There is often in any parent child relationship, when both aren’t listening to the other. Parents often have a challenge in seeing their children as separate people with their own experience, and children routinely tune out their parents who have been droning on forever in their existence. Somewhere along the way in my parenting of my daughter, I had reason to become hyper-vigilant to her every word. The need for this has past, but the listening remained. So it was on a day she insisted that I watch the mail for a CD. Her enthusiasm and excitement moved me to offer to burn her a copy so she would be able to hear it in the car that lacks an aux input.
The CD, “Dark as Night” by Medicine for the People, intrigues and attracts through a multiple genre cross cultural sound. Repeated listening led me to learn all the words, and find myself contemplating much larger concepts and issues than most music references, much less makes its core message. Just the last week of July, Shailene Woodley, on Jimmy Fallon to promote the movie “The Spectacular Now” in which she stars, started her segment raving about her having just heard the band and got Fallon to feature the CD in a close up, calling the show featuring Medicine for the People and Xavier Rudd “spiritual soup”.
Nahko Bear, front man and leader, describes himself many ways and in lots of stories within the songs and yet he is not the main subject nor character within them. You are. We all are.
I came to know this because the band, touring with Xavier Rudd, came through California this past week, and I was able to catch them two nights in a row at “The Belly Up” in Solana Beach. I had planned on taking my daughter, but the shows were 21 and over, and she decided to go swim in the rivers and lakes of California’s Sierras last week. On the day of the first show, I woke up to discover the shows were labeled “sold out”, so I went about my business. Late on the Tuesday as the sun went down and it was time to wrap up the day’s work, I decided I would swing by the place and see. As luck would have it, I walked up to the window and was able to purchase a ticket. When the band came on at 9PM, there was enough room to walk right up to arm’s distance from the stage, itself a relatively generous space for a room of the size Belly Up has become, but only the front four feet were available for the band, which has in the past had various numbers and arrangements, but is currently four people who create a wonderful set of sounds and a magical vibe.
Before I go on, I want to point out that I don’t use this last phrase lightly. In my concert going experience I have seen some spectacular acts. I saw the Beatles on their second USA tour, when you couldn’t hear the music even in an open stadium for all the screaming young women. I saw Jimi Hendrix, who was mesmerizing. I have had the rare experience of seeing Bob Marley on both ends of the tour that started just before Clapton’s version of “I Shot the Sheriff” came out, and while at the first I was but one in a handful of white people and at the latter there were but a handful of black people, he transported both groups somewhere they didn’t know existed. I have also seen masters of audience control such as Peter Gabriel, and David Bowie and enjoyed intimate moments with groups of thousands with Jackson Browne, who I saw send people home both rocking and crying from the same show. I have seen Dylan and Donovan, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin before they hit, and Talking Heads play free on the grass at a college campus to promote “Psycho Killer”. I got to see the Grateful Dead at Red Rocks and Fillmore West. I saw Darby Crash wear barbed wire instead of a shirt at a Black Flag show in North Hollywood, and Minor Threat play a street show in East LA. I have also seen the power of Bono in giving an arena full a spiritual high. I was privileged to be among a crowd of about six thousand at the Polo Grounds in Montego Bay when a very young Ziggy Marley led the crowd in a rendition of “Redemption Song”. I have stood in the middle of thousands of people in a Sydney public park singing “Waltzing Matilda” during the 2000 Olympics. So when I say Medicine for the People generate a magic vibe, I have a body of experience and a frame of reference.
Without being heavy, or stereotypical, nor pious or theatrical, the four members of this band make your toes tap, your feet hop, and your heart soar. They aren’t just up for a party tonight, they are intentionally out to make every day of your life glow with love and joy. The blend of happy lightness, joyful deep love, clarity of understanding and embrace of our flawed existence pours out in a steady flow. It isn’t hard to see their audience lighting up from the inside out.
All of this comes while the compositions acknowledge our difficult and challenging context. The world is in conflicts large and small over beliefs, and resources. Our history is replete with heroic accomplishments and shameful lies and horrific acts. Our nation has been built on duplicity of ideals and denial of them. Somehow, Nahko tells a personal story that creates a clearing for the healing of this. Somehow, through this musical medicine, there resonates the possibility that all of this can be resolved.
Mind you, Medicine for the People presented this as the opening act for Xavier Rudd, who himself is a cross cultural musical mash up of the Australian variation. His surf roots spiritual environmental aura, which comes through a bluesy, ethereal slide guitar mellowness is also crossed with a powerful thing he does with a digerdoroo while pounding drums in an ethno-techno effects layered sound barrage that defies the labels used here. Xavier Rudd, holds a special space. His commitment to saving Australia from becoming a dump for China and the Asian development machine is huge. He carries and honors the indigenous of his nation by performing before their flag. His pumping bass drum and amplified digerderoo physically moves your insides.
And without minimizing him in any way, the simple fact is that the space he holds for all of Australia and those who resonate with him, pales in comparison to the territory carved out song after song by Medicine for the People.
Between acts I spoke with lots of strangers, all of whom turn out to be in a tribe together. Time after time, people spoke of having their lives changed by listening to Medicine for the People. Others spoke of knowing how different our world will be once millions have sung along. It isn’t like a hope. It’s expected, and known. And all done with smiles of love and joyful dance.
It is early in the arc for this band. They barely have roadies. Nahko cleans up his own gear, and their website sells the CDs along with two styles of t shirts, and a Mission Statement. Their YouTube channel has over a hundred videos which allow you to see the evolution of the songs, the band and Nahko’s distinctive hair cut and tattoos. While there are less than six thousand subscribers, they come from a wide sample of humanity and geography.
Now it definitely matters how you think of it. You may have to sit up and roll your shoulders back and open your mind as well as your heart. But you want to listen. You want to have them help tune you to your guide inside, as well as tune up your smile and lighten your feet.
If someone else knew about this, I would want them to tell me. I’m telling you- you are people and this is medicine you want.
Let me also say this- If we are to have a national reconciliation, a moment when we recognize and address the violations of our values that our ancestors have done in building the society we have today, I am certain that the band will play, if not be, Medicine for the People.