In our eternal flames and fire/Our bodies wax and wane/ And it goes on and on, it goes.
The day I sat down to talk with Elephant Revival stringman Dan Rodriguez, the bluebird Colorado sky showed a touch of grey. It was a haunting reminder that the Cold Springs fire was still burning and threatened the gypsy-folk-rock band’s hometown of Nederland. It seemed fitting. After all, I was there to talk fire.
On the morning of June 16, Elephant Revival’s tour bus burst into flames in Hickory, North Carolina, with them asleep inside. The band (Bonnie Paine, Bridget Law, Charlie Rose, Dango Rose and Dan Rodriguez), their tour manager, and bus driver all escaped within seconds but the bus, which had been on its way to being retrofitted into the dream tour machine, was a total loss. And so were so many of the quintet’s hallmark treasures—Bridget’s childhood violin and her not-yet-on-the-insurance-policy big girl violin, Dan’s boutique guitar handmade by Jayson Bowerman in Oregon, Bonnie’s menagerie (stompbox, electric cello and bow and signature washboard), Dango’s mandolin and all the fashions for their show, from vintage dresses to merch.
Dan recounted the list of potential “insurables” stoically. He had repeated it too many times to non-musicians more concerned with the kind of amps that start fires rather than magnify sound. When he spoke of losing Bonnie’s and his songwriting journals, filled with reflections and ambitions, he softened. And saddened.
Chisel the stone/ Inward there you go.
The quick, two-show trip to Hickory then Decatur, Georgia was intended as foreplay for summer festival season and a fall tour to follow. Enlivened by the release of their sixth studio album, “Petals,” in April and their first Headliner performance at Red Rocks Amphitheater in May, the summer promised a full-blown love affair. Since the fire, it has felt much more like a hard-labor birth, according to Rodriquez. Until 18 months ago, the band had always bounced ragged from airport to hotel on down the line. Then, a decade into their signature act, the tour bus had offered them a home on the road.
“A bus eliminates a lot of variables,” Dan said just before talking up the benefits of regular sleep schedules, always playing with their own gear, getting to know each town prior to each show, their traveling library, probiotics and roasting their own coffee beans given to them raw by a Colorado friend. The bus also spoke to their success as artists, “We pay salaries, we feed people, including ourselves. We owned a tour bus and we were hitting our stride.” The logistics and psychology of loss tug on this tribe of troubadours. This much is clear in the lyricist’s retelling of their early-morning, half-clothed, half-asleep saga of combustion and commotion.
No one said this would be easy now/ But you’ve gotta keep moving somehow.
Lament has no place on stage and Elephant Revival is well suited for their trade. Fire is a fan of folk music, it seems. Rodriquez lights and lightens up when he shares strories about Arlo Guthrie’s family history and tragic fires. That familiarity with tragedy is no doubt the reason Arlo offered the revivalists his touring bus to use through October. He was not the only one to support the band. Right after the fire in North Carolina, the community rose up to lend its support: Red Cross gift cards, borrowed instruments and a Mill full of fans ignited by Elephant Revival’s songs about death and rebirth came together to grow hope out of ash.
The setlist for that “Music in the Mill” show drew heavily from “Petals.” Elephant Revival’s sound has always bordered on angelic, but this most recent album shows them to be a bit fey as well. While the aquatic-soaked nature of “Petals” now seems awkwardly ironic, the themes of death and rebirth foreshadow the road ahead. Left without their trappings of success, the band is learning to crawl around familiar territory—they are remembering, relearning, reinventing their love of music without the static of stuff.
But then I remember/ And when I remember/ It seems that I become more of what I remember.
Before I leave, we drop by Dan’s house to grab a copy of “Petals.” Bonnie is there, exactly where I expected her to nest, behind a cello in the sunroom birthing a melody. Dan has already forgotten his role as interviewee and is back to thinking and speaking in lyrics. There’s a new fire burning, but even the smoke in the sky has turned to sunshine and whimsy. “This has pulled us back into that humility, but with wisdom. All we have is the music again. That’s the medicine. Always has been.”
Lyrics from Elephant Revival’s recently released “Petals,” available for purchase on iTunes and streaming on Spotify, Google Music, and Amazon Prime. Fall tour dates: elephantrevival.com/tour/