Article Contributed by KG Music Press | Published on Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Wildfires, floods, quarantine and isolation, protests, riots, degrading national discourse and raising children who are coming into awareness of these issues all influenced Jon Chi as he wrote the words and music to his 3rd solo album, River of Marigolds. “They’re asking so many deep questions that I simply don’t have a clean answer to.  I mean, these past couple of years have ‘been a son of a bitch for nearly every one we know’, to quote Jason Isbell.  And a central question on this album is how do you take struggle and adversity and turn that into hope and love?”

During these times of isolation, many people have found their sense of community strengthened and in the San Francisco Bay Area-based Chi was no exception. While incredible venues like Terrapin Crossroads (Chi was a regular there) were forced to close, Chi notes “I’m super lucky to have a slew of amazing musicians in my community.  A lot of that formed at Terrapin.  I met a lot of incredible players there. I have a much deeper appreciation every time I rehearse with them, or go to a recording session, and definitely every time we perform.  The music community that bonded at Terrapin has been amazingly supportive during these past couple of years.  They’ve really gone out of their way to show support for musicians which has been incredibly heartening. The venue is gone, but the community it created lives on.”

Chi is the former frontman for the band Rainmaker who found their fans among the jamband and world music scene.  The band’s second album, Long Slow Fade, reached #2 on the radio chart and featured Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart.  Chi has gone on to create two solo efforts, Just For Now (2013) and Another Rising Sun (2015) which were more focused, songwriter-style records. “I love both of those styles, and I think we blended them together really well on (River of Marigolds).  I feel like we’re adding a little something new to the conversation.”

He is also a producer and engineer and has worked with a slew of well-known artists such as Galactic, Ernest Ranglin, Robben Ford, James Mercer of the Shins and the Jayhawks to name a few.  Chi assembled an all-star crew to play on River of Marigolds including Dave Schools (Widespread Panic) on bass.  “Seeing Widespread Panic at the Warfield in the mid-90s was a turning point for me,” he admits. “It was the first jam band show I ever went to, and it just blew my mind hearing music made in such an open and free way.  I remember Dave just being a force of nature - so open and fearless.”

Chi’s friend and bandmate, Ian “Inxk” Herman also plays on the album. “A couple of years ago I went to see Inkx play drums with the Mickey Hart Band in Milwaukee.  Dave (Schools) was the bassist.  They started the show with just the two of them playing for several minutes and the groove was just astounding.  When I wrote the song, “Bring on the Rain” the beginning of that show flashed through my mind. The stars aligned and we were able to all record together for this album.  For a second I had that, ‘damn you’re THAT guy’ feeling with Dave because he had such a huge impact on me, but he’s such a generous and humble soul that it disappeared pretty quickly and we were into the songs.  He brought the same openness and fearlessness to the studio and it really inspired my guitar playing.”

Chi originally had 40 songs written and chose 9 cohesive songs that ended up on River of Marigolds.  “Singles definitely have a huge emphasis in music today, but the album is still my favorite art form. I wanted the songs to live well next to one another and tell a story from front to back. There had to be an emotional thread that ran through all of the songs.”

The first two songs Chi wrote for this album were “Up In Flames” and “Bring On The Rain”.  “I immediately wanted to find a way to connect those two songs with a segue.   The pedal steel was perfect for that because the songs are in different keys.  Dave (Zirbel) added a pedal steel drone on ‘Bring on the Rain’ put the song in a somewhat tense space, which was perfect.  It also gave us the chance to slide seamlessly to a different root on the next song. From there I realized that we could connect the entire back half of the record. The next  few songs on the album were more related harmonically so it was easy to transition between them. Tremolo guitar, organ, and pedal steel made a really moody space for these transitions.”

The title track, “River of Marigolds” started as a folk song with acoustic guitar and vocal.  “When we went to record it, on the first take, Dave played this bass melody that went along with the acoustic and I just about fell out of my chair.  It was so driving but also melodic and floating.  We ended up just muting the acoustic guitar for the whole song because that bass part set the tone and worked so beautifully with the guitar melody and Jeremy’s drums.  It really just set the landscape for the rest of the song to come in.”  Toss us a tourniquet, send us a sage / We’ve been waiting for the wind to blow the other way—these lyrics followed by a hopeful chorus is the defining message of the album. “The chorus is about understanding your place in family history, and what you’re going to do with your own strengths and struggles to set your kids up to face their own challenges.  Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.”

The psychedelic, soulful sound of horns from the Bay Area’s Monophonics are added on “Got To Give The Devil His Due”.  “Ryan Scott and Alex Baky came in and we didn’t have a horn arrangement.  We just put the track on and started singing parts to each other and trying them out.  Those two are really like one when they play,” observed Chi. “They would just sort of nod at each other and know how to fine tune each part.  The horns really lifted the song.” He notes that the song is representative of how the band plays live. “The interaction that happened on the solos—where we hand it from guitar to B3 and then to lap steel, is great. Jordan and Dave’s solos are always so on point. They both have such a natural flow.  It really motivates me to keep having something new to add to the mix with my guitar.”

The band has played a lot of outdoor house concerts and backyard jams to appreciative audiences during the pandemic.  “We’ve been playing great shows in a safe way all over Marin County.  Fans have been extremely supportive and enthusiastic.  There’s a much greater level of appreciation from both the audience and musicians. My town and the wider community have really opened up their arms to us by creating unique ways to make live music happen. These new, open environments help us go deeper into our music, especially the improvisational parts.”

“This record has been a joy to make.  In a way I’m sad that it’s done, but I’m excited to start the next one. Writing and recording these songs really gave me hope and positivity during these strange times we’re all going through. I hope that they have the same affect on someone else.”