Time flows again for Red Clay River

by Ryan Snyder

How much loss can you take before you break?” punk hero Tim Barry once asked on his song “On and On.” The former frontman for Avail nearly had his question answered by his friends and tourmates in Red Clay River in April 2010 during a show at the legendary New York City venue the Knitting Factory. The punk-folk quintet out of Roanoke, Va. had just finished their first LP as a full band and had begun to play bigger venues than any of them had ever worked before. Their shows were eliciting glowing responses when suddenly, the very future of the band came into question.

They had packed up after another enthralling set as the opening act for Barry when the band later discovered their van missing, along with every piece of equipment they own inside of it. Gone were an 18th century Stradivarius that belonged to violinist Camellia Delk, the handmade guitar and amp that belonged to Aaron Parker, the first guitar that singer Dan Bivins ever owned and essentially all of the momentum they had built up to that point. They eventually recovered the van, and all that remained inside was a $20 mandolin, a few religious tracks and an oil drum that banjo player and percussionist Marcus Hodges used to bang on at shows.

“It was kind of like a ‘holy shit’ moment for us all at first,” Bivins said. “At that point it was hard to believe it happened. Once it sunk in, we were like, ‘What do we do now?’” They had borrowed equipment to play a show in Roanoke and a festival in North Carolina, but it wasn’t working for the sometimes sweet and spacious, sometimes dark and clamorous sound they had painstakingly sculpted out of influences as diverse as Tom Waits, Marc Ribot and Barry himself. Broke, and with only vague hope for the future of the band, Red Clay River went off into an interminable hiatus. Bivins returned to school and Hodges moved to Winston-Salem for work. Friends had tried to help raise money to get them going again, but it wasn’t enough. The band had to lay to rest more ideas than they could act upon.

“We were starting to have all of these good ideas, they were a little out there, but we had started talking about writing a play, and other stuff not really expected of bands in that scene,” Bivins said. “We were trying to push ourselves to think differently about music and ourselves as artists.”

It would be around 10 months before the band would acquire a new set of instruments. They say a carpenter is only as good as his tools, and Red Clay River saw their arsenal as irreplaceable. Bivins says they may never rediscover the sound they possessed before, partially because of the new gear and partially because of their time apart, but times like this don’t come without opportunity.

Their last album before their hiatus, Cover Our Faces with Soot and Dreams, which saw the band exploring more gothic textures driven by gypsy rhythms, had already set their current course. It represented the start of a newer sound that began one night with Bivins drunkenly banging away on pots and pans while his wife was out of town. He recorded the clatter he made and took it to Parker and Hodges, who fashioned it into “Ain’t No Blues,” a Waits-ian romp and stomp several deviations removed from the traditionally minded folk of their self-titled EP.

Re-equipped and recommitted to their music, Red Clay River is staring down their second show off of hiatus this weekend with a fresh new batch of unrecorded songs to try out. Their experiences and time off has darkened the tenor of their music, Hodges says, but their roots and ambitions remain real.

“When I had joined that band, I had only joined it to play banjo and all of the songs were real pretty then; all acoustic and big four-part harmonies,” Hodges said. “But the longer we go on, the darker and meaner it gets. Now it’s just high time for us to get on the road and get something new going.”

Red Clay River will perform at Krankies this Friday with Supernature, the Missionaries and the debut of Dieters.