With their recent second-place tie as favorite local rock band in Xpress‘s Best of WNC readers’ poll, the Reigning Sound is officially an Asheville band. And Friday’s show at Stella Blue is as good a time as any for the curious to join the band’s ever-increasing Asheville fan base.
It’s never been easy to place the Reigning Sound and its leader, Greg Cartwright, firmly in the Asheville scene. Prior to moving here with his family in 2004, Cartwright was a lifelong Memphis resident who seemed to exude that city’s great musical history from his very pores. With his three different Memphis acts (the Oblivians, the Compulsive Gamblers, and the first version of the Reigning Sound), Cartwright took the many different strains of Memphis music—soul, rockabilly, country, garage rock, power pop and punk—and stirred them together into his own evocation of the spiritual righteousness of rock ‘n’ roll.
Locals have had the opportunity to see the band more than a few times over the past few years, but the shows have often been quick, spontaneous events in small rooms with little advance notice or publicity.
“We haven’t played out much in this last year because our keyboard player lives in New Jersey,” Cartwright explains. “When we have played, it’s been as a three piece. But he’s going to be in the area, playing with Mary Weiss at Stomp and Stammer’s birthday bash in Atlanta, so we decided we’d do a full band show here in Asheville, too.” (The Sound is also on the bill for the Atlanta gig.)
Even though it’s not part of a tour, the Stella Blue show does mark a significant moment in the career of the group. The band has just turned in its first collection of new songs since Cartwright relocated to Asheville. Recorded in Memphis and Asheville, the as-yet-unnamed album, which should be released in January, maintains the Reigning Sound’s inspirational touchstone of honest, heartfelt ‘60s garage rock and soul, and pulls off the tough trick of keeping the music true to its youthful reference points while trying to deal with the slightly more grownup concerns of a man in his late 30s.
Perhaps even more notably, Cartwright has decided to refocus on songwriting.
“I’ve spent the last four years getting my footing here,” says Cartwright. “I had so many other projects going on that I didn’t have time for the Reigning Sound. But about a month ago, I decided I’d quit the day job and get back to working on music. I had kind of lost focus. I felt like I’d almost lost some of my drive to write songs and make records. I had to take some time and stop thinking about it for a while. And that gave me the perspective to say, ‘Yeah, it’s what I’m best at.’ It’s what I should be doing. And it’s funny … in the last two weeks I’ve written a bunch of new songs. We already have enough material to put out another album. It was a long time between the last two albums, but the next one should come on its heels really quickly.”
Any number of musicians would probably like to be as active as Cartwright during his “lost focus” years. The Reigning Sound backed up Mary Weiss, original lead singer of the Shangri-Las, on her 2007 comeback album Dangerous Game. Cartwright also produced the record and wrote several songs specifically for it. He also played guitar and handled production duties on the album Baby for the Detroit Cobras. The Cobras gig also earned him the curious honor of having his quickly tossed-off novelty song, “Hot Dog (Watch Me Eat)” played on Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour and selected as the theme song to an Australian Real-World-style reality show.
“When I think of all the songs I’ve written, and that’s the one I might be remembered for …” Cartwright says, grinning. “Well, it’s a crazy world.”
Cartwright can sing a serious song when he sets his mind to it. A centerpiece of the Reigning Sound’s recent live sets is “Stick Up for Me,” an obscure power-to-the-people rocker by ‘60s Michigan trio the Glass Sun. The song sounds like Cartwright could have written it yesterday, and he sings it with the fervor and commitment of someone bound and determined to speak his mind. This attitude also led to some Reigning Sound appearances at area Obama rallies.
“I hadn’t really gotten involved in politics before,” Cartwright reveals. “But we sure are living in some crazy times, and I think it’s important to speak up and do whatever you can to try to stand up for what you think is right.”
While working with Weiss, Cartwright met keyboardist David Amels, and invited him to join the band, bringing the Reigning Sound back to its original four-piece sound. Until then, the band had been a rotating three piece, solidifying into Cartwright being backed by the longtime rock-solid Asheville rhythm section of Lance Wille and Dave Gay.
Even while Cartwright’s looking forward to a new phase of the Reigning Sound, he’s also planning on doing a little retrospecting with the band that earned him his initial worldwide reputation in the ‘90s, the Oblivians. The trio is playing a series of shows with their counterparts from Detroit, the legendary Gories.
“I don’t know what it is that makes a certain band endure and survive over other bands,” muses Cartwright. “There’s something that speaks to people. And I think both of those bands had that certain something. I think it’s chemistry. I think with The Gories, Mick [Collins, of the Dirtbombs], and Dan [Kroha, later of the Demolition Doll Rods], and Peggy [O’Neil] just had this dynamic that couldn’t be achieved in a bigger band. And I know that with us, when we did a reunion gig last year it was almost better than when we were really the Oblivians, because I think we have more fun now than towards the end, anyway.”
[Whitney Shroyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
who: Reigning Sound, with Atlanta power popper Gentleman Jesse
where: Stella Blue
when: Friday, Nov. 21 (9 p.m. www.myspace.com/stellabluelive)