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State Radio + Bongo Love

(18 Oct 2008: Theatre of the Living Arts — Philadelphia, PA)

State Radio are a band I’ve seen slowly ascend from acoustic sets at small coffee houses to selling out venues capable of holding hundreds of fans. The Boston-based trio—Chadwick Stokes, Chuck Fay, and Mike Najarian—found their niche in the music world as a no-holds-barred yet tactful critique of the establishment. Their blend of punk, reggae, and rock is as appealing as it is powerful, and their musical fusion was fully evident at this show where they delivered one of the tightest and most enthralling sets I’ve seen them play. My friend concurs… and he’s seen them an impressive 22 times.


Natives of Zimbabwe, Bongo Love—a quartet of musicians that features traditional African instruments like the djembe, marimba, mbira, baritone marimba, as well as other percussive instrumentation – took the stage first as the chandeliers lighting the concert hall went dim. Playing a type of music that the band refers to as “afro-coustic”, lead vocalist John Mambira was successful from the off, winning over the crowd with the aid of dance-inducing rhythms emanating from the band’s choice of instrumentation. Throughout the set, the infectious nature of the tribal rhythms and the confidence exuded by the band made it difficult to pass up a chance to get down and let loose.


The most laid back moment arrived via a cover of Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry”, and it was obvious that Bongo Love had worked very hard to ensure their rendition had as much integrity as the original. The quiet tones and melodies of the marimbas accented their stripped down version, which placed more emphasis on the poetic lyrics and created a comfortable environment that begged for a crowd sing-along.


Shortly after 10 p.m., with the lights low and adrenaline high, the crowd found itself in a moment of hushed anticipation. As mentioned earlier, my friends and I have been fans of State Radio for some time. We, like many others, first discovered Chad or “Chetro”, as he is most commonly referred to by fans, when he was in the group Dispatch. While in Dispatch, Chad made his mark by penning fan-favorites such as “Open Up”, “Elias”, and probably Dispatch’s most popular song, “General”. Now, roughly six years after Dispatch called it quits and State Radio was formed, Chad Stokes has honed his song writing skills even further.


Musically, State Radio’s songs fit into the rock/reggae genre while the lyrics offer hints of Dylan-esque tales of “everyday” people and their often one-sided encounters with the powers that be. “Camilo”, a song based on the true story of an American soldier who refused to return to the Middle East to fight and was jailed as a result, is a prime example. It’s not all this serious, though, as the band’s back catalogue also offers up a few playfully sarcastic yarns (“CIA” and “Gang of Thieves”) that speak of the follies of the current administration’s practices in both domestic and foreign policy respectively.


Befitting the band’s political aspects, this show was as much a rally as it was a musical performance. The sound of the crowd’s booming voices combined with the image of Stokes’ titanic shadow cast upon the crimson curtains lining the walls of the venue created an allusion of something much larger happening than just a concert.


Beyond the songs, which contain lines like “I said but daddy we ain’t fightin’ the Cong no more / He said you’re going over there to lose the very same war”, the band stretched their socially conscious sentiments throughout the venue. Their backdrop was a black and white image of a protesting crowd brandishing signs advocating withdrawal from Iraq and lending aid to the Sudan as well as promoting bio-diesel fuels and the importance of voting. During select songs Stokes even played a guitar specially tailored from a small gasoline container, backing up the group’s environmental stance. There were also booths set up in the band’s merchandise section containing information on various aid efforts and foundations for those in need around the world.


Aside from the expansion of their social conscious, the crowd was also afforded a special treat via the impromptu addition of “Biscuits and Tea” to the set-list. Stokes explained to the crowd that although the band hadn’t played the song in two years, they were more than willing to oblige considering the fact that fans had “gone the extra mile” to request a song and had taken the time to plan out tossing cookies and tea bags onto the stage to get the band’s attention.


The rest of State Radio’s set featured an array of songs from both of their albums—Us Against The Crown and Year of the Crow. The band pulled out all the stops while performing and at times Chuck Fay would wield his four-stringed axe like a six-stringed sword; his super-charged bass-lines following his fingers up and down the neck of his weapon of choice. Both Stokes and Fay’s vocals complimented each other and when Najarian joined in the “Hey Geronimo, Hey Guantanamo” refrain of “Guantanamo”, the three voices combined to emphasize the protest nature of the song. As per usual with State Radio refrains, the crowd followed suit.


After ending their regular set with “Rushian”, a song from Us Against the Crown, the band returned to chants of “gunship”, a collective call from the crowd to play the song “Gunship Politico”. As with the earlier “Biscuits and Tea” amendment to the song order, State Radio put their set-list at the will of their Philadelphian constituents and performed “Gunship Politico”. During a long breakdown in the song, Stokes thanked everyone for coming to the show and removed his shirt to reveal another one underneath with the name “TROY” written on the chest in black marker. Stokes explained how, just the day before in Atlanta, a man by the name of Troy Davis had been denied a new trial after sitting on death row for over 20 years and after several of the witnesses that initially testified against him came forward and changed their story. He urged the audience to sign a petition for Troy at Amnesty International’s website and the song was finished with just as much fervor as it began.


Despite the seriousness of their messages, the final song of the evening, “The Diner Song” (the story of a man who cannot pay his bill and is suggestively propositioned by the waitress to strike a deal), featured dancing food items, such as an egg and a steak, throwing candy into the crowd. I found it quite fitting that State Radio offered treats during a song about tricks. Whether or not the pun was intended, in doing so, State Radio managed to lighten the mood just in time for the reality to sink in that the show was over.

Tagged as: bongo love | state radio
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