“A free society,” reads a message on the American Civil Liberties Union website, “is based on the principle that each and every individual has the right to decide what art or entertainment he or she wants — or does not want — to receive or create.”
Participants in the “Boston Stands With the ACLU” show, which hits the Paradise Rock Club on Saturday, have taken this idea to heart. Ed Valauskas, longtime Boston musician and manager of the Somerville recording studio Q Division, organized the benefit concert with fellow musicians Shaun Wolf Wortis and Jed Parish. Valauskas says the show, which features his band The Gravel Pit, Nada Surf, Juliana Hatfield, Evan Dando, Belly, and Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom, was the result of the Trump administration’s policies.
“It definitely grew out of all of our frustration with the current situation,” says Valauskas. “It was like, what can I do to contribute to society aside from just donating to things? Well, I’m OK at music and I’m OK at organizing things, so it just seemed like a natural thing to do.”
Valauskas, Wortis, and Parish are cofounders of Boston Stands, a nonprofit organization presenting a series of benefit shows for the ACLU. The group’s first installment last month, a Mardi Gras ball at Somerville’s ONCE Ballroom, raised $7,000. The Paradise show, which sold out within two days, stands to earn even more. (A third entry featuring local singer-songwriters such as Lori McKenna, Vance Gilbert, Chris Smither, Sarah Borges, and Stephen Kellogg is scheduled for April 5 at ONCE.)
“All the members of Belly signed on immediately for this benefit as soon as we were asked,” says Belly frontwoman Tanya Donelly. “The ACLU is one of our country’s most powerful instruments of both change and resistance, and since the election they’ve been clear that they will be on the front lines of every coming fight.”
The ACLU received renewed attention and support after it and other groups successfully challenged Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. (According to CNN, the ACLU received $24 million in donations in the two days following the order.)
Nada Surf frontman Matthew Caws says his band is participating not only because he and his bandmates believe the ACLU’s work is especially essential now, but because of some more abstract implications.
“This new strange relationship with the truth, it’s particularly worrisome,” says Caws. “The nice thing about music is that there’s nothing fake about it. It is what it is. Even if someone wanted to say super pop music is manufactured, it’s not. It’s a confection, but it’s a true confection.”
Hatfield was all-in, too, when she was asked to join the concert. “We have to stand up for the important things that are in peril right now. The guy in power right now wants to rule like a king. He has no respect for the Constitution, and it’s a weird, scary time.”
Hatfield, who was raised in Duxbury and lives in Cambridge, says she has pride in her state in times like these.
“I love Boston; I love Massachusetts,” she says. “There’s such a great tradition of free thinking. We’re a state that’s socially liberal but we’ll vote in a Republican if we think he’s the best guy for the job. People like to self-educate here, and that’s great.”
The show will also give her a chance to try out songs from her upcoming album “Pussycat” ahead of a tour that begins next month. The record focuses on the country’s current divisions and its need to find common ground.
“[‘Pussycat’] is pro-America, it’s pro-freedom, it’s anti-hatred, anti-lies. That’s what I would say. It’s standing up for the important things that the majority of the people around the world value. That’s what the ACLU is also trying to protect.”
Boston standup comic Ken Reid, the event’s emcee, asked to be involved so he could use his comedy to energize the disenfranchised. He describes his comedy, which typically focuses on personal stories, as “ridiculously apolitical.” But those stories, he says, have inevitably become more topical.
“It would be easy for me, who’s a middle-class, straight, white, married guy to just sort of ignore this stuff. But as someone with a moral code, I can’t. One of my friends tweeted that the worst thing about Donald Trump is that he radicalized Ken Reid,” he says with a chuckle. But Reid has always believed in the power of artistic expression. “Art is alive in times of truth. You can get through the hearts and minds with art. There’s a power to it. It’s a big middle finger for people who need a middle finger.”
Janovitz, a Boston music scene stalwart whose social involvement included playing in the anti-Reagan punk scene and rallying musicians against handgun violence, deems this a uniquely urgent time of political and civil unrest.
“Rarely,” says Janovitz, “have we been in the hands of so corrupt a group with such ill intent. Many people are deeply and rightfully afraid. And getting out and showing support at a concert is a cathartic reminder that you’re not alone, and to be energized, all while raising funds for a good organization.”
Caws agrees that his goal in performing at the concert, and playing music in general, is unification.
“I think people are in a particularly good frame of mind at a show. They’re here because they want to be. It’s an elective. Every time you put on a record, that’s an elective. Every time you put on some headphones, that’s an elective. Music is like little letters we write to each other, from human to human.”
In a time of divisive, limited communication, he says, moments like these are valuable. “We need all of them we can get.”