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Red State Blues

Politics: clean-burning fuel for songwriting anger and all-night dance orgies.



Songwriter Tim Barry has been interested in politics his entire life.  But he was wary of sounding preachy with his beliefs, especially when he joined a punk band and began writing lyrics that would be sung by teenagers across the country.

Barry is the lead singer of legendary Richmond hard-core outfit Avail, but he also has a folk side.  Last year he released a solo album, "Rivanna Junction," that continues to explore his trademark themes of traveling and alienation — songs that aren't really political in the global sense, but closer to home.

"Personal politics sometimes comes out in my lyrics because it's natural," Barry says.  "I really only know how to write about things I understand. … So there isn't too much global politics in there."

Barry says his mother turned him on to folk music at an early age, and at one time he devoured all the works concerning the quintessential folkie, Woody Guthrie.

"Guthrie was a tremendous influence early on," Barry says.  "He taught me how to ride freights, and I was intrigued by his lyrics about class and unions. … It's pretty much the same stuff as Steinbeck."

From Guthrie, Barry moved on to the country sound of Jimmie Rodgers and more recent country-folk/protest artists like Steve Earle, he says, who "really took politics and shoved it in your face."

"I don't think there is much political songwriting in Richmond anymore," he says, with a hint of wistfulness.  "More jean jackets and beer bongs than politics."

One local songwriter who does write about global politics is Adam Nathanson, of Born Against, Young Pioneers and Teargas Rock fame.  Most of his songs deal with big issues, from anti-globalization to economic inequality in Richmond.

Nathanson says that many of his recent songs were influenced both by his work with Food Not Bombs, a nonprofit organization that provides free vegetarian meals, and by his experiences living and working downtown.  

While his songwriting can't be described as formulaic, he says he's tried certain tricks before, like matching the lyrics of Norman Mailer's book "Miami and the Siege of Chicago" with the music and melody of Dylan's "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall." He's inspired by political action groups and actors from the '60s and '70s — everyone from The Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society to the American Indian Movement.  It's been several years since he played live, and now he's working on new solo material.

Just six months ago, Virginia Commonwealth University student Austin Dandridge put out an e-mail looking for musicians to play Afrobeat music, an exotic style pioneered by the late Nigerian multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Fela Kuti.

This groundbreaking political dance music from the '70s is jazz, Yoruba music, high-life and funk rhythms, originally played in orgiastic all-night parties.  Each song is typically long, sometimes 20 minutes or more, and features a steady accumulation of percussion, bass, keyboard, horns and guitar — with minimal, call-and-response-styled lyrics.

"We also try to leave the egos out," says Dandridge, who plays drums for his newly minted Richmond Afrobeat Movement.  "It's more of a collective group thing," he says of the 11-member ensemble, mostly horn players and percussion.  "But we're not trying to be a jam band — there's definitely a lot of structure to the material."

The music is closely tied to political causes, mainly calls to social change stemming from political injustice and military corruption as Nigeria was transforming from its colonial government in the '60s.  But Dandridge says the message can easily be updated with a different time and place.

"We don't want to be known as simply a Fela rip-off band, but we will always pay homage to him because he created this music," he says.  "The inspiration behind the music, the message of social change, can apply anywhere."

While the band will probably never stop playing Fela covers, it plans to create more original Afrobeat material in the future — similar to another band that first turned Dandridge on to the genre, the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra from Brooklyn.

"Our fundamental goal is to inspire people to make music, to protest, to help people — to basically bring about positive change," Dandridge says.  "And do things for yourself."

Adam Nathanson


Genre: High-energy rock, garage punk.

Some subjects tackled in song:Anti-globalization, direct action, economic inequality, socialism.

Practicing what he preaches: Works as assistant manager for the 17th Street Farmers' Market and teaches GED night courses for Richmond Public Schools.

Guide to the city: "The mayor's most livable city, the Southern Partisan/The Citizen Informer, as far as eyes can see/Oh our fate was done in a backroom/and dodged from day to day." — from "Death to the Coalition"

The Richmond Afrobeat Movement

Genre: Afrobeat music as pioneered by Fela Kuti.

Sounds like: Trippy African jazz/funk instrumentals for desert parties.

Characteristic sound: Pulsating shekere and undulating bass lines, slinky guitar.

Song length: Typically long, 20 minutes or more.

Subjects tackled in song: Political injustice, military corruption, colonialism, though there are few lyrics.

Sample song title: "Colonial Mentality."

Best lyric to pull in the crowd: [Call and response] "Everybody say yeah, yeah." "Yeah, yeah."

Tim Barry

Lead singer of Avail, folk artist

Some subjects tackled in song: Traveling, alienation, social politics, gentrification of Richmond.

Recent political lyric concerning Richmond: "They served an eviction notice to the family down the street/The home will go to students who will sign a six-month lease/And I can't believe it." — from "Ain't Right Sure"

Lyric that always fires up the crowd: "One quick minute got me 28 years/I would do it again, I don't regret it/He laid his hand on my sister too many times when I was near/And I shot him dead and I don't care." — from "Dog Bumped"

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