Bent Scepters w/ the Surf Zombies
Wildwood Smokehouse & Saloon — Saturday, June 29 at 8 p.m.
The last time this line-up of retro garage rockers the Bent Scepters played together, it was under the Clinton administration.
“We’ve played a few reunion shows over the years, but this show will feature the very original bass player, and the drummer from our heyday between 1995 and 1999,” guitarist and vocalist Doug Roberson said.
The first incarnation of the Bent Scepters began as a side project back in 1986, after Roberson saw a Fleshtones show.
“We wanted to be in that sort of garage-rock style. That [incarnation of the band] lasted a very short while,” he said. “We resurrected the name in the early ’90s, and put out our first 45 in 1993.”
They worked steadily across the Midwest for several years, earning fans with every late-night, beer-soaked set they played.
“Way back in the day we basically wanted to be incredibly versatile,” Roberson said. “There were some venues where they had one band a night, and you played from 9:30 to 1 o’clock in the morning, so we had to know lots and lots of songs.”
They pursued their retro sound earnestly, self-releasing several 45 singles, like the Doctor Strange E.P. in 1995.
Eventually, they finally gave in to their fans’ requests and put out a full length CD.
“In 1995, we saved up all of our money and we recorded a bunch of songs that we put out ourselves. One night, we were opening up a show in Chicago and this guy came up and said, ‘I really dig your band and your garage rock sound.’”
Turns out he was running Bizarre/Planet Records, Frank Zappa’s sporadic record label.
“They purchased the rights to our first record from us, and then we recorded more songs and they put it out,” Roberson said.
That album, 1996’s Blind Date With Destiny, has unquestionably become the Bent Scepters most enduring legacy. It’s a perfect goulash of river surf instrumentals and dirty pop songs you would only hear if Casey’s gas stations had jukeboxes.
One track of the record, “Gassed,” found new life last year after it was featured in an episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
The photo promoting their show at the Wildwood is from around the time of Blind Date With Destiny, the five-piece decked out in three piece suits and looking very much timeless.
“That was taken around 1995 or 1996 at the Rainbow Lounge in Dubuque. It is this sort of strange karaoke bar that’s in this old hotel,” Roberson said. “There was also this club there called the Silver Dollar Cantina. For some reason, we just really clicked there and we always packed the place. Dubuque was one of our favorite places to play.”
Roberson said that they weren’t exclusively wearing suits during their tenure, and he hinted at something special for their Wildwood attire.
“It varied a great deal depending on what time of year it was. If it was summer, a lot of times we would wear old nylon racing jackets that had stripes on them — something that Steve McQueen or Elvis Presley would wear but [we] could find at Salvation Army for 25 cents. If it was really hot we would wear matching bowling shirts, or matching Henleys, or what have you.”
He said that the band has been back in the garage practicing for the show, which for now is being approached as a one-off. But Roberson isn’t ruling anything out for the future of the Bent Scepters.
“If the vibe is really good and the turnout is strong and everybody’s happy, you never know,” Roberson said. “We’ll certainly take any offers if people want us to play. So we will see.”
The Surf Zombies, who open the show, are deeply intertwined in the story of the Bent Scepters.
“Jim Viner and I were actually in the very first line-up for the Surf Zombies,” Roberson said. “Brook [Hoover] kept it going, because he’s a super talented guitar player and a really great guy.”
Hoover said that opening up for the Bent Scepters after all of these years will be a “Total Respect Fest.” He has fond memories of seeing the Scepters in their prime.
“I was running around Iowa City in the ’90s and ended up at Gabe’s numerous times to see the Bent Scepters. I was taking it all in and it was filtering and percolating,” he said in an email.
“I was a huge fan of Bill Neff kicking off tunes with a hook-filled party beat and borrowed that influence on a lot of Surf Zombie songs. I think about his sound a lot when I write tunes. Another one of my favorite things was watching Patrick (White) get his eyes down really close to his farfisa organ and play quite demented arpeggios. He had such a funny surprised look on his face, like the notes were blowing his mind.”
“We’ve been fantasizing about a Scepters reunion, but doubted it would happen. I am really thankful for getting to know the Bent Scepters and have gotten a lot of kicks from their music. We feel a debt of gratitude to the Bent Scepters and are truly thrilled to share the bill with them,” Hoover said.