Blake Rosso Band: The New Story
A year ago, Blake Rosso told me about his music and his plans for the Blake Rosso Band. In the meantime, big things have happened for the Americana-Bluegrass group. They have played on the best stages in the area, been invited to regional festivals, and played gigs as far away as New Jersey. Also, their lineup has expanded to include Brittany Parker from the Barn Arts Collective on vocals and ukelele.
Last year, Blake and I spoke over the phone, and though we have seen one another in passing since, we did not really meet until he came to sit for the follow-up. Though I have a long list of questions bulleted on my notepad, I quickly abandon the interview format to devote myself to his startling and profound conversation. I thought we were gong to talk about music, but Blake Rosso has much bigger fish to fry.
“The world is a scary place right now,” offers Blake. “Lines of separation are being drawn all over the place, border walls, religious distinctions, nationalities, red and blue. Why do you think Larry Stettner’s passing is affecting us so much? Because Larry embodied the ‘New Story.’”
“What is the New Story?”
“Look at the Common Good Soup Kitchen (Larry’s nonprofit brainchild). Even the name embodies Larry’s ideal that we are not separate from one another. It’s empathy; when you hurt, I hurt. When you are hungry, I’m hungry. The New Story is all about empathy and understanding, and Larry lived that.”
“Then how do you explain the Trump phenomenon? He basically won the White House on a ticket of divisiveness and fear.”
“Trump is the last gasp of the ‘Old Story.’ His voters are afraid of change, even though they know deep down that he does not represent positive values, they have been taught from very early on that progressive change is dangerous, and it is. It threatens institutions, particularly ones that no longer serve us.”
“Do you see any correlation between this political turmoil and the cusp of the Ages? I mean, Christ was born at the cusp of the Piscean Age, and his return is supposed to herald the Aquarian Age. Does that relate to the Old and New Story idea?”
“Fifty years ago, the Hippie movement was the beginning of people waking up to a wider consciousness, but they didn’t have the infrastructure to keep it going.”
“Do you mean like the internet, and social media?”
“Yes, but they did make music that has been changing people’s minds ever since. That music created a gradual shift in consciousness.”
“How does your music contribute to this change?” Blake fidgets in his seat. He doesn’t like to talk about himself as an instrument of change; “A few weeks ago, we finished a local show and Richard Bradford came up to me and said, ‘That was amazing; you created a bubble of positivity and healing right here in the room.’ He put it neatly into words there, and that’s our goal every time we perform.”
“You also do that in your work as a chiropractor.”
“Yes, in fact, the times when I feel the very best are, first, when I’m with my wife and daughter, second, at the end of a day at my practice, and then third, at the end of a concert. That’s when I feel we’ve created something beautiful and positive to share with the world.”
“That’s what Larry did with the Soup Kitchen.”
“Larry was the ultimate empath. There’s a story about a man who was volunteering at the Common Good, when it was out at Seawall. This guy stayed late to clean the kitchen, and he had no car. When he was done, it was cold and raining hard outside, so he called Larry for a ride. Larry goes out to pick him up, and it turns out he had no coat. A few days later, a package arrives in the mail, and Larry has sent him a new LL Bean parka. That’s who he was. And that man has since become a stalwart member of the Common Good staff. Experiences like that can change a life, and we all have to step up now that Larry has gone.”
Larry would like that, looking down from some saintly perch, watching us take his example and continuing that work.
“So when you write a song, do you consciously shoot for that positivity, to change people?”
“Well, no, not deliberately. I have dozens of songs that no one will ever hear, because they don’t come from a genuine place. Only some of them do. I’ve had a hard time writing new material recently.”
“What is the obstacle?”
“Well, usually, when I write a song, I get an idea on the guitar, and play a chord progression over and over, until I’m humming a melody. Then I’d record that on my laptop, burn a disc, and listen to it in my car. I recently got a new computer, a Mac, and I don’t know how to do that yet without my Garage Band program.”
“So you would listen to yourself strumming and humming a melody in your car, and then what?”
“I would kind of free associate, start to sing, try different words to the song. There’s something special about doing that in the car. There’s a sense of freedom, of openness, the possibility of being in motion from one place to another that is very inspiring.”
“How do you know when you have the right idea?”
“I know it’s right when I don’t have to conjure anything up. If I’m doing a good job listening, the good ones simply present and write themselves. The road helps with that. If I have to think too much and mess with the wording, I know it’s wrong and usually end up scrapping the whole thing.”
“So what about your plans for The Blake Rosso Band? You’ve played on the best stages around; where do you go from here?”
“I don’t think we can tour nationally and keep our careers and families intact. We are really happy to keep doing what we are doing, but it is harder to keep playing in bars and for dinner crowds after performing at big theaters and festivals. I want that ‘bubble’ to grow, the message to spread.”
