A Piedmont string-band tradition mutates

by Jordan Green

Round about midnight at the Blind Tiger, the Greensboro music bar near the corner of Walker and Elam, the devotees jab with fingers securing cigarettes whose hot embers punctuate the air. They gesture with hands fluttering from the heart. They whistle. Some of them, in couples, waltz.

The band is hot. Their earnest vocals, searing guitar lines, quicksilver banjo picking and easy references to honky-tonk and the blues hint at what popular music was like before national, even regional markets developed, when rock stars were workingmen who picked up guitars and sang at the corner bars after their more prosaic obligations were accomplished.

Meet Downtown Senate of High Point.

Over the evening they’ll perform almost 30 songs, the vast majority of them composed by the band. From load-in at 7:30 p.m. until the last note rings around 2 a.m. it’s close to an eight-hour work day. And that doesn’t count lugging around equipment around, rehearsing and writing songs. It’s part of the unspoken contract at a bar gig, where beer and liquor sales depend on everyone having a good time, and bringing the audience to an emotional peak makes the difference between toiling in obscurity and getting paid to play music.

They started together in the same way that bands have been forming in the Piedmont for the past hundred years.

“I grew up around the corner from these guys,” says drummer Justin Kennedy, who only joined the band in November 2005. “Johnny was dating my next-door neighbor.” (Johnny Slate is married to a different woman now, they hasten to add.)

Slate picks up the story: “I heard him and a buddy flat-picking, and I brought my banjo over, and we played all night.”

They gradually coalesced as a band “once a month playing cookouts around the fire,” Slate continues. “People told us, ‘You need to get out and about.'”

Despite the fact that three out of five of them graduated together from High Point Central High School, the members each bring different influences to the band. Lead guitarist Ted Hardin leans towards the blues and the hard-edged soul of the Allman Brothers. Bassist Dan Powers looks to the alchemical properties of funk. Slate digs bluegrass. Kennedy gets off on Southern rock, from the jammy Widespread Panic to the whiskey-soaked Drive-By Truckers. And Benji Morris is the acknowledged singer-songwriter of the group.

Although Hardin and Slate contribute songs to the band, Morris shoulders the majority of the songwriting responsibilities. A prolific composer, his creative labors are suffused in the routine of his regular job.

“I sell furniture for my day job,” Morris says. “I’m gone three days a week. I just take the guitar into my hotel room. I love it.”

The band went electric in late 2005 when they added Kennedy on drums.

“You could say we became a rock band,” Morris says. “Our fans stuck with us. Most people really love it. There are some who say, ‘I kind of like what you were doing before more.'”

Part of the transition has been the departure of Grant Bowles, who played mandolin with the band and contributed the song “Bamagail” to their second album, 2006’s Unwind.

He’s here tonight, dispensing appreciative whistles, periodically pointing towards Hardin or Powers to acknowledge a particularly skillful run, and singing along from the audience. In spite of the bittersweet fact of his leaving for a host of financial, creative and scheduling reasons, he’s easily the band’s biggest fan. And he’ll join the band onstage to sing “Bamagail” and a triad of songs in the second set.

When he’s not dancing in the audience he’s at the bar giving a running commentary on the music.

“This is a song Benji wrote about Charleston,” he says. “Wait for the middle for the reggae breakdown. It’s so good it’s sick.”

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