The Paula Boggs Band already knows how to rock a crowd. The self-described Seattle-brewed soulgrass group wants to connect in a different way on its new EP Songs of Protest & Hope. Culled from a live performance at Empty Sea Studios in the band’s hometown, the five-song collection features three originals and a pair of covers that reflect the tenor of the times.
Songs of Protest & Hope grew out of a public challenge issued a few years ago by Questlove, the Roots drummer and late-night bandleader, who wondered about a lack of protest songs in the wake of the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. “We heard that. And, in some sense, this release is our response to that challenge,” says frontwoman Paula Boggs, who sings, writes the songs and plays guitar and ukulele.
It’s also an expression of a concept that Boggs and her band —Mark Chinen on guitar and banjo; Isaac Castillo on bass and vocals; Tim Conroy on keyboards, accordion, melodica, trumpet and vocals; Tor Dietrichson on percussion and vocals; and Sandy Greenbaum on drums—have been thinking a lot about in recent years: what it means to be a citizen-artist, making music that entertains, but also enlightens and inspires.
“The citizen-artist recognizes and celebrates the role of art as a tool of communication, and through art, is hopefully able to engage the community in a conversation, or lead to action that benefits the community and makes it healthier,” Boggs says.
Naturally, recording in front of a live crowd seemed like an excellent way to engage the community in a conversation. “There’s something incredibly authentic for us when we perform live,” Boggs says. “It’s sometimes akin to being on a tightrope. You’re in front of an audience, the response to what we’re doing is immediate and the musicians can receive a vibe from the audience that alters the course of the performance.”
That’s exactly what happened on the band’s cover of “Woodstock” by Joni Mitchell. . The audience was so enthusiastic that the band extended the song while Chinen and Dietrichson went to town. “The momentum and enthusiasm of the crowd just propelled us forward,” Boggs says.
The other cover on Songs of Protest & Hope is a soulful, earthy take on the Youngbloods’ “Get Together.” There are also versions of two songs from the Paula Boggs Band’s 2015 album Carnival of Miracles — the thoughtful, atmospheric “Edith’s Coming Home” and the pointed perseverance anthem “Look Straight Ahead” — and “Get Along Song,” which the group has been performing live for a few years. Those were the five songs from a two-hour show that fit the theme the band had in mind for Songs of Protest & Hope, and they’ve showcased a killer, in- the-moment performance.
“My hope for this music would be that the listener gets a slightly different take on what community is, or is inspired to say, ‘Yeah, I can do something, even if it’s small,’” Boggs says.
She is deeply involved in her own community. An Army veteran who serves on the boards of KEXP Radio, Peabody Conservatory and the video and audio technology company Avid, Boggs was appointed to the President’s Commission on the Arts and Humanities in 2013. Her resume also includes a five-year stint as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, working as a vice president at Dell and general counsel for Starbucks.
There was a period when Boggs’ busy, high-powered career didn’t leave a lot of time to make music. After a family tragedy in 2005, though, she took up her guitar again as a way to grieve, which led to Boggs signing up for a songwriting certificate course at the University of Washington. Encouraged by the instructor, Boggs made a New Year’s resolution in 2007 to perform at one open-mic per month. That’s how she met three of the members of the Paula Boggs Band, which played its first show in January 2008, and released its first album, Buddha State of Mind, in 2010. It’s been a steady progression for the group ever since, both in how the band sounds and what the songs are about.
“The goal to do something like this EP was not just mine,” Boggs says. “It’s something the entire band is really excited about. One of the reasons that four of us have played together for nine years now is because we share that value.”
Now, as citizen-artists, it’s time for the Paula Boggs Band to share those values with their listeners in as direct a way as they can. “At the end of the day, so much of the good that happens hinges on people’s action, how people see themselves in the world and how they interact with others,” Boggs says. “Hopefully, our music will be a spark for people to see themselves and their community in a slightly different and more positive way.”