november 2009

The Actual ’73 Giving Tree Movie as told by Shel Silverstein


‘Let’s Live This Thing. Nonstop, Every Single Day…’

The Giving Tree Band Takes Possession Of Its Art and Ethos on Great Possessions

By David McGee

When it comes to “walk it like you talk it,” few bands can credibly claim to top the Giving Tree Band in that department. It would be enough that its new album, Great Possessions, is one of the best long players of the year by dint of its stirring musicianship, exemplary songwriting and emotionally engaged performances. But while this inspired quartet (Eric Fink, brother Todd Fink, Philip Roach, and Patrick Burke, supplemented on disc and in concert by a few other players) is crafting powerful, moving music, so is it making a complete (or near-complete) stand for environmental stewardship, living every day with a heightened concern for the effects of their lifestyle choices on the world around them. This sensibility even extended to the logistics of recording Great Possessions, in ways that would humble other, similarly eco-conscious aggregates.

The courtyard of the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center, where the Giving Tree Band recorded Great Possessions. The center is a net zero energy building that meets all of its energy needs on site. The center’s roof-mounted solar array is projected to meet 110 percent of the building’s energy needs on an annual basis.

For starters, the GTB holed up from June 23 to July 19 at the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center in Bariboo, Wisconsin—not a recording studio, but a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the agenda of its namesake, Wisconsin environmentalist Aldo Leopold, who died in 1948 while fighting a brush fire near his shack, close by the location of the Center now bearing his name. As per its website (, the Center is guided by Leopold’s “Land Ethic,” or “a way of life in which land does well for its inhabitants, citizens do well by their land, and both end up better by reason of partnership.” Thus the Center is “a net zero energy building, meeting all of its energy needs on site. Despite the contrasts of Wisconsin’s four-season climate, the Leopold Center uses 70 percent less energy than a building built just to code, and the center’s roof-mounted solar array is projected to meet 110 percent of the building’s energy needs on an annual basis.” After talking management into letting them set up in a conference room to record—and there was some reluctance to overcome—the musicians used  instruments shaped from wind-felled trees and ran their recording gear on the power generated by the Center from its 198 solar panels. Then, in their off hours, the entire group retreated some 10 miles away to Mirror Lake State Park, where they lived in tents, cooked their meals over campfires, and bicycled to and from their sessions each day. The upshot, according to the advance press on Great Possessions, was “the first carbon-neutral album.”

Eric Fink, multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter for the GTB, has a more nuanced position about the “carbon-neutral” claim, pointing out it would be more accurate to call it “carbon free.”

Speaking from his home in Yorkville, IL, which also houses a traditional recording studio, Fink says the band engages in carbon offsetting on its own “by buying investments in wind energy or purchasing carbon offsets through other avenues of renewable energy resources. So in a sense that offsets the carbon that you create. But it doesn’t; it still creates that carbon. But Great Possessions was done at a carbon-free facility with solar energy. It’s such a grey area because people could say, ‘Well were you breathing?’ In my mind it’s not a competition, but I do feel like we set out to do the best we could, and we really were lucky to be able to use this facility because of its certified carbon neutrality. They plant trees, they have backup wind energy, they have Hunter 98 solar panels, geothermal, they actually factor in the commutes of their employees, the vacation travel of their employees if they take a plane somewhere—that’s all offset or renewable energy is created to counter that. I do think that this album may be among the greenest albums because of the space where it was recorded.”

Giving Tree Band
The Giving Tree Band (from left: Philip Roach, Todd Fink, Eric Fink, Erik Norman, Patrick Burke, Andy Goss): ‘People need to remember that we’re still in a society of technology and trying to do what we love,’ says Eric. ‘But I think there’s ways to do that in an environmentally conscious manner.’

But it’s not the GTB’s environmental conscience that’s given rise to frequent comparisons between it and The Band. No, that connection is real, but it stems from both group’s sense of the land’s historical and spiritual moorings more so than nature’s. Where the Giving Tree Band intersects the Band is in its evocation of a specific time and place, specifically in America; its point of departure is in evoking not the past but the present, in terms both subtle and vivid. Still, Great Possessions being recorded on solar power is not an inconsequential fact or a gimmick. The musicians’ commitment to alternative energy and conservation of natural resources has produced music with a natural symbiosis with the land, as reflected in lyrics acknowledging the divine power of nature and its attendant spirituality—not in a pamphleteering way, mind you, but discreetly; as the album unfolds you become aware of hearing more references to the natural world and to connections between “the Lord above,” to whom Erik Fink so fervently prays in the magnificent “That’s The Time,” and the earth below, which figures prominently and evocatively in the bucolic, springy “The Stream” and later in “Light From the Sun,” all laconic rhythm and, courtesy Philip Roach, introspective, crying fiddling.

