There were about one hundred of us crammed into a small upper room of The Spadina Hotel at the corner of King of Spadina in Toronto, Ontario back on that early winter night in November of 1981. On stage the three young men who made up L'etranger were throwing themselves heart and soul into their tightly crafted set of agit-prop songs a la Clash, but with their own distinct flavor. It was one of those great occasions in rock and roll when the audience and the band were in complete sync, and the energy generated made you feel like you could change the world. You could believe in the power of change when it was fueled by music like that.
Twenty-eight years might as well be an eternity when it comes to trends in popular music, and it's difficult to imagine that I'd ever find myself crammed into the top floor of a seedy hotel bar ever again. In fact, as the years passed it became increasingly difficult to imagine that I would ever again find a band that had the potential to galvanize people with their music in as direct and immediate a fashion. After watching the energy of punk be replaced by the likes of The Human League, Duran Duran, and God forbid, Honeymoon Suite, you begin to lose hope that rock and roll would ever regain the rebellious and dangerous edge that made the establishment worry about its corrupting influence on children. When rock and roll acts started to accept corporate sponsorship, I was sure the end was nigh.
So, with very few exceptions, I chose to ignore most popular music for the majority of the 1990's. In fact it wasn't until 2005 when I started writing online and began to have access to a much wider variety of music than the normal consumer through my association with Blogcritics.org that I began to discover some of the hidden gems that were out there. Reviewing a DVD by a band that had dissolved and only reformed temporarily for a benefit concert, Dispatch, led me to State Radio, the first band I've heard in more then twenty years that makes one believe that as an individual you can make a difference.
Chad Stokes, who had played guitar and bass for Dispatch, is one third of State Radio, which is what inspired me to check out their second full length CD, Year Of The Crow. As much as the disc impressed me, I was equally impressed by Stokes when I had the opportunity to interview him shortly after I reviewed the disc. After the venality of the last couple of decades, both the band and Stokes impressed me with their messages of selfless dedication to helping others, inspiring hope in me the way few musicians have been capable of doing in God knows how long.
To say I was looking forward to their next release would be a bit of an understatement, so when an advance copy of their forthcoming disc, Let It Go, on the band's own Ruff-Shod label and distributed starting September 29th/09 by Nettwerk, showed up in my mail, I couldn't wait to listen to it. When you're blown away by a band the first time you hear them, there's always the danger of creating expectations they can't hope to live up to. However, not only did State Radio live up to my expectations, they exceeded them. Stokes, bass player Chuck Fay, and drummer Mike "Mad Dog" Najarian have once again put together a release which is not only great musically, but also socially conscious without ever making listeners feel like they are being preached to. (What's even more amazing is how they walk their talk. Check out the community service outreach program, Calling All Crows, which they run in conjunction with their performances that sees the band and their fans carrying out service projects in the towns they play in.)
Too often studio recordings fail to capture the intangible energy that a band like State Radio would create in a live performance. For Let It Go the band made the decision to record as they would perform as much as possible. As a result there is an immediacy and urgency to their sound that grabs you from the opening guitar burst of the CD's first song, "Mansin Humanity." Without missing a beat they move into the reggae tinged "Calling All Crows," which is the band's call to action. However, unlike other bands who would have created some sort of glory-seeking anthem, they have created a song that reaches out the hand of encouragement which lets you know even the smallest of direct actions can make the biggest of differences.
Two of the things that stand out for me about this disc in particular are how State Radio are able to use the slashing energy of electric guitar to propel their music without the songs turning into noise, and the humanity that underpins every number. Far too many bands equate energy with speed or how loud they play and the result is a confusing mess which actually sucks the energy out of you. State Radio understand that rock and roll is about finding a groove that injects life into the listener and how an occasional burst of raw guitar creates far more power than a constant barrage of noise. They know when to pull back to allow listeners to draw close and when to blast off with us in tow so we experience the ride of a lifetime.
Somehow Stokes has found a way of crafting his songs that make you feel like he's addressing you personally when he sings. While that's tricky enough for a singer to do on stage in front of an audience, to accomplish that on a recording is even more difficult. Part of it is his obvious passion and sincerity, but there's more to it as well. I used the word humanity above, and by that I mean there's not the usual feeling of separation one gets when listening to a "rock star." Stokes comes across like a guy who'd you want to sit and talk with, not someone only interested in lecturing you on what's wrong with the world. Sure he's a rabble rouser — "Knights Of Bostonia" reminds you where the American Revolution started back in the 1700's and what its really about today — but at the same time he doesn't forget that he's signing to individuals, not some faceless mob of fans or audience.
Let It Go by State Radio is a wake-up call that will shake you out of your doldrums. Not only does it rock your world musically, but it treats listeners like human beings who have a brain with lyrics that are both intelligent and compassionate. It's a reminder there's still life in rock and roll and who the music really belongs to. Instead of being sponsored by some corporation, this album is brought to you by the human spirit that allows us to believe in a better world.