D.C. band finds audience at GW

With deep, enticing vocals and subdued percussion, River pulls its listeners in so close they get a personal serenade. The audience at Hillel’s Pajama Jam this Saturday will share the River experience while making a projected 2,000 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the homeless.

The D.C. area-based band had its beginning 10 years ago when guitarist Mario Sacasa and vocalist Chris Keup began playing together. Drummer Jay Tobey joined the band later, bringing his subtle style of play with him. GW student Dan Conway recently joined the band after its bass player left the group.

Because of its folksy sound and realness on stage, the band has earned fame and praise. The Washington Post lauded its album Songs for the Harbinger (Grantham Dispatch) as a work that “demands” repeated listenings. Billboard predicted it to become the next Dave Matthews Band.

The quartet has ties to Dave Matthews. Its producer, John Algia, had to continually leave the band during recording to tend to his main job – the Dave Matthews Band. But with this inconvenience came a lot of help. Because of Algia’s connection with the highly-successful band, River was able to garner some impressive cameos on its debut album. Thanks to Conway’s connection with the GW Music Department, the band convinced Professor Peter Fraize to perform on saxophone.

Even with their influence by the Dave Matthews Band, River has a distinct sound. In fact, Keup’s vocals and lyrics are reminiscent of Leonard Cohen. His soft, low voice combined with his story-like lyrics make Songs for the Harbinger a hard album to resist putting on repeat.

Songs like “1955,” detailing a sad tale letter sent from a dying woman years after a love affair that produced a child, give the band a sophistication not often found in young groups. The song was inspired when Conway received a letter at his Virginia Avenue house for “Nathaniel.”

After concluding that Nathaniel must have lived there at least 15 years ago, he opened the letter to find the dying words of a woman who loved him 40 years ago. “Our child died on Christmas Day,” she said. She also told her lover that she had cancer, and she wanted to tell him before she died. Conway tried to find the man without success. Keup wrote “1955” about the incident.

“The woman sees a person as who he is, doesn’t judge a person for a mistake,” Keup said, explaining the song. “But the narrator uses her falter to discount her.”

Catchy lines like “Jack and Jill maybe drank their fill/But neither had your will and I’m thirsty still” from “Diamond,” and “Hey Lady Rainday go on and rain away/Do you believe you’ve cause a climatic change” from “Lady Rainday,” stay with a listener days after hearing them. The lyrics provide a good reason to sit and intently listen – trying to find other lines packed with meaning and wit.

But the things that keep a cursory listener coming back are not the lyrics, but the melodies. “Lady Rainday” is a dancing tune, while “Kara Can I Kiss You” induces foot tapping. River’s Bob Dylan influence comes through in “Catch Your Eye,” and the song leaves a listener humming.

Seeing River play live is very different from listening to the album. Its calm air is a little more apparent, while the sound is a little less clean. Keup attributes this to the group’s lack of a personal sound technician. “Everyone else in the band is better than me (on guitar), including the drummer,” he added.

River is playing at Hillel for the Pajama Jam Saturday, Nov. 22. The event begins at 9 p.m. and all are invited.

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