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Second Set: Something ventured, Judge Nothing gained

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 26, 2012 - A couple months back, I crashed the Edwardsville home studio where Judge Nothing was woodshedding, the band’s members relearning songs that they hadn’t rehearsed in some 15 years, save for a weekend, or two, of jamming in 2010. With the group having taken on players both old and new, swelling from a trio to a unit between five and six instrumentalists strong, the band approached last weekend’s reunion as a celebration. And it was one that grew from one show at Fubar, to a weekend-long, three-day affair: It wound up encompassing six events, taking place at five venues across four counties.

While this is a Judge Nothing story, it’s also touching on a few other riffs. Like finding culture where you wouldn’t expect to, traveling (and getting lost in) far-flung corners of the region, and getting exposed to new (and wonderful, old) sounds on the national music fan’s holiday known as Record Store Day. It’s about fun, basically, in the form of spending some cash, burning some gas and seeing a lot of faces that don’t get seen enough.

The roads of St. Charles are a mystery to me. There’s no true grid, for starters. And directions are often given like this: “Well, if you’re at Wal-Mart, just keep taking the outer road until you go under the overpass. I mean over the underpass. And then look for the strip mall on the right; we’re in the middle. You’ve gone to too far if you’ve hit Chuck E. Cheese.” But it’s these very literal directions that saved me from a near conniption on Thursday, as I traveled round and round, on highways, biways, off ramps, across vast shopping mall parking lots and a few actual roads. It was a strange and frustrating buildup, but it ended up with my being in the right place after all: Red Fish, Blue Fish, a funky li’l music venue in Hawk’s Nest Plaza.

As it’s located between a CD shop (CD Reunion) and a used clothing store (Glad Rags), you’d be correct in assuming that Red Fish, Blue Fish is sorta at the rock’n’roll hub of St. Charles County. It’s a bit of a quirky room, with a stage, a bar, pool tables and rock posters and ephemera from pretty much every corner of what you can call rock’n’roll. It’s owned by a longtime friend of the band, who was a Judge Nothing roadie as far back as the late ‘80s. That connection made it the venue of choice for Judge Nothing’s first show in a decade and a half, a three-band bill that also included Dino Fight.

Now, I don’t exactly have history with Dino Fight, but I know the guitarist, Lindsay Cranmer, who was in a class of mine at Webster U. a few years back. And I knew she was in a band, but didn’t know they’re quite as good as they are, especially in a live setting. How about that? Wish I could’ve stuck around for more than a few songs, but getting lost (again) in St. Charles didn’t sound like a good option; twice in a night would’ve finished me off of St. Charles, for good. And Judge Nothing had already been on stage, running through half of its rehearsed live catalog; mentally and emotionally I’d peaked, but not before wanting to catch more from Dino Fight. Sometime down the line, then.

The Judge Nothing fan crew was small but appreciative -- wives, co-workers, long-time friends, most of whom had been tipped off to the gig just a few hours before, via Facebook. The band ran capably and energetically through a set that included some classic cuts like “Aug Mouth,” “Junkpile,” “Nashville” “Get Out of My Way” and “Myself and Me,” the latter two featuring early-on bassist Carlos Huddleston.

Though the addition of supplemental guitarists Rob Wagoner and Brian Leitner confused some of the old heads, the new band proved that its few rehearsals together built some kind of musical understanding.

Just as interesting was finding a new space, a little, rock’n’roll corner of the world along an outer road in the deep ‘burbs. It’s unlikely I’ll change my opinion about cities being the be-all, end-all centers of the world, but it’s fun to get the idea tested every so often.

Unable to catch the run-through of the group’s acoustic set, done on a Euclid Records stage set up early for the weekend’s Record Store Day(s). Even though I’d hear the same songs a few hours later, there was a sickening feeling at play. If you’re a bit obsessive about these things, to miss one show... well, you almost feel like you’re cheating on the whole experience by missing out. But sometimes life’s responsibilities get in the way. Irrationally. It’s so weird. Ugh.

An old bank in downtown Alton’s been smartly converted into the Riverbender.com Community Center, a tricked-out hang for Alton’s younger set. It’s quite a place, with old-school games and wall-sized video gaming projections. An interesting facility, for sure, even without the large stage in the center of the room, a venue that Godfrey’s WLCA radio station’s turned into a live recording space for a Judge Nothing acoustic set.

With all six players taking part in the weekend’s activities, the group was playing to a funny mix of friends and family. The band’s own toddlers were there; so were the parents, in their 60s and 70s. The biggest bubble was right in the middle, the late-30-somethings and early-40s who dated back to the band’s early days in this, their hometown. Those memories were easily enough remembered, since WLCA put together a fantastic video montage of the band, which quietly played on the back wall of the stage before, during and after the set.

Though only playing a handful of songs -- with on-air interviews taking as much time as the music -- hearing the tracks in a new setting was... unique, let’s say. It was also sensible to play songs at a moderate volume for the babies and grandparents, giving them, too, an opportunity to catch the group live. But as quirky as the situation was, the really fun stuff took place outside, as the band walked a couple hundred feet to their venue for the evening, the Big Muddy Pub. As the group walked down Third Street, people stopped and greeted them, caught up quickly on old times or mentioned which of the next sets they were catching.

