Rock band Dispatch uses the pandemic pause to retool

The band performs with O.A.R. at the Michigan Lottery Amphitheatre at Freedom Hill

click to enlarge Dispatch (from left): Mike Sawitzke, Brad Corrigan, Jon “JR” Reilly, Matthew Embree, and Chadwick Stokes. - Mike Smith
Mike Smith
Dispatch (from left): Mike Sawitzke, Brad Corrigan, Jon “JR” Reilly, Matthew Embree, and Chadwick Stokes.

Dispatch returns to touring this summer quite literally as a band making a new start with a new album in Break Our Fall.

However, neither the band lineup nor the new album ended up being what Chadwick Stokes or Brad Corrigan — the two members of Dispatch — initially intended, although both outcomes have been for the better

When it comes to the Boston-based band, the hope was that all three original band members — guitarist and singer Stokes, drummer Corrigan, and singer, bassist, and guitarist Pete Francis — would find a way through difficult times and emerge stronger than ever as a trio.

But it wasn't to be, as Francis, who battled depression and struggled with life on tour, left the band in 2019.

"I think not having a root system when you tour, I think we saw that Pete really thrived when he was at home and he had roots," Corrigan says in a late-June video interview. "He was close to his wife and close to his kids and close to his entire family... It's definitely the hardest decision we've ever made as a band, but also the most right."

The decision to move on without Francis only happened after considerable efforts to make things workable for all three band members.

"It was such a hard time because we had come back with kind of renewed excitement and commitment to the band in 2015, 2016," says Stokes, who joined Corrigan for the video interview. "And that winter, Pete hit some lows that he had never experienced before."

Still, Stokes and Corrigan tried to make things work, going through hours of therapy with Francis in hopes of finding a solution. Dispatch even toured without Francis, hoping time away from the road would solve his issues before finally concluding there was no way to move forward with Francis.

"It just proved to be very complicated, very hard for all of us, but for Pete also to come to the realization that the road is not a healthy place (for him)," Stokes says. "We really tried to navigate that all as friends and partners."

In moving ahead, Stokes and Corrigan decided not to look for a new bassist. Instead, Dispatch is now officially a duo, but with two long-time touring band members — guitarist Matt Embree and percussionist Jon "JR" Reilly — plus Mike Sawitzke (from the Eels), who has co-produced the last three Dispatch albums, forming a five-piece unit both in the studio and on tour.

"I think consciously we weren't just going to kind of replace Pete because that's impossible," Stokes says. "So it was more of a thing where we pivoted toward this kind of (five-piece) thing, and it was slightly different."

The recently released Break Our Fall is the first album to present Dispatch working as a five-piece band in the studio. But it's not the album Stokes and Corrigan initially planned to release.

They actually went into the studio with Sawitzke and co-producer John Dragonetti (of the Submarines) in January of 2020, emerging with a 10-song album that was to be ready to release ahead of a major summer tour.

But as Stokes and Corrigan listened back to the album, they weren't sure it was all it could or should be. And when the pandemic hit a short time later, they decided to put the album on hold. Looking back, Stokes and Corrigan say having the tour get canceled by COVID was a blessing in disguise because there was no longer a rush to release the album — flaws and all — to coincide with a tour.

With touring on hold, Stokes, Corrigan, their producers and bandmates tweaked some of the existing material and Stokes wrote some new songs that turned Break Our Fall into a 15-song album.

Break Our Fall arrived last year, and it has been greeted as one of Dispatch's best albums in a career that dates back to 1996, when Stokes, Corrigan, and Francis set out on a do-it-yourself path. Over the first six years, the trio released four full-length albums, toured extensively, and by 2002 had become arguably the biggest band in rock that most people had never heard of.

Within the band, though, tensions and musical differences had grown to the point where the three band members felt they needed to take a break from each other and pursue other musical projects. They announced an indefinite hiatus.

But feeling the group hadn't given fans a proper goodbye, Dispatch scheduled a hometown farewell show at Boston's Hatch Shell for July 31, 2004. It drew 110,000 fans, stunning a music industry that was largely unaware of the word-of-mouth following that had developed as the band's music spread across early file sharing websites like Napster and LimeWire, and the group gained a reputation as a stellar live act.

The popularity was further confirmed in 2007 when Stokes, Corrigan, and Francis reunited for three concerts at New York's Madison Square Garden to raise money to fight famine and disease and support social justice and quickly sold out all three shows.

But it took nearly four more years before the trio decided to reunite for real, making a 2011 self-titled EP and a full-length studio album, 2012's Circles Around the Sun, and going on a major tour. Then came another hiatus.

In 2015, Stokes, Corrigan and Francis convened for a meeting to define a future path for Dispatch. The trio decided Stokes would assume the role of lead songwriter and started work on new music. The band released two albums — 2017's America, Location 12 and 2018's Location 13 — both of which came from the same recording session, before reluctantly parting ways with Francis and making a new start with Break Our Fall.

The latest album retains the signature mix of upbeat free-flowing folk and rock, but adds some new dimensions to the established Dispatch sound. One example is "The Legend of Connie Hawkins" (which recounts the story of this star basketball player who was railroaded in a college point shaving scandal that falsely tarnished his reputation). It's an epic, multi-faceted track with a dreamy, psychedelic feel and strong pop hooks. Different in another way is "May We All," a concise and punchy tune that shows a power pop facet that had not been so pronounced within the Dispatch sound.

Break Our Fall, however, continues the band's tradition of having a topical element within the music — like, for instance, the references to George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements on "May We All." One of the songs added to the album, "Promise Land," weaves together commentary on racism (with a stinging reference to former president Donald Trump), corporate power, and climate change.

"There was no shortage of lyrical, kind of protest (topics)," Stokes says. "I think 'Promise Land' was a bit of a reflection of that."

Now Dispatch is finally getting to play concerts in support of Break Our Fall. The first outing is a co-headlining run with O.A.R. The co-headlining format means Dispatch will play a shorter-than-usual set that's likely to favor back catalog material over songs off of Break Our Fall. That will make crafting setlists a bit more of a challenge than when Dispatch headline their own shows.

"It feels almost like a festival set, like whenever we've had festival sets, just trying to pack as much as we can in," Corrigan says. "So we'll be doing something similar to that."

The band performs as part of the Dispatch and O.A.R. Summer Tour 2022 with G. Love on Sunday, Aug. 14 at the Michigan Lottery Amphitheatre at Freedom Hill; 14900 Metro Pkwy., Sterling Heights; 313-471-7000; freedomhillamphitheater.com. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $20.

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