. After returning to my seat and seeing myself surrounded by sated, prayerful people who believed in God, I felt hot tears leaking out of my eyes. I felt alone, confused, and childishly left out of something huge. I hurried out of the church and waited for everyone in the parking lot.

I wanted to do a year of volunteer work before deciding on a career, and I did not choose the Jesuit Volunteer Corps at random. I wanted to put myself up against religious faith, even one fairly alien to me, to see myself in relief against it. From what I can tell so far, Catholicism is about pursuing and paying homage to the great mystery of existence. There’s that stark moment during mass when the priest says, “The mystery of faith,” and lets it hang in the air, a sentence fragment suggesting something deep and shadowy. For me that also encompasses the mystery of how someone can have faith, the leap that is required to get from cold rationality to God. I really admire that.

Dec 1, 2016

On the Bus

Left at the bus stop
This article originally appeared on the Love Wins Community Center blog, here. I am working there for a year as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.  

You can’t hide on the bus. You can deaden your expression, look at everyone’s knees, angle your body into the window, but none of it will stop you from having to share space with strangers. One evening after work I was riding the bus downtown to catch another bus home, and was horrified to realize that I was crying. A text I’d gotten while at work had upset me and it was just then sinking in. All I could do was stare fixedly out the window and try to control the shaking of my shoulders as I listened to the banter coming from the front of the bus. There was flirting, gossiping, commiserating, and harmonizing once a couple of ladies starting singing “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” They were the regulars of the evening #19 bus. It would have been a vibrant, fun scene to witness if I didn’t just want to disappear.

Riding the bus makes you realize that privacy is a privilege. Driving a car by yourself, silently gliding past crowds of people, seems radically insulated in comparison. You can’t hide while standing on the side of the road waiting for the bus to arrive, wobbling on your ankles as you tilt over the curb and peer down the road to watch for its approach. You can steel your eyes to not catch anyone else’s, look into a book or phone in your hand, or stare down the cars as they surge past. If you’re female sometimes cars will slow down and bray out something about your appearance, making you feel even more exposed. You will get hit on at the bus stop, but you will also have the most neighborly conversations you’ve had since living in Raleigh.

I’m accustomed to buses; I rode them out of necessity while living in Chicago, New York City, Massachusetts, and even Vermont. I’m in a year-long service program that encourages me to live in solidarity with the poor and marginalized. But I’m also new to this work, and by the end of the day I’m at the end of my emotional rope. It can be dispiriting when your transportation home takes 45 minutes instead of the 10 it would by car. If I am able to get a ride from someone I know, I will. While being in a constant state of solicitousness doesn’t feel great, it has also put me a little closer to understanding our community and how it feels to have to ask for things you need to get through your day.

Cabs are forbidden fruit, which I have succumbed to on a handful of occasions. It’s especially unpractical because I am only paid $100 a month through my service program. But when the bus doesn't run as planned, when I miss a bus and have to wait for an hour for the next one, or just when I've had a long day and feel emotionally exhausted, I have occasionally called for a cab. The first time I took one home from work I was standing at the bus-stop with a mom and her three toddlers, who were shouting and running up and down the sidewalk. After a while, we both noticed and read a sign taped to the bus stop pole, stating that the bus had been re-routed due to construction and would not stop there until January. She called her friend to come and pick her up, but her friend couldn't get there for an hour so she hauled her bags over to wait outside a building across the street. I walked up the road and sheepishly called Taxi Taxi.

People in our community are often surprised to learn that I ride the bus. I will sometimes see people I know from Love Wins at the stop or on the bus, and get into conversation. Yesterday I was standing at the Moore Square station waiting for my connecting bus, and one of our regulars walked by – a vivacious trans woman named Dustin. I called out to her and she came over to give me a hug, saying, “Hey! What are you doing out here with us commoners?” It’s times like that when I feel like I’m in the right place.

