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Common ground: They may look mellow, but the Little Big Band plays with steely intensity.

Joanne Rand and her band puzzle it out

By Gretchen Giles

I USED TO BE this environmental radical--and I still am--but a lot of my new songs are more spiritual," says singer/songwriter Joanne Rand softly. "The songs that I'm writing right now are much happier than those I wrote last winter." Sitting outside a Sebastopol café, sharing a pizza with the musicians who compose her Little Big Band, Rand has a lot to be happy about. With a new disc out and two in the works, this Georgia native known for her vocal agility and political passions has just returned from a tour of the Southeast that she vigilantly takes each spring, and is looking forward to a full slate of performances well into the fall.

Still dressed for the Seattle chill of her new Northwest home, in a burgundy velvet beret, sprigged dress, and leather jacket embossed permanently with a red AIDS ribbon, Rand--who quit classical piano lessons because her instructor couldn't teach her to play Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon"--is relaxed, joking with band members Jeff Martin, Scott Deal, and Jack Springett.

Even if she hadn't just spent the last two years helping her brother Jordan Rand through his losing battle with HIV-related illness, Rand doesn't strike one as someone who would just pin a red ribbon on a party dress, like actors at the Academy Awards. When Rand takes up a cause, she does it with permanence.

"Two years ago, I moved to Seattle to be with my brother," she remembers. "And I'd spend more time here than there, but gradually, as he got more ill, I'd spend more time there. Last June, I just basically buckled down and didn't come down here at all. Now, I'm here once a month or so. It's not an ideal situation. I really miss playing every single day. When we were making our album, we rehearsed every single night, and we would all like to be able to do that.

"I've never been in a band before," she muses. "But it seems like once you gel, you gel. I mean, I can write a song, and they'll just drop in. It's just there. And, uh, that's pretty neat," she laughs.

Throughout her 13-year career, this 35-year-old singer has sung about love and friendship, common topics in folk-related music. But Rand--who appears with her band on June 8 at the Health and Harmony Festival--is also passionate about the earth and mankind's uneasy relationship to its organic foundings.

In the self-produced The Monkey Puzzle, her first album with her 4-year-old Little Big Band, there are songs devoted to the devastation of the Chernobyl fallout ("Radiation on My Windshield"), and her thoughts on flying high above the vanishing rain forest ("Amazon Song"). There's also a bit of eavesdropping, as with the screeching satire of "Stuffy," whose lyrics include "Styrofoam is everywhere/ Processed music on the air/ Waitresses with died [sic] red hair/ Poodle in a blue Bellaire [sic]/ 'Stuffy, come here, Stuffy.'"

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"You don't think that's political?" Rand asks, amazed at the reporter's apparent goof. "To me, 'Stuffy' is very political. It was written about our experiences in Phoenix, Arizona, on Easter morning, and all those stories are true."

"But surreal," bassist Jeff Martin adds.

"It's all about modern life," Rand continues. "Some of the other songs are more about love. Actually, I just wrote a love song, but it's not to somebody. It's a prayer," she says with a smile. "There are so many different kinds of songs; what you strive for is simplicity."

A beautiful example of Rand's aim for simplicity is found on the offerings of The Monkey Puzzle, many of whose songs--including the title track--were written by Jordan. Rand doesn't have a concrete handle for the kind of music--variously termed "psychedelic-folk-revival or "acoustic ritual"--she and her brother produced. "He'd write songs and I'd write songs, and the first four songs he wrote didn't have tunes, so I came up with the tunes," she says. "He decided that he'd had enough of that, so he wrote all the [rest of the] tunes. Basically, I'm just faithful to his songs. He sang them a cappella into a tape recorder--214 songs," she says in wonderment.

"When we were living together, I'd bring him out to the studio, and put him in a chair, and play a song for him, and he'd sit there with his arms folded, and maybe he'd give me a suggestion, but we didn't really write songs together."

Later she says, "His philosophy about life was that--in spite of his pain--he embraced life and didn't complain. And I figure that if he could do it, I can do it."

Asked about this popular band's future dreams, Jeff Martin takes a bite of pizza and thinks a moment. "This is really my family. I've been in countless bands, and this band has really survived the trials and tribulations. We're always able to find a common ground and to work out our differences."

"Music is the common ground," Rand says with finality.


Joanne Rand and the Little Big Band take the stage at the Health and Harmony Festival on Saturday, June 8, at 2 p.m. Sonoma County Fairgrounds, 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa. Admission to festival, $4-$10. 575-9355. Rand also makes a solo appearance at the Catz Roastery on Sunday, June 9, at 8 p.m. 6761 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol. $8. 829-6600.

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From the June 6-12, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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