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Will Rock for Change


Last Updated: 11/14/2016 9:16 am

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While touring with folk blues singer Karen Dalton, Hall had another career revelation. Upset at not getting a sound check one night, the famously erratic Dalton refused to go on, forcing Hall to lead the band. After a set that had the enraptured audience howling for an encore, he knew what he had to do. "I should start my own band, sing my own songs," he thought. Back in Woodstock, he began doing weekly dates at the Cafe Espresso with a changing cast of area musicians. Out of these jams came the John Hall Band, which, after settling on the configuration of Hall, Wells Kelly (drums, keyboards), and brothers Lance (guitar) and Larry Hoppen (bass), was renamed Orleans in honor of the New Orleans R&B covers they played early on. The group became a room-packing draw on the club circuit and made two albums for ABC Records before signing with Asylum for 1975's Let There Be Music, whose "Dance with Me" became an archetypal soft rock smash, going to number six nationally. Second drummer Jerry Marrotta joined for 1976's Waking and Dreaming, which yielded the giddy, inescapable, Top Five anthem "Still the One." But eventually the rocket ride of fast fame and constant touring brought out personal fissures within the band, and by 1977 Hall had left to pursue a solo career.

Awakened one morning by the sound of grinding metal, he discovered that one of his neighbors in the Saugerties woods was running a self-styled junk yard. After learning that there were other, similarly unregulated operations in town, he formed the group Saugerties Concerned Citizens, which succeeded in getting local zoning laws rewritten to shut them down. In 1977 Hall heard about the plans to construct a nuclear facility in Cementon and worked with the grassroots collective Mid-Hudson Nuclear Opponents (MHNO), helping to stage protests and reuniting with Orleans for a MHNO benefit. With public pressure mounting against them, the plant's backers finally relented.

But for Hall there was still another anti-nuke event just around the corner, this one much grander. With Raitt, Jackson Browne, and Graham Nash, he cofounded the organization MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy), which staged a series of No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden in September 1979. A forerunner of events like the Us Festival and Farm Aid, the sold-out, five-night engagement spawned a popular concert film and live album.

They say politics start at the local level. Such was certainly the case for Hall. When news broke of the proposed Winston Farm dump and incinerator construction, Hall found himself running for a seat on the Ulster County Legislature with the prevention of the project a central plank of his platform. NRBQ and Raitt played a benefit for his campaign, and he went on to win the 1989 election; the plans for the incinerator site were proven to be environmentally illegal by outside experts and its development was scrapped.

After 25 years, he and Johanna had grown apart and ultimately divorced, and Hall worked as a ski instructor at Hunter Mountain before reforming Orleans in 1985 with the Hoppen brothers (Kelly died of a drug overdose in 1984). He met his second wife, guitarist Pamela Melanie Hall (nee Bingham), in Nashville, and in the 1990s the new couple resettled in Dutchess County. In 2004, Hall, a progressive Democrat, was incensed to learn that George W. Bush's reelection campaign was using "Still the One" as its theme song and duly launched a barrage of cease-and-desist letters and phone calls to the Bush team, who eventually dropped the song—although the GOP inexplicably repeated the move for the McCain campaign in 2008. "The concept of intellectual property seems to be a hard concept for Republicans to grasp," says Hall.

Bush's appropriation of Hall's song was still burning in his mind when it was suggested to him in 2005 that he run for Congress himself. Although initially resistant, mainly due to his wariness about the costs of running a congressional campaign, he threw his "tree-hugging guitarist" hat in the ring against Republican incumbent Sue Kelly. With the support of, among others, Jackson Browne, who headlined a series of fund-raising barn concerts, Hall easily won the primary and, with 51 percent of the vote, the 2006 midterm election. Mr. Guitar was on his way to Washington.

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