Americana band the Rivergods return Friday at Music in the Meadow

·5 min read

Jun. 10—Last fall, popular local Americana band the Rivergods released "Passages," the seventh album of their quarter-century career. The title reflects a collection of tunes from the perspective of band founder and songwriter Ben Parent, a fellow who readily admits he's already trotted passed several aid stations along the road-race called Life.

It's not particularly a somber record; Parent explored a variety of emotional and stylistic combinations and moods ranging from buoyant and rocking to wistful and wise — as befitting the experiences of a lifetime.

During the sessions, though — most of which were finished before COVID hit — Parent's wife Nancy, the band's vocalist/guitarist/pedal steel player, lost her mother. Understandably, the resonance of "Passages" took on an additional depth that, despite the overtones of grief, provided a collective emotional spirit to the musicians as they worked on the record.

Then, when completion of the album was delayed by the pandemic — possibly even threatened, because who knew what might happen? — "Passages" seemed almost prescient in its contemplations.

Tonight, though, the Rivergods return to the performance stage as headliners at the 10th annual Music in the Meadows concert in the Connecticut College Arboretum. Also performing will be Lizdelise and the Bargain.

The sense of celebration and emotional release implied by a live performance — after 15 months under quarantine — provides an almost reverent sense of appreciation in coda to "Passages."

The meanings of Time

"Time in general ... man, I'll tell you. It's taken on a different meaning," says Ben Parent, speaking by phone earlier this week. "People always talk about not appreciating the things we have, and I get that. Sometimes, though, we DO appreciate the things we have, but (going through a pandemic), you learn you appreciate them more than we knew we did."

Parent is not talking just about existence itself, or the everyday, easy-to-take-for-granted things. He and Nancy have two children who are now in their teens, for example, with college on the horizon. Plus, he says, there's the sneak-up-and-club-you-in-the-head realization that his band is now 24 years old. And if he's the only original member — Nancy joined a year after formation — bandmates Bill Groth (keyboards), Mark Gehret (bass) and Chris DiBiasi (drummer) are all longtime Rivergods.

And now they can play together again.

"Obviously, we kept in touch, and Nancy and I wrote and recorded some at home, but I think we were all wondering if we'd feel the same when we got to get back together," Parent says. "If we got to get back together. Well, it turns out nothing's changed! We're playing music and rehearsing for gigs and it's so great because you just never know. One of us could have gotten COVID. Or anything, really."

One particularly somber development in the community hit the band hard. Parent talks about Jack Chaplin, the popular restauranteur who owned Daddy Jack's in New London and passed away recently from complications after a heart attack. Chaplin — and his restaurant — were sanctuaries for musicians and a joyous place where live music was always a reason for celebration.

Parent says, "Once in a while, you get to experience a person and a venue that are special, and Jack worked so hard to make playing in his restaurant not just a gig but a celebratory experience. We were made to feel part of the customers' experience — like we were extensions of Jack's personality. And he always took care of the musicians. There were always four or five pizzas waiting for you when you were done, and you never left hungry or without a few drinks in you." Parent pauses, thinking. "Sometimes, in this business, you deal with a lot of people who aren't ... well, let's just say Jack was a special person. And now we're getting back to playing and being out, and we can't see him or play music for him. That's something to think about."

Rock is fun

But tonight is about life and music and the promise of more to come.

"Bands are fun. Rock 'n' roll is goofy by nature," Parent says. "I've always loved the idea of being in a band. That sense of togetherness, the bond, was really appealing to me when I was young. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Tom's name was out front, but you knew it was a band. Here in New London, man, we had the Reducers. Those four guys were just united, you know?"

Parent says the new rounds of rehearsals have been particularly exhilarating. "We take the music very seriously, but part of the fun is the joking around, the camaraderie. We practice enough to be tight but don't over-rehearse." He laughs. "Some might say that's the problem. But there should be the freedom to trust the players to take the music somewhere. (Rehearsals) are really where the magic happens. The laughs, the chemistry, the gelling of the grooves ... all of it. And then you get to play before people."

In that spirit, Parent says the Music in the Meadow shows are among the band's favorites. "The place is beautiful, and Maggie Redfern (assistant director of the Arboretum for Conn College) does such an excellent job with the series and all their events."

After this show, summer cautiously beckons. The Rivergods play Saturday on the Waterford Green following the Waterford Parade, then a Father's Day show at Captain Scott's Lobster Dock in New London. Meanwhile, Parent says, he's thinking about the possibility of releasing "Passages" as an actual CD in addition to its digital availability.

"We're at the point where we're not trying to make it as rock stars," Parent says, "but we do it for the fun and artistic satisfaction and to push ourselves. We don't need the band to pay our bills, but at the same time it's gratifying when people do ask for CDs or merch. When you play your own songs, you want people to like it — and if they do, we want them to have access."

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