Sampling the best of Bear Aids
Despite the inclement weather Saturday, Bowdoin still managed to experience the best Bear Aids concert in recent memory. After strong performances by Siren, Helicopter Helicopter, and Reid Genaur and the Assembly of Dust, The Samples honored the campus with an uplifting concert that rivals past years' performances by Ween and Jurassic 5. I had the pleasure of meeting The Samples for an intimate interview before the six-piece band graced the stage in Smith Union. When they weren't busy quoting lines from Spinal Tap and Sean Kelly, The Samples were able to offer some insightful offerings to their impressive career.
Now, if you are like a majority of the student body, you had probably never heard The Samples before their visit to Bowdoin this weekend. They do not make music videos and they are never featured on commercial radio. If you are like me, however, you've been a fan of their catchy melodies and intricate jams for years.
I first heard The Samples in the fall of 1996 when my brother returned home from college for the first time with a copy of the band's fourth album, The Last Drag. I was sold upon first listen. "Little Silver Ring," the first song on that album and one of my all-time favorites, represents everything that is wonderful about The Samples' music: folky lyrics buttressed by a slightly reggae rhythm, featuring the dry, yet melodic, vocals of Sean Kelly and supported by the eclectic musicianship of the backing band members.
Founded in Boulder, Colorado by guitarist Kelly and original bassist, Andy Sheldon, (both Milton, Vermont natives), The Samples have experienced the music industry's roller coaster ride. With humble beginnings in the local Colorado scene, The Samples grew to national fame in the early 90s among the headliners of the HORDE tour and playing sold out club shows across the country with popular songs like "Feel Us Shaking," "Did You Ever Look So Nice," "Indiana," and "Nature." They performed on the Jay Leno show and even played for Bill Clinton during his re-election campaign.
A little known fact: The Dave Matthews Band got a big leg up when they opened for The Samples prior to their 1994 release, Under the Table and Dreaming. The band struggled amidst shoddy record deals and lawsuits, however, leading to many tours in undersold, small venues. I've seen them perform in large outdoor festivals, and small smoky dives. When I asked the band members what their favorite type of venue is, they unanimously responded, "Sold out ones." The Samples played at Bowdoin several years ago, (before my time here) and were delighted to return. The latest line up brought five new musicians to Bowdoin's stage: Len Mooney on keyboards, bassist Jared Johnson, drummer Bill Mutchler, rhythm guitarist Tom Askin, and the polar bear doppelganger Brian "Snowman" Powers on saxophone.
The Samples have been contracted by upwards of seven record labels, including one major label, MCA, in 1996. Recognized by their paper album sleeves, The Samples have released fourteen albums in as many years. The band is now completely independent, producing, distributing, and promoting their albums all on their own. Sean Kelly offered, "Sure we'd take another major label contract, if it felt right. We know now what kind of contract we need. You need to deal with people." They also said they are not opposed to making music videos, its just that they've never had a label willing to finance such a venture. Kelly acknowledged, though, that most MTV videos are, "just cheeseball mini movies."
The Samples' musical styling invokes a wide range of influences, most notable is Neil Young. "Neil's real," Sean Kelly says. "He's a hero to look up to. We've tried everything in our power to perform with him." I have yet to attend a Samples concert where the band has not covered a Young song. They've performed a range of classic Neil from "Cinnamon Girl" and "Cowgirl in the Sand" to "Old Man" and "Heart of Gold." Saturday's concert featured a special guest performance by Sarah Ramey '03, who sang a duet of "Down by the River" with Kelly during a brief acoustic set.
In addition to Neil Young, members of The Samples cited a long list of influences, including Suzanne Vega, Jane Seaberry, Bruce Hornsby, The Beatles, Cat Stevens, Elton John, Thelonious Monk, John Scofield, The Police, and Peter Gabriel. The Samples attributed their reggae influence from touring with The Wailers early in their early career. Listening to a Samples record, one can hear all of these influences surfacing, but occasionally the band is guided by outside elements from guest musicians. The most notable of these are violinist Boyd Tinsley from the Dave Matthews Band and saxophonist Branford Marsalis.
Throughout their unconventional history spanning more than a decade and a half, The Samples have built a steadily growing underground fan base that has supported the band's continuous touring regardless of record sales and promotional deals. The Samples have suffered so many departures and near-total breakups that Kelly is the only remaining member from the original lineup. Despite these setbacks, Kelly explains, they are driven and motivated by the "passion for the music." He continued, "passion will kill us before the side effects. People have come in and out of the band but its still exciting for us because we live for the unknown." The Samples are a rare find amidst the cooperate rock which clogs our musical markets today. With an attitude of truly playing for the love of the music, they are a welcome alternative to the MTV world. When asked when they would know it's time to finally retire, Kelly responded, "When it becomes routine."
If you enjoyed The Samples' Bear Aids performance, do your part to keep their passion alive: visit their website at www.thesamples.com and be sure to attend future concerts. Before heading west, The Samples are playing at Colby this Saturday at 10:00 p.m.