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Folk-Rocking Sustainably

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Crossposted with www.thegreengrok.

Branding with a sustainable theme is becoming more common.

Last month, Duke's Nicholas School was visited by Roz Savage, who solo-rows the world's oceans in part to bring an environmental message to the public. Last night, we were treated to a concert by The Giving Tree Band, an eight-man acoustic collective from Kendall County, Illinois.

The Giving Tree Band Folk-Rocks the Nicholas School

The group, led by brothers Todd and Eric Fink, on banjo and guitar respectively, categorizes itself as an "indie folk-rock" band. Seven of the band's eight musicians play string instruments with Justin Forsythe keeping the beat on drums. Their roots-oriented sound (caveat: I am no music critic) is tight and rich, the men's voices strong and well-matched. Their blend of guitars, banjo, mandolin, violin, and upright bass (et al instruments) gives the music a mix of country, folk and bluegrass bona fides with a beat and drive that are definitely rock and roll. I got a sense of The Band.

The Giving Tree Band's performance was joyous and unrestrained -- these are talented guys who are into their music and not terribly concerned about looking cool. (They often dress like throwbacks from the early 20th century though last night they performed in jeans and T-shirts.)

Frequently the musicians bobbed up and down like rhythmic jumping jacks, sometimes several of them in unison and other times going solo. Clearly, there was some choreography at play but it was definitely not Alvin Ailey. The dancing, kneeling and twirling to the music were at times humorous, but also quite infectious. I thoroughly enjoyed it all.

The Band's Sustainable Practices

The other part of the band's presentation was about their commitment to sustainability. In Todd Fink's words, they hope through their music and practices to "build and inspire a culture of sustainability and peace." Toward that end, he explained, they:

  • choose their instruments with sustainability in mind, using vintage instruments whenever practical and, when not, choosing new instruments constructed with naturally fallen, reclaimed, or sustainably grown woods and topped off with non-toxic finishes;
  • when touring, travel by a biodiesel-powered bus, camp out, and frequent mom-and-pop restaurants and local co-ops and farmer's markets that specialize in organic, local produce; and
  • endeavor to make their musical products as low-impact as possible. 

On this last point, they really seem to go the distance. They offset their home studio's electricity use with wind energy
credits, and produce their CDs with 100-percent post-consumer and/or
renewable materials (e.g., veggie inks and corn cellulose) instead of
plastic. In fact, their Great Possessions CD, released last year, is billed as a 100-percent carbon-neutral (or, to use Eric Fink's preferred term, "carbon-free") success story. (For the month it took them to lay down and mix the tracks, the band commuted by bike between a state park in Wisconsin, where they camped out and cooked over a campfire, and the nearby solar-powered Aldo Leopold Legacy Center, where they converted a conference room into a makeshift recording studio. Watch video about the recording.) Of course, the band also lets you forgo the becoming-more-antiquated-by-the-day
CD thing entirely by downloading their music from their Web site (not
intended as an endorsement).

My impression is that The Giving Tree Band is the real deal, that their commitment to the environment and sustainability is genuine and sincere. I also find it interesting that more and more folks in the public arena are choosing to incorporate sustainability into their brand; perhaps that decision is motivated in part by self-promotion, but if so, it still sends a message about the importance of the issue and challenges their fans to follow suit. It's a self-reinforcing trend.

One More Note on the Environment

There was one aspect of their performance that was ever so slightly disappointing -- call it a musical lacuna, of sorts. At least for me, the rhythms, melodies and tone of the music I heard last night did not hearken to images or feelings of the natural world. And, as far as I could tell, and mind you I had a hard time hearing the lyrics at times so I may be off-base, their songs' themes and lyrics often lacked as strong a tie-in to nature or the environment as I'd expected.

On the other hand, I listened around a bit online today and did find some lyrics that make that connection (e.g., in their song "The Stream," the "rain becomes a river, the river dries, becomes a cloud" and in "Light from the Sun" they sing, "I wanna go where the green grass grows, picking cat tails"). So maybe these themes were there last night but didn't come across to me as strongly as the standard stuff I picked up on about love and loss and life.

You may find it a minor point, but, for me it's an important one. I understand that an artist's creation is a very personal statement and whatever comes out is just that and can't be prescribed or ordered up like a milk shake. But I'm always surprised to find an absence of environmental themes and sensibilities in the work of artists who claim to feel a great connection to the natural world and aspire to inspire an environmental ethic in others. The world can definitely use more popular artists who strike those chords.

Overall, it was a rocking night of music and a lively discussion about how a group of young men have committed themselves to sustainability as well as their music. I might not have bobbed up and down, but I'm sure my foot, in its own unchoreographed way, was tapping along to the rhythm. Hard not to.

The band, which has been around in various line-ups for six years, likes to say that "the story of The Giving Tree Band is still being written." So, even if I missed the beauty and fury of Mother Nature coming through their folk sounds last night, given their obvious talent, I'd bet there's much more to come from these green musicians.

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