he Memphis Pops Festival may have been conspicuously absent this past summer, but 2009 will not escape without at least one event under the rubric of what has become one of our more interesting annual live-music entities. The brainchild of Shangri-La Projects' Sherman Willmott, the Memphis Pops Festival also will be free this year as part of the downtown Alley Jams series. The concert will boast a triple bill of alt-rock vets: The New Mary Jane (featuring Dave Shouse and Scott Taylor of the Grifters), the re-formation of Memphis' criminally overlooked '90s fixtures the Simple Ones, and longtime legend of power/jangle-pop, Mitch Easter.
Perhaps best known as the producer (along with Don Dixon) for R.E.M.'s Chronic Town, Murmur, and Reckoning, Easter helped to transform this trio of albums into the stone classics we know them as today. Easter also has enjoyed a varied, subtly historic 35-year career.
Easter's first band, Sneakers, was formed in 1976 with childhood friends Chris Stamey and Will Rigby. Stamey would also become power/jangle-pop royalty, most notably through his post-Sneakers outfit, the dBs. (Stamey had strong Memphis connections right around this time. Not only did he play with Alex Chilton, he also founded Car Records in 1977 and released Chris Bell's "I Am the Cosmos"/"You and Your Sister" single, which would sadly prove to be the only solo material released during the former Big Star member's lifetime.) The Sneakers released one full-length album and several singles before all three members formed the dBs after moving to New York at the close of the decade.
Easter soon left the dBs and returned home to his parents' place in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he transformed their two-car garage into a small studio that he christened Drive-In Studios. It was here that he would soon record the debut EP and first two full-length albums by a little band called R.E.M. Through his dirt-cheap rates and innate understanding of all forms of underground pop, Easter became a serious player in the emerging jangle-pop/college-rock scene of the early '80s.
Not content with a behind-the-scenes position, Easter formed his next band, Let's Active, with Faye Hunter (his girlfriend at the time) and drummer Sara Romweber (sister of the Flat Duo Jets' Dexter). Let's Active was less power-pop and more (way more) quirky, left-of-center pop that remained under the radar but garnered plenty of critical acclaim for three full-lengths and one EP, all released on the I.R.S. label (also home to a pre-Warner's R.E.M.).
Later, Let's Active incarnations featured members of the Windbreakers, including Memphis' own Tim Lee, backing Easter for live performances. Before breaking up in 1990, Let's Active was known for less-than-stable lineups, having included not one but two of Easter's ex-wives.
After R.E.M., Easter's role behind the console was important in the development of the lesser-known but amazing and enigmatic Game Theory. In many ways, Game Theory was the missing link between traditional jangle-pop — more specifically, L.A.'s "Paisley Underground" (the Three O'Clock, Dream Syndicate, Green on Red) — and the more visceral post-hardcore underground of the Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth, and Hüsker Dü.
Game Theory released five full-length albums during their eight active years, and Easter recorded four, beginning in 1985 with Real Nighttime and lasting until the band's demise shortly after 1989's Two Steps From the Middle Ages. The two albums in between, 1986's The Big Shot Chronicles and the near-perfect double-length epic, Lolita Nation (1987), are both classics worthy of investigation by any music fan with more than a passing interest in the American independent scene of the '80s.
As the '90s progressed, Easter kept a low performance profile, focusing even harder on production work after completing a new studio christened "The Fidelitorium." Some impressive names popped up on his production resume, including but not limited to Velvet Crush, Pavement, Helium, Suzanne Vega, Marshall Crenshaw, and the Connells. Easter was on both sides of the board for Velvet Crush's highly acclaimed Teenage Symphonies to God and joined the band for a tour in support of the 1994 release.
Easter's personal creativity would be channeled through Shalini, the three-piece power-pop band named after his third and current wife, who sings as well as plays bass and guitar. The band is rounded out by Chris Gargas on drums, and this is the same band that backs Easter on his solo material.
Just over two years ago, Easter saw the release of his first solo album in 17 years, Dynamico (Electric Devil Records). Never one to let idle time creep in, Easter is also in two tribute bands: Guitars in the Sky exclusively plays material by late-'70s/early-'80s one-hit Byrds-worshipping power-poppers the Records, while Gravel Truck is, believe it or not, a tribute to his former band, Let's Active.
When Easter performs with Shalini and in solo mode at the Memphis Pops Festival on Friday, October 30th, it will be the first time Easter has played in Memphis since the Let's Active days.
Memphis Pops Festival, with Mitch Easter, the New Mary Jane, and
the Simple Ones
Outside lot, adjacent to Earnestine & Hazel's (in case of rain inside of Earnestine & Hazel's)
Friday, October 30th, 6pm, free.