For years, the role of Reverend Samuel Harper was played exclusively by Adam Corbett. The bassist for The Restoration conceived the fictional Civil War-era, pro-Union character for 2010’s Constance — the first of two folk-rock operas the local group has created — and he sings the Lexington County preacher’s lines. Intended in part as a reflection of Corbett’s liberal Christian viewpoint, Harper stands in stark contrast to the barbed agnosticism expressed by Daniel Machado, then the band’s primary songwriter.
What: The Restoration
Where: Art Bar, 1211 Park St.
When: Thursday, Sept. 4, 8 p.m.
With: The Toothe.
More Info: 929-0198, artbarsc.com
It’s not every day that a local band writes a rock opera; it’s even more rare that such a project would actually find its way to the stage. But since forming in 2007, The Restoration has proven itself one of the state’s most consistently ambitious acts. It followed Constance with 2012’s Honor the Father, a shorter album set, like Constance, in a historically fictionalized version of Lexington County.
This year, The Restoration has spread its stories through new media. In April, the Indie Grits Film Festival debuted a short film featuring three songs from Honor the Father. Four months later, Constance made its stage debut at Trustus Theatre. Presenting the show with two performances in late August, the theater sold out both nights.
Successful rock operas are uncommon, but these kind of large-scale, cross-disciplinary projects are virtually unprecedented, especially in a modest Southern burg with limited resources. While the band already draws healthy crowds at local clubs, these new endeavors are attracting new audiences.
The band — which injects old-time sounds from fiddles and banjos with contemporary rock verve — performs at the Art Bar on Sept. 4 and at the State Fair on Oct. 9.
Creative Tension and Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration
Both Adam Corbett and Daniel Machado grew up in Lexington County, which historically was an area of white flight following desegregation. Even today, the county is 81 percent white. Confronted by a legacy of racial prejudice and surrounded by rigid faith, both rebelled in their own ways: Corbett carved out his own liberal interpretation of Christianity — one that doesn’t lash out at opposing beliefs — while Machado drifted from his Lutheran upbringing.
Corbett now works as a music teacher at Lexington’s RightConnection Church.
Machado turned his mind to the role religion has played in shaping the South — both good and bad. His skepticism toward traditional Southern values is informed by the experience of his father, who has a slightly dark appearance despite having no appreciable African ancestry. In the 1960s, Machado’s father worked at the telephone company, where one of his co-workers told him to “ride in the back of the truck with the rest of the niggers” during his first week on the job, one of many troubling anecdotes he related to his son.
Owning similar values but contrasting beliefs, Corbett and Machado have long engaged in heated discussions and friendly debates, pushing each other creatively and spiritually. Their contrasting views fuel many of the conflicts that play out in Constance.
Set in a fictionalized version of Lexington during the late 1800s and early 1900s, Constance tells the story of a mixed-race man, his white wife and their child, as they struggle to make a life in the face of overwhelming prejudice.
Rev. Harper, the preacher who secretly marries the couple, is an intentional foil for the townspeople’s faith-based racism and a counterpoint to Machado’s own narrative intentions. During the Civil War, Harper refuses to kowtow to James Palmer, the richest and meanest man in town, when Palmer demands that the reverend preach in support of the Confederacy and slavery. The tide has turned in the North’s favor, and Harper sees it as his salvation. “Praise the Union! / Praise God!” he exults as soldiers burn his church to the ground.
Two weeks ago at Trustus Theatre, Corbett saw another man step into Harper’s embattled shoes for the first time. With The Restoration playing — but not singing — at one end of the stage, costumed actors delivered the album’s songs along with a few new ones, bringing visual life to the group’s sonic saga. For two nights, Paul Kaufmann played the part of the reverend, his face realizing the anxiety and determination behind Harper’s desperate actions. During one of the new songs, he advises his congregation that “His law is love,” before yelling fiercely and joyously when the Union relieves him of his duties and destroys the chapel where this message failed to resonate.
Dressed in the same black shirt and white stole that he wore when portraying Harper during The Restoration’s early performances, Corbett watched and played as Kaufmann took his character in exciting new directions. The performance energized the songwriter, hinting at new tangents he might pick up down the line. By letting go, however slightly, of a character that had become so personal to him, Corbett was able to know him better.
“One of the best cures for writer’s block is to have people put on a stage production with your characters in it,” the bassist says. “You get this other assumed perspective for your narrative. It isn’t what I imagined at first. He has this whole other thing, completely on its own. You get more people involved, more hands on it; you get different ears.”
Collaboration across genre lines isn’t uncommon in Columbia: The fraught indie-pop act Can’t Kids provided music for the Spork in Hand Puppet Slam at this year’s Indie Grits; local record label and artist collective Post-Echo has used area musicians to soundtrack both movies and interactive comic books; and this month’s First Thursday art crawl features a collaboration between composer Jesse Jones and 46 visual artists — those being but three examples. But The Restoration’s recent stretch has taken such connections even further.
