May 1-7 , 2001 issue
by Troy Elliott
doesn't take much prompting to get Mark Roebuck, Charlie
Pastorfield, Rusty Speidel, Tim Anderson add Jim
Ralston to get all philosophical and admit feeling something
akin to a mission from God when they talk about their band Big Circle,
set to debut May 5 at Starr Hill.
As far as they're concerned, Charlottesville's newest oldest band
has a hefty to-do List. 1. Expose the area to the work of a brilliant
local songwriter who never, ever got his due; 2. Rescue the term
"pop music" from the clutches of the Britney Spears of
the world and return it to its rightful owners; and 3. Crusade for
truth and justice in the name of sanctified old farts playing live
music to people who really shouldn't be up this late. Oh yeah, and
they need to pick up a loaf of bread and some milk for the kids
on the way home from pratice.
"I've felt a sort of mission with other bands, but not like
this," says Anderson, who is otherwise known to locals as T.A.
"Here we are now with this incredible catalogue of songs that
I consider one of the top ones in my lifetime. And here it is that
just because of circumstances, timing, and things not working out,
what should have been known never was."
Anderson is talking about the songs of Mark Roebuck, whose
band The Deal was perhaps The
Greatest Charlottesville Band That Never Was. In the 1980s, The
Deal was on the verge of becoming Charlottesville's first big nationally
known band, only to have everything vaporize in a cloud of missed
chances, corporate stumbles, and plain bad luck.
It was Roebuck's songwriting, coupled with the drive of guitarist
Haines Fullerton, that made up the foundation of the band. These
day, Roebuck and Fullerton are known only to the hardest of hardcore
DMB-o-philes, being listed as co-writers of "The Song that
Jane Likes" and "#34," respectively.
Thanks to Roebuck's talent and, in a way, The
Deal's misfortune, Big Circle now has at its immediate
disposal a stash of undiscovered pop songs capable of holding their
own against the likes of Alex Chilton, Pete Ham, Chris Stamey and
Matthew Sweet. And the collection of musicians mining all this material
is something like Charlottesville's answer to the Traveling Wilburys.
So pardon them if they speak with a bit of missionary zeal. They
may be onto something.
"I'd champion [Roebuck's] cause above my own,"
says Anderson. "It's like anything that is lost before its
time and doesn't get realized. Whether it's a life or a band or
whatever, you just go, 'Damn! What can i do to make this right?'
And you don't hardly ever get a chance to do that."
Roebuck returns the compliment "I feel, like, blessed
he says. It's been a really redemptive experierice for me, being
able to retrieve a lot of my past that was just really painful."
Of course, for anyone who didn't happen to be hanging around the
Mousetrap, Poe's, C & O or the Mineshaft in their Izod shirts
in the 1980s, all this obsessive enthusiasm begs one question: Who
the hell were The Deal? And
why does the mere mention of the band send some local veteran musicians
into a reverent trance?
The reason is this: The Deal
was one of the greatest power pop bands ever. Not "ever
in Charlottesville'' Not "ever in Virginia." Ever. And
one of the biggest reasons they were so good was that Mark Roebuck
wrote some of the greatest power pop songs ever.
This sounds almost exactly like an opinion until you hear the music
itself -- the meticulous 4-track demos, the disciplined live shows,
the melancholy acoustic numbers recorded on portable cassette decks.
Listen, and you understand. Sire Records (Talking Heads, Pretenders)
founder Seymour Stein understood. Albert Grossman of Bearsville
Records (Todd Rundgren, the dBs) understood. Apparently, Jody Stephens
and Alex Chilton of Big Star fame got it too.
Arriving at an accurate description of the music is not easy. It's
the Association morphing into the Left Banke then merging with Big
Star after staging a leveraged buyout of Badfinger.
The Deal sounded like all and
none of these at the same time. Roebuck's songs as played by the
Deal were pristine, shimmering things, honed to a sometimes eerie
level of perfection. Even their low-fi stuff was attentively polished
to a gleam. Guided by Voices on Ritalin.
