Just 21 years old and a little overwhelmed, Jordan Davis found himself on stage as a member of the Mystery Girls at the Cactus Club, opening for Reigning Sound. It was Sept. 12, 2003, and Reigning Sound was Davis’ favorite band. He and his bandmates had played the Memphis group’s second album, 2002’s Time Bomb High School on In the Red Records—the Mystery Girls’ new label—over and over and over.
Looking back now in anticipation of the original lineup of Reigning Sound returning to the Cactus Club on Monday, March 2, Davis says even though the Mystery Girls were a much younger band, they felt a strong kinship with the Reigning Sound, and looked up to them as they tried to figure out their own place in the music world.
“We had been in the weird position of being too punk for the heavy rock scene, and too rock to really feel at home in the punk scene,” he says. “We thought of what we were playing as simply rock and roll music, but admittedly there was a fair amount of posturing for the sake of current punk trends on our part.”
Reigning Sound hit the stage that night with “Your Love Is A Fine Thing” off their then-forthcoming album Too Much Guitar. They never let up, even as one audience member kept shouting for the Elvis hit “Suspicious Minds.” The band eventually, and gloriously raggedly, played it.
Reigning Sound bassist Jeremy Scott remembers the show as a good one, partly because it was the first show of a fall tour that would take them through the Midwest and East Coast.
“A lot of the time it’s the third show when it all comes together,” he says, though this tour, he remembers, was pretty good “from the get-go.” Scott also remembers sitting at the bar at Cactus Club and watching The Big Lebowski on close captioning. The other details are a little hazy, but that haziness helps support the idea that it was a good show.
“I think the best shows are the ones that are barely a blur—maybe not even because of beer,” he says.
The magical blur was at least partially achieved by the band’s practice of playing without a setlist, which Scott cites as his recurring memory of performing with Reigning Sound. “Maybe we start a song without me knowing what it is for a few seconds and then it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah. That one.’ It brought a certain amount of energy to the shows.”
Lead singer Greg Cartwright says playing without a setlist has been his practice since playing with the Oblivians and Compulsive Gamblers. He says the approach doesn’t always work, and he attributes it, at least partially, to an attention deficit disorder.
“If you don’t set things in stone, that means anything could happen, and I like that,” Cartwright says.
At the time of the 2003 show, Reigning Sound had been reduced to a trio with Scott, Cartwright, and drummer Greg Roberson. Organist Alex Greene had left earlier in 2003 because of family commitments. All four original members will appear together for the first time in Milwaukee on March 2.
The original lineup reunited for a performance in Memphis in 2010 and had a couple of shows in 2016. The current tour, which, like the 2003 tour, starts in Milwaukee, was sparked by two occurrences, according to Cartwright.
One reason is that Merge Records plans to reissue the original band’s 2005 EP, Home For Orphans, on Sympathy For The Record Industry. In addition, Norton Records’ Miriam Linna and members of the Alarm Clocks asked the original group to get back together to perform during Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom’s 20th anniversary weekend, which will occur a few days after Reigning Sound hits Brew City.
While the band will also play a West Coast tour later in 2020, they don’t plan to do any new recordings, says Cartwright, who is currently working on other musical projects.
Scott, who first connected with Cartwright and Roberson to form the Reigning Sound after the latter answered his ad in the Memphis Flyer shortly after he moved to town, says he is excited to play with his friends again.
“It’s just cool to have another opportunity to play with them, is the way I’m looking at,” he says.
Each time the Reigning Sound has changed players over the years, the dynamic of the band has also changed, Cartwright says. The key for him is to learn how to lean into that dynamic.
“The original lineup, the feel is very loose in a good way,” he says. “I love this opportunity to get back and play these songs and represent those albums in the only way they can, with these four guys.”
And that feeling Davis had playing with and seeing Reigning Sound back in 2003 is exactly why Cartwright keeps making music and playing shows.
“It means more to me than record sales,” he says. “The best part of touring is when you feel like you’ve really connected with someone, either connected through the lyrics or the idea of making music on your own terms.”
Cartwright, who recorded a live album at Circle-A and produced an album for local legends the Goodnight Loving, says Milwaukee has always been a strong base for the band.
“There seems to be a good rock and roll scene there, and people seem genuine,” he says. “There’s always been a sense of going home for us there.”