An overlooked native rock genius returns to GSO

by Jordan Green

Mitch Easter, the legendary Winston-Salem producer of early REM and high priest of the ’80s Southern pop jangle movement as a musician in his own right, made a less than heroic return to Greensboro on Oct. 22 with his band the Fiendish Minstrels amidst the clang of medieval swords.

Easter and his co-travelers were received at the Mystik Karnival in downtown Greensboro with about the same amount of incomprehension as the black rock and roll band Three5Human from Atlanta that followed them. Both bands are finds of Karnival co-producer and local impresario Rick Farmer, and both are natural and proud exponents of the South that inexplicably fail to connect in the current cultural moment.

This is the first time Easter has played in Greensboro since the 1980s, according to Farmer; Easter claims he doesn’t remember but cites Farmer as the authority.

The pre-Halloween Mystik Karnival, an annual event in its second year, is thriving on a kind of pagan kitsch today, with tarot readings, fall-themed ales and knightly jousting ‘– which is probably fortunate considering that the carnival-goers in front of the soundstage parked at the intersection of Davie and Bellemeade streets seemed to treat the bands as an afterthought.

As the Wicked Minstrels set up, some dudes with metal buckets over their heads and chain mail draped around their torsos thrust daggers at each other in the street. Other medieval folks chortle on the sidelines, one observing that a blow to the leg is preferable to one to the neck.

After the European martial arts demonstration, Easter takes the stage dressed appropriately in a knight get-up replete with a cross-emblazoned breast plate, a black velvet cape and sunglasses. Shalini Chatterjee, the band’s six-string bass player and Easter’s wife, is dressed as a bat. She wears sunglasses also, as well as above-the-knee boots and black netting. Drummer Eric Marshall, who wears an orange and black dress and a headpiece sprouting corrugated plastic tubes, is described by Easter as ‘“a not-totally-identified possible virus.’”

The band blasts off into an energetic set of modish, psychedelic rock that bears the stamp of the ’60s pop revolution. The songs, mostly new compositions, brim with short bursts of feedback, ringing lead guitar lines and manic pacing and occasionally erupt into full ’60s-era garage-rock abandon.

After a handful of songs, Easter gestures to the patch of asphalt immediately before the stage and suggests: ‘“If anybody wanted to risk this area I think the jousting is over. I don’t think you’d get hurt. I mean, I’m not responsible if you do.’” Later, after another set of songs, he further observes: ‘“No one has come out of the woods with a dagger to kill me.’”

Some of the audience does finally venture towards the front, including some black-clad hipsters and a black dude wearing a blue velvet dress who appears to be traveling with the medieval clan.

The blue velvet guy sways trancelike in the street. At one point, he yells, ‘“It takes a real man to wear a dress,’” apparently in appreciation of the drummer.

‘“Well said,’” Easter replies.

Easter possesses an insect-like voice that suggests Robyn Hitchcock, but without the English songster’s edge of biting sarcasm. He’s best known perhaps for recording and producing REM’s first EP, Chronic Town at his Drive-In Studios in Winston-Salem, and co-producing the band’s first two long players, Murmur and Reckoning with Don Dixon in Charlotte.

The music of Easter’s own band Let’s Active, which released albums from 1983 to 1988, sounds a little dated today, with its quirky but freshly-scrubbed college rock feel. But it’s important to remember that the second wave of Southern rock was a reaction to the excesses of the previous decade. Yet in the current turn in the cycle, indie rock bands favor the histrionics and chops of the ’70s over the stripped-down economy of the ’80s underground scene.

The lyric ‘“nothing is easy, some things take time’” from ‘“Fell,’” an Easter song on Let’s Active’s 1986 release Big Plans For Everybody, might be an apt motto for his career.

‘“Playing live is a total crapshoot, but it’s what I love to do,’” Easter says. ‘“We’re in one of those lull periods. Hopefully, it won’t stay that way. The mid-’80s was pretty good. There was that little blip around ’91. Ever since the mid-’90s it’s been pretty dead unless you’re pretty well known like the Strokes. It comes and it goes. I’ve been doing this long enough to know it’ll come again.’”

Now 50 Easter was already something of an elder when in 1981 a mutual friend put him in touch with a then-unknown band from Athens, Ga. What happened after that can only be considered serendipity.

‘“Back then bands didn’t want to go into mainstream recording studios because it was so expensive,’” he says. ‘“Engineers wouldn’t even know what to do with that music’… It was fantastic to see things come together. The live music scene came springing back to life. REM had a very fertile scene back home and they had a lot of confidence. I went down to see them in Athens and I was amazed that everybody knew the words to their songs.

‘“People think it’s all about the band,’” Easter adds, ‘“but actually the audience is every bit as important as the band.’”

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