Oct 12, 2016

The Righteous Ruckus of Moonshine Holler

This article originally appeared in The Berkshire View magazine, here

Paula Bradley and Bill Dillof are walking encyclopedias of American music history. The music they bring to life in their band Moonshine Holler is “old-time” music, pre-bluegrass rural American music from the 1920s and ‘30s. These are vernacular roots songs from before the 20th century that only started to be recorded on 78 rpm records in the ‘20s. Paula and Bill’s dynamic, impassioned interpretations of these old songs both honor their origins and breathe new life into them.

You know you’re in for a treat when a band’s slogan is: “Sometimes rowdy, sometimes reverent, always a ruckus.” Moonshine Holler certainly generates more ruckus than you’d expect from a two-person band. “The hallmark of us as a duet,” Paula says, “Is that we encompass a lot of sounds, because we each play a lot of different instruments.” Between its two members the band incorporates guitar, banjo, fiddle, steel guitar, ukulele, kazoo, and harmonica (rack-style, hooked around the neck à la Bob Dylan.) Both members sing and provide percussion with hands and feet as needed.

Bill grew up on Long Island, coming of age during the “big folk boom of the 1960s.” He started playing music when he was 15 and was performing by the time he was 16, although it never crossed his mind to have music be his career. He can remember being a kid and listening to what he would later identify as old-time music, on his transistor radio under the bed covers. He enjoyed the likes of Jimmie Rogers, Woody Guthrie, and The Carter Family. He says, “It just fascinated me. It was alien, very otherworldly music, but there was something captivating about it that you didn’t find in the rock-and-roll of those days.” Moonshine Holler’s repertoire comes from both Paula and Bill’s respective lifetimes of listening to these obscure 78s. “Anything that you could possibly express about your life, your emotions, anything that songwriters write about, it’s already been written better than you could ever write it,” Bill says. And between the old-time’s sub-genres like murder ballads, novelty songs, and children’s music, the catalog to draw from for material is mind-bogglingly vast.

Paula is originally from West Virginia, but was raised mostly in southern New Jersey. She says that, “like Bill, the radio was a big influence on me.” Music was a passion of hers from the time she started piano lessons at age 4. She clearly remembers as a child listening to a folk radio show on Sunday nights out of Philadelphia, where she discovered old-time, country, and early blues music; this drove her to learn how to play guitar. She then told her piano teacher that she wanted to play blues. He erroneously concluded that she meant Gershwin, leading Paula to do a bit of digging in order to learn more about this music on the radio that so resonated with her. In college Paula dove into the punk music scene, until she started playing the banjo and clog-dancing at age 21. She and Bill met at an old-time festival in the early ‘80s, although they didn’t marry until 2001.

Paula and Bill both come from a thriving network of people who perform, collect, appreciate, and obsess over old-time music. They met through mutual friends from the same scene, and had both been attending festivals for years. After they became a couple, they moved to the Berkshires from Cincinnati in 1998. Everything fell into place with the first Moonshine Holler show a few years later, at the Berkshire Harvest Festival.

Since then, playing music has become a way for Paula and Bill to connect with their community. As Paula explains it, “We live somewhat remotely, up in the woods. By doing performances at libraries and the free concert series, we found a way to connect to our Berkshire community. It’s been a way for us to get out and meet people and that’s been really gratifying.” They are both retired and get to spend their time focused on the band. They have played at The New Bedford Folk Festival, Old Songs, and other festivals, although focus most of their efforts on the immediate Berkshire area.

The band released their first album in 2015, Old Time Melodies, a lively and eclectic collection of their favorite songs to play. It showcases their expert banjo-picking, fiddle-playing, and seamless vocal harmonies; the album is also a tour through one of the more uncommon annals of American music history. Old Time Melodies was produced and recorded by the Berkshires’ own Bobby Sweet, Arlo Guthrie’s lead guitarist. But as Paula says, they never play a song the same way twice – so to get the full experience you need to listen to the band in action live. Old-time music is social music, and “all about the party, the coming-together of people.”

