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Second Set: The Urge brings back the crazy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 5, 2012 - There’s something very appropriate about the rehearsal space The Urge employs these days. It’s an outlying building of a metal works facility in the heart of South City, the kind of place where a band can get loud, for hours at a time. Used for both office space and a hardware store over the years, the venue’s a big one, roomy enough for multiple bands to share the rough space, which features not much more than four walls, a few strategically placed couches, a hint of mood lighting and the surest sign that it’s The Urge calling this place home: a huge, day-glow wall-hanging of the band’s mascot from back in the day.

Now, marking exactly what “the day” means in relation to The Urge is an interesting game. Formed in the mid-1980s, the group initially coalesced around bassist Karl Grable, guitarist Pat Malecek, drummer Jeff Herschel and, after a couple of other characters rolled through, Steve Ewing on vocals. Formed in the rich musical soil of Webster Groves High, The Urge later added a horn player, Jordan Chalden. It’s that lineup that became one of the premier party bands in St. Louis during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Like other groups in St. Louis at that time, the group fused ska and funk into their rock’n’roll and the shows were typically dominated by active dance floors and, when applicable, a lively moshpit.

For a group that was already achieving big things around town, the band went through the type of dramatic lineup changes that have killed other bands. As the group began to tour more heavily and to chase the dream of a record deal, Malecek and Herschel departed in the early/mid-’90s, with young fans Jerry Jost and John Pessoni supplanting them. Meanwhile, a full horn section had already been added in parts, featuring Matt Kwaiatkoski, Bill Reiter and Todd Painter. (The latter exited the group prior to "Too Much Stereo.") Once expanded to a seven-piece, the group’s sound grew, in breadth and pure volume, and its status as one of St. Louis's biggest draws continued.

In time, that draw began to spread nationwide, with even a few forays into Europe, where the group gigged with nu metal all-stars Korn. Stateside, tons of shows with the like-minded 311 were the calling card to a widening fanbase that they could seemingly tap again and again.

Just as 311 eventually became the second half of a buddy system with The Urge, they initially found support with a fellow Webster Groves group just a couple years older, A Perfect Fit. It was pretty much a brotherly relationship.

“We didn’t know how to book,” says Grable, The Urge’s one constant. “The only reason we got any gigs at all is because A Perfect Fit allowed us to open for them.”

Or as Malececk wrote for the first issue of my fanzine, “Silver Tray,” in 1998, “I must say that we benefited a great deal from our connection with APF because they did a lot of the legwork necessary to put shows together and they had a sound system. We were young upstarts; they had been at this a little while already, rising from the era of Rude Pets and the Animal House.”

During their period together, the two groups were remarkably symbiotic, with APF eventually calling it a day, just as their longtime openers, with their fun, fresh, hyper-energetic stageshows were outpacing APF in popular appeal. But the gigs that came early were huge in setting The Urge into motion, moving them beyond Webster High, beyond even St. Louis.

When I ask them about an APF/Urge double-bill at a VFW Hall in Valley Park, they’re quick to figure out that it was only the second gig with Ewing on-hand. That show with my friend and musical knock-around partner Kurt Groetsch was a pretty remarkable thing to see: This wasn’t a national act, causing a roomful of kids to lose their minds, it was a group that came from down the block, or around the corner. These cats might’ve had chemistry or world civ with you earlier in the day, but on Friday night, they were a young, emerging powerhouse. They were stars, long before they were full-time musicians.

And with all due respect to the first “classic” lineup, the best (or, at least, the biggest) was yet to come.

Life in the Major Leagues

Like a lot of groups in that era, the tail-end of cassette culture saw the group’s debut released on tape, with 1989s “Bust Me Dat Forty,” an album that definitely showcased a band that was appropriately manic, at points, but also hinted at the smoother, ska/soul inflections of APF. Then came a quick series of locally popular releases on CD: “Puttin’ the Backbone Back,” “Magically Delicious,” the live “Fat Babies in the Mix,” (recorded in front of a raucous crowd at their homebase of Mississippi Nights) and “Receiving the Gift of Flavor,” all put out between 1990-95.

Figuring that their last indie album had plenty of life, Immortal Records repackaged “Receiving the Gift of Flavor” in 1996, then offered two more records in the coming four years: “Master of Styles” in 1998 and “Too Much Stereo” in 2000. The group was also featured on a host of other compilations, from label showcases to soundtracks. And with songs like “Brainless,” “All Washed Up,” “Closer,” “Too Much Stereo” and the outrageously catchy “Jump Right In” becoming nailed down as guaranteed crowd-pleasers, the band was poised to do all kinds of things. The European tour with Korn was the kind of high-impact, possibly career-defining move that was coming their way with a bit more frequency.

Asked what they remember about those shows, played to metalheads not necessarily accustomed to their sound, Grable remembers that “they’d almost be mad about liking us. They’d be surfing above the crowd and flipping us off. I didn’t know what to make of that.”

After turning a page in 2001, ending their career with a series of sold-out shows at the Pageant, their proxy home after the demise of Mississippi Nights, the band was quiet for the better part of a decade.

