We have a long, proud tradition of politically active, strongly progressive musicians in the US. Woody Guthrie, Peter, Paul and Mary. Dylan. The Beatles. Punk in general. Green Day's American Idiot was an iconic classic straight out of the box. And that's barely a start. Once upon a time, if you were a serious artist, anti-establishment values were more or less a prerequisite. Then came the Reagan years, which laid the groundwork for the corporate takeover of music with the neutering of the FCC and the Public Interest standard. The assimilation was completed during the Bush II years, when all of a sudden you had Clear Channel staging pro-war rallies.
The lesson here was driven home, in spades, with the Dixie Chicks Affair. You have opinions? How cute. Shut up and sing. Or else. Perhaps a lot of bands learned that lesson and chose to keep their liberal (or conservative) leanings to themselves. Or maybe we just live in an era less given to public radicalism than the one the Baby Boomers came of age in.
All of this is by way of saying that I miss the days when artists were more willing to lead the charge in the culture wars. And in this context, I'm even more compelled when a band does lay its sense of social justice on the line. Yes, there are artists out there who care about a fair society - I just wish they were the rule, not the exception.
Meet Doco, a band not nearly enough folks have heard of. I'll offer a brief disclosure here: I have known the principals, Trevor and Joshua Booth, since day one. Well, okay, more like day four or five. Their father is one of my oldest friends, so I won't pretend that this is anything like an "objective" review. No, really, it's just an observation about a really talented band I know that operates according to a set of principles I respect and think some of you might appreciate.
Last year Doco released The Freeway Camping Life, and I decided early on that I thought it was their best effort to date. Some things were what you'd expect. The musicianship was superb, as always. Trevor is one of of the finest guitarists for his age I've ever heard, and Josh is a killer bassist. Drummer Dave Burkart is the band's unassuming, no-nonsense spine, the rhythmic foundation upon which the sound - a fleshy amalgam of Rock, Blues, Funk and Hip-Hop - is woven. The songs are thoughtful, and perhaps even deceptively intelligent. I often wonder how fully Doco's fans appreciate just how smart the words inside that relentless groove really are. Truly, both Trev and Josh are literate writers - that's to be expected when your dad is a novelist and an English professor, I suppose - and even when they're in full party mode nobody's intelligence gets insulted. Ever.
But on this latest effort the band took a hard turn in an overtly progressive political direction. For instance, take "Bread," the fourth track, which is built around one of Lee Camp's Moments of Clarity.
Then they went a step further: the world premiere of "These Chains" happened on Camp's podcast #118.
I don't want to make it sound like they just discovered politics last year, though - their values have been on full display throughout their careers - but this time around something was a little different tonally. Josh says that Doco "visited Occupy Wall Street and donated food from the tour to Occupy Philly," and that out of these experiences a new wisdom (my word, not his) began evolving.
I think the shift you are hearing comes from a sense of personal responsibility, a sense of individual empowerment, that wasn't there before. It starts on "Experimental Railroad," the last song written for Stereo Chemistry. Maybe we're just growing up, finally, but I think the idea that we can do something and the idea that we are morally obligated to do something go hand in hand. If we do nothing while children starve in our modern American cities, we're just as bad as big wheels who steal pensions and tax dollars.
Freeway Camping Life projects a quiet nuance we don't always associate with protest music. Many of the 17 tracks comprising TFCL speak to the obligations we have to each other and to our communities. They speak to our relationship with America's Affluenza-riddled consumer culture, insisting on simpler lives built on positive human values.
Trevor, in describing how TFCL emerged, put it this way:
Along with all of the turmoil our country was going through, we also had advertising telling us everything will be fine if you just buy this new product. It was like constant bombardment telling you that you weren't good enough as you are, that you have to be acne free, have thick luscious hair, and be toned and muscular without an ounce of fat. Your cell phone isn't good enough. Your body isn't clean enough unless you use Old Spice. You'll never get laid without the help of Axe body spray. FUCK THAT SHIT. I was so sick of being told I wasn't good enough that I started losing my mind.
The creative process was an arduous one that involved - as with so many great albums throughout history - a guy locking himself in his room with his guitar and a profound need to get something off his chest.
It took about a year to write, then six months to get everything else in order (artwork, drums recorded at a real studio, etc.). I think the main point I wanted to make was that you are good enough as you are, no matter what anyone tells you. Yes our political system had failed us. Yes our parents had failed us. But no more so than any other generation's parents and government had failed them. We were simply weak with having basically everything handed to us growing up, every kind of opportunity to be able to become whatever we wanted.
In other words, Doco's new radical politics aren't all about the evil bastards in DC and on Wall Street - they begin at home, with the personal obligations we have, first and foremost, to one another.
The Freeway Camping Life is a remarkable effort by a talented band. The Booth brothers and Burkart are tight as hell in the studio and on stage, and beyond the virtuosity (and their continually evolving tunesmithing, it should also be noted), they're the kind of socially aware, committed artists that we could use more of.
Our society, or economy, our very soul, is broken. In a better world, we wouldn't be able to open our ears in public without a band like Doco reminding us of our better selves.
Doco plays the Pour House Music Hall in Raleigh on August 2. The show is a reunion for survivors of The Farmhouse, the venue where the band cut its teeth, and which recently got pulverized in the gentrification of Hillsboro Street. Expect the show to be sold out.