It’s a useful metaphor, suggesting not only that when certain people get together they smoke and fizz, but also that, in time, the reactants will be used up, transmuted, altered, and the reaction will slow.
The Vertebrats smoked and fizzed in Champaign-Urbana circa 1980, showing disco the door while ushering in a new era of energetic, independent rock. Bubbling, spitting, and catalyzing dancefloors into a mad chemistry of supercharged particles, the reaction ran its course. And it is always mentioned with regret that, despite capturing the curiosity of people across the U.S. (including the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg), the Vertebrats never recorded a proper album, never got signed to a major label, never got famous enough to abandon their loyal, local fans and clubs.
But is this really a tragedy? After all, the Vertebrats’ friends in C-U were a vital ingredient in their potent chemistry. Perhaps the Vertebrats were, at their core, not just a live band, but our live band.
We have studiously admired the Vertbrats’ studio recordings (captured on the CD A Thousand Day Dream) but, in light of the conclusions above, had never heard the real, live Vertebrats.
Their Friday night show at the Cowboy Monkey? Superlative. It opened with a museum of defunct local acts, with brief sets by Milktoast, supergroup the Dream Fakers, and an astonishing performance by the Outnumbered. Rumors, speculation, opinions abound: This weekend was to be the Vertebrats’ final reunion concert, they’re not as good as they used to be, and we even heard one fan claim that the Outnumbered’s Jon Ginoli was instrumental in trying to get the Vertebrats signed, sending their single “Left in the Dark” to Bomp Records (who released it on Battle of the Garages Vol. 1, where it was heard and recorded by innumerable high-profile bands who apparently did not know which garage to send royalty checks to), and that, after the demise of the Vertebrats, Ginoli formed the Outnumbered to graft the energy of the Vertebrats to some disciplined ambition. Whether or not any of it’s true, Ginoli told the crowd that opening for the Vertebrats was the culmination of a long-standing desire. And so the evening brought some sort of closure to these old friends as they flung flowers into the audience.
The Vertbrats’ volcanic set, however, ripped that closure wide open. The audience, ecstatic, danced to the energetic bursts of favorites “Diamonds in the Rough,” “Jackie’s Gone,” and “Any Day Now, ” plus a cover of the Stones’ “The Last Time.” The chemistry was obvious as Matt Brandabur and Ken Draznik took turns with lead vocals and guitar solos on “Johnny Avant,” “How Come,” and “Put Your Toys Away.” While Brandabur unleashed the more satisfyingly articulate solos, the two were perfect complements in stage presence, lead and backing vocals, and, assuming they sang their own songs, composition.
The unexpectedly charismatic John Richardson took his turn at the mike on “Big Yellow Bus,” commanding the audience to form a train and dance. (They complied happily.) And Mark Rubel, filling in for Roy Axeford (who unfortunately was unable to attend due to a death in the family), stood stoic with his red-and-white cereal-box-vivid bass like a punk Bill Wyman. Drummer Jim Wald melded his spasms to the new stand-in bassist like they were old friends (and they probably are).
We’ve listened to the recordings an awful lot, and at the Monkey Friday we heard nothing missing, no evidence that we were listening to a 30-year reunion of a punk band. It was a show to be seen through safety goggles: the chemistry was still explosive.