By now we’re all tired of measuring our lives by this century’s fractured clock, in relation to pandemics, disasters, contentious elections, and wars. I first saw Garcia Peoples live in October 2019, a moment it’s bracing to remember as “more innocent, considering,” and the impression was indelible: five people playing in a way that felt fully fused, locked in, but also—this was the wild part—cascading and fluid, like these songs were practically standards they were also somehow inventing on the spot. It was the last show I caught before lockdown, and it stuck with me, not just the image of the band onstage, the communicativeness of the performance, but the songs themselves (they may have felt freewheeling, but they were sticky as hell), the hammering peaks and the cat’s-paw passages between them. They felt like the best—maybe even the only—band in the world while I watched, and by the time Nightcap at Wit’s End arrived, I was more than ready . . .
Dodging Dues, on the other hand, catches me by surprise. These songs, recorded in February and October of 2020 with Matt Sweeney producing, haven’t been much aired, at least not publicly, and yet . . . I’m trying to get at something about Garcia Peoples here, how the band always sounds new to me. Even after a few dozen listens, Dodging Dues’ songs have etched themselves into my sleep but the performances always feel like something miraculous blossoming in the air right in front of me, something unrepeatable, which is probably why I often find myself playing it several times in a row or playing it and then turning to one of the earlier records, seeking out new combinations. It’s a thrilling, and rare, property, one that makes both band and catalogue feel inexhaustible. But even by Garcia Peoples’ standards, Dodging Dues is a startlingly expansive record—“startling” in part because it’s relatively short (seven songs, all but one hovering around the four minute mark), but also so because it traverses so many moods and styles: languid and dreamy one moment, surging and intense the next. In part, this might be due to an expanded roster of writers and vocalists (bassist Andy Cush and keyboardist Pat Gubler contribute to both the songwriting and the lead vocals this time around alongside guitarists Tom Malach, Danny Arakaki, and Derek Spaldo, and Sweeney adds harmonies throughout), but I suspect there’s more to it than that. Garcia Peoples (these days a six-person band, once you factor in longtime drummer Cesar Arakaki) “hit their stride” a long time ago, but here they seem to be hitting a different one, working themselves loose of influences (though this tree has roots, as ever: I hear traces of Thin Lizzy, of more arcane bits of U.K. folk-prog, above all of vintage Meat Puppets in some of the softer passages) while at the same time opening themselves up to their own individual strangeness, becoming ever more singular and ever more free.
Sick of dodging dues . . . As ever, these songs have an aphoristic quality, a sense that they are concerned somehow with processing experience. We’ve found that on previous records, but when the title phrase crops up in this case (in the incredible “Tough Freaks”), I can’t help but think of those dues we can’t dodge: the high cost, emotional and otherwise, of living in our present moment. In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing. About the dark times, Bertolt Brecht once wrote, but—there is also singing like this, about the ordinary difficulties of living. It’s an expression I’m exceptionally grateful for, a reminder that bands, problems and respites all continue even when human history presents its most impossible face, and a reminder that consolations are still available. Some dues can’t be dodged, but they can be reckoned with face-to-face. And when they are, if you’re lucky, you might hear music just like this: weather-beaten but utterly uncorroded, suffused with a depth of feeling and experience but utterly, irrepressibly brand new.