I will nominate this for
the most un-Vertebrat-y photo EVER
Originally uploaded by V'ron
So when the Vertebrats decided to have a "last" (oh, we'll discuss that later) reunion show, I dropped my independent pride and accepted the offers of people to give me a place to stay, meals (and drinks, don't forget drinks) on them, and general open arms. I decided to load up my GPS with plenty of caches along I-57 and make a quick day trip to Champaign for the 30th Anniversary Reunion of probably the most memorably great band the Champaign has produced.
(Uh, guys, it's not like you were the kings of marketing anyway, but all this "Thirty Years" stuff is not exactly something your target demographic wants to be reminded of. We were all doing the math: hmmm, we were in our late teens/early 20s in your heyday, so 19 plus thirty, carry the one..... uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. I can't tell you how many times I heard the phrase "30 years? Jesus." Pass the ibuprofen.)
My darling hosts, Cynthia and Ernie let me get settled into their living room couch, and it was off to the Esquire to dine with Wendy and Berni. Wendy and Cynthia were dance floor denizens at Vertebrats shows; Ernie was to Cynthia the cute guy who worked at the record store (there were, come to think of it lots of Cute Guys Behind The Record Store Counter in Champaign-Urbana); Berni was the bass Player for the B-Lovers, Wendy and Cynthia (along with Tina and Mimi and Melissa and Becky and Ile and ......) a bunch of college girls who between songs and beers discussed everything from that damn paper that was due Monday to that new album by the Soft Boys. All of them, as I remember, were kickass writers. I spent dinner contemplating that the Esquire was no longer just an old man banker joint in downtown Champaign, and as I looked at the menu I had to wrap my head around "Oh, the Esquire has a kitchen."
We setteled into a nice table at the HighDive, the venue for the reunion. The fabled Mabel's is now closed, but this place had some Vertebrats history behind it anyway. It used to the the Illini Theatre, a porn movie house (remember, back then you usually had to go to a theater to see porn) and was the site of probably the most used of Vertebrats promo pictures -- the four of them, looking cooly sheepish, underneath a sign which boasted "Continuous Shows."
So the band takes the stage and amazingly enough, it didn't seem like thirty years ago today, we all just gravitated to the spots near the stage we always did, and fell naturally into our awkward, swaying early 80s mode of "dancing." The band says, "Hi, we're the Vertebrats" and jump right into "Johnny Avante" and instantly I'm 20 years old again. Nothing seems to have changed. They sound the same, shit, after all these years a CU soundman STILL can't deliver monitor good enough for Matt Brandabur to hear himself (unless plugging his ear with his finger is just now a force of habit, like pushing up your glasses even when your contacts are in). Doesn't matter, he still has his guitar chops and still can flip off riffs that take normal people years of practice to get right. (Truth be told, a few literally minor chord biffs, but they were the kind where that chord was a seventh or ninth or something, and he just played a straight up chord instead. We all knew because we know these songs like the back of our hand, but we didn't care.) Kenny Draznik (is he "Ken" now, or do we still call him Kenny when he's on stage) still has that perfect garage band voice: not too sweet, not too raspy, just everyman enough to be sincere and believable, even though he's probably gotten over all those broken hearts and frustrations with the phonyness of the world. Jimmy Wald is not on drums tonight. Apparently he really wanted to play guitar this whole time, and so the 'Brats brought in John Richardson, who is a good enough drummer. (It's OK John, you don't have to play the drums exactly like Wald did. Nobody ever mistook Jimmy Wald for Simon Phillips. So just because Jimmy would have never noticed, much less used those two floor toms you bothered to load in doesn't mean you can't.) No Roy Axford tonight: death in the family took precedence, and that was sad. Axford (again, not John Entwistle here) was part of the whole Vertebrats personality, what with those jowls, that 50s badass biker look, and the deadpan way he'd deliver "This is Not Earth."
Parasol Records and drop ten bucks on their CD. You'll wonder why they never hit it big. Because they had it all: good songs, good playing, great onstage presence that was natural, not contrived, and they were approachable guys to boot.
chorus of fans to sing along with "Big Yellow Bus" and in the crowd I could hear everybody singing along to almost every song, just because after thirty years, it was like riding a bicycle. Once these songs screwed their way into your head they were there to stay. They had nothing to prove to anybody. We were there to be 20 again, and maybe remember that some things -- and people -- never really get old.
The second to last song -- the Stones cover -- was "The Last Time" and I'm wondering if they chose that one to send a message. After all, the word out was that this was indeed The Last Time, the Last Reunion Show, blah blah blah. But that's the title of the song. The lyric at the end of the chorus is: "Maybe the last time, I don't know....." And that was a Rolling Stones song, and how many "Last Rolling Stones Tour" shows have you been to? (I saw the "Last Rolling Stones tour -- at Soldier Field in '78). But I digress. If for no other reason, you guys can't let a Roy-less show be your last.
Sunday morning a fabulous brunch hosted by fabulous artist Sasha Rubel closed all the gaps. In broad daylight, where we could all recognize each other, all the old gang could touch base, trade addresses (or at least say "Find me on Facebook") and be seated in comfort. Lots of hugs, lots of picture snapping, lots of excellent quiche. Ernie and Cynthia drove me back to their house, and I looked at my watch, did some math, and reluctanly admitted I needed to hit the road so I could get back in Milwaukee, rested and read to go job hunting again. But overall, I did the math and it was worth it to go, in ways numbers can't quantify.