Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Rocking for a Reason

The scene wasn’t what I expected to see in a recording session.

In a wood-paneled room, four young men sat in a semicircle with instruments and mics, a mess of cords near their bare or stocking-clad feet. No lights needed to be turned on; natural light from the many windows was enough. And through those windows, all I could see was green forest.

I should have known better. After all, this was no everyday recording studio and The Giving Tree Band is not your typical musical act.

The Chicago-based band—made up of Todd Fink, Bob Salihar, Pat Burke and Eric Fink—is an earth-friendly acoustic group that promotes sustainability and peace through their music.

And that music takes influences from folk, country, Americana and bluegrass styles, and features instruments ranging from a guitar, banjo, upright bass and mandolin to a ukulele, harmonica, dulcimer and slide dobro.

Since forming four years ago, the group has done everything it can to be green. Many of their instruments are built from naturally fallen trees and reclaimed wood. And they produce music using renewable energy, package CDs—their first was Unified Folk Theory in 2007— using recycled materials and support eco-minded charities and organizations.

But in recording their second album, the foursome wanted to go even greener. That’s what brought them to the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center in Baraboo. The first certified carbon-neutral building by the LEED program of the U.S. Green Building Council, the center is preserves the legacy of conservationist, writer and philosopher Aldo Leopold.

While the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center might seem a natural venue for this eco-minded band, their request to record their album there was the first the center ever received. And it was a bit surprising, says Aldo Leopold Foundation education coordinator Jen Kobylecky.

But when Todd Fink asked if the band could come up for a meeting, she agreed—especially when the group showed her what they are all about. “All of a sudden there was this impromptu little concert,” she says.

The center agreed to let the band record there, deciding on four weeks starting in late June. And Kobylecky couldn’t be more pleased with the arrangement. “It’s really exciting,” she says. “It’s not something we ever would have envisioned. But the goals of the band match up really nicely with that of the Aldo Leopold Foundation.”

Fink agrees: “They share the same inspiration we do,” he says of the center’s focus on promoting sustainability and the natural environment.

In fact, The Giving Tree Band is so happy with the partnership that they want to pay homage to the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center in the title of their new album. They’re planning on naming it Great Possessions, the name Leopold originally intended his final book to be called, Fink says. However, Leopold died in 1948 and the book was published a year later as A Sand County Almanac.

Fink says this second album will feature the band’s most traditional as well as most experimental music. And the solar-powered recording session at the Legacy Center is hardly the only aspect of the album that’s environmentally friendly. The CDs will be manufactured using wind power, packaged with recycled materials, printed with nontoxic soy ink and shrink-wrapped in biodegradable corn cellulose.

Furthermore, the band is living green while recording, camping at nearby Mirror Lake State Park and biking ten miles every day to and from the Legacy Center.

Living with as little of an environmental footprint—and doing things simply—has always been important to the band. “We wanted to make music with a purpose,” Fink says. “We wanted to do everything we can to be in harmony with the environment.”

The band members sing in four-part harmony, taking turns as lead vocalist, and they don’t use electronic effects. Coincidentally, this tactic seems to set them apart; fans say they like the band’s fresh and original sound, Fink says. “A lot of technology isn’t needed to be creative,” he adds.

That said, being a green band isn’t always easy. It can be expensive and require extra research. And oftentimes the musicians have to be more involved in the business and management sides of music making than most of their peers to ensure things are being done in line with their principles. But the additional effort is worth it to the band. “It’s just a matter of being creative,” Eric Fink says. “The universe will provide you a solution to these challenges.”

Fortunately, things are getting easier, the bandmates say. More people are learning about what they’re doing and some want to help. They’ve learned from working with like-minded bands such as Cloud Cult and Hot Buttered Rum. And Highland Strings donated eco instruments and Harmony Valley Farm is supplying them with fresh fruits and veggies while they’re recording in Baraboo.

But on their fourth day in the studio, the band was upbeat, working hard and excited for what’s ahead. As the foursome sat practicing and recording a song, one line seemed especially poignant. “Help me to save you,” Fink sang. If he was referring to the earth, it appears the band is on its way to doing just that.

Concert Alert: The Giving Tree Band will perform a free outdoor concert on July 8 at 6:30 p.m. at the Legacy Center to mark their halfway point of recording. And check their website for other upcoming shows.

Photo by Stephen Martin.

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