The 1980s were a great time to be a rock fan at the University of Illinois. I was already a big music fan when I arrived as a student there, but I had a lot to learn. (Hey, I still do!) Champaign was where I discovered how great it can be to watch local bands. It was an era of jangly guitars, when a lot of kids wanted to become the next R.E.M. (I’m talking about Murmur-era R.E.M.) Others clearly had spent a lot of time listening to records by the Mats, a.k.a. Replacements.
These memories came back for me this past weekend, when Champaign hosted the “Play or Pose” reunion. The festivities included some unplugged performances on Saturday (May 23) and a rock show Sunday (May 24) at the Highdive featuring the Outnumbered, Lonely Trailer, Cowboy X and the Poster Children. Despite the terribly sad news everyone heard on Sunday afternoon — that Jay Bennett, former guitarist for Titanic Love Affair (and, yes, Wilco) had died — the concert was great, at moments even glorious. Was it appropriate to be having fun listening to music just after the death of a beloved local musician? Well, it did feel weird, but it also felt like the right way to honor his memory. The concert had actually already been dedicated to the memory of another fallen hero of the C-U music scene, Josh Gottheil, a young music booker who died from cancer at the age of 19 in 1989.
The Outnumbered were one of Champaign’s great bands of the mid-’80s, playing tuneful garage rock with a heavy ’60s vibe. They opened for the Replacements and Hüsker Dü and were on the Homestead label at the same time as Sonic Youth and Nick Cave. And they wrote and played some great tunes, including two of my faves, “Boy on a Roof” and “Feel So Sorry Now.” I challenge you not to sing along with that one once you’ve heard it, oh, once or twice. Guitarist-singer Jon Ginoli later formed the band Pansy Division, (a story he recounts in his new book Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division, The Inside Story of the First Openly Gay Pop-Punk Band). Other members of the Outnumbered were Paul Budin, who has since become a good friend of mine, Tim McKeage, Jonno Peltz and Ken Golub. Those five (with Peltz playing drums most of the set and Golub drumming for one song) were all there Sunday night for a joyful set of their best songs. Ginoli and Budin beamed throughout the show, and Budin tossed out flowers as the set closed with “Cover Me With Flowers.”
Photos of the Outnumbered.
Lonely Trailer were one of the oddest bands in the C-U scene — really uncategorizable. There was a bit of punk in what they were doing it, but it was more like a dada version of country music mixed with jazz, rock, avant-garde… Oh, forget it. Whatever it was, it was idiosyncratic and riveting. All that wonderful weirdness came right back as the Lonely Trailer guys reunited onstage Sunday night, and a few of the group’s hard-core fans went wild, yelling out the names of their favorite songs. Drummer-singer Brian Reedy looked like he was going to topple out of his chair with laughter at a few points, he was having so much fun. (And Reedy also had a bunch of his quirky paintings on exhibit down the street at the Radio Maria restaurant.)
Photos of Lonely Trailer.
Cowboy X were up next, with a solid set of their melodic pop-rock. Definitely a more mainstream-sounding band than Lonely Trailer, but still enjoyable. I was wondering if they would do the cover that I remembered them doing back in the ’80s, and sure enough, they pulled it out: a rap-rock version of Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle.”
Photos of Cowboy X.
The final act of the night was the Poster Children. I did not follow these guys in their early days, but I’ve learned lately just how fun they are to see in concert. Unlike the other groups playing on Sunday, the Poster Children have been pretty active in recent years and they sounded tight and energetic as they rampaged through their songs. As always, bassist Rose Marshack was jumping around and shaking her hair like a maniac, despite the fact that, as her husband and Poster Children singer Rick Valentin phrased it, “she just pumped out a kid a few weeks ago.”
Photos of the Poster Children.
The concert prompted to look back at a mix CD I made several years ago with some of my favorite music from the ’80s Champaign scene: These bands, plus groups like Turning Curious, Weird Summer, the Nines, the Big Maybe, the B-Lovers and the Vertebrats. I do wish someone would put out a high-fidelity collection of the best songs by those bands and others.