But six of the band members got back together about two years ago (minus Painter), slowly and quietly getting together for rehearsals in Pessoni’s basement studio before moving to their new digs. The potential existed to go in several directions. They could’ve just made a killing, playing Pointfest shows and a few, select one-offs, banking cash and satisfying old fans. Far less likely, they might’ve decided to go for broke, putting aside all current projects, bringing the group back into some type of full-time form. Or they could’ve done exactly what they’ve done, which is a challenging, but doable third path.

These days, the band practices about once a week, gathering at the unused section of the Jost family business, where they’ve simultaneously refined their old set while writing new material.

It’s not that they’ve completely turned their back on the old. In fact, the group will be playing two shows in Columbia, Mo., on Friday, April 13 and Saturday, April 14, playing the same Blue Note club that they routinely sold out a decade-and-change ago. On the 13th, they’re going back to “Receiving the Gift of Flavor,” playing in total the first record to feature the then-new Urge lineup of Pessoni and Jost, alongside the horns. Bill Reiter suggests that the process is going well, that it’s the equivalent of falling off of a bicycle.

“That record is pretty much the only one that was recorded practically note-for-note the way we had already been playing it live, for quite a while in some cases,” Reiter says. “Some of those songs were like a year or two old when we recorded them. So I don't know if there's any reinterpretation going on, at least for me. Those jams were written in stone long ago. I'm sure there were adjustments made when we recorded it. I don't know if we play them any other way! I'm pretty sure that the only song off of there that we haven't played live in a very long time is 'Killing is Easy.' I think we hit most of them at one time or another at Pointfest or the four Pageant shows.”

The old heads, then, will get a treat.

But how about a trick? Yup, new songs.

Different and the same

We’ve all had something of the same experience. Whether the group’s known for one hit, or 10, there’s a way in which reuniting bands build a set. You offer a few nuggets early, saving the absolute hits for the end of the set, or for the inevitable encore. And depending on the band, that middle section of the show can be a dud, or a highlight, depending on how far they’ve strayed from the original songwriting formula. Because you know, just know, that there are going to be a couple new songs alongside the familiar ones.

Here’s the good news for fans of The Urge: The new songs? They sound just like the old. If anything, they’ve got the added appeal of musicians who’ve been gigging pretty regularly over the past years, bringing together a host of new influences, and even some new instruments. (Reiter, for example, is found on keys for a good chunk of the contemporary cuts.) While untitled even a week ago, the pair of new tracks that the group plans to bring out for public exposure are, for all intents and purposes, the same kinds of songs that they’ve been bringing to life for years.

“The new songs are really coming together,” Kwiatkowski says. “Song-by-song, the arranging will differ. But everybody throws in their two cents.”

It’s interesting to watch a group like The Urge pull together new material. Or even do a group interview. Last week, in addition to my dropping by, the band  hosted a three-man video crew from insidestl.com. On-hand for preview purposes, their longtime associate, manager Phil Dunscombe, was riding herd. These days, the band can pretty well finish one another’s sentences. Or when one member goes on a strange tangent, there’s always somebody there to bring them back.

For their taped conversation, the band answered one variant after the next of this question: What’s different today? To condense and paraphrase their answer(s): everything and nothing.

“Everything” in that members of the group now have kids, wives or significant others, jobs. For some, like Pessoni, music’s still the dominant portion of their days; he plays with a variety of full- and part-time tribute bands, making good coin with Joe Dirt and the Dirty Boys, Celebration Day and El Monstero.

Jost also gigs with Joe Dirt, but satisfies a creative yen with the original band LucaBrasi.

Reiter does time with that group, too, while also playing keys in El Monstero, a major production every holiday season.

Kwiatkowski’s in something of an all-star band, the songwriter-dominated Shooting With Annie.

And Ewing’s been playing around town for years under his own name, finding just enough time to open, of all things, his own hot dog restaurant on The Hill.

“Nothing” in that the group has the deep understanding that musicians have after years together. Though they all point out that they’re not working full-time at this project, anymore, there’s an ease about the way they talk and work that’s obvious.

It’s been an interesting last decade for the band, but for one night a week, they put the cares of the world to the side. They write, arrange, rehearse. As Jost suggests, they’ve always brought bits of songs, just riffs really, to practice. There, the ideas get beaten into shape, with jamming taking place over weeks. Last week, for example, there was no small amount of anguish over one, small portion of a new cut; the last minute of the song was getting parsed out, over and over again, getting three straight plays, with Reiter operating the recording gear for later playback and analysis.

Unlike some drummers, Pessoni’s an active and enthusiastic participant in the songwriting. (In fact, he’s a talkative sort, generally, filling those dead space with jokes, music trivia, a little of this’n’that.) Jost and Reiter also toss in opinions liberally, with Ewing adding thoughts on melody. Eventually, they’ll take these songs, and more, to Pessoni’s studio for recording.

But it’s the live arena where the band’s always ruled.

Kwiatkowski says that at new shows, he looks out and sees an audience that spans the original fans and new, who cover a quarter-century in ages. “You can look out,” he says, “and see 30 different Urge shirts, from all through the years.”

The band taps into something at those events. The band recalls shows, for example at the Blue Note where it will be in just a few days, and there would literally be a line up to the stage, kid after kid launching off the stage and into the pit. These days, that might not be an expected practice, but it’s not as if there’s going to be a sense of calm in Columbia’s biggest club, either.

The Urge’s shows bring memories, Ewing says, “We remind people of going crazy.”

Thomas Crone special to the Beacon