The late 1990s and the start of the new decade was not an especially fertile time for Kent bands. But there was one bright light on the music scene then — the hard-rocking indie punk of Party of Helicopters.
During its nine-year run, the band attracted enthusiastic fans with a mix of loud, heavy guitar riffs blended with pop vocals and a host of other influences.
Party of Helicopters will play a rare reunion show tonight at 10 p.m. at Checkers-N-Trophies in Kent.
Guitarist Jamie Stillman, vocalist Joe Dennis, bassist Ryan Brannon and drummer Jon Finley met when attending Theodore Roosevelt High School. They officially joined forces in 1995, when most of them were students at Kent State.
“Our first tour was later in 1995 and I don’t think I even told my Mom I was going,” Brannon said recently over coffee at Starbucks. The group toured relentlessly, and they released four full-length albums and a number of EPs and 45s on a variety of indie labels.
Tired of drumming, Finley left the group in 2001 and was replaced by Cory Race. The band soldiered on, despite some frustration with the lack of career growth. “We had the punk rock mindset, and hoped people would catch on,” Brannon explained.
Their final release, 2003’s Please Believe It, was released by Atlanta’s Velocette Records and led to a tour of England and Ireland.
The Pitchfork.com review of their last effort said “Party of Helicopters push forward to pull off an amalgamation yielding some memorable tracks.”
The rigors of endless touring in cheap vans eventually took its toll and the band called it quits in 2004.
“We did a lot of tours, and we came home broke every time,” Brannon said chuckling. “That was never too big a deal when we were young, but eight years later it was getting tough.”
When Stillman told him he was quitting the band, Brannon understood. “It felt like it was time,” he said. “We had done a lot and I was proud of everything we did.”
Brannon started another band, Beaten Awake, with Finley and released a CD on Audio Eagle, Black Keys drummer Pat Carney’s label. Stillman eventually signed on as tour manager for the Black Keys before joining Drummer, Carney’s side-project.
Party of Helicopters has reunited a number of times over the years for shows in Akron, Cleveland and even Columbus, often to play friends’ parties.
“We were always a party band,” Brannon said. “We played people’s living rooms, hallways and basements – anyone who would have us. I remember one show in Salt Lake City being shut down because somebody’s dad came home!”
“It’s fun to step back in this role. We all have fun with it,” Brannon said. “The pressure of being a real band isn’t really there, so it’s a really relaxed vibe.”
The venue also suits the soon-to-be married bassist. “It’s an ‘off the beaten path’ kind of place, so it seems kind of appropriate,” he said.
The show was organized by Jason Prufer, bassist for opening band Mark David and the Nightly Lights. Prufer, a library associate at Kent State and new blogger for Kent Patch, said the reunion gig was the brainchild of singer-songwriter Mark David.
“I knew that they wanted to do a Kent show, so I contacted the guys and proposed the gig at Checkers -N- Trophies,” Prufer said. “There was an added carrot: I told them both bands will be professionally recorded for possible live albums.”
Prufer first met David in 2002, and they started playing together soon after. David, who has been writing songs since his early teens, credits Tom Waits, Elliot Smith and Neil Young among his influences.
“I think our sound could be described as early Elton John mixed with Nirvana, but very melodic,” Prufer said. That melody is certainly evident in the tune The Ride, which they will play on Saturday. You can listen to it here.
“We recently did a recording with Jack Kidney of the Numbers Band,” Prufer said. “I’d love to do a whole album with Jack on sax and harmonica.”
Record On, a collection of recent recordings by Mark David and the Nightly Lights, will be available on Saturday.
Checkers-N-Trophies is located at 352 W. Elm St. Admission $5 at the door and is limited to those 21 and over.