Class is in Session

Liberty School may only have one original member, but change has helped the band thrive.

It's usually best to be circumspect when a band touts only one original member in its current incarnation. Typically, the situation inspires visions of dinosaur bands hauling their tired asses across the country, playing their handful of Top 40 hits from decades past to the drunken, mesh and tube-top wearing set.

Such is not the case with local outfit Liberty School, though the group does indeed boast only its original bassist. Defying odds, Liberty School has instead thrived on the changes it's undergone over the years, reinventing itself with each muster roll.

The group began life in 1995, when a married couple from Austin--a singer/guitarist wife and a drummer husband--relocated to Tucson, and recruited bassist David Tracy. That lineup, a rough-edged folk-punk trio, lasted about a year before the couple hightailed it back to Austin to settle down and make babies. Around the same time, guitarist Mike Bagesse, who had a pop band called Grail K, placed an ad for a bassist, which was answered by Tracy; and six months later another ad, this time placed for a drummer, yielded Steve Nelson. Eventually, the band became a new Liberty School, with Tracy handling vocal duties. ("We would have changed our name, except that I'm a cheap bastard and I own the rights to it," says Tracy.)

About eight months later, Bagesse met a wandering train-hopper from Seattle named Chad Barton, and the two hit it off immediately. Barton, whose vocals consisted of largely improvisational spoken-word pieces ranted over the band's genre-twisting compositions, rather than traditional singing (far better in execution than it sounds on paper), spent a year in School before moving to Boston, at the beginning of the summer of 1999. Meanwhile, Bagesse befriended Darryl Hall (who, incidentally, has never met anyone named John Oates), a co-worker of his at The Cup Café, with a voice Bagesse describes as sounding like "the love child of Nina Simone and Bob Dylan." Hall, who was just learning to play guitar, opened a few shows for Liberty School before the band decided he was just the man they'd been looking for.

"Whenever he would do his songs, everyone in the room would just sit there and listen to him," Bagesse says. "He had a real presence and power; he's a really shy guy, but when you'd get him in front of people, and he had these stories to tell, he would just light up the room." By the end of the summer of '99, Hall was a full-fledged member of Liberty School and the lineup has remained constant since.

In 2000, the band began recording with producer Jim Waters at his Waterworks studio, and emerged with a seven-track CD, Coincidence and Fate (2001, Pre-School). In many ways, the disc bridges the gap of the Barton and Hall eras, with some spoken-word material, a bossa nova instrumental, a Barton-penned song ("No Man's Land," sung here by Tracy) and a found-sound collage reaching back to the former; a pair of Hall-sung narratives that presage the direction in which the band was headed; and one song, "Henry Loves Clair," in which Tracy reads an Edward Abbey passage over eerie desert noir backing, eventually giving way to a propulsive, acoustic pop song that features Hall's vocals, effectively encompassing both eras.

In addition to the disc's opener, "Swimming Lessons," sung by Tracy, with backups from Hall, promisingly, it's the two story-songs, voiced by Hall, that are Coincidence's highlights. "One Day" is a world-weary, cello-abetted train travelogue that features such bon mots as "Rode the train out to Philly/Welcome wagon was broken down," and "Freedom is understanding/all there is in knowing oneself/And freedom is coming backto you one day," while "What Do I Do Now?" is a heartbreaking soul ballad that hearkens back to the days of Stax and Motown, save a distorted guitar break. In a voice dripping with believable melancholy--and true to Bagesse's assessment, a deeply resonant one that approximates a male Nina Simone--Hall confesses, "I said/that I wouldn't do it/but I did it anyway/I said/that I wouldn't say it/But I said it anyway/I love you," before repeating, with increasing intensity, "What do I do now?" Unlike many Liberty School songs, which often abruptly switch tempo and effectively veer from '70s-style funky jazz to Allman Brothers-esque twang, hitting all points in between, its beauty lies in its simplicity.

Like a lot of local bands struggling to release its material concurrent with where it's at in its live sets, Liberty School has fallen a bit behind: most of the material on Coincidence and Fate doesn't get played live these days. Its place has been taken by songs from an as-yet unreleased, Waters-produced album, which the band says represents just how well the band has been gelling lately. Additionally, the group has five songs that it plans to record soon at Loveland, another local studio. While Tracy and Hall are the band's primary songwriters, Tracy attributes the flurry of new material largely to Hall, of whom Tracy says, "His juices are flowing [right now]. He has been presenting songs to us week after week at practices," though he also points out that the band is a true collaborative effort. "Liberty School isn't a band that has a principle singer/songwriter who tells everyone how to do it; it is absolutely the opposite of that ... Everybody writes."

And also like a lot of local bands, Liberty School is fond of keeping things fresh by inviting friends to sit in on sets and see what happens, a trait attributed to Bagesse, who explains, "Dave is a very solid, grounded person; there's gotta be structure. Whereas I'm kind of like, 'Let's just throw it up to the wind and see what the universe says.' At times it's magical."

With Coincidence and Fate being the only recorded work currently available, for now Liberty School is best experienced live, which is where the band's uniqueness and chemistry really shine. Nelson, a music school graduate, is an extremely versatile and powerful drummer who aptly anchors the band; Tracy consistently challenges the boundaries of the bass as mere rhythm instrument; and Bagesse provides sonic ambience for each song, whether he's trading in dissonant feedback or tearing off searing leads. For his part, Hall, in addition to that voice, which has become one of the band's most potent calling cards, has been playing keyboards on over half the band's new material, adding yet another hue to an already colorful sonic palette. Bagesse says the group's eclecticism is no accident: "We do try to be as creative as possible, and to really try to do things different. That's always been our motto."

In addition to releasing its new album and recording the new EP, Liberty School plans on spending much of 2003 on the road, touring first the Southwest and the West Coast, before eventually making its way to the East Coast.

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