“The ‘New Story.’”
A few days later, I sit in a sold out crowd at Coda in Southwest Harbor, and the room is buzzing with anticipation. The menu is tempting on many levels, and I am hungry, but the room is decidedly focused on the stage. Several people who did not reserve a table are standing by the bar, watching the empty stage like hungry dogs waiting by an empty bowl.
Coda is an excellent restaurant with a big stage. The venue has vacillated between being a fine dining establishment with music, and being a concert venue with great food, refusing to be pegged down. Tonight, Blake Rosso and his band firmly guide us toward the latter. From the moment they take the stage, all eyes are riveted. Garlic sage fries go cold on the table as they open with Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.”
Sig Escholtz stands as tall as his acoustic double bass, and the deep, round thumping pulses through the room, massaging internal organs. Next to Sig, Beau Lisy plays a hodge-podge percussion kit, including cajon, snare and cymbals, shakers, and a bass pedal. “Goin’ Nowhere” lopes along up-tempo, and Jim Coffman effortlessly adds bright accents with his mandolin.
Blake begins to sing, “Clouds won’t shift, rain won’t lift…” and I notice his voice has adopted more twang than I heard a year before. Sometimes the addition of vocal inflection can sound affected or “tried on,” but in this case, it seems to come from a natural place, as if the native Minnesotan is freeing his inner Midwestern Country Boy. When Brittany Parker sings along on the chorus, she’s right there with him, and they sound right out of Nashville. “Ooooey, ride me high” is sung with many extra vowels, the crowd is already fully committed, and the tones pass through our bodies, and tickle the soul with countrified wholesomeness.
Also up-tempo, Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” somehow uplifts us, as the joyful band transforms rural pain and the boredom of prison into something beautiful. The set continues, with Brittany singing her own song, “In The Dark.” Jim Coffman sings lead and all five members join the chorus on The Stone’s “Send Me Dead Flowers.” They offer us a rare look at Tom Wait’s “Chocolate Jesus,” as the set list alternates seamlessly between classic covers and originals.
Then Blake says, “This one is for Larry Stettner. Now there is a person to admire; we could all stand to take some pieces of his life and apply them to our own. He liked this song.” They play The Band’s “Cripple Creek,” and the room erupts in spasms. Diners abandon half-finished plates of food and begin to dance involuntarily. I imagine a ghostly Larry Stettner dancing among us, the afterlife freeing his body to move more gracefully.
Jim Coffman shifts easily between his mandolin and fiddle, and as the set ends, he tears up the leads on Trampled By Turtles’ “Wait So Long.” I notice he’s not even looking at his hands. My jaw lands on my plate as I contemplate the remote possibility of even scratching my backside without watching my hands. Yet there is Jim Coffman, firing off showers of sparks from that tiny fretboard, while alternately smiling at his band mates and the rapt audience. There is a particular confidence and competence inherent in a group that has played over a hundred shows. They know the material inside and out, so now their focus is outward, as opposed to inward, or on a music stand.
When they take a mid-show break, the elation is tempered by a nagging worry that this feeling can’t possibly last. This show can’t be recreated for those who have missed it. We will have to keep this performance in our hearts and make it a part of ourselves.
I walk up to one of the die-hard fans, and say, “I can tell you’ve seen these guys before. What’s your name?”
“Herb Watson.” He gives me a firm handshake. “I saw them last year at the Side Street Café in Bar Harbor, and I think I’ve only missed one show since.”
“What keeps you coming back?”
“It’s like therapy for me. They’re tight, awesome, have great energy. They bring joy to this community.”
To open the second set, Brittany Parker sings lead on Neil Young’s “Old Man.” I remember an interview with Neil Young, where he explains that he wrote the song as a young man with very painful scoliosis. I notice that Blake is not on stage, and I imagine him rushing over to his practice to give Neil a chiropractic adjustment while his band nails the song.
Blake returns to the stage, and I watch him closely through the second set. He is a decidedly civilized man, a Noble Savage, a helper and healer. But as the show continues, his intensity and physical energy become an animal thing. His spare frame is taut, tense as a bow about to loose an arrow as he arches forward to croon into the mic, eyes closed in concentration, brows aloft in ecstasy. In contrast, Brittany is so at ease on stage, it seems she was born there. The piano-forte combination of the two charismatic singers both soothes and thrills, but it is the potent combination of all five members that completes the Blake Rosso Band recipe.
On Saturday, May 20th, they will play in Belfast at the All Roads Music Festival, and I will be there, with Herb Watson, and many others. Join us for a taste of dancing, joy, and The New Story.