Thanks Be to Grog Friends, Family, and Fanatics at the Ford Theatre Reunion

Originally published in the January/February 2014 issue of Flashpoint Magazine.

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Eric Myers sat on the hood of his van smoking a cigarette. It was a muggy September night outside of Lexington’s Green Lantern Bar. “Either everything burns down and we have a party,” he said. “Or everything stays up and we have a party.”

Ford Theatre Reunion’s unique five piece that includes an accordion and sometimes banjo or clarinet has cemented their stake in Lexington’s music scene with a passionate calling from the disenfranchised child-like wanderers. Their tagline—“circus freak music for circus freak people”—alludes to their vaudevillian cacophony of upbeat thrash, summoning images of rag-tag carnie folk struggling to maintain their dysfunctional family unit. And for the Ford Theatre Reunion, this isn’t far off.

Alex Johns is the sprightly singer/keyboardist whose bottomless energy careens FTR out of the typical “gypsy punk” sound of syncopated tempos and scream-singing. She treats every song as an invitation to shed your inhibitions and seduces you with her pixie-like voice into a clandestine forest of danger like a Red Riding Hood with schadenfreude. And you realize that she’s not trying to get you lost in the forest, just that she’s leading you down a better path.

After the performance, I found Johns embracing Bear Medicine’s Kim Smith, murmuring gracious epithets about her performance and attendance. Johns introduced us, joking that Smith’s her manager. “I’m her personal manager,” said Smith. “She is a particular thing. She doesn’t have one skill or another. She embodies it all.” And before excusing herself to allow me the interview, she added, “When she’s ready to experience you, you experience her.”

Alex covered her blushing face and answered my questions in-between fits of manic, adrenaline-fueled glee. I asked how the show was, and just like everyone I spoke to, she couldn’t hide her excitement or gratitude. “In my whole heart,” she said, “all of the time all I want to do is this. All of the time. So it’s really nice when everyone thinks it’s great.”

Ford Theatre Reunion’s tour had a minor snag when a convention shut down in Lansing, Michigan and no one notified the band. Worst of all, Alex Johns awoke choked up and unable to breathe. “Everybody was asleep, and when they woke up, I was like, ‘Okay, we have to take me to an urgent treatment center because I have to get an inhaler.’ […] It cost $190 for the inhaler and the visit and the antibiotics.” Wow. “And then the doctor said, ‘Oh, it’ll be fine if you take it easy for a couple days, like three or four.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I only have today off.’ And he was like, ‘You need to call in.’ And I can’t really do that.” And did she call in? “Fuck no! Rock waits for no one.”

But one door slams and two windows smash open. Eric Myers, the band’s accordion tickler and soccer mom (to crib from FTR’s amazing interview at SteampunkChronicle.com) expressed genuine gratitude from their fans in Dayton, Ohio. “On three days’ notice,” he said, “our fans in Dayton found us a show. […] And three days is nothing. There’s no time to promote or anything. We got there and there were fifty people. And it was a free show and they all tipped and everybody bought CDs and helped us make up our losses and keep going to the next town.”

Bassist Luke Harrington added, “[Eric] found out the show was cancelled […] through Facebook, through somebody that was not associated with the event at all. […] And so it was one of our really good friends in Dayton that just fucking does so many good things for us. He used to be in a touring punk band before the days of the internet and cell phones and everything. And he found a way to print up flyers, put them in record shops and just every kind of place you’d want to be in downtown, like coffee shops and vintage stores, and he managed to get us a show at what used to be, like, a taxi cab warehouse workshop.[…] And it’s just kind of an open area that they’ve turned into an art space and it’s really nice. It’s a really nice art space that’s been repurposed. We call him Grog, but his name’s Greg Simerlink. Fucking Grog did it for us.”

“If you haven’t met Grog,” said Joe Harbison, the guitarist and whimsical wild card of Ford Theatre Reunion, “I highly suggest meeting Grog.” Is there anything else to add about Grog? “Very tall.” Okay. “A tall man, that Grog.”

