My history with Boston's Bread & Roses is long-- frontguy Morgan Coe is an old friend and when his previous band The High-Steppin' Nickel Kids dissolved in 2003 he began sending me demos of Bread & Roses, initially that band's offshoot. I'd liked the Nickel Kids a lot because they wrote truly catchy songs about the moral abyss of capitalist society. They did also have occasional ska parts, but it was the 90s and that was forgivable given the context. When I received Bread & Roses' earliest demo, I was happy it wasn't a far cry from the Nickel Kids-- they still played loud punk songs about the same issues, though a little slower and more carefully put together. The second CD-R Morgan sent me, however, was startling-- the makeup of the band had changed entirely and now consisted only of Morgan on acoustic guitar and his Nickel Kids compatriot Andrew playing banjo. Both were playing unamplified. A further demo confirmed the change-- Bread & Roses was restructured as something of a situationist bluegrass ensemble. By the time I booked the band to play Montreal's Electric Tractor in October of 2004, a semi-official full-length CD-R showed Bread & Roses growing, uneasily but determined, into a band with a distinct sound, strong themes (the First World War and resistance to it, workers' history, and whaling-as-metaphor) to which they would continue returning, and a wobbly but cohesive sound built on traditional country music.
When they played Montreal in 2004, they were the last band of five on the bill, and they surprised the audience by quietly setting up in the back corner of the large room while the Doers played the final songs of their set in the opposite front corner. When the applause finished and the crowd turned toward the door to the loft's front room, Bread & Roses began to play without introduction, their unamplified strings and brushed drums startlingly soft by comparison to the amped din of the preceding four bands. When the song finished, Morgan introduced the band and announced, "This is as loud as we're going to get, so if you want to hear us you're going to have to come close." Puzzled, the audience obliged and surrounded the "stage" as the band struck up their second song-- ears adjusting to the quiet and the fact that we could hear all the words clearly. The songs, then, were less like a performance and more like a conversation. Within two songs more people were excitedly crowding in from the lobby and the lawn outside to investigate the rapt silence coming from the crowd in the formerly loud room and the human-scale music at the centre of it. By the end of the set many in attendance were singing along, their voices at equal volume to the band's.
Though frequently slotted into the category of "folk-punk" and certainly owing some debt to the raw emotion of early acoustic Against Me!, singles Bread & Roses plays music more justly categorized simply as "folk." Their influences are vast and drawn mostly from pre-rhinestone-era country & western and bluegrass. Though they play with keen energy and an unironic earnestness that could be described as "punk," their music is deliberately aimed at "folk"-- its concern is for the people in the immediate crowd around them, those close enough to hear the songs without the need of a PA, and the band's goal is to communicate ideas and emotions directly without mediation by the traditional elements of the music industry. They play in public spaces, parks, backyards, and houses rather than in bars, and sing only as loud as their voices will hold up, allowing the audience to overtake them and become the performance themselves if they wish. They sing about people, for people.
I wasn't, then, surprised to discover the venue of the benefit-show they were playing in Worcester MA was a collective house full of student activists, older community organizers, and really young kids running zooey with sugar. Some friends and I were in Boston for the weekend and had tracked down B&R guitarist Steve at his job behind the counter at Veggie Planet where he told us about the show, and we decided it was worth an hour's drive to see them again. As our party arrived, we found the "stage" set up in the living room with the "audience" area in the main hall, the whole place lit with garish banks of fluorescent tube-lighting. It was a strange setup, but one on which I suspected Bread & Roses could capitalize. Waiting for Bread & Roses to arrive, we endured several acts typical of every activist benefit show: topical folkies, a young hipster kid with a casio keyboard peeling paint with unlistenable covers of 80s songs, and a young woman with an acoustic guitar playing cabaret-folk. Morgan and the rest of the band arrived and we went out to the house porch to get caught up. Only when hip-hop duo RADIx, the night's penultimate act, took the "stage" did we return to the living room to investigate. A two-piece with a beatbox and a tightly-drilled collection of intricate rhymes, RADIx was among the best hip hop I'd ever seen live, and their set ended far earlier than the crowd wanted it to. But I was there to see Bread & Roses, so I was excited to watch them quickly unpack their equipment and tune their strings to one another. When Steve had told me that the show was an hour's drive from Boston, I asked him, "Are you as good as were when you played in Montreal? Because I don't want to drive an hour to waste my time." Steve smirked and said, "We're a hundred times better. You'll see."
(somewhere in MA, 2005-- photo from band website)Thirty seconds into "Grass," their updated cover of Carl Sandburg's famous anti-war poem, I believed him. Playing hard, the band was drum-tight and fierce, all instruments in perfect line with one another. Unlike the large Electric Tractor hall, the comparative smallness of the house living room made the band surprisingly loud, and a crowd had spilled in from the other rooms and the porch by the end of the song. As the set unspooled I thought about how well-honed the band had become-- the harmonies were careful and the instrumentation exact. When I'd seen them last they seemed unconcerned about occasional dropped notes or beats, but three years had given Bread & Roses practice and presence. Their set was composed largely of songs I hadn't heard before, some new songs about the First World War and whaling, and covers of folk and country classics, and they were all great. But more than the some of its parts, the band's performance made the set remarkable.
Beneath the greenish fluorescents the room had an air of plainness which Bread & Roses used to great effect: all artifice seemed burned away by the light and the room, in the centre of which the band crooned, waltzed and raged. Individual instrument solos went unheard by those not nearby and occasionally the drums or fiddle overtook other players, while the voices of the crowd drowned out Morgan and the various other members of the band from time to time. At multiple points in the set I had goosebumps, but at no time as intensely as in their closing songs, fiery versions of the traditional "Babylon is Fallen (To Rise No More)" and the WWI rebel song "Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire." The quiet fury of those two tracks, both generations old, was breathtaking, and the small scale of the room seemed to seal the crowd's agreement that the emotions the band was passing out were equally shared by those listening. In an atmosphere as intimate of that living room it would have been hard for any listener to remain unmoved.
The applause at the end was deafening and left me wondering how and where such a set could be repeated to greatest effect-- surely such distilled rage and hope must have some purpose more than making a small group of people feel fired up. Yet an acquiescence to the music technology that the band so fervently rejects could easily distort the experience of hearing them live-- meaning that they're necessarily destined to play small rooms and yards to small groups of people forever, quietly. It's a funny thing to consider from a band whose spirit is deafening.