The Rivergods debut "State of the Union" with an anniversary party Friday in New London
As musicians get older, they tend to reflect poignantly on the long-ago days of glory — "glory" being a wonderfully subjective term that can mean anything from occasional cover band gigs at the VFW to, on very rare occasions, full-blown success.
On Friday in All Souls UU Congregation in New London, local Americana band The Rivergods commemorate the release of their latest album, "State of the Union" — which, in decidedly not coincidental fashion, commemorates the band's 20th year under the stewardship of co-founder guitarist/vocalist Ben Parent and his wife, multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Nancy Brossard Parent.
"State of the Union" is a fine, 12-song collection reflecting The Rivergods' consistent but always evolving brand of roots music: harmony-teased heartland rock, modern country-folk, and bits of bluegrass and gospel. Parent is the main composer, and his work displays maturity and a weary but appreciative worldview. Too, with Brossard Parent, they exhibit a savvy skill at finding like-minded musicians to nuance his material is textural fashion. A lot of great players have been Rivergods over the years — all of whom are still friends — and the latest lineup, including keyboardist/vocalist Bil Groth, bassist Mark Gehret, violinist Dana Takaki and drummer Chris DiBiasi, is undeniably strong.
If an album called "State of the Union" might suggest certain overlapping themes, Parent says it wasn't intentional. At least not at first, when the band started to think about what tunes to include on a possible recording project. The title cut, Parent says, is actually one of the oldest songs on the album and had been temporarily shelved as newer tunes were being written.
"We were discussing which songs to include, and 'State of the Union' came up," Parent says. "And it suddenly seemed a good theme for the songs we were writing. I wouldn't say it's overly political, but there are applications across the board. (It could apply to) personal relationships, the band's ongoing status, or the world as we came up to the election in November."
Ultimately, after deciding on the material, the band decided to go last fall into New London's PWOP Studios and enlisted the facility's owner/engineer Carl Franklin to oversee the project.
"Putting out a CD is a big deal for us," Parent says. "Some folks can afford to record constantly and hire session players and spend a lot of time or whatever. Well, we have the best lineup we've had in a long time. It's a good live band. We wanted to rehearse and go in, Beatles-style, and knock it out over a weekend."
Franklin, also leader of the polished funk-rock band the Franklin Brothers Band, excels at capturing live performance in the studio with a sophisticated sound that doesn't sacrifice the energy of an ensemble performance. Though he and Parent and Parent Brossard have been friends for years, and The Rivergods had recorded a few separate tracks in PWOP for various compilation albums, they'd never worked all together on a big project.
Franklin says he jumped at the chance to work with the band. He says, "Their albums have always been full of good music, but I was never impressed by the production. I thought we could do better." He talked with Parent and Brossard Parent about how best to achieve the overall goal. "We tried to establish a studio environment where everyone's suggestions were welcome, and overall it was a pretty simple process that worked really well."
Franklin says the majesty of the album didn't really hit him until he was driving around town, assimilating the finished mixes on his car stereo.
"I was listening in the context of the lyrics, really intently, and it hit me that the themes of these songs are SO relevant and on-topic," Franklin says. "I really came to love the songs — every one of them — by the end. The band wanted a real cohesive band feel, and I really think we got that."
Parent is the only original member of the group he started in 1996 with Eric Gelfond. Shortly before Gelfond left four years later, Brossard Parent joined, and the band began to grow a following at steady speed. Appearances at North by Northeast in Toronto and the NEMO New Music Showcase in Boston accelerated the buzz — along with positive reviews in industry bibles like NO DEPRESSION of their 2000 album debut, "Capsule." They continued to craft their sound and, with their 2003 "Time Has Come" album, Parent says he was poised for a big leap.
"I thought 'Time Has Come' was an amazing record, and it was going to be the one that took us to the next level," he says. "And then, suddenly, I understood that, uh-oh, we weren't being discovered by Nashville or Los Angeles — and we had to figure out what that meant."
Ultimately, for Parent and Brossard Parent, it meant that music became part of the lives they were building for themselves as a family, including two children and respective careers.
"Music is an essential part of our relationship and our individual pursuits," Brossard Parent says. "It's pretty cool to see it unfold in both of our kids ... and, as a mother, it's gratifying to see these aspects of my life come together."
All of these elements come together in "State of the Union" and, if the days are long gone when The Rivergods would pile in a van and "go for it" on an endless tour, the band certainly believes the new CD is a worthy accomplishment.
"It wasn't in the cards to do this all the time," Parent laughs. "But we do try to put out a professional and competitive product. We're proud of this record, and we'll take advantage of the opportunities we DO get."
That they have a huge regional following looking forward to "State of the Union" is a reward in itself and symbolizes a perhaps unexpected reward for their longevity. When it's suggested to Brossard Parent that her band might be thought of as a community comfort, she says, "Perhaps the constancy of me and Ben at the core gives people a sense of comfort ... I know I take comfort in being part of this particularly lineup of The Rivergods, and I'm grateful I have a partner to enjoy it with. This album feels like another new beginning."
Reflecting back on it all, Parent says, "I never imagined all this 20 years later. The same name, the same music ... it's crazy. There have been ups and downs and some hopes and expectations and realities. It is what it is, and this is who we are. It's a great band and a great sound, and it's always been a lot of fun."
The Rivergods CD Release Party, 7:30 p.m. Friday, All Souls Universalist-Unitarian Hall, 19 Jay St., New London; $10 suggested donation with beer, wine, refreshments and merch available for sale; therivergods.com.
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