When Memphis garage/punk stalwart Jay Reatard plays the Hi-Tone Café this week, he might not even be the feature attraction of his own headlining, homecoming show. And after talking to Reatard by phone from a tour stop along the North Carolina/Virginia border, I think he'll be okay with that.
Joining Reatard and his two-man backing band (bassist Stephen Pope and drummer Billy Hayes) in the tour van this summer is T.V. Smith, who was the frontman for The Adverts, part of the first wave of British punk bands whose seminal singles "Gary Gilmore's Eyes," "Bored Teenagers," and "One Chord Wonders" are collected on the classic 1978 album Crossing the Red Sea with the Adverts. Reatard says it's one of his "top five albums ever."
Long a fan of artier British punk like Wire, Reatard discovered Crossing the Red Sea with the Adverts around the time he was planning his first solo album, which would become 2006's Blood Visions. He covered the Adverts' "We Who Wait" (the "b" side of "Gary Gilmore's Eyes") on the album, and that cover came to Smith's attention. He began an e-mail exchange with his younger American counterpart.
Both more pop and more prog than more well-known scenemates like the Sex Pistols and the Clash, the Adverts sound like a clear influence on the melodic, ambitious homemade noise-pop that has fueled Reatard's rise since going "solo" a couple of years ago. Reatard says the tour has been a good match onstage and off, with Smith playing a solo set ("Billy Bragg kinda stuff," but "not low-energy") then joining Reatard and his band for an encore of Adverts material. "It puts a smile on everybody's face," Reatard says.
On the road, Smith's companionship seems to have energized Reatard. "It gives me hope for my life," the punk wunderkind jokes. "This dude's content to ride around in a van with a bunch of 20-year-olds. The tour's great. Everybody's calming down a little, and it's nice to have someone with us who's in a different place than us. Like touring with your parents."
The Reatard/Smith tour got off to a delayed start after Smith had some visa problems to sort out, but it kicked off July 2nd in Brooklyn. After winding through the East Coast and Southeast, the tour winds up in Memphis and Oxford this week.
Reatard and Smith play the Hi-Tone Café Friday, July 10th. If you miss them Friday, you can roadtrip to Oxford for a tour-closing performance at Proud Larry's the next night.
In addition to the rare chance to see Smith, fans also will get a chance for an early listen to Reatard's new album, Watch Me Fall, set for an official release August 18th. Reatard's "studio album" debut (mostly recorded at Reatard's Midtown home studio) for Matador Records, Watch Me Fall is already available on vinyl at Reatard's shows.
"I really thought it was important to get it out since it's going to leak anyway," Reatard says. "Why let a bunch of vinyl just sit in a warehouse?"
Reatard finished a first draft of the album in January, but he and Matador both agreed he'd been too rushed, so he worked on it some more until spring.
"I rethought the record. It's a darker, mellower pop kind of direction," Reatard says, noting that the poppy punk of the opening "It Ain't Gonna Save Me" — the only song officially released so far — gives way to "a four-minute ballad with cello parts" by the end.
"It's a weird record, but it's the only record I could make at this time," Reatard says. "I'm happy with it."