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Back in the late 1970s, when Walt Austin was a third grader at Gaines Elementary School in Athens, Georgia, he had the mistaken impression that "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was written by the Bee Gees. After all, it was their version of the classic Beatles tune that was getting all the radio airplay, this being when the Brothers Gibb were riding high on the crest of success provided by their relationship with producer/mogul Robert Stigwood.
It was up to Austin's good friend and future bandmate, eight-year-old Ted Lahey, to set the record straight. So like any good pal should, Lahey whipped out his Batman record player and gave young Walt his first taste of the Fab Four.
Okay, so it wasn't a seminal moment in rock history. But it did lay a foundation of sorts for a musical kinship between the two, and it provides a nifty starting point for a discussion of Day by the River. Influenced by groups such as the Allman Brothers, Phish, and Widespread Panic, they've built a rabid local following with an infectious brand of groove-oriented music.
And, of course, there's Grateful Dead. Comparisons between the two are inevitable, as they share a penchant for extended jams and long instrumental solos. Austin, who plays keyboards in the River, says that's superficial. "I think it's really limiting to say it sounds like the Grateful Dead, just because a band improvises and jams on its music. I mean, there are similarities, but Miles Davis is a lot bigger influence on me."
That Austin would invoke the name of an artist so closely identified with jazz is telling. With the exception of vocalist/lyricist/guitarist Lahey, all of the members of Day by the River A which also includes lead guitarist Buck Pryor, bassist Patrick McDonnell, and drummer David Brockaway A are current or former students of the University of Miami's music school, a program knee-deep in jazz tradition. When individual members are pressed to name heroes, the list is liberally sprinkled with musicians far removed from the typical rock and roll orbit: Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, and Keith Jarrett share equal standing with Jimi Hendrix, Santana, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
It's an eclectic, glorious mess of influences, evident in the songs found on the River's 1993 CD, Shimmy, or better, in watching their live show flow over the course of two or three sets.
After seeing Day by the River live, all of this hardly seems to matter. Maybe it's in the middle of "Taking Over," a lazy, grooving number that sneaks up quietly, on the heels of the jazzy guitar riff and tinkling Hammond organ notes that open the song. Or perhaps it happens later in the show, when they launch the crowd-pleasing "Summer." But at some point you will stop trying to figure out whether that last section has more to do with Phish or Parliament-Funkadelic, and you will simply feel the urge to dance. You won't be alone.
In that respect Day by the River's shows are remarkable. Even in attitude-heavy Miami, where rock audiences are notoriously reserved, DbtR can turn an indifferent room into a throbbing mass of humanity in the space of a few songs.
A good dose of youthful idealism helps -- at 23, Austin is the oldest member -- as does the fact that they've cultivated an enthusiastic following among fellow UM students, who faithfully track the group to shows around town. Still, the key ingredients are already there: a tight rhythm section, killer guitar riffs, tasteful keyboard touches, passionate singing, and an overall stage presence that indicates skills and confidence well beyond their years.
The genesis dates to Athens in the late Eighties, when Austin, Brockaway, Lahey, and McDonnell attended high school together and played with various outfits. Any resemblance between then and now is purely physical. At the time they learned their chops playing INXS and Robert Palmer tunes. "We did what was big on the radio," explains Lahey.
Austin graduated from high school first, in 1990, and one by one the four friends wound up in Miami (Lahey by fluke, when his father took a job at Jackson Memorial Hospital), where they eventually teamed with fellow music student Pryor, who hails from New York. For those who keep track of such things, the current lineup has been together since 1992.
Coming from the music mecca that is Athens, Georgia -- a city that changed American music in the Eighties by spawning R.E.M., the B-52s, Pylon, Love Tractor, and Dreams So Real A the adjustment was difficult at first.
"It was a shock for me, coming down here as a freshman," says Austin. "When I grew up in Athens, what people would do on the weekend is they would go out and see bands. I mean, nonmusicians and musicians alike, everybody just went to go check out the bands. It was the cool thing."
Undeterred, they soon began lining up gigs -- UM's Fraternity Row was a major source of income in the early days -- and began building a fan base by word of mouth and involvement with campus groups such as Earth Alert (the connection continues to this day; the River regularly includes environmental news and tips in its monthly newsletter, and sets up a table at all shows from which the organization's leaflets are distributed).