On an album containing 18 songs the GTB creates a world complete, with not so much love songs as good natured appeals for love (the lilting “Teaspoon of Sugar”), plenty of heartbreaking, arresting ruminations in which characters see their fate inextricably linked to the turning of the earth, and, more than any other topic, bittersweet or urgent reflections on passion long since dissipated except for its lingering, unsettling ache or—or—passion worth saving, at any price. This latter gives rise to, arguably, the album’s philosophical and musical keystone, the aforementioned “That’s the Time,” a hard-charging, restless bluegrass number that can’t wait to get where it’s going, thanks to Todd Fink’s eager banjo and Patrick Burke’s sprightly dobro lines, as Erik Fink, his voice husky, hoarse and suitably ragged, tells of an Illinois girl who bids her parents farewell and “headed out from East Moline/to mountains she had never seen,” on her way to Arkansas where she hoped to “meet a real cowboy some day,” leaving Fink to muse, “That’s the time she went away,” the first of many such incidents to come. But the boy she left behind is back home, yearning for her and “she could feel his warmth from miles away,” adding the solemn postscript: “And that’s the time/that she did stray.” This is one of those songs with a streamroller kind of impact; it flattens you with its propulsiveness, and its plot twists don’t give you room to breath. She’s out there, existentially at large, romantically chained; he’s right there at home, existentially chained, romantically scarred, battling a natural instinct to move on with his life, because “time don’t wait for any man,” a thought he allows himself for a split second before uttering in a near-whisper, “Although some days, you go back again.” In the song’s enigmatic final verse, the girl’s brother, having taken on the family farm and more responsibility than he can handle, drinks himself to death. At the close, Fink returns to his curious chorus, both fatalistic and optimistic: “All in all, we’re all long gone,” he vocally shrugs at the outset, sure that after “dark and cold winter nights/sun will rise/and down the long, long road/I’ll be coming home.” However sanguine his attitude, the music rushing relentlessly forward behind him betrays his own anxieties. With the striking of the final, abrupt chord and the looming silence after it, nothing is resolved—like the fate of the earth, like the fate of anyone living now. Song after song, either subtly or overtly, summons this unsettled feeling; neat endings are not in the GTB playbook.

Which is not to suggest the music, or even the words, are depressing and dour. Uplift is in the GTB playbook, too, and it arrives in beauty: in the hymn-like choruses “help me to serve/know you” in “Mirror Of the Sea,” a captivating, low-key fusion of folk and pop, thanks in part to Philip Roach’s beautiful violin swoops, in part to the dreamy, floating arrangement (it has a ‘60s feel; in fact, it has the languid, spacey vibe of an early Jefferson Airplane song, maybe a rustic outtake from Surrealistic Pillow); in the ebullient, banjo-driven, and velvety, close-harmonized choruses of the muted hoedown titled “Early To Bed,” rendered by Eric Fink with an upbeat attitude, no matter the fatalistic/optimistic duality cropping up therein; and, without question, in the merry mariachi horns adding some south of the border spice to “Pegged,” an otherwise weary lament of a fellow who has only his unfaithful self to blame for being thrown out on the street (“she snuck up behind me/said ‘please don’t like to me/since when have you been wearing perfume?’”). And sometimes—in, for instance, the atmospheric, midtempo shuffle “All That’s Left”—the beauty is the contrast between John Prine-like aphorisms (is it coincidence that Fink sounds so much like Prine here?) and stark, Dylanesque imagery and lyrical obliqueness that leaves the characters’ fate up for grabs at the end.

That the Giving Tree Band arrived at such authoritative music is even more surprising given the group’s slight history—its first album, the double-CD Unified Folk Theory, was released in 2007, but it contained all the big themes still being explored and developed on Great Possessions. But in the years prior to the GTB debut, Eric, his brother (and fellow multi-instrumentalist/singer/songwriter) Todd, Patrick Burke on dobro, and guitarist Bob Salihar (who departed before the Great Possessions sessions and was replaced by Philip Roach, he of the above-noted impressive fiddle work noted) were a full-on rock ‘n’ roll band—but hardly true to themselves. Raised in a working class family, the Fink brothers were encouraged in their musical pursuits by their guitar- and piano-playing father (a rock ‘n’ roller who, according to Eric “spoonfed” his offspring a steady diet of the Stones, Beatles, Kinks, “and some of the edgier rock stuff, too”) and were further infected with the musical bug by relatives who played instruments and often broke them out for family joins. But Eric credits dad—who also was the source of the brothers’ love of the land—with being he and his brother’s first big influence as songwriters, until such time as they started feeling the pull of other artists’ voices.

