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The Vagabond Saints' Society recruits Chapel Hill to revisit XTC 

Covers by committee: The Vagabond Saints' Society

Photo courtesy of Jamie Lynn Photography

Covers by committee: The Vagabond Saints' Society

Don't call The Vagabond Saints' Society a tribute band. The niche the Winston-Salem trio occupies is far more rarified.

"When bands are sitting around having a beer late at night, saying wouldn't it be fun if we did this—this is the band that does that," says Doug Davis of the band he's led for about a decade. It's not a mere dare. "It's about musical self-indulgence, and it's a community event for the musicians here in Winston."

In the past, The Vagabond Saints' Society has devoted shows to records ranging from Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend to Prince's Purple Rain. This weekend, with 25 or so singers and musicians in tow, the band will reconstruct Skylarking for the second time. It's a masterful 1986 LP by XTC, a critically acclaimed if never universally loved English quartet led by a volatile singer with crippling stage fright.

"The album as an art form is losing its place in our culture," Davis says, "but for those of us who grew up with it, there's still a respect for it as a valid form of narrative, a complete aesthetic package. A record like Skylarking is a perfect example. You can appreciate every song on that record individually, but when you sit down and listen to it as a whole experience, it moves you in a certain way."

If the idea of taking an ensemble approach to re-creating albums by critically adored, commercially star-crossed bands recalls the recent Big Star Third Live concerts, it should. Musician and producer Chris Stamey, himself a Winston-Salem native and the force behind that ongoing project, convinced Davis to pair The Vagabond Saints' Society with Triangle-area musicians.

Doing a bit of mental musician math, Davis figured he knew just about enough singers and instrumentalists in the Triangle to marshal the personnel. But he wanted to do more than just pull it off. Now that Stamey has joined the core group for Saturday's show, along with Matt McMichaels and other area stalwarts, Davis anticipates setting a high bar. It took some effort.

"We try to pair singers with songs that are gonna yield some unexpected results," he says. "It was not as easy to do with Chapel Hill folks. The pool was limited."

For the LP's best-known and most controversial song, for instance, "Dear God," Davis had to scramble. After American DJs picked up the song, originally the B-side of the record's languid first single, "Grass," it became an unlikely hit in spite of its ferociously atheistic message.

"I could not get a taker in Chapel Hill," he says. "Everyone was a little gun-shy about that one, so we're bringing our own guy." Big-voiced Winston-Salem singer Tim Beeman will again lead the song.

As for the plaintive child's voice that graces the song's intro and outro, Davis recruited Bella Lambert, the teenage daughter of local music engineers Brent and Kirsten Lambert. That kind of detail—finding an adolescent to sing for about 30 seconds—exemplifies the diligence that Davis and his bandmates, Jerry Chapman and Randall Johnson, bring to these endeavors.

"It's fun to go hunt and try to re-create some of the things that were sampled on the record, like the crows at the end of 'Senses Working Overtime,'" he says of a song from an earlier XTC album, which they'll play during the second set. "Andy [Partridge] talked in one interview about how it was very important to get that medieval peasant farmer feel. I had to go do the same thing."

Skylarking is a shiny-sounding, impeccably crafted highlight of XTC's career, wrought from an atmosphere of purest loathing. Shrill birdsong woke the band early each morning at producer Todd Rundgren's estate and recording studio outside Woodstock, New York. The rooms they occupied smelled like dead rodents, due to an old floorboard infestation.

Moreover, their host irritated them. Rundgren ran roughshod over Partridge's original demos, stringing them into a narrative he dubbed "Day Passes," even going so far as to sketch out an LP cover. He would taunt Partridge about specific moments, too, like the curious rhyming of "cycle" with "umbilical." XTC hated what they saw as Rundgren's oversize forehead, too, and they would whistle the theme from The Munsters like naughty schoolboys when he'd arrive. In 2014, when Skylarking was released with "corrected polarity," Partridge remembered the recording experience as "one bunker with two Hitlers."

Still, that misery resulted in a rich, cohesive set of songs, from the bee-loud glade of "Summer's Cauldron" to the crackling embers of the concluding "Sacrificial Bonfire." Re-creating the complex concoction is no small feat. According to Davis, the toughest part remains blending the vocals with the assembled musicians.

"Partridge is not an easy singer to imitate," he says. "He has a certain timbre that just doesn't really open itself up to direct imitation—but that's never the goal anyway. We've always walked a fine line with this, always been careful not to let it drift too close to tribute band territory. When you see it in context—there's gonna be 30 songs, 30 musicians running around—it's really a community kind of thing."

This article appeared in print with the headline "The meeting place"

  • A Winston-Salem trio covers the classics as a community exercise

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