In Charlottesville in the '80s the Deal
developed an enthusiastic following of mostly college girls.
Admittedly, a band with such a following runs the risk of being
called lightweight, and the Deal did suffer some of that criticism,
but as Pastorfield points out, you could do a lot worse: a whole
lot of girls at a gig guarantees the presence of a whole lot of
guys at a gig, which adds up to a whole lot of people. Anderson
can tell you about Deal frat-gigs in which the entire floor would
be bouncing under the mob moving to "DC 10s,' one of the Deal's
And Pastorfield remembers that at nearly every gig you'd
be able to spot, through the haze of offgassed mousse and the clouds
of Charly perfume, "25 or 30 guys there who were into it --
they understood that this was incredible music." They weren't
there for the girls. They were there for the music.
Pastorfield was one of those people. So were Anderson, Speidel
and most of the now 30- and 40-something musicians who are quietly
waiting for Charlottesville to wake up from its post-Dave Matthews
slumber and see the depth of the talent that never left town.
At the time, the Deal seemed
destined for greatness. Obviously, that's not how things turned
out. After Stein referred The Deal
to Albert Grossman (the same guy who "discovered"
Bob Dylan) they were shipped up to Bearsville Studios for a recording
session. The band cut an EP's worth of music, but before it could
go any further, Warner Brothers Records dropped Bearsville as a
subsidiary, and the tapes seemed to drop off the edge of the earth.
Advance money gone, the band spent its own cash to record another
EP that Grossman hoped to release through a revived Bearsville
Records. In early 1986, on his way to Europe to talk with people
over there about rescuing the company, Grossman died of a sudden
heart attack, Deal demos literally in hand.
Without a heavyweight benefactor, the tapes languished.
In 1988, the Deal finally managed
to get an actual album out by way of a spec deal at Ardent studios
in Memphis. Called Brave New World, the collection
featured cameos by Jody Stephens and Alex Chilton --
but the product itself was a far cry from the Deal of old. In the
studio, an already polished band had been given a high-gloss, synth-heavy
lacquer that threatened to obscure the songs that resided somewhere
within. Listening to Brave New World now requires a certain amount
of focused attention. At times, you have to work to listen through
the 1980s-ness to hear the beautiful, brilliant songs underneath.
By the time Brave New World was released, however, the band
was already recoiling from its collision with the big-time music
industry. Not long after Brave New World, the band broke
up. It was inevitable, really. The experience of watching a sure
thing crumble before their eyes was too much.
In the fall of 1996, co-founder Haines Fullerton committed
suicide. Fullerton's death and the time preceding it is still a
painful memory for Roebuck and everyone else. If local musicians
stopped talking and thinking about The Deal in the years
afterwards, it was at least partly out of shock, and an inability
to know what to do or say next. Roebuck engaged in projects
only sporadically after that time -- most notably in a rap/punk
hybrid called Burning Core, and in Sub Seven, a dark
project in which Roebuck's tunefulness managed to shine through
the gloom. After Sub Seven released a CD, wild hallucinations
from the deep sleep deprivation, Roebuck decided that his playing
days were over for good.
But that wasn't his decision to make. Roebuck's writing simply does
not disengage itself from the listener's brain, and the relative
silence about the Deal after Fullerton's death didn't mean those
tunes weren't looping themselves between the ears of the people
who had heard the band.
It certainly stuck with Pastorfield, who last year began
talking to Speidel about revisiting Roebuck's tunes.
Pastorfield convinced Roebuck to sign on, and hooked up with
Anderson -- who by that time had turned his basement into something
of a repository for every scrap of Deal music he could get his hands
on -- and drummer Jim Ralston.
The musicians bring more than just their love of a good pop tune.
Pastorfield is the bassist for the stalwart Skip Castro
band, who conquered Charlottesville yet again this past New
Year's Eve. His own group, The Believers, has been around
a while, too, playing rootsy music up and down the East Coast. Speidel's
participation in SGGL has a 17-year history in the area.
