If a history of Western North Carolina’s Acoustic Syndicate is ever written, there’s no doubt that a central theme will be the group’s uncanny ability to draw together multiple influences into a distinctive genre-crossing musical identity. It’s a part of their legacy as jamgrass trailblazers whose music has simultaneously remained rooted in the unique environment of their home turf and appealed to followers across the country and beyond. Reflecting that innate adventurous spirit, their newest single for Organic Records pays homage to one of the great songs and bands of the modern age with an inspired version of the Velvet Underground’s 1970 classic, “Rock and Roll.”
Performed in the same key as the 1970 first recording, the song kicks off with an acousticized version of the Velvet Underground’s opening riff that serves both as a memory refresher and a notice that the group has put its own stamp on Lou Reed’s legendary paean to the power of not just music in general, but rock and roll in particular, to transform a life. The same musical double vision pervades the entire track, with guitarist Steve McMurry’s echo of a signature bit of Lou Reed’s guitar playing balanced by an acrobatic — and, of course, wholly new — banjo solo from singer Bryon McMurry, and Fitz McMurry’s recap of Mo Tucker’s jittery drumming contrasted to a crescendo of wordless vocals from all three, along with bassist Jay Sanders, that build to a dramatic finish that’s distinct from, yet thoroughly in keeping with the original.
Though he doesn’t take the lead vocal, the song has special meaning to Steve McMurry, who helped bring the idea to the recording studio — special enough that he recalls not only the circumstances, but the exact date when he was introduced to it:
“The first time I ever heard the song ‘Rock and Roll’ by The Velvet Underground was September 10, 1984. I had just graduated from high school, moved to a new town and enrolled in HVACR tech school at Gaston College. It was the first day of class, and I was early; I was listening to 95Q in Charlotte…back when it was still a legit rock’n’roll station. I was sitting in the parking lot of a strange place, in a strange town, preparing to embark on a new path that I had no previous experience with…feeling pretty alone, and fairly nervous.
“At about 8:15, the song started. By the time it got into the first big chorus melody, I was hooked; I had it turned up about as loud as it would go and I remember totally doing the head bang in my 1977 Toyota Celica GT with the custom supercharged sound system. I didn’t know who the Velvet Underground was at that point, and I actually thought it was something new. I stayed in the car and sat through two more songs before the DJ (and I swear it was Larry Sprinkle) came back on to call out the tunes—‘…and startin’ it all off with a classic from Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground.’ Suffice it to say, my day started off much better than I had anticipated it would. I think I literally pimp-walked into class to begin the first steps of my first career in a very positive and good way.
“I had no history with The V.U. and I kind of forgot about it. A couple of years later, my friend, Mark Elam, turned me on to the band and to Lou Reed. Mark is unquestionably the most credentialed and well-read V.U. aficionado I know, and has taken the big, deep dive into the history and material of the band and Lou, as far as one can probably go without moving to New York City. Thank you, Mark, for your life-long and continuing contribution to my music catalogue!
“To this day, I can’t hear The Velvet Underground’s ‘Rock and Roll’ without having that little butterfly flutter in my stomach and immediately returning to that fall morning in 1984… back to that rare moment of youthful exhilaration, excitement, possibility and hope for the future.”
Listen to Acoustic Syndicate's take on "Rock and Roll" HERE.