State Radio unites fans for weekend of service

BMS follows Chad Stokes of State Radio as he gives back to the community

, Staff Writer

Chad Stokes wipes a little sweat from his brow and leans on his shovel. He scratches his face, leaving a dirty fingerprint across his cheekbone. He looks a little tired. Last night he and his band, State Radio, played a sold-out show at the House of Blues and he stayed up past his bedtime at the afterparty. Now it’s 1 p.m., and he’s standing in the sun at a community garden in Roxbury trying to tear down a chain link fence. The fence doesn’t want to go anywhere.

For the last fifteen minutes we’ve been wrestling with one of the fence posts. The bastard is rooted in a chunk of concrete the size of a bass amp, and our combined efforts to twist it out of the ground have succeeded in loosening the foundation so it sits, nearly free, like a loose tooth. We’ve pushed and pulled and applied every principle we can remember from physics class, but we just can’t get the thing free. Chad grips the post with his work gloves, ready to give it another try.

Not every rockstar would spend his homecoming weekend cleaning up urban wilds, planting trees, and spreading mulch between shows, but that is what Chad and his partner Sybil Gallagher do in nearly every city they visit. They founded their humanitarian organization, Calling All Crows, as a way to mobilize musicians and their fans to get involved in public service and humanitarian efforts. Today’s event is the kickoff to the Serve America Challenge, a ten-day string of service projects to celebrate the passage of the Serve America Act. About two dozen State Radio fans have shown up at the Cooper Center, where the nonprofit Earthworks is based. Earthworks leads a variety of environmental projects around Boston, mainly community gardens and orchards. Today we’re doing a spring cleanup and getting the ground ready to plant trees in. Many of the volunteers were at the State Radio show last night, and most will end up the Paradise later for a solo acoustic show with Chad. But for now, they’re getting dirty.

We’ve used shovels, picks, crowbars, and brute force. The post is still in the hole. “It’s the sword in the stone,”Chad muses. “Whoever pulls it out of the ground will be crowned King of Roxbury.”Then he recruits three other volunteers and we twist and turn until the post, bending under the weight of its foundation, finally breaks free and falls flat. Victory.

Calling All Crows is the latest chapter in Chad Stokes’ career of service. Before he and his bandmates in Dispatch started an underground sensation, he spent a year working in Zimbabwe where he met the man who inspired the Dispatch favorite “Elias.” He’s worked at a camp on the Vineyard for disabled adults, where he took part in the launching of How’s Your News?, the once-underground, now-MTV sensation. Last year State Radio performed tirelessly in swing states, campaigning for Barack Obama. Sybil worked for City Year Boston and spent time working at the same camp on Martha’s Vineyard where she and Chad met.
In one way or another, Chad has always married his sense of service with his art. Calling All Crows uses the grassroots, community-based approach that propelled Dispatch’s career as a way to promote service. “It’s all about getting fans together, having a good time, and helping do something that’s good for everyone,” says Chad. To date, Calling All Crows have put in over 2,000 hours into service projects across the country.

After a few hours of steady work, the Cooper Center looks a bit nicer than it did before. The fence is down; raked and graded path is now in the place it used to stand. The soil where the orchard will be has been loosened by rakes and fortified with compost. A group of volunteers decides to grab some lunch at a local deli. Chad and Sybil foot the bill for everyone.

Later that night, Chad takes the stage with an acoustic guitar at the Paradise. He opens with “Bohemian Grove” then takes some time to thank all the volunteers who helped out. The group from the deli are standing directly in front of him and he spends a lot of time chatting with them between songs.  “Do you guys want to hear ‘Gunship’ or ‘Ben Darling’ And by ‘you guys’, I mean these seven people directly right here,” he jokes before striking the intro to “The Story of Benjamin Darling, Part 1” from State Radio’s latest The Year of the Crow. His banter is quiet and the crowd stays subdued as they take in the music.

The highlight of the night is a tense, energetic version of “Calling All Crows,”  the rally cry of the organization. Chad’s delivery is perfect as he chants “We’re calling all the crows, they’re coming in slow, it’s gonna be a showdown.”He’s cleaned the dirt off his face, but hasn’t changed his shirt. All the crows who came out to work stand in the crowd, content to share the day with one of their heroes, who is more than happy to roll up his sleeves alongside them.

For more information on Calling All Crows, please visit www.callingallcrows.org.

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