Anderson has fronted the Urgents, Wolves in the Kitchen, the Stoned
Wheat Things, the egregiously underappreciated Hanks, as well as
Spike Jr. and His Saddle Sores, a band that spit out some dead-on
Western swing a couple of years ago. Ralston may be the most currently
famous of the group, having been the drummer for the now-defunct
Baaba Seth and the now very-much-alive Last Days of May, a spacey
Ummagumma-ish band led by Karl Precoda the former guitarist
for the Dream Syndicate. And Speidel may be the most closely related
to a currently famous person, being a brother-in-law to Mary Chapin
Carpenter -- an interesting link to the big-time music business,
but kind of hard to work into a resume.
So it would seem Big Circle has just about everything in its favor:
a magnificent set of original songs, experienced, capable musicians,
and a real sense of purpose. There is only one snag: the combined
age of the group exceeds 200.
If you're kind to the more seasoned members, you might average it
out and say that every member is about 40 years old. All the guys
except Roebuck have kids, and Roebuck has a job that keeps
him at work for 15 hours at a stretch. They're all official grownups.
The guys in the band understand this all too well, and maintain
a good sence of humor about it. Like they have a choice.
Rock and Roll, however, is not amused. As the corporations who manufacture
Britney Spears, 'Nsync, and Matchbox 20 will tell you, an average
age of 40 does not bode well for unbridled popularity. Mattel hasn't
commissioned any Big Circle action figures.
Which of course begs the second big question: Is this something
for grown men to be doing with their free time? And what on earth
do they hope to accomplish anyway? Shouldn't they home in a novelty
apron, grilling bratwurst?
"I do this because I'm an addict," says Pastorfield. "When
I was 12 or 13, I asked my dad for a guitar, and he said absolutely
not, and told me if I wanted it I'd have to save my own money. I
thought that was just terrible, and the intense pain that that caused,
the sort of longing I had to get a guitar and play it, that's what
started it for me. And now, it's not about being a rock star. It's
an excercise for your brain.
Anderson may sound a little more philosophical, but his explanation
has that same junkie ring. "For me, it boils down to moments"
he says, "whether they're in front of 5,000 people or just
two people sitting around, or you have a moment yourself -- a creative
moment that's coherent and cool and grabs your attention. That's
what keeps me coming back."
Anderson admits however, that it's a definite plus in experience
these Moments when there are other people around feeling the same
thing. And if you make a few bucks while you search for these Moments,
so much the better. So feeding this addiction means getting gigs,
which depends on two things that have been in short imply in Charlottesville
of late: places to play, and people who are interested in hearing
what you're playing.
Obviously, the 1980s rise in the drinking age from 18 to 21 was
a blight on local clubs and all the bands that depended on them.
"For a long time, [the music some in Charlottesville] died,"
says Speidel "When the drinking age changed, within five years
the music in this town was D-E-A-D. There was nothing. There was
no place to play. Most of the clubs closed -- the Mineshaft was
the harbinger, The West Virginian, C&O Downstairs all these
great clubs closed down, because they didn't have any audience anymore.
Then with the whole '80's thing, the early '90s thing, it was all
about dance music and videos. The live music compopnent of people's
musical experience disappeared for awhile. There weren't a lot of
bands around that were live performers like there were in the 70's,
so that the whole impact of the music business on the psyche of
those who buy records had changed a lot."
But there's another factor at work here, and the guys in Big
Circle know it. It has to do with that average age thing. Anderson
can sum it up in one nauseatingly quintessential wad. He describes
a UVA gig the Hanks landed in the late '90s and how the band ripped
through its usual set of smart covers, all to a college crowd reaction
that was way, way below lukewarm.
During a conversation at the set break, one of the event's organizers
explained to Anderson that the people there "were really hoping
for Dave Matthews but couldn't get him." The Hanks did a perfunctory
second set and left as quickly as they could. There were, as you
might guess, no Moments that day.
