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Second Set: In the midst of Judge Nothing's rebirth

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 2, 2012 - Home studios are as much a part of the recording business as any sub-section of the music industry today, with locations scattered in as many different places as you can imagine. Whether in lofts, basements, second bedrooms, converted storefronts, almost any home can double as a business with a bit of pluck, some smart gear assemblage and tolerant neighbors. And the studios often take on the distinct personalities of their owners and engineers.

Not far from the center of the revived-and-charming downtown Edwardsville, Rick Harmon has set up a studio called Dogbite, a comfortable place for him to record his own music and that of friends, friends of friends and those who simply think that his space is the best for their project.

On occasion, he'll even rent out part of the multi-room venue for rehearsals, though that practice facility isn't a particularly large one. Maybe it's about 100-square feet of usable space, blocked off by a door, then an ante-room, followed by another door before you're in the mixing area-slash-green room. This volume-eating set-up allows for his home to remain a home, while bands can crank their amps up to 11, if the mood strikes.

On Saturday, the work being done wasn't meant to be kept forever. If tape was rolling, it was just to capture scratch takes, as one of the East Side's most-esteemed rock bands put itself through some needed paces, with an expanded lineup working together to knock away 15 years of rust.

Just shy of 4 o'clock on Saturday afternoon, an amazing and unmistakable sound was coming from inside Dogbite. Muffled by volume-dampened walls, the sounds of Judge Nothing were still bleeding out of this white, frame home. Unlikely as it might seem, an air conditioner was serving as the driveway's speaker system, and the loud, insistent, but exceedingly tuneful music coming from inside was absolutely, unquestionably being transmitted to a tiny portion of the world by this simple widow-unit.

That kind of sound transmission might not be considered perfect, in any traditional sense. But in this context, yeah. It was actually pretty much perfect.

Because it means this: Judge Nothing is getting ready to play a show.

A Moment For History

Judge Nothing played its last gig on Feb. 2, 1997, at the well-regarded rock club The 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis. That night ended a long run for the band, which grew out of a fertile music scene in Alton, and was predated by a new wave-tinged predecessor called Club Zero. Though listening to Club Zero's old recordings gives you a sense that these were smart pop songs, played by young, talented, still-growing players, it wasn't until the band coalesced into Judge Nothing in 1987 that everything clicked.

Always around were drummer Andy Dykeman and singer/guitarist Doug Raffety, aka Doug Nothing. After Bill Buzan and the above duo split up Club Zero, Mark Kanak came in on bass, replaced after a partial year by Carlos Huddleston, who stayed with them until 1990. During this period, the band put out two tapes, including a self-titled EP and the 13-song "Shoe Bob."

Their longest, most-productive phase, though, started in 1990, with the addition of bassist Flea Bodine, an energetic onstage presence and someone who fit right into the band's wacky, intra-band culture. Though they seldom seemed to take themselves too seriously, with 1990's stunning, six-song "A Cheese Sampler" cassette they went on a run that would provide some of the best rock produced in the St. Louis region over the past three decades. That time included two nation-wide releases on Thick Records, 1995's "I'm a big girl now" and 1996's "Riveter."

While the old debate of what defines "national success" can be bounced against their time together -- with varying ways to read the results -- their local impact was immense.

For example, Raffety and Dykeman started up a new music night at Cicero's Basement in the late '80s, dragging their PA across the river every Monday night to bring new sounds to a room that was still a jazz-heavy club. Moving Cicero's to a rock venue was essential in creating a vibrant rock scene in The Loop and, by extension, St. Louis. They toured relentlessly and spread the St. Louis name that way, while sharing stages here at home with punk luminaries such as Fugazi and Bad Brains. They recorded tracks for friends in town, helping out young, locally geared labels like Scrapdog. And the results of all that good will can be seen on the liner notes of their swan song, "Riveter," which features, literally, hundreds of "thank yous."

From 1997 to 2010, Judge Nothing was a memory, discussed avidly among fans, but otherwise inactive. Then, in 2010, the group reconvened at Dogbite and rather quietly and surprisingly released a three-song digital EP called "fibia slicker," which included two newly recorded tracks, "I Win" and "Chattanooga," both written in 1997, alongside with a cover of "No Matt What" by Badfinger, recorded in '97.

Getting Contemporary

Enter Rob Wagoner, a longtime fan and friend of the group. Even with Raffety living in Chicago, Wagoner saw "fibia slicker" as evidence that a reunion might be possible.

"Basically, I've been begging them for, like, four years," says Wagoner, discussing his efforts to put together a comeback show. "Two years ago, they got together and recorded. Even then, I was trying to get them to consider doing a show and it was 'I don't think so. Blah, blah, blah.' It was just patience. I kept bugging everybody until they finally thought it was a good idea. Finally, everybody got to a point in our lives where the band BS just isn't there."

To which Bodine adds, "Fortunately, for us, there wasn't that much there politically."

