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Natasha Smoot (left) and Becky Brown (center) joined their UMW professor Mark Snyder to form an indie-rock band.
BY RYAN BROSMER
FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR
If your friend tells you to go see a 40-something college professor perform with his little rock band at the bar down the street, be skeptical. If the professor is Mark Snyder, say yes.
Snyder, an associate music professor at the University of Mary Washington, is an accomplished musician and composer. His band of current and former students, Nature Boy Explorer, just released a four-song EP. The album features Snyder on guitar, UMW junior Becky Brown on harp and Natasha Smoot on accordion. Saturday's live performance for the record release featured Snyder and Brown with Paige Naylor on keyboards and Joanna Smith on upright bass. A laptop computer provided the drums.
Nature Boy Explorer came together after Snyder recruited some students, including Brown, for a cover-band performance on his birthday last year.
"It was a mash of people," Brown said. "And we had to fill a three-hour set."
The group ran out of cover songs, so Snyder threw in some original tracks. It worked well enough for the band to stick together and make their official debut early this year as Nature Boy Explorer.
Snyder took Brown and Smoot on the road for a short summer tour through Virginia and a few other Southern states. Snyder was the only member of the group who had ever been in a touring band before. Brown described the nights sleeping on floors and stuffing into a van--shared not only with guitars and amps but also her harp--as "a crazy trip."
The band's sound is slightly off the beaten pop-rock path, but the large, stringed elephant in the room is clearly Brown's harp.
"I'm used to carrying the thing around," Brown said of her harp, an instrument she has been playing since she was 8.
Musically, it poses some challenges when it comes to songwriting and melding the classical instrument into a rock band sound.
"She can't strum like a guitar," Snyder said. "I want to hear things a certain way, but it doesn't always work."
But they found a way to fit it in, and as hard as it is to ignore the harp in person, it is equally impressive on record. The four tracks were recorded and produced by Snyder and the band in his home studio and at the university, where Brown's practice room provided an exceptional recording environment.
Snyder grew up in Stafford County and has been playing music since the '80s. He played his first show at a Fredericksburg venue that occupied the space where the Otter House currently resides. He recognizes Fredericksburg as a hub of creative types that can make for a challenging audience, but he ran into different musical challenges when he left town for college.
"Most of the people want to listen to what's on the radio," Snyder said.
Snyder and Nature Boy Explorer don't necessarily fit that mold.
The crowd at the 909 Saloon on Caroline Street for the band's album-release show was, perhaps, a good portent for the future of original music in Fredericksburg. The crowd was a diverse mix of locals, regulars and college students. Some knew what they were in for and others wandered in, following the sound of music through the door.
Snyder, who began his music career as a drummer, seems to have transitioned seamlessly to frontman. Snyder mentioned how he has been restricted by bandmates from talking in radio interviews due to a penchant for speaking off the cuff. He's charismatic and connected with the crowd, as you might expect from a college professor.
The band explored a vast musical landscape during their performance. As Snyder describes it, the attitude and sound of their songs can shift from "testosterone-fueled aggression to soft and delicate." And it's this juxtaposition--the harp in the rock band, the students and the teacher, the atmospheric valleys between the rough-edged ridges of rock 'n' roll--that makes Nature Boy Explorer something worth exploring.
:Download or stream the new album at NatureBoyExplorer.bandcamp.com.
Ryan Brosmer is a freelance music writer and listener.