It starts with a confession.
I’ve been listening to Moonshine Still’s debut CD, Moon Over Georgia with some regularity over the past month, singing along to it in the shower or in the car.
Or does it start with a different kind of confession?
The last thing a weary jamband critic like myself wants to read, when opening a package of fresh meat, is that the band in question is defined by their ability to cross genres. C’mon, who doesn’t cross genres these days? Britney Spears does it for chrissakes. She’s pop, she’s rock, she’s blues, she’s gospel, she’s dance, by some accounts she’s even techno. And as for the jambands, well, I have yet to hear of a true purebred. Mixology is part of the jamband protocol.
Even less enticing than the "fifty flavors with every bite" hook is the whole notion that a band actually invented a genre through crossbreeding and alchemy. A winning cocktail is still the winning ticket; but most bands that claim it can hardly cash it in.
Which is why I made the mistake of dismissing Moonshine Still at first. After opening their press kit and seeing the word "FRANKENROCK" in bold print (followed by this description: "A blend of music created from a variety of origins, bound together on the operating table of studio and stage, and given life by a bolt of electricity") my interest waned and I tossed the kit on top of the new Smash Mouth kit that came in the mail on the same day. Both were headed for storage instead of the stereo. In truth, just about any new music that’s worthwhile these days could be called "Frankenrock" for one reason or another, and I congratulate Moonshine Still on coining a term destined for widespread use in describing bands who are much different from them, for years to come. As a matter of fact, fellas, I hereby will make it my duty to be the first one to lift it for another band.
As for Moonshine’s own music, "Frankenrock" is certainly a more accurate term than I would’ve ever imagined; clearly the band imports from gospel, southern rock, blues, metal, even Middle Eastern traditions. And, to their credit, they blend them together smoothly and with practiced execution. If you can see the stitching in the skin and the knobs for ears, I assure you it’s a fashionable look and a real, living thing they’ve created here.
No, it starts with a disclaimer:
Still, after taking an unexpected liking to Moonshine Still’s debut release, the live Moon over Georgia, I would rather leave any and all terminology, that might frighten you or otherwise bias you, out of this. Perhaps I make this disclaimer for the benefit of several respected music critic friends of mine, who will no doubt read this and who have a fatal aversion to any description of music that includes the word "southern." It is an aversion I usually have as well. Therefore, please forget most of what you’ve read in these opening paragraphs. But remember this: Moonshine Still plays rock music. Frankenrock music.
Hailing from Macon, Georgia, and with a name like Moonshine Still, there is something distinctly Georgian about the band. Of course, I just got done explaining that I’d like to duck the "southern" connection (or did you forget already?) and singer/guitarist Scott Baston tries to avoid it as well, for similar reason. "You can never deny where you come from," he says, "but we are able to tap into a much larger vain than just the typical southern rock label."
"So then why did the band call their debut album Moon Over Georgia?" I don’t actually ask him this, as I’d rather not hear his answer on that one. I’ll tell you mine the band is able to sound comfortably Georgian while, as Baston puts it, tapping into something larger than typical southern rock. Widespread Panic comparisons may or may not come, and may or may not be warranted; I am not concerned. I find it much more interesting that the Moonshine boys hail from the same state as Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit. For, while the two bands sound nothing alike, they both are similar in their ability to play southern rock that, indeed, transcends southern rock.
Using a similar stitch as jamband contemporaries Umphrey’s McGee, Moonshine Still is capable of some pretty fancy needlework. Moon Over Georgia has moments that sound like, honest to goodness, Middle Eastern prog-rock as played by certain members of the Black Crowes. Lyrically however, with the exception of the embarrassing "C&KB" (which stands for "Coffee and Kind Buds." I’m blushing as I type this. I mean, who uses the phrase "kind bud" anymore, but Oakies from Muskogee?) most of Moonshine Still’s lyrics tend to be upwardly lifting, regardless of content. And they work convincingly with Baston’s natural, yet well-trained, voice.
"I started singing in church when I was 3 years old," says Baston. "I used to sing so much in church it was disruptive to the service. But despite that, I was always encouraged by family to pursue the gifts that I was given. I still to this day feel that I am a vessel."
Baston’s early childhood experiences in the church have no doubt had a profound impact on Moonshine Still in other ways as well. Baston sent me an email elaborating, and it is clearly worth reprinting here:
‘My grandfather Fred Gordon Sr. is a Primitive Baptist Minister, and he taught me a great deal about how to read music. The Primitive Baptists do not believe in instrumental music in the church, so every song is sung a cappella. I never fully understood this about my grandfather’s church, because musical instruments date back to the Bible. Never the less, they considered this old southern style religion and musical worship. Back in the old days a lot of the church congregation were simple country folk, and some did not have the privilege of a good education. My grandfather is a brilliant man and studied the old style of reading Primitive Baptist music. Instead of using conventional music notes, there were shape notes’ for the different tones. My grandfather taught me how to sing using shape notes, and then I went on to read regular music in high school band and chorus.
‘Also, down the road from my grandfather’s church was a Southern Black Gospel service that was held every Sunday. As I got older, I would sneak off from the Baptist [church] and make my way down to the all black church. The gospel music moved me in a way that only the true spirit that dwells within all of us can, and that is where I learned to sing from the soul. Because of all these experiences I feel that it is my calling to let the message move through me like water through a stream.’
Although Moonshine Still is a far cry from church music, both in content and context, (and they are certainly not a religiously affiliated band), Baston’s background seems entirely fitting. For one, it plays into the whole Georgian image and it explains Baston’s full-bodied vocals. It also gives legitimacy to his repeated claims that Moonshine Still isn’t just fucking around like big boys with electric toys. Baston, and his five bandmates Bill Jarrett (percussion), Ray Petron (bass), Will Robinson (drums), David Shore (guitar), and Trippe Wright (keys) are trying to craft something for the greater good. They are trying to create the same kind of communal ecstasy and release found in Southern Black Gospel churches where everyone is singing and stomping their feet and everyone is a participant and you are expected to speak out of turn, as you are moved to do so, and to whoop and holler inappropriately at any time, appropriately.
Baston agrees: "We all share together, we are all equal, and we all hurt and love to the fullest capacity that human beings are able, and through those experiences we help one another overcome any obstacles that get in the way so we can all arrive at the same place together. This is why we do what we do. Not because we are trying to be the next big thing, but because we want to be timeless. We want to touch and relate to the most basic of human feelings that every person carries with them everyday. We welcome everyone with open arms who are willing to help themselves rise to the occasion, and challenge their own minds. That is why we started expressing ourselves through art and music in the first place, and that is how we tie ourselves to the jamband scene. There are no flashy gimmicks here in our organization. Just real people doing what real people do everyday, and perhaps learning something about themselves through music along the way."
It’s a lofty mission statement, and Moonshine Still has been pursuing it since 2000 (well, 1996 if you count their first incarnation as a trio). The only problem is that it overlooks the fun, Saturday night barnstorming aspect of the band. But cut through the headiness of Baston’s remarks and what he’s really trying to say is that Moonshine Still wants to make music that affects people in some way any way, so long as it’s positive. Moon Over Georgia certainly does that, at least for me, because when it’s on I have an uncontrollable urge to do silly dances in front of the mirror (just for shits and giggles); and that, my friends, is a start. The upward motion of Moonshine Still’s music isn’t lost in the translation either. It feels good.
I think I’ll give the term Frankenrock back to them. They probably deserve it.