The Vertebrats, one of the great original rock bands from the University of Illinois campus in Champaign-Urbana back in the early ’80s, reunited this past weekend to celebrate their 30th anniversary. I did a story for the “Eight Forty Eight” show on Chicago Public Radio WBEZ 91.5 FM about one of the more fascinating aspects of the Vertebrats — the fact that the band’s song “Left in the Dark” has been covered by at least nine other musical acts, including the Replacements, Uncle Tupelo and Courtney Love. You can stream or download that radio story on the WBEZ site. (And here is the article I wrote about the same topic for Pioneer Press in 2003.)
But there’s a lot more to the Vertebrats than that one song, as great as it is. The Vertebrats were together at a time (1979 to 1982) when it was much harder for bands to record their music and release it than it is today. As a result, it was quite a while before any of their songs came out on CD. A couple of decades after the Vertebrats were history, Parasol Records put out a collection of their studio tapes called A Thousand Day Dream and a compilation of live recordings, Continuous Shows. You can buy the CDs from Parasol. Listening to those old tapes, some of them recorded as demos, you wonder what the Vertebrats might have been able to accomplish if they’d stayed together and landed a record deal. Then again, maybe it’s better to have the band in a sort of treasured time capsule, specific to those few years.
The Vertebrats have reunited a few times, playing a show or two in Champaign and drawing a crowd of their faithful fans. Three of the original Vertebrats (Kenny Draznik, Matt Brandabur and Jimmy Wald) got together this past weekend, playing Oct. 2 at Cowboy Monkey and Oct. 3 at the High Dive. Bassist Roy Axford was unable to make it to the shows due to a death in his family, but two stalwart members of the Champaign music scene ably filled in: Mark Rubel on Oct. 2 and Paul Chastain on Oct. 3. And with original Vertebrats drummer Wald playing rhythm guitar now, John Richardson took over on drums.
The band sounded great both nights, playing a whole slew of catchy garage-rock anthems with a direct, unassuming attitude. Draznik delivered most of the lead vocals, sounding not all that different from the way he sounded years ago on those tapes, and Brandabur added the spiky guitar licks that gave those songs jolts of strange energy. A sizable group of Vertebrats fans danced almost nonstop near the stage — and at the end of the second show, a fair number of them got onto the stage. Vertebrats songs kept running through my head on Sunday after seeing these two shows. Don’t hold your breath for another chance to see the Vertebrats in concert, but do check out their recordings.
During the Oct. 2 show at Cowboy Monkey, three Champaign groups played short sets of a few songs each before the Vertebrats took the stage: Milktoast, the Outnumbered and the Dream Fakers. I especially would have liked to hear more songs from the Outnumbered, who played a reunion show on Memorial Day weekend, but this wasn’t really their night. As members of the band noted, they were finally getting a chance to play on the same bill with the Vertebrats, a band that broke up just around the time that the Outnumbered formed.