If you frequented the Mason Jar in the mid- to late-'90s, you probably saw one of the three bands reuniting for Onus Records' Night of a 1,000 Reunions (slight exaggeration) on Saturday, December 19.
There were three things you could always count on at the Jar: The bands were always extremely loud, the bathrooms were often disgusting, and the drinks were pricey. One thing you couldn't always count on was the talent level of the bands who would be playing, except when it was either the Beat Angels, Trunk Federation, or Less Pain Forever.
Obviously, a lot has changed since the heydays of each of these bands, who will reunite and play together for the first time at this show. The Jar is now the Rebel Lounge and the Jar's mercurial owner, Franco Gagliano, is no longer offering up 75-cent Kamikazes between bands or dispensing industry advice in the back office, but the Rebel Lounge's sound is great, the stage is easier to see, and the men's room is clean by normal standards and immaculate in comparison to the venue's mid-'90s men's room.
Like the venue, the bands also have been through a few changes since "back in the day." The surviving Beat Angels — singer Brian Smith and guitarists Keith Jackson and Michael Brooks — live in Tucson, Phoenix, and Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan, respectively. Brooks plays in a dad band at home in Michigan.
"It's a bunch of old school Detroit rock dudes who are now family guys/parents. You know the drill," Brooks says.
Sadly, bassist Kevin Pate and drummer Jon Norwood, one of the Valley's best-ever rhythm sections, have died. In their place for the show are two very capable replacements, though, in bassist Eric Stevens and another local legend, drummer A.D. Adams.
Trunk Federation's alumni are spread out as well, with members in Phoenix (singer/rhythm guitarist Jim Andreas, original bass player Mark Fronstin, and drummer Chris Kennedy), Park City, Utah (lead guitarist/keyboardist Jason Sanford), and New York City (bassist Bob Smith). Andreas and Kennedy currently play together in the fantastic No Volcano, the first band signed to local label Onus Records, earlier this year. No Volcano will play a short set on the 19th as a support act, as will Onus honcho (and New Times contributor) Serene Dominic.
Fronstin has stayed somewhat active in music, primarily playing rhythm guitar, but has been happy to pick up the bass and learn songs the band wrote after he left in 1997.
"Bob taught me his bass lines," says Fronstin, himself no slouch on the bass. "It was really cool to examine [Smith's] musical decisions on how to harmonize on the bass. His bass lines feel like a Trunk Federation song but with more harmony."
Sanford moved to Utah at the end of the band's run in 1999. Like all the members of Trunk Federation, he's a dad with a regular job, but he still plays guitar and sings in a project called Tunewrecker as well as partnering in a recording studio called Reel Tone Digital Recording. Smith, on the other hand, teaches music in Queens and plays in a band called Sweet Soubrette, which sounds like parlor music for the recently gentrified and definitely bearded set.
Less Pain Forever's singer/guitarist James Karnes and drummer/keyboardist/singer Christopher Pomerenke still call Phoenix home, though the band has not played live in several years. When asked what they were up to now, Pomerenke says, "Well, mostly we sit white-knuckled gripping the couch while staring through bloodshot eyes at the phone desperately breathing, 'Ring. Ring. Ring, godammit, ring,'" The band members' signature sense of humor has not waned over the years and they are excited to get back to the building that once was the Mason Jar.
"Our band really began at the Jar. When we started in music, all the attention was on Mill Ave and Dead Hot Workshop. The Jar was the only place in Phoenix to play. We never really felt all that at home in Tempe," Pomerenke says.
Even though the headliner is technically the Beat Angels, the night really belongs to the reunited Trunk Federation. Of the three bands getting back together for the show, Trunk Federation's star burned the brightest and, chronologically, for the shortest time. Both the Beat Angels and Less Pain Forever have played multiple shows since Trunk Federation last graced a Valley stage in 1999, and while all three bands had excellent local followings, the Trunk Federation recordings have aged much better than those of their esteemed peers.
Trunk Federation saw much of the United States on multiple national tours while on now-defunct Alias Records (also home to Archers of Loaf and Picasso Trigger) and released several 7-inch records and three full-length LPs (the first two on Alias and the third on Plastique) between 1995 and 2000. All five members of the band will be on stage when Trunk Federation plays live for the first time since late 1999, with Smith handling the keyboard duties and Fronstin playing all the bass lines, some of which are brand new to him.
Smith is excited to see what the new and improved five-piece can do.
"I expect things won't be exactly the way they sounded, but that could give some freshness to the whole thing," Smith says. "Mark playing bass while I attempt to cover all the instrumentation — I think it's a smart choice sonically."
Smith was an early fan of the band and sounds just as excited to be doing the reunion as he was to step in and take over for Fronstin when the original bass player decided to leave the band.
"I remember when I first heard TF. I really wanted to be in the band. They had such a powerful sound and presence, and so much of what they did was reminiscent of the Pixies," Smith says.
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Though Trunk Federation does share some of the same sonic lineage as the Pixies, their engaging live show mixed potent indie rock with panache that the Boston legends never had. Trunk Federation shows were always exciting because you never knew what the band would have up its sleeve in terms of new songs, funky Christmas/disco lights, and matching outfits often culled from local thrift stores.
Sanford remembers, "I wore a lot of hand-me-downs from my grandpa, who was a snappy dresser . . . and we argued about socks, a lot. We would do our laundry collectively every few stops [on tour] . . . mostly because polyester starts to stink. We would argue over socks to the point where we decided to each bring different colored socks on the next tour."
For a time, it seemed Trunk Federation, like their peers in the Beat Angels, were destined for stardom. Alias was an up- and-coming label, and the bands' regular touring was building a solid fan base around the country. Their sound was equal parts indie rock, power pop, weirdo punk, and grunge full of lyrical and musical hooks. Andreas, like the Beat Angels' Brian Smith, is a master at crafting smart lyrics full of bitter irony and haunting beauty.
"I think this show will be closure for us. When we broke up, it was right before our last record was released. It was very sudden, and there was no last show or any performance to promote Lay the Hip [Trunk Federation's third and final record]," Andreas says. "I would like this reunion to be a good note to end on. It has been a lot of fun getting together, learning the songs, and reconnecting."