Winston-Salem celebrate 100 years of music, kind of

by Ryan Snyder

As formidable an assignment as recapitulating Winston- Salem’s verdant musical history into to a four-hour review might seem, the Vagabond Saints Society almost pulled it off Friday night on the celebration of the adjoined city’s centennial. Almost. Ultimately, the plan for dozens of players to acknowledge the music of 35 of the city’s ostensibly most important artists via 50 pieces of music might have been a little too ambitious for its own good. The chronologically ordered tribute had barely touched on the ’90s when organizers decided to bring the event to a halt two-thirds of the way to completion, leaving a handful of rather important pieces in the wind. Yet, in an evening where offerings of more specious significance and perpetual personnel turnover did their part to chew up precious stage time, the music that most needed to be heard was inevitably heard.

Based on the previously lethargic crowd’s rapid encroachment to the stage around 9 p.m., there was little doubt as to who fit that profile. Though they failed to launch after signing to Arista Records in 1986 and haven’t performed in 25 years, the Right Profile sounded as if they could have officially reformed right after its blistering threesong reunion set if it weren’t for the more lucrative pursuits of its two famous alumni. The band’s seminal line of Jeffrey Dean Foster, Tim Fleming, Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster and Freakonomics coauthor Stephen Dubner picked right up where they left off, delivering toothy Southern pop rock in the form of tragically underheard gems “Infatuation,” “Linger” and one of the most gloriously scathing ex-girlfriend kiss-offs penned up to that time, “Cosmopolitan Lovesick Blues.” Dubner’s Jagger-meets-jangle voice was toughened to a prickly grit by a well-timed case of laryngitis, which hopefully excused his aloofness to the handful of effusive autograph seekers when he produced a notebook explaining his silence.

Almost the entire event felt like build-up to the early- to mid-’80s pop crucible that began with the sugary bop of Chris Stamey’s “Cara Lee” and a sentimental greeting from longtime creative partner Peter Holsapple, and concluded after some era-hopping with the Right Profile. The wholehearted sing-along accompanying Let’s Active’s “Every Word Means No” (featuring former bassist Faye Hunter on backup vox) served as an uproarious conclusion to the jangle era, to many born too late to appreciate the 5 Royales in their formative years, the definitive sound of Winston-Salem. But almost all of the 30 minutes between that and the Right Profile reclaiming past glory was time that could have been better spent.

Amidst the fleeting acknowledgements to the bluesy late-’60s psychedelia of Sacred Irony, a lengthy turn on Piedmont Blues by Peter May that focused on Blind Boy Fuller and Rev. Gary Davis (but excluded Guitar Gabriel), and a requisite take on the music of local rock legend Sam Moss by some of his closest associates, moments worthy of the chopping block nonetheless made the final cut.

The inclusion of George Strait’s “Fool-Hearted Memory” (sung by Sean Mettler) because it was written by Byron Hill and REM’s “Radio Free Europe” because it was produced by Mitch Easter left the door open for the argument that Gong or Gentle Giant might have been appropriate because Jackée Harry was on a show with Sherman Helmsley. Others, like the Allison’s inexplicable pair of six-minute jams, represented the second tier of the Comboland scene to excess. Some of both dubious association and potentially dire execution — namely “Girl” by Destiny’s Child (produced by 9 th Wonder) and “Paper Airplanes” by BoB (who left the state at the age of three months) — mercifully missed the time cutoff.

As with any endeavor that seeks to be comprehensive, there will ultimately be exclusions due to oversight or logistics. The brief foray into soul and R&B touched on some of the 5 Royales most timeless jams, but made no reference to Odyssey 5 or the Dynamites, both of whom have come together for reunions in the past two years. Even famed Royales guitarist Lowman Pauling’s brother Clarence maintained a noteworthy career. An acknowledgement of longtime White Zombie and short-time Cramps bassist Shauna Reynolds might have been a little too family-unfriendly for the audience; same with the easily accessible, but wildly popular ’90s hardcore staples Codeseven and Swift. Also overlooked was country icon Jim Lauderdale, reggae darlings Truth N’ Rights, jazz fixture Matt Kendrick and neo-soul chanteuse Sunshine Anderson. With Ben Folds, Squatweiler, Sally Spring and a more appropriate acknowledgement of 9 th Wonder via his Little Brother work still on the table, a part two just might be in order.