Ted Lahey, vocalist-guitarist for the band Day by the River, is speaking from a pay phone outside the town hall in Northampton, Massachusetts, his feet soaking in the slushy aftermath of a sleet storm. He has some time to chat before Day by the River takes the stage just around the corner at the Iron Horse Cafe. The 24-year-old Athens, Georgia, native is wrapped in a long corduroy jacket and wears a wool hat that warms his shaved head. He braves the 40-degree temperature without complaint. This resolve, from a man who spent four years living in Miami, isn't surprising given that the topic of conversation is the evolution of his band's laid-back philosophy of life.
"I've known the guys since kindergarten," says Lahey, referring to Day by the River's drummer Dave Brockway, bassist Patrick McDonnell, and keyboardist Walt Austin. (Guitarist Jason Rabineau joined two and a half years ago.) "In high school we used to skip out and go to the sandbar by the Oconee River, which runs through Athens. We would drink a six-pack, play guitars, write songs, do the rope swing, and soak in the sun -- and that's how we got the band's name. To me the river is pretty symbolic of our music, a metaphor for constant change. The Oconee River will always be the Oconee River, but the water that passes by will never be the same. We have structures to our music, but every time we play it's a little bit different."
A close listen to Day by the River's second and most recent recording, 1996's fourteen-song Fly, makes it clear that Lahey's assessment of the band's name is not merely ethereal musing. On the album's first three tracks alone he sings, "I feel like takin' off my shoes and dippin' my feet in the swimming pool" ("Naked"); "Past the shed through the woods there's a pond/We can go there to fish at dawn" ("Shed"); and "She hopes that she can learn to see life through the eyes of a little boy" ("Through the Eyes"). Aside from the obvious references to the band's aqueous origins, an aura of purposeful simplicity runs through the album's lyrics.
"For me these attitudes are almost therapeutic," notes Lahey, pausing briefly to inform a man that his car is starting to roll away from its parking spot. (The man catches the car in time, and Lahey continues.) "Being on the road and the nonglamorous side of music can wear you down, so when I play I enjoy having the positive connotations to think about. It keeps me grounded spiritually and mentally. Even when we started and didn't have a clear direction, our music always had a feeling of good times and having fun -- it was never angry music. When we did our first shows, the covers we threw in were songs by people like Jimmy Buffett, that type of 'relax and kick back' kind of feel."
Based on its freeform approach, Day by the River is often compared to Widespread Panic, the Grateful Dead, and other so-called jam bands. A walking bass line sets the rhythm in motion, with guitar and keyboard licks flowing in and out of the mix. While the band members pay little heed to the constraints of conventional song structures, the tunes they produce are compact and avoid indulgent noodling.
There was a time, however, when their music was much more tightly controlled. In the late Eighties, Lahey, Brockway, McDonnell, and Austin all attended Cedar Shoals High School in Athens, where they played in the marching band. "The other guys had to wear the orange and blue toy soldier suits, including the big blue fuzzy hats," Lahey recalls. "I played the tuba so I got to forgo the big fuzzy hat. I wore a beret." When not stomping out a march, the four performed at sorority dances in a Top 40 cover band called Cherubic Creatures. They also began working on original material. But the band was put on hiatus in 1989 when keyboardist Austin enrolled in the University of Miami's music program; over the next two years he was joined there by the other three.
"There was a competitive nature to the school, which forced us to be more creative," remembers Lahey. "We officially formed Day by the River in Miami in 1991, and when we would play anywhere the audience was typically jazz school students who were, in our eyes, critiquing every note. We felt that everyone was a critic, so there was pressure to be more creative and original and play that much harder."
One of their UM teachers, Matt Bonelli, recognized their potential early on. "They were doing a lot of exploring back then," says Bonelli, who still teaches jazz bass and a rock-ensemble class in the school's music program. "I liked that their material was really earthy and rootsy. They played the textures and moods of songs rather than slick guitar and bass parts that didn't do anything. There was a chemistry that was beginning to evolve into a sound."
The band, which at the time also included UM students Buck Pryor (guitar) and Chris Garges (percussion), saved $7000 to record the twelve-song Shimmy in 1992. They released it locally in early 1993 and began to build a following on the city's club circuit; by 1994 they were making occasional forays into Alabama and Georgia (minus Garges, who left in October 1993 to concentrate on his education). In an effort to establish a central home base to accommodate such touring, they moved back to Athens around Christmas 1994; the first half of 1995 saw their road schedule increase from five dates a month to fifteen. The costs inherent in such extensive touring and the harsh realities of the music business began to take their toll.
"It was the first time everyone realized what a long, hard process this was," notes Reis Baron, a friend from the band's Miami days who became their manager in spring 1994. "They had built up a big Miami following, and now they were playing Southern towns where nobody knew them and the audiences wanted to hear cover tunes. The guys saw that they weren't getting signed to a deal without a few more years of hard-core work. It was like starting from scratch."
Things finally boiled over in August 1995 when Pryor suddenly left to join a commune with his mother. With a full slate of shows scheduled at the time of his departure, the band enlisted their friend Jimmy Herring, guitarist for the Aquarium Rescue Unit, a national jam band based in Atlanta, to take his place until a permanent replacement could be found. That replacement was Rabineau, a fan of the band and a student of Herring; he answered an ad and was officially offered the vacant slot in October 1995.
"We had been playing with Buck for so long that we really had to stop and think about style, think about what we were doing and how that affected the guitarists," explains Lahey. "Over the past two and a half years we have had to redefine ourselves and our sound to fit with Jason because we are such a communicative band musically. In the process of improvisation, we're actually speaking, having musical conversations with each other, and when you have another person who isn't used to it, it definitely takes some time. But musically he's becoming more explosive and his voice is becoming more dominant, and we're a much tighter unit than we've been."
The new lineup recorded Fly in July 1996; it features a much fuller and evenly distributed sound than does Shimmy, with vastly improved guitar work. Pryor's solos on Shimmy sometimes seemed limited by his strict use of blues scales. Rabineau's fluid work on Fly, reminiscent at times of the playing of Jerry Garcia, Yes's Steve Howe, or Carlos Santana, gracefully rides the band's flowing rhythms, creating a more cohesive whole.
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With the lineup at its creative apex, Day by the River's popularity has soared. The band was selected for four shows on last year's H.O.R.D.E. tour, although it performed only two -- the other two were completely cancelled. The group has also been approached by several record labels but they're taking a cautious approach by not jumping at offers they consider to be inadequate.
"Most of the deals we've been offered are about as beneficial to us as doing it ourselves," contends Lahey, raising his voice to be heard over fire trucks racing down the street. "We haven't had the kind of interest that will take us to the next level. There are snakes in the industry who think we are not an educated group of guys, [who believe] we're a typical garage band that's going to jump on a deal that will eventually lead us nowhere. The type of deal we want is yet to come, and we know that to have the kind of bargaining power we need, we need to keep plugging away."
Day by the River performs Friday and Saturday, March 20 and 21, at Stella Blue, 1661 Meridian Ave, Miami Beach; 532-4788. Showtime is 11:00 p.m. Cover charge is $6.