If it’s difficult for the press to define a band’s sound and format with a simple label or phrase, it’s perhaps even tougher for a band to get away from it and create their own thing — their own blend of styles and ideas and their own one-line zinger that neatly wraps it up for everyone to understand. For D.C. rock band Virginia Coalition, the dilemma is part of the fun. Critics, publicists, promoters … they’ve kinda-sorta been able to tag the band with an easily digestible definition. But none of them have quite pegged ’em.
Virginia Coalition (or “Vaco,” as their fans like to call them) may look like a typical pack of friendly, alternative-rock nice guys with acoustic guitars and jazzy chops. Actually, they’re a quartet of serious players deeply determined to explore musical ideas, weird songwriting tactics, and their own D.C. city music roots.
“We all grew up just minutes outside of D.C., so for us, the sounds of the Go-Go acts like Chuck Brown and Trouble Funk — all that real call-and-response/move-your-body stuff — that’s what we come from more than the Dave Matthews Band and college town stuff,” says band ringleader Andrew Poliakoff. “It’s the idea of getting it funky and getting a groove going and letting melodic things happen around that. We find it interesting to experiment with that mix.”
Poliakoff and the band head back to Charleston for a show at the Windjammer this weekend — their second local show this year in support of a well-polished, high-selling studio album titled OK to Go (Blue Hammock).
The band lineup includes Poliakoff on vocals, guitar, and percussion, Paul Ottinger on keyboards and guitars, Jarrett Nicolay on bass and guitars, and John Patrick on drums. They all live in and around Arlington and the D.C. suburbs. The four originally met in junior high school in Alexandria, Va. In 1998, they put together a low-budget debut album, The Colors of the Sound. Townburg (mixed by N.C. rock wiz Mitch Easter, of Let’s Active) followed in 2002 and Rock & Roll Party came out soon after. Rock & Roll Party was picked up for distribution by the KOCH label in 2003, opening new doors to the eager band.
“We really started in earnest in late 1999, touring and recording almost full time,” says Poliakoff, now 30. “It’s been a day job ever since. We kind of had a wake-up call a few years ago — like, ‘Hey, we’re actually professional musicians!’ We became more serious about the idea of writing and performing thoughtful music that said something.”
OK to Go (released in Sept. 2004) was a collaboration with producer Matt Wallace (Maroon 5, The Replacements, Train) that featured some rhythmically clever, funk-driven electric and acoustic pop/rock tunes. Stylistically, the tunes and instrumental sounds resemble the pop songwriting of late-era R.E.M., Gin Blossoms, and Barenaked Ladies and the Southern-tinged acoustic guitar dance-friendly rock of Sister Hazel and Agents of Good Roots.
The songs on the album reflect a wide variety of styles and grooves — from classic funk to modern folk. The rappy “Walk to Work” bounces on a heavy 4/4 beat and winding bass and guitar lines. “By and By” features a heavier alt-rock guitar sound. The anthemic “Come & Go” is particularly strong with vocal harmonies. “Valentine Eraser” is a folky, countrified piece of America pop with fiddle and banjo.
They plan to release their first live album, Live at the 9:30 Club (recorded at the legendary Washington D.C. venue), this Sept. on N.Y. label Blue Hammock Music. Poliakoff and the band are most enthusiastic about these new live recordings.
“We don’t really do the totally straight-ahead pop stuff anymore,” Poliakoff insists. “We definitely really love to nail some straightforward power-pop with big choruses from time to time, but we try and do something a little more dynamic and improvisational.
“We had to get back touch with the reasons we originally played music,” he adds, referring to the band’s recent performances and live recordings. “In describing our music, it’s true that we have songs that start in one place and end in another, but we’ve developed something new over the last two years of touring behind the last studio album. Over time, we became more excited about making a live record because we really like to go in different directions with dynamics and instrumentation and get the crowd to interact. Playing without really knowing where it’s gonna go — that’s what we like these days.”