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."
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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).
By the time Shimmy was released early last year, Day by the River was firmly entrenched near the top of the hierarchy of local acts, drawing as many as 500 fans to shows at venues like Blackjack's in the Grove.
The songs and sound have progressed nicely, in step with its growing popularity, and their repertoire now includes a couple dozen originals. "We've definitely grown composition-wise," says Lahey. "I can't wait to do the next album because the nine or ten songs we've written since Shimmy are so much better." McDonnell adds, "Even the tunes we play off Shimmy, we play much more upbeat."
The way songs are developed speaks volumes about Day by the River's improvisational prowess. "It really happens in a jam situation, and it comes out like, 'Wow, that worked, let's make that into a song,'" explains Lahey.
"It's interesting how that works," adds Pryor. "There's not a time that I can remember where anyone has asked me what I was playing. Like when I approach the band with an idea, no one asked me what I was playing, because it's almost like you're solidifying it."
McDonnell agrees. "Everyone comes up with their own part. It's just best not to know the chords behind it. Some of my best parts, I still couldn't tell you what key it's in. That's the stuff that feels best."
If anything, the skills have improved considerably over the past few months, as they've begun testing their songs on the cruel, unforgiving backdrop of the road. "One week of touring makes 500 per cent difference, at least," says Brockaway.
Day by the River has logged two out-of-state tours so far this year, garnering new fans in places such as Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, Auburn. The crowning achievement came in March with a showcase at the legendary Georgia Theatre in their hometown of Athens.
Treated rudely at first by a crew that figured them for nothing more than kids, Day by the River wowed the audience and wound up playing an extended set at the urging of the theater's management.
A few record labels and high-powered managers have shown interest, but for now the musicians are more than willing to go it alone. In fact, they say they would prefer it that way. "My mom has a music school in New York City, she played in clubs all throughout the Seventies, and she has a friend who is an executive producer at Atlantic," says Pryor. "So I played the disc for her, and the first thing she said to me is, 'What do you want?' And I sat there dumbfounded, like, 'I don't know.' 'Cause I didn't know, and I still don't know."
"We were talking about this great grassroots operation," adds Lahey. "And a manager came along from L.A. and wanted to sign us, and it was going to be our kick in the butt to corporate rock, and we all sat here and said, 'Do we want to be in Pepsi commercials? Do we want to be corporate rockers?' I think it's easier to kind of move into it doing it yourself with a following. Once you've played that much and to that many people on your own, it will be easier to swallow."
To that end the members of Day by the River have definite plans. Later this summer the band and other members of its tight-knit organization -- manager Jon Bell, publicist Reese Baron, and soundman Jens Brewer -- will be moving back to Athens so they can operate from a locale that's more accessible to the entire Southeast. Pryor will stay behind in Miami, and will join the others after he graduates in December.
"We're still coming back to Miami," says McDonnell. "We've spent too many years trying to build up a fan base here, so we're definitely not going to neglect it."
First things first, though. With official UM commencement exercises recently taking place for several members, it's time to celebrate achievements, both collectively and individually, with a show at the Stephen Talkhouse this Saturday evening. The groove factor and energy level should be even higher than normal, if that's possible, as assorted friends and family from out-of-town will be in attendance.
Of course, emotion always plays a big role in performance anyway. "There are tunes that we play, I get vaklemped," says Pryor. "Seriously, because I think back to the time when it just came about. It's really beautiful."
Day by the River performs at 9:00 p.m. Saturday at Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Admission costs $5.
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