The politics of songwriting

State Radio and Josh Ritter
By MATT ASHARE  |  April 28, 2006

DEPARTURE: Ritter wanted to avoid "a boring confessional record about relationships."It’s a windy Saturday afternoon in February and already a long line has formed in front of Axis. “Do you know Chad?” “Is Chad here yet?” “Can you ask tell Chad that we came all the way from Jersey?” The questions keep coming as I weave through the crowd. These are hardcore fans.

Chad is Chad Stokes (: Chad Urmston), leader of State Radio, formerly of Dispatch, the jam band who got their start at Middlebury College and ended their career in front of tens of thousands at the Hatch Shell two summers ago. Dispatch released their own albums on their own label yet still managed to sell out big venues like BankBoston Pavilion. They were a volatile band, with three distinct singer-songwriters who had very different agendas. They reunited at the Hatch to give fans a proper farewell, a process documented in a film, Last Dispatch, that explores the trio’s intense internal tensions. So Stokes — Dispatch’s voice of leftist politics — isn’t taken aback when I bring up the conflicts that led him to start State Radio, a trio who wear Chad’s politics on their collective sleeve. Us Against the Crown (Nettwerk) is the title of their full-length debut. It opens with staccato Gang of Four guitar slashes before breaking into a reggae groove as the words of RFK filter through the backdrop. “Gunship Politico” is one song title.

“With Dispatch, we disagreed about certain core issues,” Stokes says upstairs at Axis. “That was hard but not impossible to deal with. If it had just been about that, I don’t think we would have broken up. But if I was going to continue to make music and be on the road, then it was important to me that a message of social consciousness was part of what we did. The music is always first. But it helps me personally, as far as receiving fulfillment from this transient lifestyle, if we’re creating social awareness . . . or at least opening a door for people to learn about things . . . things like the genocide in Sudan that’s been going on for the last four years.”

Stokes, who lives in Brookline when he, drummer Brian Sayers, and bassist Chuck Fay aren’t on a tour like the one that brings them to Avalon this Friday, is so modest and soft-spoken backstage, it’s hard to imagine him preaching politics to a crowd. But that’s part of his charm — something that also helps him get away with making reggae a big part of State Radio’s repertoire. “We say we play rock with a little bit of reggae. We’d hardly call ourselves a reggae band. But it’s a big part of what we do. We’re just hyper-concerned that we do it well and that we remember who our fathers are.”

Also back in February, former Somerville resident Josh Ritter was in town to give some old friends a peek at his then forthcoming V2 debut The Animal Years at Studio One Guitars. He captured the chatting crowd’s attention by opening with a song so quiet, you could hear the clink of wine bottles — just his fragile voice buoyed by a couple of plucked guitar strings. It worked: the crowd was his, as he upped the intensity and introduced songs that transcended folky introspection to tackle thorny political issues about war and religion.

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