Band reunions, too often, stink: Musicians exit retirement for one last ride atop fading legacies, resurrecting ghosts "for the fans," nostalgia and a final cash-in. From Van Hagar and The Misfits to INXS and Blind Melon, some past-their-prime acts tarnish past glories with a new, usually sub-par frontman.
And with a recent influx of indie rock returns (Dinosaur Jr., The Lemonheads, Slint), the last-hurrah effect is no longer just the scourge of the amphitheater. Closer to home, Cat's Cradle's summer schedule welcomes reformed Polvo with Brian Quast replacing drummer Eddie Watkins, a special anniversary tour from L.A. punk vets X, and a (technically still active) Mudhoney.
But while Dinosaur Jr.'s Beyond and The Lemonheads' self-titled return were both solid, a reunion tour often reeks of mothballs, dust and cleared credit card debt. So what, then, is to be made of aging gracefully, of returning only when something truly meaningful arises, the rare—but entirely plausible—noble reunion?
Enter The Pressure Boys, a Chapel Hill band that hit its peak more than two decades ago. The sextet formed at Chapel Hill High School, eventually building a cult audience with an irreverent, catchy sound rooted in the 2 Tone ska of bands like The Specials and The English Beat. The Pressure Boys preceded the radio-friendly '90s ska explosion that made The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Reel Big Fish temporary celebrities.
But The Pressure Boys missed that craze: Instead, the six members haven't played or even hung out together in 19 years, save for two daylong practices in January and a blitz of rehearsals just before a two-night stand at Cat's Cradle this weekend. Since the band's 1988 breakup, some of the Boys have remained in the music industry. The members' post-Pressure Boys résumé reads like a who's-who of sorts, including Squirrel Nut Zippers, Lud and Trailer Bride. Drummer Rob Ladd moved west, touring with Don Henley and playing on Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill. Singer/trombonist John Plymale is one of the area's premier producers, having recorded Superchunk, Valient Thorr and several dozen others. Saxophonist Greg Stafford, the black sheep, went to law school and took root as a Pittsboro attorney. So why try it again now?
"Everybody was pretty much against it," says Plymale of the earliest mentions of a reunion. "We just wanted to let it lie. The memories of it were probably better than it would be if we [reunited], you know?"
But, as it's wont to do, misfortune brought people—in this case, six musicians—back together: Plymale's daughter, Allie, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the age of 2. In 2006, Plymale used two decades of making connections in the music industry to shape a compilation, Songs For Sixty-Five Roses, which benefited the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Two Dollar Pistols covered Superchunk. Portastatic covered Ryan Adams. Plymale says the compilation and an associated series of concerts were very successful, and he hints at a second volume that includes more national artists. But first, The Pressure Boys will continue the fundraising charge with these shows. This was the right time and reason to reunite.
"Since this was a different thing, it sounded like a fun way to do it," says Plymale.
But they needed company to complete the time warp: For that, Plymale enlisted longtime friends and fellow N.C. rock heroes/producers extraordinaire Mitch Easter and Chris Stamey to open with a reunion of their teen-years band, The Sneakers. The Sneakers formed in Winston-Salem and moved to Chapel Hill in the late-'70s. With a sound of garage-rock attitude, melodic hooks and fuzzy jangle, the band helped construct the area's indie rock foundation. Those tendencies would become more pronounced and renowned in Stamey's dB's and Easter's Let's Active.
"I'm real good friends with Chris, and we've batted around ideas for a long time about who would be a good band to have open the show," says Plymale. "And I was just talking to Chris, and I'd talked some to Mitch, too, and before you knew it was a Sneakers reunion show, too."
Stamey says The Sneakers' reunion impetus is largely about preserving the actual music, much like the reason The dB's recently reformed.
"Personally, I like the songs," says Stamey, adding that The Sneakers as a live band was unknown until after the breakup. "The recordings, which were raw 'indie rock' bedroom recordings before there was a proliferation of such, don't always, in my opinion, do the songs justice, and I think that we can bring new life to the music at the Cradle. Also, we all like a challenge."
The Sneakers reissued its output as Nonsequitur of Silence last year. Similarly, The Pressure Boys will release its The Incomplete Recordings this year. But Plymale stresses that a quality rock show is more important than a halfhearted museum piece: "As irreverent as we were back in the day, we definitely try to put on a good show and play well," he says. So this weekend means dusting off old songs, taking another go at old glory and understanding that 20 years is a long time apart. "Now we're all grown up and have families. We're still the same people, but we view things a little differently."
But the cause this time is at the front of everybody's minds.
"I think The Sneakers would have played at some point," Stamey says, "but we are thrilled to be a part of this benefit in particular. Allie is such a sweetheart."
The Pressure Boys and The Sneakers join Dillon Fence/ Hobex frontman Greg Humphreys for a two-night stand at Cat's Cradle Friday, May 2, and Saturday, May 3. Friday is sold out, but tickets remain for Saturday and cost $16-$20. Both shows begin at 9 p.m.