Giving Tree Band
Eric Fink (left) on stage with fiddler Philip Roach. ‘As songwriters, we always tried to look to the greatest songwriters but still put our own fresh approach to it,’ Eric says. ‘You know, a fresh approach to something that’s familiar.’

“Musically, as we grew and developed an ear for what we liked, we started getting into Neil Young, Bob Dylan and the Band, some of those guys,” Eric recalls. “Now, even today, we’re tremendous fans of those types of songwriters. We also enjoyed some of the country guys; outlaw country guys—Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, those types of guys—very much influenced our songwriting style. But yeah, as artists, and as songwriters, we always tried to look to the greatest songwriters but still put our own fresh approach to it, you know. A fresh approach to something that’s familiar.”

Then came the rock ‘n’ roll years.  Or more precisely, the jam band years, after older brother Todd had returned from school. From there things got increasingly weirder and less satisfying.

“It was strange, because when Todd came back, although we always wrote these folky tunes whenever we were together, we ended up developing this rock and roll jam band—it was really more fusion and high energy, really weird jazz stuff. So we actually got out of the lyrical songwriting for awhile and developed more of our musical theory. But after we played with that for a couple of years we realized it wasn’t the type of music we wanted to be making. We wanted to be making a different style of music that expresses our artistic side, that would reintroduce the lyrical content and get back to a more folk and country sound, because that’s what we always enjoyed.”

There was more to it than that, though. On the band’s website, Todd posts an uncredited band bio. In recounting the pre-Giving Tree Band period, he describes a period of serious reflection that yielded “a vision statement before any music was made.” As detailed in Todd’s manifesto, this was not only about musical direction but also about taking personal responsibility for their time on earth—living drug- and alcohol-free, honoring and respecting the natural world, being in sync with it.

“We were kind of burned out of playing these down-and-out places,” Eric says. “I don’t know how else to describe them. It seemed like we were just playing and playing, in bars and clubs, and people didn’t really care to hear us. Not only that, but we were really making a pretty large footprint environmentally. Even ethically I think we were just really obsessed and pushing the envelope. We were driving around and bringing all kinds of equipment and trying to put on the most extravagantly crazy show we could for the sake of crazy. Finally we just sat back and said, ‘This isn’t us. This isn’t what we’re about. We live a more simple life than what we’re portraying out here. This isn’t how we live our lives environmentally.’ We try to do things with an environmental consciousness. So we were asking, Why can’t we run our business the same way? Why can’t we run our business the same way we live our lives? It was really kind of creating some sort of congruency to how we lived our lives.

“And then,” he adds, his voice rising with wonder, “it just became kind of easy. We didn’t have to try so hard. It was just that we could do things the way we did ‘em at home. Then we decided to try to play different places; try to play places that had meaning for us, of causes, events that we cared about, events that we would be at if we weren’t onstage. And so it just made a lot more sense—again, you don’t need to worry so much if you’re in a place where you would be in any sort of circumstances. It just makes sense to be there and do what you do.”

A profile of the Giving Tree Band, including scenes shot at the Aldo Leopold Center during the recording sessions and interviews with band members and Leopold Center management. Informative profile on ‘metromix on CLTV’ (www, by host Marcus Leshock.

It was a clean break with their musical past, and with it came the challenge of finding a suitable name for this lifestyle/musical endeavor. While admitting that “naming a band is challenging,” Eric is quick to add that it came fairly easy to he and his mates, who simply looked to the work of Shel Silverstein for inspiration, notably his beloved children’s book, The Giving Tree. “One of the great songwriters and Renaissance men, Shel Silverstein, we always admired his works and his songs. One of my favorite bands is Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, and they did a lot of Shel’s tunes. So the name sort of came about from that but even more came about from our idea of trying to incorporate nature and environmentalism into our project. It just seemed very fitting. We always loved having the word ‘band’ on something; I always felt having the word ‘band’ was a little more powerful. It made me feel unity with a group of people who are standing for a cause or for a purpose. So putting ‘band’ at the end made it complete.”

