“This is about a dead raccoon we found once.” “This is a song about a seat belt.” “I cried out against the abuse of power, I suppose.” Triangulate those three introductions to three songs and you’ve got the conundrum of Chadwick Stokes. The Dispatch and State Radio frontman has built his career on a foundation of laid-back shaggy-dog tales combined with a dedicated social consciousness, and at Saturday’s House of Blues benefit for his Calling All Crows service organization, the activist messages got lost in the feel-good vibes, which in turn were squelched by the earnestness that the next song might bring.
There’s another context in which such an uneasy mix can often be found, and much of Stokes’s material, with its strummy, stompy sing-along nature, recalled campfire songs for grown-ups. Most of the songs from his upcoming album “The Horse
Comanche” fit that mold, from the rolling acoustic thump of “Pine Needle Tea” to the breathless barrage
of words driving “Our Lives Our Time.” “Walter (First Hello)” combined both sides, with moody verses about Ugandan orphans awkwardly giving way to a chirpy, Rusted Root-sy triumph chorus.
Otherwise, Stokes vacillated between neck-popping acoustic grooves and watered-down reggae beats as he sang in his vague Jamaican patois. With a horn-section assist providing a hint of soul and swing, “Dead Badger” built up a decent head of steam, and his Ferguson/Eric Garner response “Cease Fire” had a quiet conviction. But both were facile in their own, opposite ways, one song struggling to find meaning in a topic too big to digest and another seeking it in one too mundane to matter.
Where the audience came ready to join Stokes’s conscious party, eagerly calling out lines from Dispatch tunes “Elias” and “Bang Bang,” second-billed Lucius made a few converts from scratch. The fused voices of singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig were heart-rending, whether quiet as a pin drop (”Go Home”) or pouring their guts out at full strength (later in “Go Home”). But the clattering rhythms behind them created the tension necessary to make songs like “Genevieve” and the deconstructed ’60s sunshine pop of “Wildewoman” calamitous and beautiful, while the slow, glorious “How Loud Your Heart Gets” was achingly empathetic.
One-woman a cappella group Julia Easterlin opened by stacking vocal loops to harmonize ethereally with herself. The results were captivating, transforming civil rights anthem “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” into a bright-eyed and calm promise.Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @spacecitymarc