Moonshine Holler has some upcoming shows in August, including a benefit concert for the Tyringham Volunteer Fire Co. on August 6 (2-4 p.m.) and the Great Barrington Farmer’s Market on August 13 (10 a.m.) To find out more, you can visit their Facebook page or their Reverb Nation profile at www.reverbnation.com/moonshineholler. They are also available for private parties and weddings, if you want to kick your next gathering off with a foot-stomping bang!

Sep 22, 2016

Rocks and Water, Strings and Fire

This article originally appeared in The Berkshire View magazine, here

Sitting on the glowing, polished wooden floors of Sruti Yoga Center, I am basking in the sound of guitar and violin intertwining. Alexis, on guitar, taps her bare feet and sings out with a rich, mellow tone. Tom, on violin, watches Alexis intently as his bow skitters in triplets over the strings. The violin’s snaking melody beautifully accents the vocals, and there’s a wistful Irish lilt to its sound. Tonight I am getting a private mini-concert by a great up-and- coming folk/bluegrass duo, Rocks and Water.

Tom Doyle and Alexis Haluska met four years ago at Hudson River Coffee House’s open mic. Tom was playing solo violin pieces with a looping pedal, inspired by Andrew Bird, and Alexis was playing songs on her acoustic guitar. They were drawn together by each other’s style, and found commonalities in folk, bluegrass, singer-songwriter music. Their first show together as a band was at Caffé Lena in Saratoga, where they opened for Darlingside.

Alexis and Tom settled on the band name while hiking and singing to each other. Because Tom is an undergraduate student and the two live in separate states, they try to incorporate band rehearsal into whatever time they get to spend together. “Rocks and Water” is the title of a song by Deb Talan, which Alexis and Tom cover in a thrilling, rousing variation. Right now Tom lives in Long Island and Alexis is in Lenox, although over summer break they play a lot of shows around the Berkshires. Their songwriting process is often conducted via Dropbox, where they can each upload riffs, lyrics, and chord progressions to trade back and forth.

Alexis describes it as a “virtual music relationship.”

“Our music is mostly inspired by how little time I have to write it,” she says. “I work a full-time job and so does Tom, so this music is a release for us. It’s a way for us to connect.” She deliberately sets aside time to write songs in her busy schedule, and the lyrics that come are usually inspired by her day-to- day life. An older song, “Ambivalence,” is about the frustration of not having anyone to play music with; now Rocks and Water perform it live as a duo. Alexis writes the bulk of the music, while Tom contributes his violin parts. He says that he is glad to leave “the catchy stuff” to her, because when he writes he can get “very anal and go off on tangents not fit for audiences.”

Both band members are from the Albany area – Tom is from Delmar. As a kid he wanted to play drums, but his father said that all drums were being replaced by computers so he should pick a different instrument. He chose violin. In college he started out majoring in Music Education, but switched to Biochemistry when he found that it was starting to mar his enjoyment of playing music. He comes from a musical Irish family, and Irish fiddling is a style he feels at home in. Although his primary musical project is Rocks and Water, he also plays with an upstate New York reggae-rock group called Brian LaPoint and the Joints.

Alexis hails from Guilderland, a town very close to Delmar, although she and Tom never met while growing up. She started teaching herself guitar at 16 after asking her parents for one for Christmas. She says, laughing, “Tom’s family is very musical, and my family asks me where I got it from. I’m the first generation.” Having always written poetry, she found that it was a smooth transition into writing songs. She looks up to female folk artists like Anais Mitchell, Sarah Jarosz, and Gillian Welch, with the ambition of joining their ranks. Alexis just bought her first electric guitar recently, and says that she is “very excited” to start experimenting with it.

You can listen to Rocks and Water or buy their EP at www.rocksandwater.bandcamp.com, and be sure to like them on Facebook to stay abreast of all their upcoming shows. On August 6 they will be performing at Sruti Yoga Center in Great Barrington (where I got my private concert,) at 7 p.m.