“Just put it on a long list of reason why I love Columbia,” beams drummer Steve Sancho, sitting backstage at Trustus. “The collaborative spirit between everyone involved in the arts, from music to stage to visual, it’s just — you’d be hard pressed to find another city that has such a great community sense of collaboration. It’s a rare thing, and it’s not gone unnoticed.”
Music as Southern Literature
The Restoration’s first album took shape largely by accident. Machado, who progressed through the pop-punking Guitar Show and a brief solo stint before rallying his current band, wrote the first few songs for Constance as fragmented character studies, soliloquies conceived without much concern for the world these voices occupied. Instead, Machado focused on their individual experiences and the passionate feelings they conjured.
But as the material developed, the connections between them became more apparent and more vital, driving the group to sequence the songs as a narrative. Machado went so far as to write an accompanying short story fleshing out the plot even more. The tale was included with physical copies of Constance. The Restoration had found its calling.
“I won’t George Lucas you and say there’s a notebook in my drawer where everything was planned out 30 years ago with these stories,” Machado laughs. “Sometimes a song is something that you just kind of write and then you feel like it could fit into a story, so you do that.”
In retrospect, Constance is a flawed document. Machado’s writing for Constance — married to the mixed-blood Aaron Vale and mother to Thomas, the boy whose need for vengeance becomes his undoing — is frequently distant. Her songs feel thin and a little forced when weighed against the nuanced diatribes delivered by the story’s male characters. But the album’s catharses — Aaron’s death-bed plea to Constance to preserve his music, Thomas’ furious declaration that he will kill the man who drove his father to his grave — are both wrenching and resplendent, reaching for the populist heights enjoyed by Mumford & Sons while dredging up powerful emotions and pointed historical reference points.
This synergy grabbed the attention of Jonathan Sedberry, an English professor at Spartanburg Methodist College. For four years now, he’s taught Constance as part of a collaborative course with the school’s history department, exploring the South after the Civil War, and using The Restoration’s music as an artistic assessment of the aftermath.
“Most of our students come from small towns in South Carolina,” Sedberry offers. “They see a lot of the same issues still going on with race relations and with families feuding.”
“A lot of our students, and students in general, think of history and literature as these isolated subjects, not only isolated from each other but isolated from their lives,” the teacher adds. “When they see contemporary musicians using history and using literature to comment on things that are still pertinent today, I think it changes the way they view the subject.”
For The Restoration, it was an early affirmation of the music’s potential outside of producing albums and performing. These songs were now inspiring whole classes of students to engage with the South’s legacy of racism and religious confusion. Like the rest of the band, Machado was floored.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I asked him, ‘Can you write up a little something about why you wanted to do this?’ Part of it is because I feel like when you do things as a band there’s a lot of, like, delusion. If you’re the band, you might misinterpret things as being more grandiose than they are. I just wanted to make sure I understood what he was doing.”
Onto the Stage …
At its best, Constance uses its emotionalism as a delivery system for astute social commentary, something last month’s Trustus production clearly understood. Among the hallmarks of the staging was a backline chorus, arranged like a choir. The singers drove home the groupthink that drives this fictional Lexington’s prejudice. During a minimal but propulsive banjo tune, “Whisperings,” the small boy playing Henry Stamp, Thomas Vale’s childhood best friend, sings with awed confusion about his father’s angered insistence that he not hang around that “quadroon boy,” an antiquated derogative for someone of mixed race. When the child reaches the moment of Aaron Vale’s death, the chorus pops up and joins him — “Sinners always get what they deserve.”
“You don’t get a lot of Southern stories, especially in musical theater,” offers Chad Henderson, who directed the production at Trustus. Henderson pushed Machado to let him bring Constance to the stage, in part because of the way it treats issues that hit so close to his South Carolina home.
“If it is [Southern], it’s like Porgy and Bess or something, or Best Little Whorehouse [in Texas], s#!t that makes no difference as to what it’s saying about the South,” Henderson continues. “Just the fact that it explored racism the way it did, that it explored that heritage idea in the way that it did, I thought was courageous. I had never really heard it that way, certainly not in a musical format.”
Henderson got his hands on Constance after The Restoration held the album’s release party on Trustus’ stage in 2010. The group’s theatricality was there from the beginning, as they performed in tattered period rags and hung paper trees to give the stage a wooded feel. Over the next couple of weeks Henderson and his roommate at the time, both stage directors, dug through the album and corresponding book, fascinated by the complexly woven narrative.
For the next few years, Henderson and Machado would discuss the possibility of a stage version, but could never find the time — or the money — to make it happen. But when Trustus’ Premieres festival, a five-day celebration of new work, popped up on the horizon, the director leapt at the opportunity, booking the band and mapping out the production.
“I had to make sure I had the timeline correct — getting all the gaps filled in, getting [Daniel’s] take on the characters, which was actually very interesting because they couldn’t have been more different, my takes and his takes,” Henderson recalls. “There was this time when we were around this fire in his backyard with some PBRs just talking about how it all went together. It’s awesome that there’s so much to learn about that’s not on the album.”
