This is why it’s worth hanging around. You just never know what the hell might happen.
We were standing in a fire hall just outside Pittsburgh. The door opened, and the Vulgar Boatmen began filing in. Not all of the Boatmen, of course. Even in their early ’90s prime, it was rare to see more than half of this remarkable band in any one place. I was privileged to witness one of the exceptions to this basic truth, and more on that in a moment. This version of the band had driven from Indiana to Pennsylvania in order to play a wedding reception. It made no sense except that, in the context of the band and its history and its fans, it made absolutely perfect sense.
I’ll try to explain. Back in those early ’90s, when the Vulgar Boatmen were releasing the incredible Please Panic album, a bunch of people from around the country were discussing music and related subjects (life, death, art, passion, literature, boogers, manners) on messageboards that existed only within the parameters of the Prodigy online service. This was before you simply clicked on your browser and surfed the World Wide Web directly. You needed some kind of service provider, and Prodigy (along with America Online) was one of the larger, more easily navigated ones.
In discussing the Waterboys and World Party, John Wesley Harding and Poi Dog Pondering, we started noticing that a few of the same people were turning up on different messageboards. So, a few of us started our own messageboard as a way to stay in touch with each other. In time, this board became known as the Donnette Letters, for reasons I choose to preserve as private. I don’t know exactly how many people participated on the board. I’d say somewhere between 10 and 20.
One of the inner circle popped up one day asking for help identifying this band she’d just heard on the radio. She described the song, and I immediately knew who it was. The song was “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” and the band was the Vulgar Boatmen. I messaged back and Jen was able to buy Please Panic, and, well, that was one of the best things about this whole setup when it was working right.
That was in 1992. That March, on a work trip to cover spring training in Clearwater, Fla., I had my own Vulgar Boatmen experience. I was looking through a copy of Creative Loafing, the alternative weekly that covered the Tampa/St. Petersburg area. Thanks to a piece written by a guy named Tom Roe, I saw that the Vulgar Boatmen were playing at a student activity center on the University of South Florida campus. I went to the show and, recognizing Tom from his column sig, introduced myself to him. I just wanted to thank him for the preview, because if he hadn’t written, I literally never would have realized I was staying about five miles from a Vulgar Boatmen show.
Two nights later, I went to Gainesville, Fla., to see the entire Vulgar Boatmen contingent play together. It was worth the ridiculous four-hour round trip, and then some.
We talked for a little bit at the Tampa show—Tom, me, my friend Andy and Tom’s girlfriend Jenny. I mention that because, 23 years later, I went to see the Boatmen at a fire hall near Pittsburgh. I was accompanied by my wife, Jenny, whom I had met some 23 earlier when she was Tom’s girlfriend.
A year earlier, I had written an email to Dale Lawrence, one of the two primary singers and songwriters in the Vulgar Boatmen. Jenny’s birthday was coming up, and I was trying to figure out a proper way to celebrate it. I wanted to see if there was some way for us to see the Vulgar Boatmen, maybe in Indiana or Chicago. Dale responded, with regrets, that due to illness, the band was not likely to be playing any time soon.
Many months later, I received word that one of my old friends from the Donnette Letters days was getting married. Nora lived near Pittsburgh. She and her fiancé, Dan, had reached out to Dale Lawrence as well. This time, the Boatmen were able to book a show. They were going to be playing at this wedding reception just outside Pittsburgh, and Jenny and I were invited. Twenty-three years after we met at a Vulgar Boatmen show in Tampa, we were standing in a fire hall in Pittsburgh to see the same band.
And it was remarkably close to the same band. Dale Lawrence, guitarist Matt Speake and drummer Andy Richards played both shows. Jake Smith, who looked younger than I would have thought possible, was along to play bass for this 2015 show. Jon Isley and Janas Hoyt, who were in the band in 1992, were not there.
The Donnette group included Nora, the bride, along with Jen (whom I had identified the Boatmen for way back when), Ed (a cheery music fanatic from Cleveland) and Steven (who had convinced his wife to drive down from upstate New York). For a bunch of music-messageboard nerds from the early ’90s, we were all pretty damn normal and presentable.
Part of me thought how unlikely it was to be seeing such a memorable show in such an odd place as a fire hall near Pittsburgh. Really, something like this should have drawn a packed house at some venue in Lower Manhattan. But the truth is, the setting was really kind of perfect. The Vulgar Boatmen had drawn the attention of influential critics like Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau, but they had existed in a reality that was totally independent of what was cool or in vogue or anything else.
Lawrence and Robert Ray, his long-distance writing partner, had created an alternate alternative rock, totally separate from the Nirvana/Pavement/GBV world that was blossoming elsewhere. It would be deeply satisfying, as a fan, to see them get their just recognition. But instead, there I was, as a fan, standing in a fire hall in western Pennsylvania, listening to a band that might as well have been beamed down from another time or another planet.
It was worth hanging around for, I can say that much.