The first album had its own challenges, too—mainly because in the midst of sessions Todd took off to study at an ashram in India—but Great Possessions was the moment when the band determined to stamp its identity indelibly on the music, to make a statement that lived up to Todd’s vision of years earlier in which music and lifestyle were intimately fused. In fact, Eric allows as to how he regards the new album as a conceptual work.

“I think the thing we wanted to do different—and I’m a man of extremes, I guess—I wanted to live our music as much as we could. We had had this idea about doing an album using only solar energy for a number of years, even back when Todd and I were in our late teens and wanted to record music. I always thought, Wow, wouldn’t it be awesome? But the technology wasn’t there. Plus our band was keyboards and amps and all kinds of craziness, so it would take a lot of power to do that. What we decided was, Let’s figure out a way to do this album using only renewable energy like we’ve been wanting to do, and let’s live this thing. Nonstop, every single day, our focus and our mind will be to create this piece of art.

“That’s why I think this album was a concept album in that regard. We had a purpose, we had a timeline and we had challenges we had to face. We rode our bikes every morning at six a.m. and we recorded for 10, 12, 14 hours a day, then rode our bikes back. And making the food on the campfire took way longer than it should have taken, you know. And then at the campsite at night we would be charting our harmonies and working out vocal arrangements and string arrangements and just very much always in there, working diligently up to the very end. Even the last day we were there at the Aldo Leopold Center, we were mixing down literally to midnight of the last day and we were like, Wow, there it is. Okay! And it was strange to leave because we had been camping in the woods for thirty days.”

The Giving Tree Band recording ‘Teaspoon of Sugar’ at the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center for its Great Possessions album. Clip by ‘metromix on CLTV’ (www, 

Given this background, the presence of two six-minutes-plus songs as the penultimate and closing tunes on Great Possessions seems an intentional philosophical grace note. One of those is a folk hymn mourning unrequited love (“Hard Life to Live”) with a sighing backup chorus and instrumental support by a lone, lonesome acoustic guitar, hesitantly strummed; the other (“Only Good”) a woozy, spacey, angularly constructed and string-enhanced mini-drama with Abbey Road-era Beatles overtones (it wouldn’t have been out of place on the closing medley) in its investigations of love’s true nature and potential (“do you really know what love is/do you really know what love can do/it ain’t something to give to only a few”). In these the Giving Tree Band reinforces its singular cosmology, questioning, on the one hand, the truth of affection, reaffirming, on the other, the depth of its commitment to, as they sing-chant at the end, “take good care of you.”

“Definitely,” Eric affirms of this speculation. “Artistically that is why we did it. And you know, it’s weird because again, my brother has this philosophical approach to life and he believes it; it’s not just something he talks about. And I believe it as well, in loving everyone and everything and seeing the goodness in all things. But I think ‘Hard Life to Live,’ the song I wrote and sing, sort of gives a slight challenge to that philosophy. It’s hard to do that when you don’t get it back all the time, when you don’t get that love in return. With those two, we felt like if a listener makes it this far (laughs), then they will probably appreciate these lengthy songs that have a lot of the band’s passion in them. But ‘Hard Life to Live’—and the majority of the album was done live because of the time constraints and because that’s the feel we wanted—was interesting because we had all our friends sit in there and I just strummed the guitar and we sang it. It turned out to be very lengthy, but we went over it and it didn’t feel like it could be cut down to get the point across. Same with ‘Only Good.’ The way it moves, it needed to be the length it was. You know, I’ve had a lot of people inquire about that being the last song and not enjoying it; they felt it was too subdued a number to end with, I guess, but I felt like it was what we wanted to say at the time. And it really does exemplify our experience out camping and at the Leopold Center. And in our mind it exemplified Aldo Leopold’s works, the great conservationist. Really, in many ways, that could sum up how he did the work he did in restoring that landscape, the concept of ‘I will take good care of you.’”

The particular conundrum now for the Giving Tree Band is how to insure its music gets a fair hearing and isn’t diminished by the media’s focus on its extra-musical activities. Several early reviews of Great Possessions, though favorable, barely gave a hint of the musical content. Eric is taking it as it comes.

“It never bothers me,” he says of these misguided if well  meaning appraisals. “In some sense it’s unfortunate that they don’t look at the rest of the art; that they just look at how things were done. If that can inspire people, that’s part of our art as well. But I do feel the music has a lot to offer and that’s why we’re doing it. If we were real super-eco-friendly people, we wouldn’t be playing music; I wouldn’t have a studio in my home. So people need to remember that we’re still in a society of technology and trying to do what we love. But I think there’s ways to do that in an environmentally conscious manner.”

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