"That pretty much sums up the '90's for me and music,"
says Anderson. "Rock gets real mean to you when you get older."
Yet they keep coming back for more. And now, ladies and gentlemen,
here they are again -- five guys who should be home, staining the
deck, but instead insist on assembling a power pop band. And, what
with that whole sense-of-purpose ethic, they don't even get to dismiss
their get togethers as simply an excuse to drink beer and high-five
each other after playing the intro to "Back in Black."
They have an agenda now. Too much has changed.
From the first time they got together, members of Big Circle knew
they would not be a Deal tribute band. Instead, they hoped to take
Roebuck's songs and reinterpret them by way of a more ragged,
from-the-gut sound -- a lucky thing, because it's the kind of sound
that more or less comes as a standard equipment when Pastorfield
and Anderson get involved with a project. And so far the sound of
Big Circle is a thing of loose chunky beauty. The rehearsal tapes
reveal a sound that's somewhere between XTC and Tom Petty, Freedy
Johnston and Wilco. What it doesn't sound like is the Deal of old.
Which is cool with Roebuck. "My [songwriting] approach
is so primitive," he says. "I just knock the chords out
and the melody and I'm wide open to where it goes from there. I
love the fact that any song you can take in a million directions."
The new way of dealing with Roebuck's songs is, in the minds
of the band members, both a statement about the quality of Roebuck's
skills as a writer, and the focus and maturity of the musicians.
"The atmosphere here is not too different from Baaba Seth,"
says Ralston. "It's a group of people who are really trying
to figure out how to best serve the tunes. There's a real democratic
feel here, and everyone feels comfortable giving and taking objective
criticisms of each other's parts."
And at least for Spiedel the project is not only about working up
a bunch of songs that deserve to be heard, but also about encouraging
people and venues to recognize the fact that rock and roll is deluding
itself if it thinks its the exclusive property of the young.
Much like your mom wearing a tube top and nose rings, it does not
become rock music to pretend it's a fresh, new, and fetchingly shocking
thing. "We're talking about an art movement with a 50-year
tradition here -- tut-tutting about "those crazy kids and their
wild rock and roll music' went out with Shake-a-puddin.'
On top of that, Charlottesville could be ground zero for a wider
music scene. When it comes to digging up the resources it would
take to broaden live music and live music audiences in Charlottesville,
the town's sitting on an Arctic National Wildlife Refuge-type reserve
of talent. The guys in Big Circle are just the beginning: members
of late great bands like Johnny Sportcoat and the Casuals, Wolves
in the Kitchen, The Kokomotions, The Sitting Ducks, Hammond Eggs,
and Captain Tunes are still around and still playing from time to
time, albeit in limited ways -- private parties, mostly, and the
occasional Fridays After Five gig.
Speidel thinks that things may be looking up, thanks to Starr Hills
willingness to acknowledge the existence of a post-college (and
then some) audience. "You know there are musicians in this
town who have been in this town for years; who are now saying, 'It's
time to get back out there,"' he says. "There seems to
be an interest in the people who live here to hear stuff that's
worth the shit."
But then maybe it's all just wishful thinking. Maybe the under-30
crowd has zero interest in musicians outside their demographic.
Maybe the over-30 crowd is too tired in make it to a show. Maybe
the members of Big Circle are just experiencing one last rush of
youthfull exuberance, wherein everything you do seems so important.
Maybe the music Big Circle is so devoted to will land flat as a
pancake on floor of Starr Hill, giving the band's name a whole new
Or maybe not. The guys in Big circle aren't really dwelling on
what ifs. (The other tendency of people with missions is not developing
contingencies should Plan A fall through.)
Right now, Roebuck, Pastorfield, Spiedel, Anderson, and
Ralston are busy polishing the set, and feeling the occasional
chill when harmonies lock in on "Marianne," or when they
nail the chorus on "Sister Redemption," a Fullerton song
that eclipses "I Am the Cosmos" for pure ache. And they're
hoping for one more Moment.