The resilience of River City Extension: how the Jersey folk rock band didn’t let change keep them from ‘Deliverance’ - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
River City Extension | Photo by Sean O’Kane Photography

Fans know River City Extension as a boisterously loud and energetic folk rock group that has toured with up to eight people at a time. Despite the pop sensibilities many folk bands have adopted, this New Jersey crew remained tough at the core, only softening its edge with flourishes of strings and harmonies. This balance helped the band gain equal appeal from the Bonnaroo audience as it did from the one you would find at Warped Tour.

Fronted by guitarist and vocalist Joe Michelini, River City Extension released its somewhat dark, somewhat quirky and introspective sophomore album, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Anger, in 2012 to measurable acclaim. It was the follow-up to the band 2010debut, The Unmistakable Man.

But a lot has changed since those days. Members have came and left, and now the band has slimmed down to just three core members who all reside in their hometown of Toms River. Losing so many musicians brought Michelini to a crossroads, where he and the remaining members made the hard decision to continue on, even though they had no idea where they were headed.

“We sat down and we were like, ‘Ok, nobody knows who our band is, really,’” Michelini says modestly during a recent phone interview. “So, we can make any kind of music we want now. We decided to just work with the people that were willing to be in the band and did want to make music for the rest of their lives – people who had already jumped off the cliff and weren’t looking back, like us.”

Michelini, guitarist John Muccino and keyboard player Patrick O’Brien will showcase the band’s new direction when River City Extension plays Boot & Saddle at 8:30 p.m. Friday, March 28th with openers Wild Rompit and Cranston Dean. Attendees will hear songs from the first two RCE records, as well as their first ever cover song and new tracks off the forthcoming album Deliverance, which the band will sequester itself in a house in the Poconos for 18 days in late April to start recording.

After the crazy, scary journey he’s been on with River City Extension since forming the group in 2007, Michelini says he’s excited to bring the new line-up to Philly, the city he “grew up going to.”

“Philly is the only city that I want to go to around here,” he says. “I’ve always loved it there. We had our first ever album release show in Philly. We’re so excited to play, and we have so many friends there. If the band ever leaves Toms River, it will only ever go to Philadelphia. There’s only one road between Toms River and Philly, and that warms my heart a little bit.”

Guitarist Muccino even had the “wild idea” to make an animated video to promote the show. He wrote the script, did the voiceover, then passed that along to Philly-based animator Joe Shefski to bring the illustrations to life. The video is just one of the many examples of the DIY ethics the band employs, sticking to them despite how hard it is to keep a career in the music industry or the arts in general.

“Everyone just seems to be going on and on, especially since South by Southwest, about how it’s impossible and now it’s all run by brands, etcetera, etcetera,” Michelini says of the industry. “I guess I just have to not be too worried about it. The industry will change as it will, but I want to make music. I know that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Despite River City Extension’s history, Michelini said the songs he’s written with the new line-up over the past year and a half have been some of the most important to him. Deliverance, Michelini says, is a record written about overcoming self-doubt – something he’s struggled with throughout his career, especially given the band’s recent turmoil. It’s also something he’s sure a lot of people will relate to.

“The more disinterested people seem in the record we’re about to make, and the more disinterested the music industry is in us making this record, the more excited I am to make it,” he says. “We have a group of supporters that are still with us, still listening to the music that we’re putting out, still listening to the songs that I’m writing. That’s why we’re making it. We’re making it so that we can sleep at night. I just couldn’t if we didn’t do this.”

Deliverance is also informed by Michelini’s consumption of the work of Ayn Rand and her objectivist philosophies. He made several references to her books on the record, down to several direct quotes in the lyrics and some of the characters being named in the songs.

“A record kind of chooses its own direction, to a certain extent,” Michelini says. “It’s based on what’s going on in your life and what you’re listening to, and then the record kind of appears and you have to fill in the gaps and make it a real thing.”

Though these outside factors influenced his writing, Michelini also adopted a rather strict, self-governed policy for approaching the songs on this record. After stating in an interview following the release of Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Anger,  Michelini did not wrote a single song about God, relationships or drinking – the subject areas he says almost every “faux-folk” song centers around these days.

“So that was a challenge, sitting down and saying, ‘OK, I’m going to write about A’ when you’re not feeling this overwhelming burst of emotion the way you do after you met the love of your life at a bar last night,” he says. “I want to get married, so I have to figure out how to write songs about something other than women I think are attractive, because at some point that won’t be OK.”

No matter how many personnel changes the band has or how far along Michelini comes with his wedding plans some day, there’s one thing about River City Extension that will never change – the folk influences in the music they write will always be there. The band will still play with bassist Colin DiMeo at the Boot & Saddle show, though he is no longer a member of the band and will soon move to North Carolina. They have also found a touring drummer and cellist to fill out the sound for early songs. Michelini says Deliverance is still riddled with string arrangements, giving it a chamber pop flair while still providing fundamental folk elements.

“Folk music is a lot of story telling, and there’s still a lot of story telling on this record,” Michelini says. “I hate to call it rock music. I hate to call it pop music. Those are both dirty words in the wrong circles.”

Michelini has learned not to try to plan too far ahead, so he’s not even going to try to predict how people categorize River City Extension’s new material, or how they will react to it.

But as a self-proclaimed beer fan, what Michelini will plan is what he’ll drink at the Boot & Saddle show. Nearly two weeks in advance, he’s already looked up to draft list, and thinking he’ll spring for a bottle of Russian River Damnation, since it’s not distributed in New Jersey.

Maybe we’ll hear some drinking songs after all.

River City Extension will play Boot & Saddle at 8:30 p.m. Friday, March 28th. Tickets are available here.

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