They will be playing songs from their forthcoming album, due out at the end of August.

Jul 1, 2016

The Road to Darling Valley: New Name, New Album, New Beginnings

This article originally appeared in The Berkshire View magazine, here.

If you want a quick visual representation of the mood of Darling Valley’s new album, Crooked Orchards, watch their homemade lyric video for the first single, “Graces.” The four band members take turns standing against a blue wall, flanked by balloons, and hold up poster-board signs with handwritten lyrics à la Bob Dylan. The number of balloons slowly increases and the sign-holding becomes sillier and sillier, as the breezy melody carries the song along. By the end of the video it’s a melee of laughter, air guitar, lightsaber jousting, and balloon bopping.

This Albany folk rock quartet is composed of two married couples: TJ Foster, Lauren Foster, Jordan Stewart, and Ashleigh Whitfield. Formerly known as Accents, they have released two albums previously but their newest release is their first album released under the new band name. Crooked Orchards came out on June 24, 2016, fresh off the presses of Sounds and Tones Records in North Adams. Chris Hantman from the label is a big supporter of the band, and they credit him for bringing the full creative vision of Crooked Orchards to life.

The warm, comfortable familiarity that the band members have with each other really comes through in their songs. TJ and Jordan met as roommates at SUNY Oneonta, and Jordan went to high-school with Ashleigh. The band Accents was created as a solo project for TJ, but he soon brought in Jordan and Lauren to do some recording and perform with him live. Jordan was married to Ashleigh at the time, and says that, “it was a natural transition for Ashleigh to join and create what is now Darling Valley, since she had been a vocalist for years and we were all best friends to begin with.” Ashleigh came from a chorus and musical theatre background, as evidenced by her rich, resonant voice. As she says, “I lived and breathed nothing but Broadway for several years.”

As the first release under their new name, Crooked Orchards marks a new sense of cohesiveness and beginning anew for the band. TJ describes the decision to change the band’s name from the more generic Accents to Darling Valley: “The four of us all came from different places and different backgrounds but we ended up where we are now, living less than a minute apart and we embrace that every day. That’s our darling valley – a place where we can celebrate every victory and plow through every loss together.” The band, in that sense, becomes a true home for its members, which they can furnish with their respective talents and passions. TJ feels solidly at home in music, and says, “When I’m writing or performing music I feel like myself. That longing for comfort and catharsis is really what keeps me playing day after day after day.” He was the one who urged Lauren to get back into singing and performing, and she credits him as one of her inspirations; as well as her “true muse: Jenny Lewis.”

Darling Valley’s sound is varied enough to satisfy any fan of folk, alternative pop, indie rock, or acoustic balladry. On this album, there are so many good tracks that it’s obvious they’ve come into their own stylistically. “Written on My Bones” begins with sweet, sparkling guitar and unfolds into the bright, acoustic rock sound that Darling Valley does best. Jordan mentioned that he was “on a Simon & Garfunkel kick around the time we recorded the album,” and it really shines through in places. The second single, “Widows and Revolutionaries,” is a rousing, foot-stomping song with a soaring melody, lyrically reminiscent of The Decemberists. “Five Years at Sea,” a contemplative song about travel, even has some surf guitar touches swirling through the tambourine beat.

A lot of the songs are about the endlessly complex topic of love – with two marriages in the band, there must be plenty to write about. As the lyrics go in “Half Your Life,” the Nationals-esque album’s closing track: “But I know now / Love is the best thing we do / And I’ll give my best side to you.” Indeed, the band incorporates their love for other members of their families into their musical projects as well.

Their second music video from the album for the song, “You’ll Go Far, Kid,” was conceived and expertly directed by Adeline Foster, the 8-year-old daughter of TJ and Lauren.

