The announcement of the first public performances by the Reivers in nearly seventeen years, a Saturday-Sunday stand in mid-February at the Parish in the band’s hometown of Austin, engendered much excitement and anticipation — but also posed a nagging question that was tugging at my sleeve.
In the summer of 1985, everything in my own little corner of the universe changed. I was a student at the University of Texas, and an aspiring sportswriter working part-time at the daily newspaper, when I happened to catch a local band called Zeitgeist (they later changed their name to the Reivers) opening for the Georgia group Guadalcanal Diary in May. That led to many more Zeitgeist shows over the next few months, and to checking out most of the band’s peers on the local scene.
A bunch of my best friends started their own band, and soon they were enlisting Zeitgeist’s John Croslin to produce their first EP. My roommate that summer had started writing music reviews for The Austin Chronicle. Suddenly the future seemed alive with new possibilities; before long, my own life’s path had been redirected.
Looking back, though, there is this ambiguity about what exactly it was that changed my life:
Was it Zeitgeist, or was it simply the spirit of the times?
In a way, it was probably both. The mid-’80s were a terrific time to be an Austinite, even though the city’s unofficial adjustable motto, “You shoulda been here back in the (insert previous decade here),” was already an ingrained cliche, recited habitually by the hippies and rednecks who had commingled in the ’70s at the Armadillo amid the peak of the Outlaw Country boom.
The mid-’80s vibe was something different, owing more to the Raul’s-era punk scene that had bridged the turning of the decade, and especially to the early ’80s heyday of the admirably progressive showcase venue Club Foot. By 1985, a budding crop of fresh local bands had reached full bloom, thanks in large part to the incubating efforts of easygoing venues such as the Beach (near the UT campus) and the Continental Club (in a different incarnation than its current form, back when it was owned by the same folks who ran the late, great Liberty Lunch).
And it wasn’t just the locals who knew something was happening here. MTV sent a camera crew to town in July 1985 to film an hourlong segment of its I.R.S. Records-produced underground-music show “The Cutting Edge”, providing the first whiff of big-time exposure to not only Zeitgeist but also the True Believers, Timbuk3, the Wild Seeds, Doctors’ Mob, Glass Eye, the Dharma Bums, and several others — even (or perhaps especially) Daniel Johnston.
Bits and pieces of that long-forgotten broadcast recently reached the modern playground of YouTube, and the clips are a surprisingly revelatory historical artifact. True Believers cohorts Alejandro Escovedo and John Dee Graham are almost unrecognizably young, long before they both embarked on solo careers that would produce their life’s best work. Timbuk3 sits strumming their guitars in ragged jeans and Converse hi-tops on their front stoop, gloriously oblivious to the fact that they’d have a top-20 pop single on the charts just a year later. Doctors’ Mob frontman Steve Collier jokes on-camera about how it isn’t MTV but rather “Hair World Magazine” that has come to document his band (and checking out the all-world ‘fros that both Collier and Wild Seeds frontman Michael Hall sported at the time, you might have actually believed it).
And then there’s Zeitgeist. Their seven-minute clip came near the start of the program and pretty much overshadowed everything else. Guitarists John Croslin and Kim Longacre had that innately perfect yin-yang of two singers who complement each other through the contrast of their voices (his weathered and wiry, hers soaring and sweet). Bassist Cindy Toth was all confidence and charm with her sly stage moves and smooth backing vocals. Drummer Garrett Williams was the secret weapon, pushing the songs sometimes full-steam forward, sometimes kinetically all directions at once, always keeping the mood and tempo lively.
Snippets of their instrumental Charlie Brown cover “Linus & Lucy” and their own blistering signature song “Things Don’t Change” dominate their “Cutting Edge” segment, which is interspliced with scenes from a backyard barbecue at Williams’ house. “We all work day jobs, and play music at night, and it’s real hard a lot of the times,” Williams notes during a brief interview with the band. “But it keeps us honest, I think.”
Flash-forward about 23 years, and, lo and behold, maybe things don’t change. In a pre-show interview at the Parish a couple hours before they would take the stage together for the first time since October 1991, the band members offered the following to Rob Caldwell, who runs the Reivers’ unofficial fan-website:
thereivers.net: What are your day jobs?
Croslin: I work at the law school of the University of Texas.
Toth: I’m an assistant manager at a bookstore — I’ve been there about 10 years now.
Longacre: I teach kindergarten and first grade.
Williams: I do software quality assurance and test internet applications to make sure they work the way they should.
And yet the desire to play music, and specifically for the four of them to play music together, still burns. The goals may not be the same now — “I miss it, but I also enjoy the fact that I can pay the mortgage,” Williams added just after the above exchange — yet the artistic impulse is, I’d argue, remarkably similar. If working day jobs “keeps us honest,” then what’s unleashed at night is a kind of pure joy and exhilaration, a giving-in to the magic of the music itself.
And so here we were, February 9 at the Parish, a sold-out crowd made up of hundreds of locals and also a few dozen folks like me who flew in from far out-of-state for the occasion, waiting to see how the past couple of decades had affected Zeitgeist, as well as ourselves.
When the band took the stage just past 10:30 p.m., I stayed out around the perimeter of the crowd initially. In the mid-’80s, I’d have been right up-front, but somehow I felt it proper to experience this show differently, from a more measured perspective — to take it all in without needing to be right in the eye of the storm. It’s different, I figured, being 42 and married and having run my own music magazine for more than a decade now. I’m not the wild-eyed-and-wound-up post-teen who once flailed about as if tomorrow would never come. Tomorrow, after all, was here.
The band started with “Ragamuffin Man” — its foreshadowing mantra, “We gotta love you while we can,” sounding a bit like a rallying of the guard, in context — and somewhat tentatively worked its way through measured readings of “Electra” and “Cowboys” before kicking it up a notch on “Lazy Afternoon”, in which Longacre and Toth stepped out mid-song with coordinated dance steps that Toth claims came back via “muscle memory.” A welcome new spark was ignited with “All The Drunks Say Amen”, a recent Croslin composition, which may in fact hint at further collaboration between these four musicians in the future.
I felt myself starting to drift closer toward the stage, as it became clear that it was more than just the spirit of the times that had brought me back to Austin. Gradually I remembered why they had changed my life. It wasn’t just that they were the band I saw countless times during my college years. It was because they were in fact one of the best bands I’ve ever seen. Simple as that…and as true now as it was back then.
And when they played the instrumental “Hill Country Theme”, it occurred to me that if a documentary film were ever made of the magazine I’ve poured my heart and soul into for the past thirteen years, this would be the song I’d want to have playing as the end-credits rolled.
When the band lit into the lightning-bolt intro of “Araby” two songs later, there was no turning back. Something indescribable pulled me straight to the front of the stage, where I fell into the arms of about a dozen of my truest friends.
Somewhere in the blur of those final dozen songs we all sang out together up-front — from “Star Telegram” to “Once In A While” to “Freight Train Rain” to “Without My Sight” to “Legendary Man” — I launched my blue-jean jacket, the one emblazoned with the original No Depression logo on the back, high into the air in the general direction of Zeitgeist. It fell harmlessly to the stage behind Longacre and Croslin, resting there in a crumpled heap for the rest of the show.
Tomorrow is indeed here, and it will be again, soon enough. But if you can’t go back to yesterday, you can sure enough reconnect with what got you where you are today.