After their final show, after the worn-out Town Pump crowd had left and just before the various pieces of musical gear were loaded back into cars and trucks to be taken away, I sat and had a few final words with The Unholy Trio.
The melancholy of off-stage reality had begun to settle in around the edges, and the gig they’d been looking forward to for weeks — their final blow-out — had come and gone.
After more than two years together, The Unholy Trio is splitting up. It’s nothing personal. They still love playing together, but a variety of personal circumstances — including health concerns — are forcing them to go their separate ways for a while. Wanting to keep clear of the troubled limbo in which so many long-term relationships find themselves floundering, members decided to call it quits.
But before they did, they wanted to give their fans, and themselves, a going-away party to be remembered.
Before I get too far into this review, I should own up to a few things. First, The Unholy Trio are the reason I gave up my long-standing bias against country music. That was nearly two years ago, when I first saw them do an aggressively energetic set of Hank Williams Sr. covers at The Basement’s Hank-A-Rama tribute concert. That show, with its hardcore-country mentality and rock ‘n’ roll-stage-show guts, forever changed the way I viewed the power and meaning of country music.
Later, I discovered there was a lot more to this group — like their revisiting and revising of country by doing a twangy take on Public Enemy’s classic rap song “Bring the Noise.” They were the first country group I could both understand and enjoy.
The second thing I should mention is that all three core members — bassist Dave Wayne Gay, drummer Lance “Diablo” Wille and vocalist/guitarist Morgan “Chris” Geer — have worked at Mountain Xpress in some capacity. Their status as acquaintances and co-workers makes judging their last three shows in a purely objective manner almost impossible.
Thankfully, my job in this case was easy. All the gigs were good experiences, and all were uniquely memorable. My only regret is that it took the death of The Unholy Trio to make the shows as lively and immediate as they were.
Act One: Friday, Aug. 9, Smokey Tavern
Of all their farewell-weekend shows, this was the only one Geer was adamant I attend. Frankly, I was a little reluctant. Smokey Tavern had always seemed something of a member’s-only dive to me, and I didn’t relish the prospect of spending an evening in B-movie-fog-thick smoke with aggressive, stereotypical drunks scowling at me menacingly while I took notes.
But the bar wasn’t nearly the hole I’d been led to believe by local urban legend, and the band’s hardcore country sounded perfect against the backdrop of a real, working-man’s bar. The addition of side man Scott Sharpe’s steel guitar brought a much-needed twang to the set. The band’s most-successful numbers, the songs that had everyone with a beer and a notion dancing, were their covers of classics such as Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors” — songs whose tearful words the crowd knew by heart from years of tuning their hearts to the jukebox.
Act Two: Two hours later, Broadway’s
In contrast to the aging, world-weary mass of drinkers at the Smokey Tavern, the crowd at Broadway’s was young and ready to party. Accordingly, the band’s songs took on a faster pace, a stronger feel and a much-harder edge. Tunes like “Family Problem” stood out against the considerably less-complex country standards, and this crowd of friends and well-wishers appreciated the band’s original numbers just as much as the George Jones covers. Toward the end of the show, Chris Bower (also known as the Sexpatriates’ Tony “Dirty” Martini) took a turn at the mic, singing the Hank Williams Jr. song “Family Tradition” as his personal farewell to the group.
Act Three: Saturday, Aug. 10, The Town Pump
It was the tail-end of Black Mountain’s two-day Sourwood Festival, and the bar was packed. The band was visibly tired, having not quite recovered from the previous night’s show. For the better part of the first hour, Geer’s normally clear voice was rough, and occasionally cracked when he sang. Eventually, however, the cobwebs were shaken off, and the party went full swing. The trio played a full three sets, with Bower making another guest appearance in the final hour. The crowd was lively, and, toward the end, the dancing bordered on dangerous.
For their encore, the group performed their signature cover of Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise.” It was great fun, and as final shows go, it would be hard to imagine a better one.
It’s not completely over for The Unholy Trio — all are moving on in their own ways. Chris Geer and occasional Unholy Trio auxiliary member and honky-tonk pianist Audra Fleming are leaving to explore their musical possibilities in California. Dave Wayne Gay is about to go on tour with his other band, that lush, alt-country prototype known as Freakwater, and Lance Wille’s side project, The Lowdown Travelers, is starting to generate its own local buzz. Even the Trio’s frequent side man, steel guitarist Scott Sharpe of Blue Rags fame, has other irons in the fire.
Before I left the Town Pump late Saturday night, Geer assured me he would go out of his way to play with these same people again. Even as he said this, however, an air of finality had settled in the nearly empty bar. I thanked them — for more than they’ll ever know, in fact — and took my leave.