In an instant, those sounds are replaced by the thick snap of a stick hitting a snare drum, followed by a familiar guitar riff and the roar of an approving crowd. It’s the sound of The Crown Vics unleashing another furiously fun set of rock and roll dance songs on an audience that can never seem to get enough.
Much like the various genres of music they perform, the members of The Crown Vics are a diverse group of individuals. Brought together through a shared love of music and performance, they’ve earned a status as one of the most fun and unpredictable bands in New England.
The members of The Crown Vics cite a variety of influences. They’ll mention Stuart Sutcliffe and Sandie Shaw in one minute, Johnny Cash, Prince and Stevie Nicks in the next.
From The Smiths to NRBQ and even Stephen Foster and Muse, they pull influence from multiple directions while exerting a confident creativity, as heard on the band’s recent album of original songs, “Hell Yeah!” – included among my picks of the best Maine-made music of 2017. The record is in its second pressing, paid for in part with royalties derived from 20,000 sales of the first.
“It’s pandemonium!” drummer Steve Peer laughs as he beams behind the drum kit. Peer is watching the crowd respond to the music as guitarist Frank Schwartz – looking perpetually cool in a Panama hat – rocks the neck of his Gretsch guitar back and forth while sustaining a bluesy note.
Drew Myers – one of The Crown Vics’ two lead singers along with wife Jen – holds a microphone that resembles one that Buddy Holly might have used during the 1959 Winter Dance Party tour. Some of the ladies up front are vying for Myers’ attention but he doesn’t seem to notice.
Jennifer Myers takes her cue and sings the next line in the song with a voice so pure, some members of the standing-room only crowd focus all attention on her – until Peer mischievously coaxes some of them onto the stage.
Bass player Walter Howland just smiles and shakes his head. “Here we go again,” he’s probably thinking. This rock and roll dance party teeters on the edge of chaos but the band somehow keeps it all under control, as they shift from classic rockabilly party music to songs of a more recent vintage. Originals are mixed in sparingly but they all elicit a similar response from the passionate audience.
Earlier in the evening, I share a meal with the band before they hit the stage. It gives me a chance to watch them interact as they take turns answering my questions. I notice that they listen to each other speak with the same respect and attention they grant each other when onstage.
“We’re an adult band and we all support each other,” guitarist Frank Schwartz said. “The three of us are pretty comfortable supporting Drew and Jen. Everyone is in the limelight enough to keep them happy.”
Celebrating their fifth year together, The Crown Vics know how to read an audience and they tailor each night of music accordingly. With hundreds of group performances behind them – no two exactly alike – they’ve developed a reputation as a hardworking, ultra-reliable dance-party band.
According to Peer, being dependable has something to do with age and a lot to do with experience.
“A lot of bands don’t last because someone gets tired or bored or drunk,” he said. “We’ve been through all that. It sounds like a cliché but if you want to be taken seriously, you need to be responsible.”
They combine early vintage rock and roll – both well-known and obscure – with carefully chosen songs from multiple genres and eras. But it came close to never happening at all.
“Everyone told me I was insane to want to put together a rockabilly band,” Schwartz said. “Everyone except Steve. He was the first one who thought it was a good idea.”
Peer is originally from the northern New Jersey area. When New York City’s underground rock, punk and new wave scene was gaining traction in the 1970s in Manhattan clubs like CBGB, Peer was there.
“It showed me how hard you have to work,” Peer remembered of the era when he was rubbing elbows with members of The Ramones and Talking Heads. “From sending letters to club owners and leaving answering machine messages to making crappy posters and nailing them to telephone poles. It’s a whole different universe today.”
Guitarist Schwartz grew up just outside of New York City. His grandmother was Gertrude Berg – the first woman to create, write, direct and star in her own national radio and TV program – “The Goldbergs.”
Schwartz remembers learning stagecraft from watching budding legends Elvis Costello and The Clash perform in tiny clubs. He saw his GPA take a nosedive when he became smitten with electric blues and studied icons up close in intimate after-hours settings.
“These jazz greats who would come to a club after doing a show at Carnegie Hall or someplace,” Schwartz recalled. “They would play unamplified and I noticed there is beauty in playing at a reasonable volume. These guys might laugh at me but I’m impressed that our band plays at a reasonable volume. We use dynamics – it’s not ear-splitting. We’ve had lots of conversations about volume.”
A musician and singer who has performed in bands in Hollywood (he was a drummer who perfected his stage moves as a high school and college athlete), Drew Myers says he appreciates being part of a band that focuses attention on a detail as important as volume.
“With this band, you can hear each element of the music and vocals,” Myers said. “When a band plays painfully loud, it’s all just mashed together. After Frank plays a solo, we’ll hear someone say ‘That guitar player can rip it up’ because he doesn’t always rip it up. When he does, you notice it.”
Peer starts laughing at the conversation. “We’re attention whores! Individually we really are,” he insisted. “We’re not just phoning it in, that’s for sure.”
Years ago, Peer performed in the pit band in a stage production of “Grease” which included Drew Myers in a lead role. Shortly after speaking with Schwartz about putting together a rockabilly band, Peer happened to be at Finn’s Irish Pub in Ellsworth with Drew and Jen Myers when he realized what a fearsome foursome they would make.