Darling Valley recently won WVCR’s “Play to Play” contest, and will be playing at the free, outdoor concert series Rockin’ on the River on July 6 in Troy, NY. To stay updated on their other upcoming shows and more exciting music video releases, be sure to follow them on Facebook or check out their website.

MASS Gathering 2016: Bacon, Yoga, and Rock 'n' Roll

This article originally appeared in The Berkshire View magazine, here. All photos by James Grady.

I am standing on the vernal summer slopes of Ski Butternut in Great Barrington, amid a crowd of people gathered in the thick humidity to watch Matisyahu perform. Skirts are billowing, bare feet twirling, heads nodding, wristbanded arms flung up in the air. The scent of pot drifts over our heads in peaceful, eddying waves. In the middle of the gaggle of bodies a man dances with a cigarette in one hand and a water spritzer in the other, which he sprays periodically over the crowd’s thankful heads. Mid-verse Matisyahu clutches the mic with both hands, closes his eyes, and begins chanting in Hebrew as the cheering swells.

Matisyahu became well known in the mid-2000s as the man who introduced Jewish hip-hop to the mainstream. He was a Hasidic man who could expertly beat-box and spit rhymes over a reggae fusion beat. Lately he has shorn his beard, but he is still just as devoted to his personal faith as to his music. An avowed Phishhead, Matisyahu’s love for full-band improvisational jam translates into an amazing live act. There were Santana-style guitar flourishes, intense drum solos, and the most entertaining keyboardist I’ve ever seen; he rocked and grinned over the keys like jazz virtuoso Keith Jarrett. Matisyahu’s verbal acrobatics, coupled with his phenomenal backing band, created a groove that pulsed through the ground and got everyone to dance (or at least sway in quiet joy.) Onstage he jumped and kicked around like an ecstatic ska Jim Morrison.

After the show the band was gathered out behind the stage, signing autographs and taking selfies with fans. We talked to Matisyahu for a minute and learned that the Pennsylvania native had once visited Great Barrington as a high-schooler. One of his friends had been accepted into Bard College at Simon’s Rock at 17, and young Matisyahu (then Matthew) came to visit him. He said laughingly that things looked pretty much the same here as they did then.

The bounty of food trucks at the festival did not disappoint. I had a perfect burger with all the fixings from PaPa Dogs and Burgers, cool hard cider from Hilltop Orchards, and talked with the lovely husband-and-wife proprietors of The Farm Concessions. They drove their truck all the way from Keene, NH, where they will soon be opening a café. A few hours later, I gave in to temptation and got fried, bacon-wrapped mac-and-cheese balls on a stick from The Chuck Wagon; as you can imagine, they were sublime. At least I didn’t get the “Hot Mess”: a Twinkie and a hot dog deep-fried together and smothered in pulled pork.

As twilight loomed over the festival grounds, a circle of women was silhouetted against the mountains doing group yoga. Up on the hill above them, people retreated to camp sites, wrung out their sweaty T-shirts, or settled onto blankets to watch Whiskey Treaty Roadshow bash out some good roots rock at the festival’s after party. Assembled on stage were 7 string musicians – on guitar, bass, banjo, or Dobro – and one drummer. They had been playing alt-country and Americana classics all day between acts on the main stage. I recognized Chris Merenda from The Picky Bastards on banjo. In the grass watching them were couples drinking beer, a woman swinging a hula hoop around the bun on her head, and solo listeners sitting on blankets or laid-out sweatshirts. As Chris sang “This Land is Your Land,” the pink-laced azure sky slowly darkened and the first day of the festival wound down to a close.

To see more photos of this year’s MASS Gathering from our editor and expert photographer, James, check out The Berkshire View’s Facebook page. We have photo coverage of events throughout the day, including some of the other great bands who performed. These include Deer Tick, Gin Blossoms, Parsonsfield, Wild Adriatic, Madaila, Strange Machines, DJ BFG, and West End Blend.

Jun 21, 2016

The Picky Bastards: Sound By Natural Selection

This article originally appeared in The Berkshire View magazine, here.

