State Radio at the State Theatre

Matthew Shelter on November 22, 2011

State Radio
*State Theatre

Portland, ME
November 19

In physics, it’s called potential energy – the energy stored inside a given body at any point in time, awaiting release. When State Radio plugged in and turned on at the State Theatre in Portland, ME on Saturday night, it felt as if all the potential energy of a loaded gun was being drawn to the stage. Over the next hour and forty-five minutes, the band released this energy in the form of a raucous, extended, machine-gun-like jam – which, to complete the physics lesson, would be called kinetic energy (note to students: my grades in high school physics were middling at best, so please do not rely on the accuracy of any of these concepts on a test or pop quiz).

Guitarist and principal songwriter Chad Urmston Stokes formed State Radio a decade ago at the tail end of his run with the Dispatch, which closed shop in 2002. Dispatch recently resurrected itself, and Stokes toured with them across the country this year, but he is continuing to play with State Radio and has also been doing some solo gigs (including an acoustic set at the Occupy Boston protests two weeks ago). There is a good deal of overlap between the sounds and musical styles of Dispatch and State Radio, akin to that which existed between the Grateful Dead and the late Jerry Garcia Band. State Radio has no trouble playing a Dispatch tune – “Time Served” was on the set list in Portland – or tracks from Stokes’ solo work. It all blends together seamlessly.

Stokes is partnered in State Radio with bassist Chuck Fay and drummer Mike Najarian, both of whose talents far outweigh their reputations. They are the kind of unheralded players who tend not to be known outside their immediate fan base, but they form a scorching rhythm section that defines State Radio’s sound every bit as much as Stokes’ fierce guitar. Fans greet Chuck Fay’s bass solos with a level of reaction normally reserved for lead guitar solos. Mike Najarian’s nickname in the band is “Mad Dog,” and his drumming is all kinetic energy; there’s probably a formula that would describe it with more mathematical exactitude, but I’d have to use the joule symbol and the inverse-square law, and you just don’t me want to go there.

State Radio’s bread-and-butter is the extended (and usually political) jam, and they featured a fair complement of these at the Portland show, including “Mansin Humanity,” about the Armenian genocide, and “Fall of the American Empire,” which may be as close to an anthem as State Radio is willing to go. But they range through other styles as well, including roots reggae – playing a beautiful version of “Indian Moon” Saturday night; punk ( “Knights of Bostonia” ); and straight-up alternative ( “Camilo,” another politically-inspired track, about a Florida National Guardsman imprisoned for refusing to fight in Iraq).

This was not a show you would have wanted to attend if you have a strong aversion to having beer spilled on you, for a surprising number of patrons – including numerous young women! – were head-bangingly drunk (in my day, only men were allowed to be obnoxious at concerts – thank god that’s changed!). For those into self-medicating, there is a well-known glaucoma treatment that is probably a better fit for enjoying this band than being falling down drunk. To each his (or her) own, I guess. Kudos to State Theatre security for not going all nazi on the miscreants and ne’er do wells. They simply lifted them over the barricades and, presumably, sent them to “reeducation” camps somewhere upstate.

The opening act was the Parkington Sisters, an alt-country quartet of actual real sisters featuring Nora on stand-up drum kit, Ariel and Sarah trading violin and viola licks, and Rose on acoustic guitar. Gorgeous four-part harmonies – well worth catching if the road takes them to your neck of the woods anytime soon.