Renaissance culture inspires local rock musician

by Amy Kingsley

The guitarist for the Asheville-based duo The Body of John the Baptist props his knee on a slat-backed chair, leans over his guitar and strums the first chord so quietly it comes across like a whisper. A party crowd in no mood to be musically sedated responds with bursts of laughter and loud conversation.

‘“SHHHHHHH!’” comes from the back. Partygoers clutch their beers and glare at the rebuke.

‘“I’m f**king serious,’” says the dictatorial Travis Hodgdon. ‘“I totally live here and s**t.’”

The crowd quiets and Hodgdon sways to the music. On the stage ‘— a cleared dining room ‘— the band faces the windows. The member with the southern vantage navigates a table cluttered with intergenerational musical instruments: vintage keyboard, Apple iBook and lap steel. The singer looks west into the pyrotechnics provided by traffic charging into downtown’s glitzier environs.

This is the second show in a few days at the White House, a rambling three-story house on Market Street facing UNCG’s wooded perimeter. Residents hosted a handful of shows earlier this year but are planning to increase activity with a slate of bands booked in the next couple of months.

This one is a doozy. There are four bands, three hailing from out of town, and things don’t even get started until 11 p.m. Hodgdon is hours-deep into a bottle of bourbon that has half closed his eyes and loosened his limbs.

He looks suspended in the music, a series of slow, reverb-soaked numbers elevated by a voice as beautiful and brittle as blown glass. His appeal works along with the music to settle the crowd.

‘“God that guy’s voice is so gorgeous,’” Hodgdon said standing on the stoop after the set. ‘“Musical talent is the only thing that’s attractive to me.’”

It could be said that the music itself is attractive. Hodgdon boasts a longer and more varied musical history than most young adult dalliers in the indie rock scene. He plays the piano, crumhorn (a renaissance reed instrument), recorder, flute, organ and harpsichord.

‘“I’m the first, the last and the only,’” he says about his unique status as the one harpsichord major at UNCG.

He may be the only one in the room who complements his knowledge of rock esoterica with a deep familiarity of Renaissance composers. Hodgdon’s fascination with music emerged at the tender age of five, when he convinced his blue-collar, nonmusical parents to buy a ‘“crappy piano.’”

‘“Music is the only thing in my life I’ve ever stuck with,’” he says.

He played the piano primarily until he discovered the harpsichord at age 17. Always attracted to the ornate compositions of renaissance composers like Sweelink, Couperin and Bach, he gravitated to the instrument for which those works were composed. His talent on the ivories landed him admission to the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory, which he attended for two years until 1999.

As the second band loads in through his living room, his goal is to herd the crowd that has spilled out into the yard back into the house. Richmond-based The Silent Type sets up a keyboard, cello, guitar, bass and drums. Behind them against the wall sits an organ and electric piano, both Travis’.

He bolts out the front door as the band puts the final touches on their mix, yelling for people to come inside. As The Silent Type launches into their first song, a train of folks follows Hodgdon through the door and he takes a position toward the front of the crowd. This time no shushing is necessary, the small room turns the countrified orch-pop into an all-out aural assault.

‘“You look so happy when shows at your house are going well,’” says a friend who sidled up to Hodgdon under the porchlight’s honey glow.

The house is a four-lane dash from the UNCG School of Music. Travis reenrolled in the music program there after he decided to end his six-year hiatus and studied under Andrew Willis.

Between schools, he has continued to play his harpsichord in some nontraditional forums. In 2003 he lived in Charlotte where he grew up and recorded Fashion for the Evildoer, which rose to 70 on the College Music Journal radio chart.

In between attending school he also traveled extensively and lived in California, Massachusetts and several cities around North Carolina. Although the present finds him in Greensboro, he has plans to move again, this time to Asheville, within a month.

One of the members of the Mason Brothers leans a massive cabinet against a dolly, pops it back and squeezes it through the door. The quartet charges through a number of alt country songs in the pop vein of the Pernice Brothers. That cumbersome cabinet contains the rotating parts of a Leslie speaker, well known for its unique spatial effects.

The crowd is getting drunker and rowdier, but so is the music. The Mason Brothers load their equipment and hit the road back to Richmond at around 2 a.m. Inside the house a healthy but dwindling crowd gathers for local band Health.

Beer bottles litter the fireplace mantle, tables and corners of the floor. A piece of paper taped on the wall above a tattered couch serves as a sign-up sheet for post-show cleanup. The sun will rise on the mess in a few hours, but right now Hodgdon and the rest of the crowd ignore the trash and tuck in a few last cheap beers.

Shows at the house will continue when Hodgdon has gone. But he will leave a hole on Tate Street, where he is enough of a fixture to have earned a spot in a College Hill trivia question.

‘“I fully intend to be famous,’” he says.

Whether it is the rarefied world of chamber music, the gritty indie rock underground or somewhere else entirely, his fame won’t happen in Greensboro. He is recording tracks for a project to be released in a few months, after he has pulled up stakes and moved to the mountains. Tonight those mountains are just a place The Body of St. John the Baptist will be driving to tomorrow, and at almost 3 a.m. Hodgdon is riveted to local band Health wailing their way to the end of the set.

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