Eventually, any band that lasts long enough turns into Spinal Tap – even a band as cool as Let’s Active was back in its original heyday. Mitch Easter realized the end of the line was at hand in 1990 when he found himself playing a Let’s Active show for “the children of important people at this exclusive high school” in the vicinity of Washington, D.C. Not quite as depressing a gig as opening for a puppet show, but close enough to bring on existential soul-searching.
“It was hard to avoid thinking, ‘This does not exactly feel meaningful anymore,’ ” Easter says now. “We’d gone from being in showbiz to being just entertainment for the party. And maybe it was just my own failure of imagination, but continuing on at that point did not feel dignified. It just felt like it was over, so I decided to make it so. It was sort of ignoble, but it also seemed like it had to be.”
Let’s Active quietly disbanded, and Easter has spent the quarter-century since running recording studios around greater Winston-Salem. He seemed content to let Let’s Active’s legacy be, leaving behind a handful of genius underground-pop records that remain much beloved among his old band’s cult.
But for one night, at least, Easter is bringing Let’s Active back to life. The band will play Cat’s Cradle Saturday night as part of a benefit show for the Be Loud! Sophie Foundation. To the extent that it’s possible, this show reunites the original early-1980s trio that made the 1983 mini-album “Afoot” and 1984’s landmark full-length “Cypress,” with Easter and drummer Sara Romweber.
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There is, alas, a missing piece – singer/bassist Faye Hunter, who took her own life last year at age 59. Stepping in for her will be Suzi Ziegler, former bassist for the band Game Theory (one of Easter’s regular production clients during the ’80s and ’90s).
“I never wanted to play again as Let’s Active unless it was with those people who were in it at the beginning,” Easter says.
“I’ve always felt like any old band that goes away and then tries to come back should make it as much like the first version as possible. The fact that Sara wanted to do this was really inspiring. Of course, it’s horrible not to have Faye here to do it with us. There will obviously never be a real original Let’s Active show again. But this feels legit to me because of Suzi and her connection to the whole thing.”
Losses boost cause
Hunter’s death hasn’t been the only premature passing in North Carolina’s music community over the past year. In February, ex-Cry of Love frontman Kelly Holland died at age 52 from a severe abdominal infection. In June, 49-year-old Popes guitarist Steve Ruppenthal drowned at Wrightsville Beach. And in between, Steve Akin – one of the biggest music superfans Chapel Hill has ever known – died of still-unknown causes, also at age 49.
At the time of his death, Akin was helping to organize this weekend’s Be Loud! Sophie event. The shows are in memory of Sophie Steiner, who died of cancer last August at age 15, with a goal of raising money and awareness for the treatment of teenage cancer, which gets less attention and research than pediatric cancer.
“The fact that we got Let’s Active back together for this is incredible,” says Sophie’s father, Niklaus Steiner.
“That was an outlandish hope we tossed out there, and I’m still astonished they agreed to do it. This seems like a cause and a concert that have struck a nerve in a positive way among people who love Chapel Hill, embodying the spirit of the town. Sophie would have loved this. It warms my heart and breaks my heart all at the same time.”
‘It’s like math rock’
For his part, Easter has tried to convene as many rehearsals as everyone’s schedules will allow. But he’s busy running a studio, Ziegler lives in New York, and Romweber also plays with her brother Dexter in the Dex Romweber Duo. So just getting everyone together in the same room is not a simple matter.
Then there’s the fact that most of the songs they’ll be playing go back 30-plus years and haven’t been part of any of their repertoires in decades (or in Ziegler’s case, ever).
“Everything’s really fast, which is impressive,” Easter notes with a laugh. “It’s also complicated. It may not sound like it, but it is, which has been a challenge for Suzi because the bass parts are very riffy and specific. It’s like math rock, even though no one else would hear it that way. And it’s a bit of a challenge to keep up with. First time through, I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m gonna need an oxygen tank to do this.’
“Yeah, there were places on those records where I was totally singing out of tune, but I don’t care,” he adds.
“I can appreciate them for what they were, and the fact that they made sense at the time. And I like that we were kind of weird, even though we fit the scene back then and had a lot of overlap with other bands. There was a lot going on there that was different and that you did not hear elsewhere. I’m pleased with those records, and we were popular enough in our day that we seemed to make sense to other people, too.
“That’s good enough for me. I only wanted to play music for other people, so if anybody else likes it, that’s validation enough.”