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Encore: Geyer Street Sheiks, Tom Hall and Alice Spencer play it again

Tom Hall and Alice Spencer at the Royale
Carrie Zukoski | For the St. Louis Beacon | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: In late 2012, guitarist Tom Hall fell down a flight of steps, broke his collarbone and had to sit out three months of live performance. Along with that injury came a series of benefit shows, including one by the group he calls one of “the best five acoustic acts to ever come out of St. Louis,” his own Geyer Street Sheiks.

The shoulder? Well, he’s back to playing, but there’s still pain.

“I feel like a robot in my left collarbone, there’s nothing there but metal,” Hall says. “When I played for the first time in three months, my calluses had disappeared. But it gave me a lot of time to think about things. And a lot of people. ... Thomas, I’ll tell you truth, they helped me out. I owe a lot of people a lot of things. And I’m going whole-hog into music again. I have that freedom now and I’d rather go out with music as the main thing in my life. It’s either that or working at McDonald’s, which I don’t want to do.”

Alice Spencer, the group’s vocalist during their second stint together in the 1990s, says that “we decided to have a benefit at the Tap Room. There, we knew all the money would go to Tom, with no overhead. That’s all we had in mind. For me, it was just great; they bought my plane ticket and all the rest of the money went to Tom. KDHX went completely crazy with promoting the shows and there was just a huge crowd there.

"It was a really emotional night. Steve (Mote) and Dave (Gebben) had died. And we hadn’t played in, what?, about 15 years. I’d played with a few of musicians over that time, but that was actually the first time that that lineup had been together in a really long time.

“We all thought, ‘Wow, this is really fun, let’s do it again” Spencer remembers. “We said that it would be cool to play again and we were quickly approached to see if we could do something in May. The guys would then have a chance to rehearse beforehand. The short answer is that it’s feasible. So as long as I can get up here, why not?”

With the show in February and the two in May, Spencer admits there was some trepidation about going on without Mote, a key arranger of their sound, who had left the group prior to its second dissolution in the ‘90s; and the co-founding, much-loved washboard player, Gebben.

“These were two of the original members,” Spencer says. “Steve died in 2002 and Dave, maybe it’s been about three, or four years. When he died, we all thought it was too painful. Those guys were the originals, from back in the ‘70s. We just felt like this was hallowed ground. But I guess enough time’s passed that it feels reverential now, that we’re honoring them in this way. When we played in February, we were definitely crying onstage, it was a heavy thing.

“I think a huge part of that, from my perspective of being in Austin for so long, was the outpouring of love for Tom Hall,” she says. “That was amazing to see. People really care about him and they respect him, which is a wonderful thing. I think he was completely surprised. If you know him, you know he’s a very humble guy. He was very emotional that night, for all of us to be back together. ... when you’re in a band that travels and plays together, it’s impossible to put that relationship into words. David’s daughter thought to bring out his washboard, which sat onstage. We felt so old! But people were singing along and it felt so nice. After all this time, the music still feels like something to them, which was a pleasant surprise, an added bonus. As we’re still able, we decided that playing again would be nice.”

Hall simply says, “We decided that it’s fun to pay. We make good music. And people want to hear it.”

Three time's a charm

The original Geyer Street Sheiks existed in the late ‘70s, breaking up in roughly 1980. The players from that group would form countless bands, frequently teaming up in combination with one another. It’d be 12 years, though, before a true reunion show would take place at Off Broadway and, in the audience that night was Alice Spencer, then in the dissolving Three Merry Widows. Her band, the 3MWs, was fighting for its life against a record company that wanted a more pop-oriented group. Her attendance at that Sheiks gig proved pivotal.

“I’d say that ‘92 or ‘93 to ‘96 was our heyday,” Hall says. “The interesting thing was that the Sheiks were formed in the late ‘70s and we split up. It took about 12 years for us to get back to together. Our female singer had moved to Washington and, unbeknowst to me, Alice was there. Right away, she said, ‘I want to sing with this band.’ That’s when we decided to do it again.

“But dysfunction always kicks in and the band broke up. Steve died; David died. The band wasn’t playing, anyway. It comes and it goes, that’s the way I look at it. But it’s settled in and this is what we do. Everybody goes on with their lives, but we have this.”

When Spencer joined, she underwent a steep learning curve.

