The first time was an accident: At a show in Knoxville a few years back, guitarist Tim Beavers’ Gibson SG crapped out on him halfway through the band’s second set, so he took it off and threw it face-down, breaking it in two pieces.
The last few times, the destruction was intentional. Just a few weekends ago at a festival in northern Virginia called Pasture Palooza, bassist Matthew Volkes smashed a TV with an axe. In late June at Mebane, N.C.’s The Big What? Festival, Beavers smashed a guitar. Not his SG again — this time a cheapo, $100 Squier Stratocaster, but the effect was no less visceral. Beavers destroyed another dollar-bin guitar at a hometown show in Richmond that weekend, too.
Volkes recounts those stories with chest-puffing pride.
“It’s something new we’ve been doing,” he says. “We’re just trying to make it more of an exciting show. At the end of it all, I guess we still have some energy to get out.”
The People’s Blues of Richmond may seem unremarkable beyond a few points of narrative interest — drummer Nekoro Williams is the son of one-time Wailers percussionist Drummie Zeb, for instance, and last year’s Good Time Suicide was recorded in Richmond on the same handmade recording console (built circa ’68) used to record T. Rex’s Futuristic Dragon. That isn’t to say the band’s thunderingly muscular classic rock isn’t sublime. The trio’s live shows are riotously energetic — as evidenced by the innumerable and impressive live bootlegs posted to its Bandcamp page — but that alone doesn’t distinguish it from a crowded field.
Where The People’s Blues of Richmond begins to separate itself is in its devotion to high-voltage hedonism. Good Time Suicide wears its influences clearly on its sleeve, but the band finds its own distinct voice in new takes on old tropes, most of them fueled by sex, drugs, and violence. “Motherfucker” takes clear lineage from Charlie Daniels’ “Devil Went Down to Georgia,” keeping the deal-with-the-devil story but swapping fiddle solos for raunchy garage blues and a golden fiddle for a sweet filly and a bottle of bourbon. The alternately racing and receding “Cocaine Powder,” a take on The White Stripes’ “Icky Thump,” evokes the rollercoaster mania of a cocaine binge. (Though Beavers had been six months sober when he wrote the song.)
Such debauchery should probably be expected from a band that shares an acronym with the egalitarian brew Pabst Blue Ribbon. But a deeper look reveals a populist streak that, again, should be expected given its nominal claims to play a people’s blues. Though it took the band a while to get there.
“When we started the band, it was just a clever name,” Volkes says. “We were drinking a ton of PBR, and my dad was a blues drummer, and we were listening to Cream and Howlin’ Wolf and old Zeppelin and whatever was getting us off at the time.
“We started this band because our best friend took his own life on Christmas Eve five years ago,” he continues. “Me and Tim didn’t know what to do other than sit in a room and cry about it, and then get drunk and make some music. Years later, I’ve realized, you know, People’s Blues of Richmond, it’s not blues music, but it’s the suffering of our people.”
“It sounds weird,” Volkes immediately clarifies, “because we’re a band that talks about drugs, and we talk about girls and all that stuff.”
Outwardly, it does sound weird. But what makes People’s Blues of Richmond estimable is its collective belief in the restorative powers of rock ‘n’ roll. Smashing instruments, then, becomes the destruction necessary for rebirth and renovation.
“The thing that we can do is bring everyone together,” Volkes says. “I mean, it’s like, a lot of bands talk about how happy they are and making money and banging chicks or whatever. But I think a lot of our songs are more about the struggle of it all. I think we aren’t afraid to put that out on stage.”
All of that makes The People’s Blues of Richmond’s all-we-want-to-do-is-play attitude admirable. It turns their debaucherous songs into escapist anthems, flights of fantastical fancy turned holy writ for workaday schmucks. It turns live sets into baptisms, cleansing through the power of party.
“We want to be everyone’s distraction from their problems,” Volkes says. “We can distract people from their problems at the same time they’re confronting them through our lyrics.”
And if that doesn’t work — smashy, smashy.
“We just do what we would want to see, you know?” Volkes says. “We’re always, like, ‘We’re gonna smash a TV on stage!’ Because I think that would be sweet if I could go to a show and watch that, you know?”