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Plunging into new currents

by Jordan Green

They emerge from the tiny and hot dressing room at the Garage with an almost tribal sense of common purpose and enthusiasm, all of the band members being men with the exception of the female violinist, and significant others keeping the players company.

Band leader Stephen Roach, dressed in a wool fedora, blue T-shirt and faded jeans, and boasting a bushy blond beard, is perhaps the most spirited of them, while Lucas Skaggs, a friend up from Charlotte – and the son of bluegrass great Ricky Skaggs – who’s sitting in with the band tonight, traipses through the bar barefooted with his long brown hair parted at the side and curled at the ends, displaying an expression of contentment. They settle into chairs around the room and give appreciative attention to opener Melissa Reaves, a singularly intense singer-songwriter from Boone who wails her vocals and runs her acoustic guitar through a battalion of effects pedals.

Songs of Water started in 2003, but largely slipped from view when one of its members fell ill and ultimately succumbed to cancer. Israel Sarpolus died in 2007, but Songs of Water’s website still lists him as an honorary member. That’s the kind of tight-knit group they are.

“We did very few gigs,” the 32-year-old Roach says. “We stood by him…. The whole band is a community of friends. That’s where the band comes from. He wasn’t just a guy we hired to play.”

An invitation to play last April prompted a reunion, and now Roach hopes to fill in the summer with engagements and begin recording the band’s second full-length album.

“Somebody asked me if I wanted to come down to South Carolina, and I brought the Songs of Water crew down there,” Roach says. “And there was so much life in the music and we knew we had to keep it going.”

Songs of Water is predominantly an instrumental group, but Roach is gradually introducing lyrical songs. The group’s melding of Celtic and Middle Eastern styles, further enhanced by Roach’s recent study of Indian classical music, its disciplined but adventurous musicianship and balancing act between improvisation and formalism, folk music and new age has won Songs of Water a small, but devoted corps of fans.

An autodidact, Roach grew up in a bluegrass family in Reidsville – he says his grandmother had 15 children and they all played instruments – and started coming down to Greensboro in high school to be a part of the music scene, playing in a death-metal band among other undertakings. He became an eager understudy to bouzouki player Chronis Vasili, who introduced him to Middle Eastern music. Roach traveled the country, picking up and learning obscure musical instruments, and he undertook a self-guided study of musical scales from a wide range of world music. He never gave college much thought.

“I think they look at me like, ‘That’s kind of interesting,'” says Roach, whose cousin is famed bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice. “I came from a bluegrass family, and I play tablas.”

The band is clearly Roach’s vision. Onstage, he speaks to the audience as a gentle, hip guru might, tenderly inquiring of their mood, smiling and nodding humorously at his fellow musicians.

“The band, in some ways it began because I had so many songs I had written, but I apparently only two arms,” he says. He moved in with Jason Windsor, the guitar player and arranger. They added from there: bass player Greg Willett, percussionist Michael Pritchard, and Marta Richardson, who has played with the Greensboro Symphony.

Their show at the Garage on a recent Thursday night begins without fanfare, Roach seated at stage left behind the broad console of a hammer dulcimer and Richardson anchoring the other end on the violin. The rest of the musicians fill out a semicircle. Skaggs stands behind a trio of dunduns, pounding the tall, deep drums with heavy-metal gusto. Windsor invests the song with powerful slashing chords, as the dulcimer plays the intensifying lead melody. The violin comes in as a melancholy companion. Together, the players create a textured and filigreed sonic canvas as powerful as Led Zeppelin at its most folky.

“We listen to each other. Sometimes we think music is able to speak something deeper than words. If I play something to ten, fifteen, twenty or fifty people, they may all come away feeling something totally different. We do believe music is an experience. You behold it. And you enter in it with us.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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