The band then retired to the second floor of the Bossanova building. A restaurant and martini bar, Bossanova is owned by Russ Smith, a former photographer for the Alton Telegraph, who took photos of Judge Nothing, back in the day. Now, he’s got a thriving restaurant, doing well enough on a weekend night that the second floor spill room was opened up. There, drummer Andy Dykman’s wife, Jennifer Saenz Dykeman, busted out her bar-tending chops, while bassist Flea Bodine and I ran down to Tony’s, the fine Alton restaurant, for  five large pizzas. (They were exceptional, possibly even described as truly amazing, in case you were curious.) Back upstairs, the conversations were shifting, people moving through the room in that cocktail party style, enjoying talks, drinks and pizza pie.

Until close to showtime. Then, it all shifted again, just down the block.

Sometimes you’re just at the right spot at the right time. When Judge Nothing took the “stage,” maybe 20 minutes or so after the suspected start time of 9 p.m., the crowd inside Big Muddy’s back room had grown large enough that the front ranks were only a dozen feet from singer Doug Raffety and his bandmates. In time, the edges pushed even closer. One long-time fan, so enraptured with getting an up-at-Doug view via his camera phone, laid down on the floor, right in front of the bemused singer. It was tight. It was loud. It was the best set of the weekend, hands-down.

It’s said that this venue is haunted -- though that’s said about a lot of places in downtown Alton. Perhaps the spirits moved the band’s spirit, as the good warm-up night of Thursday turned into great on Friday. The group’s one extended cut, “Your Place or Mine,” might actually have caught fire sometime into the track’s fifth minute, with the band’s expanded lineup just hammering at the track. It was rough and beautiful and just the most amazing moment of an incredible set. “Your Place” has more of an arena rock feel than anything in the catalog, but the grown-up-punks in Judge Nothing coaxed something out of it that was really special. To be sitting on one of the sub-woofers, inches from stage, was to almost be living inside the music.

This was a set I’ll long remember.

All you can do after that is leave Alton, head back to the city and stay up way too late.

This day actually started around noon, with sets from the Skekses, Warm Jets USA, Bunnygrunt and Dear John, all found on the sidewalk of Delmar’s Vintage Vinyl. Inside, the music geeks were lined up 25 deep, buying special, released-for-this-day vinyl from one of St. Louis finest record shops. Outside, a few dozen folks braved a cool early afternoon batch of shows, catching rock’n’roll, both new and old. In the latter category, Dear John was playing its first gig since 1981, though minus one original player. To say that you want to be at moments like this is understatement.

The Big Bend shuttle really kicked into effect during Dear John’s set, when I cut short my memory trippin’ at Vintage for more of the same at Euclid Records. I was supposed to be deejaying between sets by Judge Nothing and the Painkillers, and I wound up doing just, introducing both bands, while running back outside to keep the new wave and funk beats going. It was a trip, really. Inside, the bands were solid. Outside, deejays like Parisian and 18andcounting were bringing laptops to new life, while Hal Greens and DJ Alexis were doing it with vinyl.

Wound up catching only a part of the Judge Nothing set, and quite honestly, this is the point when the weekend’s journey started to feel a bit wearing. The deejay duty outside was fun; even noticed a couple of students from down the block, at Webster University, make their way in. Funny.

But with the fabulous San Francisco band Sleepy Sun playing cross-town at Vintage, it was time to shoot over there for their 20-minute performance, then back to Euclid for the Jans Project and Finn’s Motel, playing one of their too-rare live sets. They were great, a tasty mid-afternoon, musical snack. Just enough to tide things over ‘til dark.

Judge Nothing started out playing dingy, dark, rock’n’roll clubs in their early days. And Fubar’s got the look of a place they might’ve known a couple decades back. Meanwhile, the crowd reflected the band’s age, the attendees looking a little less colorful these days.

The show was kicked off by Black for a Second, a local group favored by  Wagoner, who, along with Leitner, were the late adds to the Judge Nothing camp. BFAS group was followed by Wagoner’s own Bent, who played their 1994 album “Nothing Grows Here Anymore” from start to finish. They played like they meant it; when finished, Wagoner retreated into Fubar’s side bar, where he sat down on the floor, slumping into himself, six sets into a seven-set weekend. If I was tired, this cat was approaching wiped out, not only from all the shows, but even from working at Euclid earlier in the day. It was worth the trouble, from the fan’s perspective. Bent were standouts, able to summon up their youth with no small amount of skill. (And no small amount of volume, compliments of Fubar’s heavy-handed sound system.) Bravo.

And after a longish changeover, pushing to nearly 11 p.m., the final Judge Nothing set began, the big show, the one advertised on posters and floated out to Facebook a couple months back. Some of the folks probably didn’t even realize that the group had been in prep all weekend. Others had been popping in and out, as they could. Either way, the energy was high.

Kicking things off with the recent entry into their catalog, “Chattanooga,” the group eased through the full selection of prepared tracks, minus their standout “Old Houses,” which appeared on setlists all weekend, but without play at any point. (Sadness is not hearing your favorite cut, over and over again. Pity poor me.) About 90 minutes later, the group stopped playing, well after midnight, extinguishing the new stuff, the old stuff, the covers. Nostalgia was served.

I could quibble with this or that. Would’ve loved to have heard “Old Houses.” (Has this been mentioned yet?) Maybe a set could’ve been cut out of the weekend, giving the later shows a bit more zip or vitality. But, then, what can I ask of a band that dragged me back into my 20s? I mean, the last time I spend a weekend actively moving around town for three days straight, catching well more than a dozen bands ... can’t say when that was, really.

And there was the human element. Between their many sets and Record Store Day, an annual hangout for the cool and the too cool, this past weekend felt like something special. A treat. A moment that you wouldn’t necessarily even want to replicate every week, or every month.

Once every 15 years, though? That’s too much of wait.

Boys (and girls), let’s do again, sometime.