Henderson’s personal connection with the material and with Machado, whom he roomed with for a spell before The Restoration, comes through in his adaptation. One of his best choices was to have the group play the music live onstage, as opposed to throwing them into a more traditional pit setup. Machado’s passion for his characters, relayed through frenzied picking and fiery signals to his bandmates, was mirrored by the cast, who sang their parts into onstage mics. Henderson also used The Restoration’s presence to cleverly break the implied wall between the music and the reality of the play. As Harper, Kaufmann wandered over to the musicians during a drunken fit, joining in for a few notes on Corbett’s keyboard — a fitting nod to the character’s history.
Moving forward, Henderson plans to flesh out the intentionally minimal dialogue, filling in some plot holes that made the show a little hard to follow. He and the band will also transpose the music; at the August shows, both the male and female voices sang in the same key that Machado and Corbett used on the record. Henderson hopes that these and other small changes will make the show viable for a full-scale run during Trustus’ 2015-16 season.
“[Chad] knew a lot of our friends and family and people who have listened to us would be there,” Machado reasons, “and there would be need for some kind of transition between our show and a show that wouldn’t even have us in it. It was cool to hear some of the comments that people liked it in that format even if they weren’t necessarily there as our people.”
… And Screen
As ambitious as it was to take the album Constance to the stage at Trustus Theatre, that’s not all The Restoration has been up to this year. In April, the Indie Grits festival debuted a film version of three songs from the band’s 2012 album Honor the Father.
The album centers on Roman Bright, a Christian zealot who pledges himself to “the old ways,” treating his wife and daughter’s femininity as an original sin and eventually murdering them when they defy his extreme views. The band follows these new characters into the 1940s, adding flavors of ragtime and early rock ‘n’ roll to its manic and redemptive old-time delivery.
With the movie version of Honor the Father, The Restoration proved that its music can also support more abstract interpretations — and that its members can handle a stressful situation. As the outfit finished the album, director Christopher Tevebaugh and his team went through several concepts before they and The Restoration settled on a script that added dialogue and called for some complex maneuvers and equipment. But when the grant they applied for fell through, they were left with just $2,000 raised through the crowdfunding website Kickstarter and two weeks to adjust their plans.
With a cheap location secured at a barn near Bob Jones University, they shot the whole film over the course of a day last October — which happened to coincide with Corbett’s wedding anniversary, meaning he had to film scenes, drive the two hours back for dinner with his wife, and then drive back to shoot the rest of the night.
“My wife is so nice,” Corbett nods.
This year, The Restoration received another big opportunity the day after his anniversary — opening for Charleston’s nationally renowned Shovels & Rope at the State Fair. “But that’s OK,” the bassist adds. “She likes the fair.”
The film digs into both the lighter and darker aspects of Honor the Father. With the band and Lisa Stubbs, who portrays Diana Bright on the album, playing the parts, each scene occurs within the same barn setting. The movie progresses surreally from Roman wooing his future wife with adorably awkward dance moves to him parading crazily around the room, spouting his disturbing doctrines. Finally, they sit staring at each other across a kitchen table, she stone-faced, he crying. He stands, and then the picture fades to black, leaving his crimes to the imagination — a clever maneuver that wrings maximum meaning from the crew’s minimal budget.
To Tevebaugh, who also worked on a compelling video for the Constance track “Whisperings,” this ability to tell the story effectively with limited resources has everything to do with the power of The Restoration’s narrative.
“I would come up with a new interpretation for the movie every day for nine months,” he says, adding that the only stumbling block was Machado’s dedication to accuracy, which became a strength by the time the film hit the screen. “It gets confusing after a while. But having that resource available in all its detail and having enough folds in there to interpret, it’s a dream come true, really.”
Still a Band, First and Foremost
During its recent burst of medium-crossing activity, The Restoration also made plenty of time for music. This spring, Corbett released his first solo EP, A & B Are So Far Apart, its kinetic pop diversity and brainy wordplay attesting to his secret-weapon status. Machado, too, has been working on solo material, recording sardonic and off-kilter country-rock as Danny Joe Machado, skewering Southern stereotypes with a wily sense of humor, providing a dark-comic answer to his band’s gothic tragedies. The full group still performs frequently, though the members typically forgo their early costumes.
And while The Restoration is working on new material, it will take a different shape than previous efforts. Last year, the New South Blues EP pushed beyond narrative writing, offering five impressionistic numbers dissecting some of the resilient hypocrisies and conflicts that still plague our supposedly modern Dixie. For the band’s next effort, Machado has ceded primary songwriting duties to Corbett, who will lead an LP-length exploration of Samuel Harper’s saga before and during the time of Constance.
The past year, Corbett says, has him primed to finish another tale set in The Restoration’s dramatic Lexington universe, which despite its fictional nature, explores prickly topics with an honesty that outstrips most of the group’s Southern peers. Maintaining this strength will require more aggressive but friendly debates with Machado.
“The trick is if we both agree something’s real bad, we’re probably okay to write about it,” Corbett says. “There’s nothing that we put on blast that I wouldn’t defend to my grandmother’s friends or something like that. I stand behind the statements that we make. So as far as us disagreeing about really high-handed stuff like God — nobody agrees about God.”
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