I defy you to find a band more spontaneous and improvisational than The Picky Bastards, Pittsfield’s premier bluegrass band. They’ve never had a rehearsal, never made a set-list, and sometimes change the song they’re playing halfway through. Core members Rob Sanzone (guitar, mandolin, harmonica, slide and dobro guitar, vocals) and Chris Merenda (banjo, guitar, vocals) play every week at Mission Bar + Tapas, and through that venue have been able to expand to play private parties, weddings, festivals, and other places in the Berkshires. Not that any of that was through conscious marketing – they’ve gained popularity and secured outside gigs purely by word-of-mouth.

I met up with Rob and Chris at Fuel in Great Barrington for sandwiches, and we talked for an hour and a half about everything under the sun. The two are clearly close friends, laughing at inside jokes and occasionally sliding into Spinal Tap-esque British voices with each other. Rob is a local through and through, raised in Berkshire County and a graduation of Monument Mountain High (as well as Amherst.) He even told me about the migration of the famous Zonker Harris sandwich from Frank’s Deli to Fuel, so you know he’s from Great Barrington. He’s been playing with bands since high-school and has experience over a wide spectrum of genres, although he has a special reverence for the complexity of bluegrass.

Chris, a New Hampshire native now living in Becket, came to the area while touring with Arlo Guthrie. He met his wife on that tour and, as he says, “she roped me in to staying here.” He started playing banjo in 2001 at Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Camp in the Catskills, a music camp in New York founded by his brother’s father-in-law. There he gained a deep love of American traditional and folk music, specifically bluegrass. One of his favorite old standards is “Shady Grove,” now a Picky Bastards staple.

The two met through Dave Brown, mandolin maestro and original founder of the Picky Bastards in 2011. The band started as a weekly picking session in the window of Mission Bar, open to local musicians. Rob and Chris took over the outfit when Dave moved to Colorado a year after it began. The band has always retained that open-jam vibe, and performs with a rotating cast of musicians every week. I had originally asked if the whole band could be present for the interview, but it turned out that they have 10 drummers alone and it would have been nearly impossible to round them all up. Additional instruments in The Picky Bastards include drums, bass, rhythm guitar, and occasionally saxophone.

“Natural selection” is a phrase that Chris brings up multiple times in reference to the band – the players, the band’s trajectory, even the songs they perform in a given evening. Their songs can be chosen based on comments from the audience, who’s in the band that night, or what’s on the radio on the way to a gig. The people they perform with come to the band by reputation and circumstance, with Rob and Chris drawing on their extensive pool of fellow local musicians. This makes every concert feel like an easy-going jam session with friends, a social experience for the band as well as the audience. As Chris says, “We laugh a lot, which maybe the audience doesn’t always enjoy. We do have some hardcore audience members who will say things like, ‘Stop talking and play!’”

Although bluegrass/Americana is the starting point for the band’s sound, they can go in any number of directions over the course of an evening. The Picky Bastards have been known to dabble in jazz fusion, pop, and classic hard rock, all while retaining their underlying bluegrass flavor. Imagine, if you can, a bluegrass version of “Eye of the Tiger,” “Billie Jean,” or Britney Spears – they’ve done it. They also perform original compositions, not wanting to be known as solely a cover band. One of Rob’s specialties is creating spontaneous medleys. He can transition seamlessly from one song to another, lapping genres and artists over the course of a single jam – and the band can always keep up with him. They are planning on recording a live album in the near future, to capture some of the extraordinary chemistry they have in their shows.

Having played with more business-driven bands in the past, The Picky Bastards is a breath of fresh air for Rob. The band has evolved organically and everyone is involved because of their genuine love of the music. “The Picky Bastards has been a blessing in my life. It’s a very Zen experience, like a great circle of friends. I owe a lot of that to Chris, because Chris is one of the most laid-back people I’ve ever met. I’m probably more the picky bastard of the two of us.” Chris, in his Big Lebowski t-shirt, laughs and agrees.

