Just as sidewalk chalk the art form leaves its stamp until rain strips it away, Sidewalk Chalk the band creates an ever-changing experience in concert.
The Chicago-based band — featuring MC/frontman Rico Sisney, vocalist Maggie Vagle, Charlie Coffeen on keys, Josh Rosen on bass, James Boyd III on drums, Sam Trump on trumpet and David Ben-Porat on trombone — is bringing a convergence of hip-hop, soul, funk and jazz to the Iowa Soul Festival’s main stage finale Saturday night (8/5) on the Ped Mall in downtown Iowa City.
It’s a sound that’s “constantly evolving,” Sisney, who now lives in Los Angeles, said en route to a recent gig in Portland, Ore. “One of the things I like about that ... is that it gives us so much leeway to create and not be too self-conscious about what genre we’re making or how it fits in with what’s going on already. Our sound is definitely influenced by the stuff that we listen to, and we all listen to a pretty diverse palette of music. There’s a lot of really good stuff that’s happening now musically, with people who are pushing the genre.”
He finds that “freeing,” and it played a big role in the group’s new album, “An Orchid Is Born,” embracing themes of hope, loss and birth. “We do believe that things will get better and that loving is a revolutionary thing,” he said. “The way that we sound now is pretty different than how we sounded maybe two albums ago,” he said. “The new album is the best one we’ve done so far, and the new tour is the best we’re done, in terms of how we’re playing and just the quality of shows — giving ourselves that leeway to constantly evolve and try to best ourselves.”
One of the Soul Festival’s goals is to highlight the positive influences the African and African-American cultures have on the region. And for Sidewalk Chalk, music provides a unifying voice for social issues and awareness.
“One of the things that music does is connects to us in a way that’s not just cerebral — it connects to our body and spirit,” Sisney said. “By doing that, a lot of the stuff we make up to divide us is transcended.
“On the other side of that, we like honoring and being inclusive of our differences. The thing we try to do with our music is tell stories. Some of the stories that are on this album are very, very much what it’s like to be a black person in this country — stories from different perspectives,” he said.
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“(On) ‘Dig,’ I don’t ever mention race in the song or when we describe it, but it’s about a kid who’s killed by a police officer, and that’s the first perspective you hear. Then you hear the perspective of the police officer who killed a kid and got away with it, and who’s living with guilt. You’re not supposed to think that either of them is an angel or a monster. These are just people (who are) flawed, and that we have a system that needs to be changed. It’s not so much about an individual committing this one individual act, but more so the large scale side of it,” said Sisney, who got his start playing drums in church, where he heard his dad preach or teach Sunday school.
“When you tell stories, what it allows you to do is to connect people to an experience that maybe they wouldn’t fully connect to, separate from whatever political leanings they might have or separate from whatever preconceived notions they might have about how to contextualize a certain story they might hear (and) how to process it. So let me just tell the raw story. I think that’s the best way for people to see through somebody else’s eyes.
“Those are two ways that, hopefully, our music is furthering that cause.”
The band, formed in 2008 by classmates at Columbia College in Chicago, sees the audience as part of the concert experience.
“Live, we like to say that it’s really a collaboration with audience, more so than a performance for them,” he said. “My favorite shows are the ones where you can tell that people got something out of it — that it stirs something up for them emotionally. We’re definitely trying to get them to dance. We definitely want to get them involved. We’re not just performing our songs and getting offstage — we’re trying to really connect with them. That’s when we feel like we’ve done our job — when the audience is really in it.”
Their evolutionary road hasn’t been a smooth ride. It’s been fraught with detours. After recording their third album, the band’s core drummer and bass player both left, so a new bass player and drummer came onboard for the “Orchid” album. When that was finished, the new drummer left, and Jerrel Johnson joined the group, bringing enthusiasm and artistry with his percussion skills. But he’s been on hiatus for nearly a year, recovering from critical injuries suffered in a car accident that claimed the life of one of his best friends. So drummer Boyd is playing on the current tour, and a couple weeks after it ends, Johnson will rejoin the band.
“There’s been a lot of big obstacles,” Sisney said, “and the fact that we’re still in it strengthens the resolve. It’s like, man, if we’ve been through all that and we’re still going, what is gonna stop us? So we just bring that kind of urgency to everything that we do.”
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