by Jordan Green
Seated behind the drum kit, Adrian Foltz belted out the first song in the Raving Knaves’ set at Greenhill gallery in Greensboro — a song guitarist David McLean wrote about him called “Drums Along the Mersey.”
With the lead phrase “3,000 miles from my home,” in the soaring vocals, the song celebrates a Grimsley High School grad who migrated to Los Angeles, where he played in glam bands on the Sunset Strip and sold hair-care products. Like the vast majority of the Raving Knaves’ repertoire, the song was performed with fiercely channeled energy, concise bursts of sonic instrumentation and ornamented with vocal harmonies.
Too melodic and not quite angsty enough to fit a contemporary definition of punk, the Raving Knaves would have been right at home among the glam and pub-rock bands that laid the foundation for the genre in the mid-1970s.
And as the title of the song implies, the sound is firmly rooted in the mod-rock sound of the Who, the Jam and the Clash.
“When I started playing in bands in 1979, it was important to me that it needed to be fun and danceable,” McLean, one of the band’s founding members, said at the Oct. 2 show. “Punk rock was a lot more fun than it became. It was a way for a 19-20-year-old to meet girls — for a guy who had been geeky in high school. I was into [Bob] Dylan in high school, but I gravitated to a style of music that was more high energy.
“Punk rock was the counterpunch to what rock had become — grandiose with these long, extended guitar solos,” he continued. “My first band was called Rick Ronco & the K-Tels. We did covers of Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs. It always struck me that three minutes is too long for a song; two and half minutes is perfect. It has always been an intention of the Raving Knaves to be a concise band.”
There had been a last-minute reshuffle of the lineup. When Foltz recently announced he was quitting, the band brought in Phil Holder to fill in on drums for a final string of retirement gigs. Then Foltz decided he wanted back in, so the band kept Holder on drums and put Foltz back in as frontman. At the conclusion of “Drums Along the Mersey,” Foltz stepped out from behind the kit, and Holder, dressed in red jumpsuit with an oversized crucifix necklace and moustache, slid into the seat and hit the final beat before the band launched into its second number.
After a short break for a sponsorship plug for Greenhill’s patron, the band launched into another McLean original, “All the Pretty Planets,” showcasing Holder’s galloping drums, McLean’s circumscribed, ska-like riffing, Daniel Bayer’s thundering and nailed-to-the-groove bass playing. Then McLean introduced Foltz.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “the man who saved the Raving Knaves in 2008.”
At the time, McLean and Bayer were trying to decide the band’s future, following the departure of Chris Micca and Andy Foster. Foltz was recommended to the band by a friend, Nancy McCurry, who played in McLean’s former band, Sin Tax.
The Raving Knaves play their final show at Urban Grinders, located at 116 N. Elm St. in Greensboro, on Oct. 27.
For McLean, 2008 was a challenging year that tested his resolve, and ultimately propelled the band into action.
“My dad died, the stock market crashed, and I got cancer,” he recalled. “I felt this need to do this wild rock-and-roll band.”
He received treatment, and the cancer is now in remission. He said he feels fine. McLean runs regularly, and his energy as a performer betrays no hint of the chemotherapy treatments. He strode into the audience during solos, windmilled power chords, and at one point during the set dropped to his knees with Bayer to churn out a guitar-bass duel.
McLean and Bayer, who are respectively 56 and 47, agreed that the only way they would play in a band was if they made a concerted effort to appeal to young people.
“I wanted to compete with the younger bands,” McLean said. “We were successful at getting the twentysomethings. I don’t think they were laughing at us.”
They shared bills with bands like the Nondenoms, the Leeves, Rough Hands and Switchblade 85, and regularly played an underground venue on Grove Street called Seven Day Weekend with a busted AC one sweltering summer. Despite the humbling circumstances of ill-equipped venues, they took the band seriously.
“I went into a second adolescence,” McLean said. “I would get miffed if we weren’t invited to play somewhere.”
The Raving Knaves plays its final show on Oct. 27 at the new Urban Grinders coffeeshop and art gallery in Greensboro. The band’s breakup was precipitated by Foltz’s decision to leave, which he said is for personal reasons unrelated to the band. McLean said he didn’t want to break in another drummer.
A marketing professional who has run King’s English in downtown Greensboro for 20 years, McLean said he wants to turn more attention to his business and “remake myself professionally.” He feels like the Raving Knaves accomplished what they set out to do.
He expressed deference to Foltz, who has played in a string of successful bands in LA like the Return, Guzzler, Sugarspun and the Droogs, and Bayer, who runs sound for concerts around the Triad. Bayer already plays with another band called Empire for Rent.
“He’s got the most experience of any of us,” McLean said of Foltz. “For me, it’s always been a night job, an avocation. Danny’s got more skin in the game; he does sound. My ego is in it.”