Come down to Mission Bar + Tapas on a Thursday night, 8 p.m., to hear for yourself all that these Bastards capable of doing. The show is free, so be sure to give them some love in the tip jar. If you tip, they’ll call out, “We celebrate you!”, but if you walk out without tipping they may include a call-out to you in the song they’re playing. If you have a request they promise to play it for you, or at least play something in the same genre. “We have a rule,” Chris says, laughing, “if we know at least 30% of a song, we’ll give it a try.”

May 6, 2016

Immune Friction: A match made in grunge heaven

This article originally appeared in The Berkshire View magazine, here

You could say that Justine Curry bluffed her way into Immune Friction. She met Chris Dayton while working in a Bennington coffee shop in 2010 and connected with him immediately; so when he said he was looking for someone to add percussion to some music he’d been writing, she said that she could play drums. When they recorded their first album as a band, The Markets Never Sleep, Justine had been teaching herself drums for only three months. “We just sort of did it,” she laughs. “The first time we jammed together we were so in sync and it just fit.” What began as Chris’ solo project morphed into a dynamic two-person band that has been rocking the Berkshires ever since.

Originally from Manhattan, Chris Dayton has been writing songs and playing guitar since he was 13. As the song “What Gives” poignantly puts it, “After school I would rehearse / Songs full of nonsense / That nobody would ever hear.” He studied classical guitar at Keene State College and performed at a lot of open mics before deciding to start his own band. He started Immune Friction as a solo act, played some shows, and recorded an album entitled Lighting Strings to Melt Wax. On their latest album, his passionate, earnest voice can go from a mumble to a shout within a few seconds. Although Chris is the lyricist for the band, both he and Justine sing – sometimes harmonizing together and sometimes alternating melodies.

Justine Curry, a Pittsfield native, has been performing since the age of 4. Between dance recitals, theatre, choirs, The Berkshire Lyric Theatre chorus, and even recording with David Grover, her fascination with music and performance has remained constant. As a girl she remembers going to Tanglewood with her family and planning to become an opera singer. She is classically trained in voice, and now contributes her mellifluous phrasing and powerful vibrato to Immune Friction. But she always loved rock music, despite her classical background; she and Chris initially bonded over a shared love of Iron Maiden.

While onstage they resemble The White Stripes, with Chris shredding on his guitar and Justine banging her drums, long black hair shaking, Immune Friction sounds very different than the famous ‘90s duo. The genre moniker they go by is “surf grunge,” bestowed on them by a fellow musician in Vermont. The subgenre encapsulates their ‘60s pop sensibilities (think The Kinks) with the raw energy and emotion of grunge. But their music also has the frenetic post-punk inventiveness of Sonic Youth, Doors-like classical guitar flourishes, and Rage Against the Machine noise breakdowns. The most immediate band comparison that comes to mind is Nirvana, though, which Chris’ blue eyes and shaggy hair only serve to reinforce.

One might think that a two-person band would inevitably sound sparse, but Immune Friction manages to produce a fully fleshed-out wall of raucous sound. Chris explained that he often tunes down to a lower pitch to accommodate for the lack of bass guitar, and Justine employs a lot of bass drum. She says, “People are like, ‘it’s just you two making all that racket?’ We’ll make noise with anything – guitar on cymbals, drumsticks on guitar, anything.” They’re known for their dynamic live shows; it says a lot that friends and fans have been known to follow them from gig to gig. “When people come out to see us, they’re going to get a good show,” Justine says. “Sometimes we don’t even know what we’re going to do! We try stuff out, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.” Chris laughs and adds sheepishly, “It can be a little scary sometimes.”

