Three years since their last performance together and 10 years since the release of their much celebrated album, Eat at Joe's, local legends The Blue Rags are reuniting this weekend to revive their trademark brand of 'rag 'n' roll' with a pair of shows at the Grey Eagle and the LAAFF festival. "We want to let people remember that we're still alive," says pianist and singer Jake Hollifield. Adding to that thought, multi-instrumentalist Scott Sharpe explains that "lately, some people have passed away that we know, good friends. It's kind of important for us all to remember that we're all in this together and we're all still close friends."
For those new to town, the Blue Rags were local sensations throughout the mid-to late- '90s, building a devoted fan base and gaining national attention for their energetic live shows and unique blend of blues and ragtime. The original group—Hollifield, Sharpe, Abe Reid (vocals, harmonica) Woody Wood (guitar) Bill Reynolds (bass) and Mike Rhodes (drums)—drew the support of venerable indie label Sup Pop and toured the country acting as cultural and musical emissaries of Asheville. Their efforts arguably helped put the town on the national musical map.
"We kind of did a campaign just to say how good it was, and I'm sure we had an effect on a small but noticeable amount of people," says Hollifield. "It's the best place in the whole Southeast." The band made a big impression on a number of folks, including Old Crow Medicine Show, which played its first show in North Carolina at Hollifield's invitation. Other well- known fans include rising stars The Avett Brothers, who joined the Blue Rags at their 2006 Orange Peel show and have often cited them as a major influence (The Rags played the Avett's Festival Essex at Verizon Amphitheatre that same year).
Of course, the impact of the Blue Rags would have been greater if they hadn't fallen apart at the height of their popularity. Strained by the personal and business tensions that come with constant touring and sudden success, the band carried on after Reid left, but eventually informally disbanded in 2000.
Since then, the musicians have stayed busy playing in a number of quality bands such as Donna the Buffalo, Manic Pianic, Custard Pie, Hollywood Red, Crackerjack, Abe Reid and the Spikedrivers, Bayou Diesel and the Screaming Js (see sidebar). The only original member not playing at the upcoming reunion shows is Reynolds, who's playing bass with indie phenoms Band of Horses (touring in Canada that weekend). Honorary Blue Rags Brent Sevier (Cisco Playboys) will play bass on Saturday; Jay Sanders (Donna the Buffalo, Acoustic Syndicate) on Sunday.
Offering a new look at what many of the players have been doing since the Blue Rags stopped touring, several of the member's new projects will be opening the night at the Grey Eagle. "Basically it's like we're showing the pieces of the puzzle and then we kind of build to it, and then we can get to the main thing," says Sharpe.
He thinks their time playing in other bands has only made the collective better. "Now we've got a lot more stamina. … Before we were just this wild energy, kind of unbridled, that just went on and on and on," he says. "But now we know how to focus it a little bit more, and know when to lay back and rest a little bit while someone else is doing something, and then get right back into trying to get in there and trying to hit it with your full throttle. So maybe it's a wiser stamina."
They're planning some surprises at the upcoming shows, although in true Blue Rags fashion, Hollifield says that much of what happens will likely be a surprise even for the band members themselves. "We've got a couple rehearsals set up, but we can't do too much or it'll wear the freshness out. It's kind of like you've been holding back and you rehearse and you kind of blow your wad doing that," he says. As for special guests, he seems just a curious as anyone as to who might show up. "Usually they just kind of come and jump up there," says Hollifield.
Both the Grey Eagle and LAAFF venues have special significance for the band. Back when it was still in Black Mountain, the Grey Eagle was the first room they ever played. Hollifield also considers the site of LAAFF on Lexington Avenue hallowed ground, recalling playing countless "no holds barred" shows in what were then empty stores. Plus, the LAAFF date falls on his birthday. "We're just going to have a really good party, no matter what," he says.
As for the future of the Blue Rags, there's no plans for touring, although Sharpe and Hollifield both seem to be in agreement that the upcoming shows likely won't be their last. "Every time we play these gigs we're really excited," says Sharpe. Adds Hollifield, "We don't have a business plan. But we'll always play no matter what."
[Jake Frankel is an Asheville-based freelance writer.]
who: Blue Rags revival, with Screaming Js and Crackerjack opening
where: The Grey Eagle (and LAAFF)
when: The Grey Eagle (9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 5, $8. www.thegreyeagle.com); LAAFF (Sunday, Sept. 6, 6:15 p.m., Greenlife Electric Stage)