“I just remember being really drawn to Tom’s style, his approach to music,” Spencer says. “It’s one thing to say that you’re into old tunes. But I didn’t know most of what they were throwing at me. It was a crash course in what I was embarrassed to not know. The music, I really loved it. But I was like ‘Who’s Mississippi John Hurt? What’s that cool guitar you’re playing; is it chrome?’ I was in my 20s and they were in their 40s. But he took me under his wing. They all did. I think there was a mutual respect.”

“These were six or seven players from diverse backgrounds producing a sound,” Hall figures. “We never really rehearsed the songs, we’d just go out and play until you found out what to do with it. Plus the material wasn’t tying us to any one genre. You had torch songs, a fiddle tune, a harmony/folk/a cappela thing. Whatever. We had no limits, musically, which was part of the process. To me, it was a rock’n’roll band. It was strong and it carried weight.”

Hall and Spencer also formed a duo, playing regular gigs at club like Molly’s where, Spencer says, they were able to widen the playlist even more.

“We liked a lot of the same music outside of the Sheiks,” Spencer says. “Like Harry Nielsen. So we’d throw his music into our sets, play and experiment with all of that kind of stuff. He’s one of my dearest friends and he’s got me learning how to play the ukulele. I think our voices sound cool together, we’ve got a texture. He’s the brother I never had.”

It’s not surprising that when Spencer came into town for May’s two dates with the Sheiks she and Hall also played two gigs as a duo. One was at Bill Christman’s delightful Joe’s Cafe, the other at a Derby Day party at The Royale, where I caught them and marveled at the instant, back-in-the-swing chemistry the two enjoy.

It’s a compelling enough bond that the two are planning some recording, which will take place with all the modern conveniences of digital mp3 trading and online listening sessions. Also, the plans call for at least one Sheiks weekend every three or four months.

“There were a lot of drugs and the like that broke us up originally,” Hall says. “That’s just how it was in the ‘80s. I’m not proud of that. But from then to now, it’s become family. It’s turned into family. That’s just what it is, which is bittersweet. And there’s nothing like playing with Alice. She’ll raise the hair on your neck when she wants to.”

But that other band ...

When they talk about their connection to the Sheiks, Hall and Spencer, on independent phone calls, talk about the onstage communication: The ability for each member of the group (Hall, Spencer, Marc Rennard on fiddle, Charlie Pfeffer on mandolin, Bill Murphy on keys and Mike Prokopf on bass) to lock in with what’s happening around them, while simultaneously taking the group in new directions.

At their best moments, the Three Merry Widows had that same spark. Along with guitarist/vocalist Sean Garcia, bassist Charles Shipman, guitarist Brian Simpson and drummer Matt Albert, Spencer’s work with the Widows created some of the best rock produced in St. Louis at the dawn of the ‘90s. Recently, there’s been just a hint of activity from that camp, with Garcia remixing some old sessions, while establishing a YouTube channel that contains the group’s excellent TVT single, “Black Halo.”

Asked if there’s a chance of a second group involving her reuniting, Spencer’s less sure than she is with the Sheiks. With members living all across the country, there are obvious challenges for the Widows.

Saying that she’s enjoying what Garcia’s been working on, he’s the one “keeping us appraised. He’s been putting a ton of work into it. That material’s not embarrassing, but it’s mind-blowing, looking at how young we all were. On ‘Critical Mass’? Oh my god, where’d all that hair come from? It’s hilarious.

“It’s tough,” she adds. “We all go back-and-forth on emails, saying ‘Wouldn’t it be fun, wouldn’t it be great?’ I have experience now in getting a band together after a long period of time, putting together a show that you can be proud of, knowing what it takes to work. Luckily, with the Sheiks, they all play in different combinations. They get with each other, hash out the vocal stuff and I just waltz in and say ‘Let’s go.’

"Logistically it’s very different for the Widows. Brian’s in Dayton. Charles is in New Hampshire. It’s a fantasy, to be sure. I’ve even said that I’d love to have a reunion, just a family reunion, put everybody in a room and just play music with them, even if no audience is there.”

These days, Spencer’s busy in Austin, with two girls, age 6 and 3. She’s recording vocals for commercials, doing voice overdubs, writing jingles and scoring. It’s a great day job, she says, even if she’s not pursuing an original music band in what she feels has become a brutally competitive Austin music scene. Being able to reflect (and now act on) her too-short St. Louis years has been eye opening.

“When you’re so close to it,” she says, “so involved in it, it’s hard to gain perspective. But time’s afforded that to me. It gives you that idea that ‘OK we weren’t crazy.’ What we did had relevance.”

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