Smile Politely

Roberta Sparrow and The Tossers: A show not to be missed

I was beyond excited when February rolled around. I couldn’t care less about Valentine’s Day (or as I like to call it, VD), and I wasn’t excited about more cold, snow, and ice. No, I was looking forward to an announcement of a Tossers show. Without fail, they’ve been here the past few years around St. Patrick’s Day (usually the day before) and their shows are full of energy, loud music, and a hell of a lot of fun. When the High Dive calendar continued to update with no mention of it, and The Tossers’ website had no announcement of a Chambana show, and the month went on, I began to despair. But then!

Finally, an announcement was made for The Tossers coming to Cowboy Monkey, March 14, 10:00 p.m. Hard to do, given the 9 to 5 weekday job, but no contest ― a great concert beats sleep any day. And who is opening? Roberta Sparrow, a local punk group whom I have consistently heard of during my stay here in Chambana, but whom I’ve only experienced them during the Great Coverup every year. And this year, they killed it. Roberta Sparrow and the Fresh Kills covering Against Me! and Operation Ivy, respectively, got me excited about the punk scene in Champaign again. I’d heard people my age (and older) wistfully lamenting that the mid–late 90s in Champaign was the time to check out the local punk scene. With both local and often visiting bands, such as Menthol, Sarge, Poster Children, No Empathy, and Oblivion, my friends lapse into nostalgia, speaking of the “good ole days,” remembering the energy of the scene such as my favorite: hearing about The Tossers at the Courtyard Café, the singer lying on his back while his bandmates pulled off his shirt as he sang unintelligibly on the ground, because they had run out of Tossers shirts at the merch table, and he was wearing one they could sell. Fact or myth? Couldn’t say, I wasn’t there, but I wish I had been.

But I have to tell you old-timers wishing for what has been, the “good ole days” might be here again and you might not know about it. Interviewing Roberta Sparrow, hearing names tossed around, stories of time on the road and their hopes and views on the scene here, I think there’s a pretty kickass resurgence going on in the local punk scene here in town, and with the Internet making more touring and camaraderie in the scene available, the DIY scene is working better than ever before. The punk scene is known for its odd blend of camaraderie and anger, with the stereotype of angry punks warring with the image (often) of people taking care of other people in the massive crowds. Speaking from personal experience, a few weeks ago, I watched my boyfriend in the mosh pit for Off with Their Heads get his glasses knocked off; the entire crowd froze, and everyone helped find them (not a scratch on them) before resuming the shoving and pushing.

Before interviewing Roberta Sparrow, I bought the EP available at Exile ― Blood’s Been Shed, released with two of the current group members (Greg Jaeger on drums as well as lead vocals; Justin Scofield on vocals and guitar) and one no longer with the group (Cody Pruitt was bass and vocals at the time.). The third (and final) current member of the band is Brandon Roberts, and while I enjoyed Blood’s Been Shed, what I really enjoyed was the extra CD slipped in between the covers, on which, scribbled in black marker, is “new full length teaser, Roberta Sparrow” complete with three song titles. The new album, entitled, A Fury to Behold, is finished recording, just waiting on production and distribution. It should be out by late spring, early summer, and while the group can’t wait for the album to come out (it’s been recorded for awhile now), they’re glad to be working with Path Less Travelled Records, out of Bloomington.

Cover Art for A Fury to Behold

The sound (especially vocals) is much cleaner, with a less hardcore, more melodic punk vibe. Asking them if the transition was on purpose, and if they were happy with it, I got very positive responses. All of them have been in bands before, and separately, it seems they’ve tried many different styles and flavors of the same genres. Brandon Roberts was in Zero Bass through high school, when he first met the members of Roberta Sparrow. Greg Jaeger was in Vice Dolls and Plug, among others. Justin Scofield was in Hand to Mouth, Decimation, and Line Drive to Homer. Jaeger said when he first heard Scofield, he didn’t think there was any chance that Scofield would play for Roberta Sparrow, because the sound of the group he was in didn’t sound anything like what Roberta Sparrow was going for (at the time). Together, though, the current combination seems glad with the sound it’s got. While apparently, in Las Vegas, they actually got kicked out of a bar for being “too death metal,” a few years ago, I think most people in town would be hard-pressed to call them that, if they’ve ever heard death metal, anyway. They all agreed that they were very pleased with the transition they’ve gone through since Blood’s Been Shed, getting exactly the sound they want. When asked which groups they feel are most closely aligned with their current sound, they mentioned Face to Face, Pegboy, and Naked Raygun.

Greg Jaeger

Having Jaeger do lead vocals as well as drums is a very interesting move on the part of the band, particularly given how much energy defines a band as punk. If the singer is out of breath and tired from drumming, that affects the loud, screaming vocals, and if the lead vocalist’s heart’s not in the music because he’s focusing on drumming, it is extremely apparent to the crowd. I suffered through a Naked Raygun performance in Chicago a few weeks ago, as the lead singer sleepwalked through his act, and he didn’t have drums distracting him at all. Jaeger and his bandmates acknowledge the difficulty, but feel they work past it with their combination, while acknowledging that in a perfect world, they’d love to have a drummer that can give Jaeger more time to front the band. Listening to the teaser, though, I definitely can’t tell that it’s any trouble for any of them, and their performance at the Great Coverup, as well as other places around town, has proven they can handle any handicap it might provide.

Roberta Sparrow’s music focuses less on specific politics (which isn’t a bad idea, given how much we’ve seen it date songs from punk music of the 80s) and more on social politics, religion, and general life issues. I asked what they meant on their website by “the spirit of Midwest Hardcore,” as mentioned in their biography. Acknowledging that their website could use a revamp (describes a CD that came out a year ago as “won’t be out until this summer”), they stuck by their views on the spirit of the Midwest scene, saying they model their sound after mid-to-late 90s punk, which they felt was more of a lifestyle, more playing the music, rather than about the marketing specifically through certain set venues. They love opening for any type of sound, and are very excited about The Tossers, while acknowledging that they (The Tossers) are more and more going towards traditional Irish bar ballads rather than the hardcore scene ― as demonstrated with their last CD, On a Fine Spring Evening, which is excellent, but with such songs as “Whiskey Makes Me Crazy” being one of their most rollicking, is in stark contrast to “In for a Penny,” by Roberta Sparrow.

Justin at Mike And Mollys

As mentioned earlier, there are good shows and music out there for those involved in the punk indie scene, and Roberta Sparrow is loving it, doing as much as they can to be involved. You can spy Scofield bartending at Red Star Liquors in Urbana during Punk Indie and Metal Night on Thursdays, with the other band members around enjoying and often participating in the night. If you’re interested in seeing what’s out there, I strongly encourage you to check out the show this Monday, 10:00 p.m. at the Cowboy Monkey. Be sure to be there for the opening act, as Roberta Sparrow should not disappoint, and this much energy in a smaller venue than the Highdive (where The Tossers have been the last few years) should be fun to experience.

The Tossers’ event, put on by Cowboy Monkey, can be found here.

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