Binder at Brown turns 30

A musician's journey from new talent to campus legend

Senior Staff Writer
Sunday, May 22, 2016

After performing on Wriston Quad since 1986, the center of Greek Life, the University moved Binder’s shows to Ruth Simmons Quad in 2014. Many students were sad about the move, as was Binder himself: Wriston had “a certain intimacy to it that I prefer,” he said.

This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2016

Every year since 1986, hungover students have made a post-Spring Weekend pilgrimage to see folk-singer-turned-frat-legend Dave Binder.

Much has happened to Binder over the course of his three decades of Brown performances. Hair has greyed. Drum beats have become the product of machines. He went from newly minted performer to a household name. Or at the very least, a dorm room one.

The Binder hype

Thirty years after first performing in front of Brown students, the core tenant of the concert has remained the same: After a weekend of mayhem, students unite to celebrate their survival against the hearty backdrop of folk music. As Brunonians simultaneously re-inebriate and detoxify, Binder coos on his guitar, performing fan-favorites ranging from “American Pie” to “Stanky Legg.”

Of course, Binder hasn’t always been the pillar of tradition and folk songs he is now. When he first set foot on Brown’s campus three decades ago, he was just a man in a baseball cap playing his acoustic guitar. He had been asked to perform a “recovery concert” for students attending Spring Weekend festivities. After a weekend of partying to the rock band Los Lobos, students wanted wholesome after havoc. Kerry Brandewie ’86, a senior at the time, remembered her orthodontist telling her about his son, who was a performer. She gave him a call.

At 30 years old, Binder performed his first Brown concert, a different strain of performance than the Wriston-swallowing rave it would become.

“It wasn’t all the hype that it is now,” Brandewie said. “No one knew who David Binder was.” But students cooked breakfast on their porches and ventured to the stage to put in song requests.

Binder has since been a sporadic figure in Brandewie’s life. He performed for the landmarks — her senior Spring Weekend and later her wedding — and they are now friends on Facebook.

Though they are not especially close, she has kept track of his rise to Brown stardom. After 10 years out of touch, she sent him a Facebook message — “I just want you to remember who got you in there.”

In the time since Brandewie first brought Binder to Brown, his audience has remained a constantly regenerating pool of youth. But Binder himself has made the transition from a musician oft-mistaken for a student to one with decades of college shows under his belt. “I don’t think the college girls are flirting with me anymore,” he conceded.

The music has aged with him. For over three decades, Binder has watched as chart-toppers fade to classics. His playlist now spans decades. The most recent rendition from April 17 was an 85-song masterpiece featuring the likes of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” and “Whip/Nae Nae”  ­— a song he sees as a progression from past performances of “Macarena” and “Cha Cha Slide.”

Yet as the music has matured, it has remained acutely relevant to students. In 1991, Vernon Silver ’91 wrote a piece for The Herald trying to dissect why students were still enthralled by music that had been released 20 years prior. Why has “American Pie” remained the ultimate “frat ballad,” performed at the end of almost every Binder show? Twenty-five years later, the question is just as valid.

In 2016, all of Binder’s songs (perhaps with the exception of “Stanky Legg”) involve this element of nostalgia — the desire to look back to the oldies of our parents’ generation as well as the oldies of our own generation. “Piano Man” gets blended with “All Star.” “Brown Eyed Girl” turns into “Wonderwall.” They are the types of songs “you don’t even remember you know,” said Heather Sweeney ’16, who nominated herself for the Blognonian’s senior superlative “Most Likely to Come Back for Binder.”

‘Students versus security’

While songs come and go, students’ desire to embrace the folk while inebriated remains the same.

“It’s been many years and many drunk people,” Binder said of his long streak of performances, with some students subtly sipping from flasks and others choosing to imbibe more visibly. Binder recounted one drunkard who stuck a watermelon on his head and jumped onto the stage. The student promptly fell off.

When Binder began his career at Brown — long before the days of Poland Spring water bottle confiscation — students who lived on Wriston Quadrangle would head to their rooms when they wanted a drink. But when security started cracking down on concert sneakaways, students started getting creative, he said.

One year, a fraternity hollowed out the seat of a couch and replaced it with a keg. When security subsequently banned furniture, a student hid the keg in a garbage can, disguised by a thin layer of trash. It was, Binder said, a constant crusade of “students versus security.”

But two years ago, administrators played their trump card when they moved the concert away from Wriston Quad, where it had been housed since his first show and plopped it onto Ruth Simmons Quadrangle, formerly known as Lincoln Field. By taking it away from the home-turf of Greek Life, security limited the number of students sneaking into their dorms for mid-concert shots.

Binder has mixed feelings about the move. Simmons Quad might be superior acoustically, but Wriston had “a certain intimacy to it that I prefer. … To me, Wriston Quad was Spring Weekend,” he said.

Binder wasn’t the only one displeased. “There was lot of internal backlash. … It was tradition for it to be on Wriston,” said Aaron Rosenthal ’16, who helps schedule Binder as co-chair of Greek Council. Rosenthal admitted that he was personally disappointed that his private viewing station from the Beta Rho Pi porch was rendered obsolete. But the move accomplished its mission and rowdy folk-infused frat stars have decreased in number, he added. Senior Week, he warned, is “a whole different ballgame.”

Though alcohol is no longer making its way into the concert, Sweeney said intoxication by association still permeates the shows. “After 30 minutes of being there, you don’t feel sober anymore just because of the infectious atmosphere.”

For all four years of her college career, Sweeney has attended Binder. And for all four years, she has arrived at the concert early to make sure she can be up front. “I’m never one of those loungers on the grass,” she said. This year, Binder recognized her from four years of indebted audience participation and asked to take a photo with her. “That just made my entire life,” she said.

The legacy

From the class of 1986 to the class of 2016, Binder’s appeal has endured. U2, Bruce Springsteen and Kendrick Lamar have all taken their celeb shot at Spring Weekend, but only Binder has remained, dutifully returning to College Hill every April, and again in May for Senior Week. 

Some students believe Binder should be awarded for this endurance. During his time at Brown, Lex Rofes ’15 petitioned the school to give Binder an honorary degree as a way to mark his decades of service. “Every honorary degree person should really be excellent, and Dave Binder is — he moves people emotionally,” he said. “People cry tears every year at the senior show.”

Though Binder was not chosen as a recipient, Rofes has not lost hope that one year he might, especially now that Binder has reached his 30th anniversary at Brown. “It’s like the Joni Mitchell/Counting Crows song: ‘You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’ — it shouldn’t take losing him to realize what an asset he has been.”

Binder admits the 30th anniversary has a ring to it, which puts him in the difficult position of deciding whether his legacy needs to end on an even number. “What’s the next cool number? 50?” he pondered. “I might be there, but I won’t remember any of the words.”

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