During the show, the crowd moshed and thrashed to the music. At one point, Harbison jumped into the audience to shred on the banjo. When asked why, he said, “Well, the crowd needed a banjo. And as it happens, I was in the perfect position to provide them with a banjo. And so provide them with a banjo I did.” Despite the band’s other characters, Harbison one-ups them all in terms of sheer madness. He answered my questions in the cadence of a 1930’s ship captain, saying of the show, “Aww, it was fun. We played some music. There wasn’t a fire. Someone broke something.” Broke what? “Jimmy broke the kaleidoscope.” Who’s Jimmy? “I don’t know.” Why do you have a kaleidoscope? “We don’t.”

And offsetting that frivolity is the newest addition the Ford Theatre Reunion, drummer Will Chewning. Throwing all rhythm-section stereotypes aside, Chewning maintained a quiet assuredness throughout the whole show, leaving his red velour suit uncreased while his band mates stripped down to the essentials in the sticky heat. And afterwards, when we finally got a chance to speak, he professionally excused himself from loading instruments into Eric Myers’s van. “The show was great,” he said. “I think the energy was great. The crowd was awesome. It went over really well.” He continued lamenting over the amazing experience in Dayton, but also added Detroit, saying, “We’re starting to kind of get a following in all of the cities we’re going to, so it’s kind of cool.”

The band mostly played songs from their newest EP, Famous Monsters, with the exception of an old favorite, “Huff and Puff” (which couldn’t be heard over the audience’s sing-along), and Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose on a Grave”, a choice I wouldn’t have expected, but speaks volumes to the band’s urge for surprise and merriment. Aside from their EP, they also have a vinyl single with “Tea and Cakes” and “Polka Vulgaris”. “We have a record!” Luke Harrington shouted in a rare break from his defining nonchalance. “We have a seven inch vinyl and I’ve always wanted my own vinyl and I’m proud of this one.[…]It’s quite representative [of this ensemble].”

Ford Theatre Reunion hasn’t always been honed into the five-piece it is now. Alex Johns said, “We’ve actually gotten better as a band as we dropped members and didn’t replace them. And then we got this new drummer; his name is Will Chewning. And once he started, that’s when the real band started. Really, our band’s only been going for about a year because when he started and we were a five piece, everything meshed just right and we started writing and it just happened so quick. Like, every practice we wrote a song for weeks and weeks and weeks. And that’s the real band. And that’s the band that performed tonight.”

But describing a Ford Theatre Reunion show is throwing so much noise into the ether. With the release of Famous Monsters last July, they’re doing plenty of shows around town, so there’s no excuse not to see them live. To really understand the spectacle, you need to face off with their merchandise table, adorned with a gothic assortment of dolls rejected from the Island of Misfit Toys. You need to feel Eric Myers’s spit misting behind the microphone or touch Joe Harbison’s pink mohawk while Alex Johns shrieks out a grim fairy tale threatening Luke Harrington and Will Chewning’s rhythm section to keep up. But more than anything, you need the energy of the crowd washing over you while the big, bad wolf bares his teeth. You want the fanatics and lifelong friends grabbing you into the fray. You need to glimpse the kind of unconditional love that called forth Grog to market an entire show on a whim, conjuring dozens of fans at the last minute. Or, if you’re lucky enough, you need to be in Lexington. “Everybody here is a friend,” Eric Myers told me. “It’s like playing for family.”

Author’s note: The Ford Theatre Reunion wanted me to thank Jason Groves of Sneak Attack Records and Greg “Grog” Simerlink in Dayton, OH. And Will Chewning wanted to say, “Thanks to everyone who came out tonight and made our homecoming great. So, thanks to Lexington.”

You can check out The Ford Theatre Reunion atTheFordTheatreReunion.com where you can find their new EP, Famous Monsters, as well as their previous albums.

Original Printed Pages

As published in Flashpoint Magazine. Photographs by Zachary Dearing.

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