Now the band is taking tentative steps into the live arena, aiming toward an April 21 show at midtown's Fubar. In some respects, Wagoner is taking a lot of responsibility of setting up the particulars, getting the gang back together with some interesting additions. For starters, the well-traveled Wagoner, himself, is sitting in on guitar and backing vocals; his own recently reunited band, Bent, will be among the openers in April. A third guitar will come in the form of Brian Leitner, who's been playing in the Chicago band Pet Love with Raffety.

These additional players have brought different expectations and preparation techniques. On Saturday, Bodine was shaking his head, bemoaning his bass skills, saying "I told you. I don't like the way I'm playing." He also warned that if he didn't have time to rehearse a track it wasn't getting played. Raffety was worried his voice wouldn't hold up given the volume of lyrics he was about belt out over two days of rehearsal. And Dykeman, ever the jokester, was indicating that his prep time included setting up his drum kit, but only to look at it, rather than to play it.

If they were playing a self-deprecation card, they were doing a sparkling job of it. In reality, the set was sounding good, as tight as one could expect for the circumstances. And with two extra guitars tossed atop a sound that Judge Nothing already coaxed into seeming fuller than most trios, the rock was coming in deep, heavy waves.

"It's great," Raffety was saying, during a break for Heinekens and potato chips. "But it's so weird. So much time has elapsed."

To get things moving, Wagoner worked with Dykeman and Bodine in St. Louis, while Leitner and Raffety put heads together in Chicago. E-mails mounted up.

A setlist of about 20 songs was hashed out mutually, with Raffety saying, "It was kind of understood what songs that they'd be. This is the list of songs that we all centered on."

Ideally, Dykeman says, the band will just show up and play some open mics, on nights when they're able to get together. No advance word, no press tips, no Facebook notices. Those nights will just center on a group of guys getting together to refine old songs with a new lineup, one that Wagoner says was truly rounding into shape this past Sunday.

"I'm not just saying this because I'm a part of it," he says. "But it was really sounding good on Sunday. These are guys who have had these songs bottled up inside of them for a long time. I think they're really enjoying letting it all out."

Altered States

Like a lot of young bands, the core, three members of Judge Nothing were a team, a unit that operated together around-the-clock. Then, it meant living together in various combinations and sharing a practice space near downtown Alton, famous for late-night parties in a room that was ramshackle, to put it kindly. At the time, though, it was the ideal venue for their activities, the peeling paint and sagging ceiling adding, somehow, to the band's punk-inspired songs.

Today, it's interesting to see how the members have both changed and remained the same. The group's able to crack jokes at one another's expense, dredging up stories that only the closest of friends could possibly trade. The camaraderie's there and the songs, too, are heading into territory best called "comfortable."

As for Saturday, there was a bit of nervous energy in the air. But there was also something clearly joyous. And what a joy it was to be the only non-member in attendance, in super-close proximity to this project reconvening!

At one point, I clambered over some amps to get a few photos, standing inches from Dykeman's ride cymbal and Leitner's amp; this was not a quiet place. Standing directly in front of the vocal monitor, my calves were literally feeling the reverberations of Raffety's lead vocals.

Wagoner occasionally dipped down to check on his amp, or he'd trade chord suggestions with Raffety; meanwhile Leitner would occasionally bend deep, strumming hard to songs that he's already familiar with, given that Pet Lover has taken portions of the late-era Judge Nothing's set as its own. Bodine, seldom contained by the confines of stage back in the day, was forced to rock back-and-forth in a tiny corner of the room, hemmed in by Dykeman's kit and a pair of microphones.

Standing in the middle of it felt a bit strange, a bit undeserved somehow. These guys, after all, had been together, in one combination, or another, for two decades plus, and there was an easy energy they were generating to fill the room. The music was literally moving through me and played at an volume that'd ring in my head for a few hours. These guys are giving like that, though; they want their old friends and fans to know about the gig and if that means a sixth body in a room that's already cramped with five, that's cool with them. The more, the merrier.

Judge Nothing is back. In a way. A very good way, one that'll be shared with the public soon enough.

And, afterward, it's Rob Wagoner's job to put The Bishops (yet another Alton band) back together.

About This Series

For the past two-decades-and-change, Thomas Crone has covered alternative music and culture in St. Louis for such publications as the St. Louis Beacon, Riverfront Times, Post-Dispatch and St. Louis magazine, along with a host of smaller, deceased titles like Jet Lag, 15 Minutes and his own zines Silver Tray and 52nd City. He's co-produced the music documentaries "Old Dog, New Trick" and "The Pride of St. Louis," along with several shorts. He's currently pre-producing the web series "Half Order Fried Rice," while teaching media writing at Webster University. He's making a lot of his memorabilia available to the public at https://www.silvertrayonline.com/

This series, "Second Set," will highlight the known and unknown stories of St. Louis musicians, deejays, promoters and gadflies. Each week's edition will showcase artists, albums and songs that collectively make up a fascinating Midwestern musical culture, one filled with both major successes and vexing could-have-beens. Combining personal recollections with interviews of the principals, these article will put into context the people, recordings and venues that have informed St. Louis' recent rock'n'roll and pop music.

At the end of 2012, the pieces will be collected, along with new essays and Q-and-As, into a book, produced by the Beacon.