“Steve called me one night during a snowstorm and said ‘You need to come down here now,” Schwartz remembered.
Within days, the band convened for a rehearsal at Peer’s 430 Bayside house-party/recording studio abode. “I call it ‘the Celtic Hellhole,’” Peer said with a laugh, referring to the legions of Celtic bands that have performed and crashed there over the years.
After only one rehearsal, The Crown Vics played their first show at Side Street Café in Bar Harbor. On their way to the gig, they picked up a bass player with whom they had never performed.
“He said, ‘Rockabilly? Just plug me in and tell me the key. I don’t need to know anything else,’” Peer chuckled.
From the band’s inception, The Crown Vics have performed with a series of bassists. For the last few months, Walter Howland has been handling bass duties –a critical role for a band reliant on rhythm with a solid bottom end.
“Walter has been a great fit,” said Peer. “We go back more than 20 years. He’s bailed us out of a few situations since he’s been playing with the band.”
Each member of The Crown Vics spoke to me at length about how important vocalist Jen Myers is to the band.
“Jen and Drew share the spotlight,” Peer said. “When Jen joined, that’s when we started to depart from being just a rockabilly band to take on kind of a B-52’s sensibility,” referring to the Athens, Georgia new wave rockers.
Chanteuse Jennifer Myers is a founding member of all-female vocal group Ellacappella. At times, she describes herself as the band’s “stage-mom” and then laughs at the notion.
While Peer acts as the self-described “mouthpiece” of the band, he works closely with Myers in taking care of the daily responsibilities of bookings, accounting, setlist designing and keeping “the rock and roll family healthy, safe and sane.”
“She is our main ‘connector’ to the audience,” Peer said of her. “She has a fun and gentle way of allowing fans to scale the stage to interact intimately with the band.”
“The Crown Vics were initially a boy band,” Jen remembered. “I went along as cheerleader and supportive spouse at first. Drew asked me to sing backup on a few songs with another gal and people kind of liked us. That evolved into me becoming a permanent member.”
Myers says she knew of Steve Peer before joining the band, his reputation as being a “cool hip dad” preceding him.
“I didn’t know how talented he really was until joining this band. That’s when I discovered the real depth of talent in each member,” she said, comparing him with “one of those bouncy balls that you drop but you can never quite catch it. You’re always a little bit behind him and he often changes direction. Steve is probably the most positive and upbeat person I’ve never been around. He can put a positive spin on anything. That’s his job on the drums too. He keeps the energy going.”
As for guitarist Schwartz, who she calls a “sweetheart in disguise,” Myers said “He appears as a tough guy but he’s really a hugger. He’s my teddy bear in the band. He knows when I need a hug and he knows when to say something and when not to. When he’s playing guitar, he’s totally in his zone. We have a great connection on stage and Frank makes it easy.”
And husband Drew? Myers said simply “A true lead singer. We look to him to set the tone for each gig. He always looks the part. When he steps on the stage, he’s not just Drew Myers – he’s the lead singer for The Crown Vics and he never breaks that persona.”
That persona frequently attracts admirers to the lip of the stage but Jen explains why she is not too concerned about the adulation her husband draws.
“I think it’s kind of cute because Drew is usually unaware of the attention they’re showing him,” she said. “When we first met, I had to ask him out because he was so unaware of how interested I was in him. Onstage, he’s so into what he’s doing, he doesn’t notice the reaction of some of the crowd. The audience is respectful, but they can get wild.”
In July, Drew and Jen Myers will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. When The Crown Vics perform at the occasional wedding, they create a setlist for the event and also handle the stage announcements to bridge the various elements of a reception.
“What’s happier than a wedding?” Jen Myers asked. “I love them. We play such a variety of music that we have something for every age group. I like to know all of the details up front and that is so important with a wedding.”
Maintaining form as an atypical rock and roll dance band, The Crown Vics make it a priority to do away with the invisible wall separating them from their audience.
“We may be on a stage 10 feet high but we’re going to connect with you regardless,” said Peer.
Tambourines are usually the first thing to be tossed from the stage. Jen and Drew are quick to get a tambourine or maraca into the hands of frenetic dancers and shy wallflowers alike. Once the connection is made, the audience and the band are together as one.
This summer, The Crown Vics plan to deliver fun and fury on a tour of Atlantic Canada, in support of “Hell Yeah.” The tour, likely to cover New England in late summer, may even include a few unplugged shows.
“We’re revisiting some of our favorite haunts this year,” Peer said, looking over the band’s schedule. “We’ll continue to explore newly composed material and expose the inner workings of some of our favorite classic covers.”
When I asked the band if they could confirm a rumor that a certain national network late-night TV funnyman has expressed interest in hosting the Vics, they looked at each other and smiled. “We can’t talk about that right now,” Peer responded, before asking “Where did you hear about it?”
“Being America’s favorite rock ‘n roll dance band is a huge responsibility,” said Peer with a laugh. “I certainly don’t take myself too seriously but I think I speak for Jen, Drew and Frank when I say we are devoted to our fans. The fun and pleasure they have at our show is of utmost importance to all of us.”