Dwight Thompson was ready to quit. After years of playing bass for hire, he'd simply had enough.
"I was actually at a point this year when I was like, 'I'm giving this two more years and then I'm done,'" he recalls. "I'd rather have a day job than play music for some audience full of drunken assholes."
Before he could make good on his vow, though, Thompson ended up joining the Congress — a freshly minted quartet featuring drummer Damon Scott and led by guitarists Jonathan Meadows and Scott Lane — and found a musical connection that had evaded him over the years.
"I've always been a for-hire guy, except for with this band," Thompson notes. "This is the only band I've ever actually said I was a part of, or considered myself to be a part of. I was fed up with music. I was pissed off at people, but I loved playing it, because there are those moments when it's great. But I'd never worked with a group of musicians where it's always great, where it works all the time."
Until now. The intrinsic harmony between the members is evident on their debut EP. The group's self-titled seven-track disc, recorded at Macy Sound Studios, encompasses vintage R&B textures, Appalachian harmonies and free-form psychedelic solos. "I think everything, without even talking about it all, just kind of happened exactly how we would have imagined it," Meadows insists. "It was really odd how it just fell right into place."
There's a reason things fell right into place, and it has a lot to do with the fact that the guys come from similar backgrounds. As it happens, Thompson isn't the Congress's only former hired gun. When Lane moved to Colorado from Virginia a couple of years ago, he freelanced with a few local artists like Mike Maurer and Salem before linking up with Thompson and Scott, who kept time for Angie Stevens and Adam Stern. Shortly after the trio came together, Lane managed to talk Meadows, his friend and collaborator from Virginia, into moving to Denver.
"Scott started playing with a couple of bands, just as a session guitar player," Meadows remembers. "And he was still staying in contact with me for like a year, trying to convince me to move out. A year later, I bought a one-way ticket out here — brought one bag, a guitar and came out."
With the lineup solidified, the songwriting process came quickly and naturally. "There were definitely songs that Jon and I had written," Lane recalls, "but we kind of just started playing live and improvising on it. We built it as we played live, getting tighter as a band. Then we took it into the studio and were almost writing on the spot."
As the band transitioned from the stage to the studio, the guys called upon a wide network of musicians they had each built up as session players. Daniel Clarke — a multi-instrumentalist who has played keyboard for k.d. lang and Mandy Moore that he met at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond – is one of the first guys Meadows persuaded to perform on the outfit's first recording.
Clarke flew out from Virginia and joined a long list of local players who played on the sessions, including John Macy, owner of the studio where the band recorded, who contributed pedal-steel guitar; saxophonist Eric Bernhardt and trumpeter David Rajewski; vocalist Julia LiBassi, who provided backing vocals; and Robby Peoples, who pitched in on harmonica. The resulting record, released last week, has an ambitious feel, one that fuses the fat textures of Stax Records with the raw emotionalism of backwoods hootenannies.
"You can hear Virginia in our music, for sure," Meadows admits.
Indeed, the influence is hard to miss. You can hear it in the finger-picked acoustic patterns on songs like "Back Where You Are" and "Minutes," as well as the sinuous organ lines on tunes like "Ten Years Gone" and "Down the Road." The traditions of Southern blues and folk music are also clear in the underlying theme of the record.
"I always thought that 'Back Where You Are,'" the lyrics, to me, kind of revolve around that one phrase, 'The cripples who bear the burden of stillness,'" Thompson observes. "Who would ever want to sit in one place and never get to go out and experience life? It seems to me it's almost about the love of movement."
And a love of improvisation, evidently. Despite having an array of guest musicians on the album, the outfit has no trouble playing the tunes with just the four of them. "It's not necessarily a smaller sound," Lane explains. "Instrumentally, everybody picks up the slack where the other instruments were."
You kind of expect that sort of flexibility coming from an act that views its live shows as a chance to write new music on the spot. "Recently, we've almost been writing songs improvisationally," confirms Scott. "Everyone's listening so well.... At the end of this conversation that we're having, however long it may take, we've really constructed something that we might be able to use. That's the goal."
Improvisation was a big part of another act Meadows admires.
"It's unfortunate that there is a bad connotation just because of the name and because of what other jam bands do to the music," Meadows says of the Grateful Dead. "The live experience of the group — that's what I'm really obsessed with. There's something to be said for it, because it's a beautiful thing when it's done with people who are truly listening to what each other are doing."
Indeed. Meadows and his bandmates know firsthand the value of listening. It's a fundamental aspect of their chemistry, the thing that brought them together and keeps them connected, and in a roundabout way, it's what's kept Thompson from abandoning music entirely.
"The audience that comes out to listen to this type of music is actually a quality audience," Thompson concludes. "They give a shit when they're there listening. That feeling that we have together as musicians playing this stuff, it actually transcends to the audience. That's what I've been looking for my entire life, and some musicians never find that."