Amanda Palmer talks about falling in “rock love” when she met her Dresden Dolls bandmate Brian Viglione, and this term kept coming to mind while I was talking with Chris and Justine. They both have so-called day jobs – Chris is a videographer and 2nd-grade teacher while Justine is a realtor – but Immune Friction provides them with alternate indie-rock-star lives, existing as testaments to their creative passion and drive. As Justine describes herself: “realtor by day, drummer by night.” The two live together in Bennington with their five beloved cats – altogether, not at all a bad life.

Ethical Dilemmas is Immune Friction’s fantastic new album, recorded with punk/hardcore veteran Don Fury in Troy, NY and just released mid-April. It is available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Bandcamp, CD Baby, and YouTube Music. The duo is going to be touring around New England over the next couple of months – in May they are coming to Saratoga, Williamstown, Bennington, and Pittsfield. For more information and to stay updated on all their activities, visit their website or check out their Facebook page.

Apr 26, 2016

Party Like it's 1939: Swing Dancing at Race Brook Lodge

This article originally appeared in The Berkshire View magazine, here

“Basically everyone’s up for grabs – it doesn’t matter how good or bad or ugly you are!”

Laughter bubbled up from the crowd, a circle assembled around two dancers in the middle of a barn. The MC is explaining the dancing game of Snowball: one couple starts dancing for a bit, until someone yells “Snowball!” – then each person has to grab a new partner from the crowd. Repeat until the whole room is dancing, young with old, swing aficionados with newbies, guys in boots with pretty girls in bell skirts. I was taking notes on the sidelines when a redhead with dreadlocks scampered over to me on bare feet and snatched me up, pulling me into the beautifully swirling melee.

This night of swing dancing happened on April 8 at Race Brook Lodge, in their 160-year-old barn – a beautiful piece of rustic construction. Chinese paper lanterns swayed from the rafters and soft tea-lights glowed in Mason jars. The room was suffused with the warm babble of conversation. This is one of the many live music and dance events that happen at Race Brook Lodge, like the Down County Social Club events on Thursday nights.

Everyone is welcome, regardless of skill level, and the hour-long lesson before the dancing starts definitely helps out everyone. I went with a group of friends, some of whom were seasoned swing dancers and others who had never danced before. The relaxed, welcoming atmosphere helped us all to melt into the crowd easily and join the party. Social dancing is making in certain circles, and there is a somewhat unexpected modern swing scene emerging today. I had some dance experience because when I was at college in Chicago two years ago, I was a member of the student swing dancing club. I got a small flush of pride when the redhead I was dancing with said, “You’re a swing dancer!”

All night the band One Straw Revolution kept the dancing going with jazz and blues standards, from the sultry “Angel Eyes” to the frenetically fun “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”. The five-member band has been playing together for thirty years and this is their fourth time performing at Race Brook. They took their name from a book by Japanese sustainable-farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka. Guitarist Jonathan Suters joins his father Roger Suters on bass, along with some friends. They write their own music, in addition to performing standards and covers. Guitarist/vocalist Bobby MacVeety looks around admiringly, with his hat cocked back on his head, and says that he loves the acoustics of this barn. He also loves to dance, and would if he could tonight.

Outside the barn is a cozy bonfire, to which people withdraw occasionally to smoke, talk, or just listen to the wind sifting through the tops of the trees. I bought a glass of red wine from the cash bar and went outside to join the ragtag circle of people standing close to the warm flames. Race Brook Lodge has a renovated speakeasy vibe to it, and the swirling swing dancers don’t seem at all out of place in a barn, surrounded by peaceful forest. This was a night of throwback fun with fashion to match; as one of the organizers, Amillie Coster, said to my friend Maria, “Everyone else here looks like a farmer, but you’ve got that swing look we were missing – like Betty Boop.”

If you missed this swing night, there will be another Down County Social Club swing event on April 30, with the Hot Club of Saratoga (boasting a highly danceable gypsy jazz sound.) In May you can catch shows at Race Brook Lodge by Oakes & Smith, EarthBlu, and Emily Danger. For more information visit www.rblodge.com or check out their Facebook page.