The last time Reverend Glasseye traveled through Missoula, the Boston-based sextet was placed on a bill with six other bands, shoehorned into a 30-minute time slot and destined to be forgotten on a night that featured just as much shuffling of band equipment as actual music. But a strange thing happened as Glasseye shuffled onto the makeshift stage at Higgins Alley Upstairs this past June, as the horns section positioned itself to the left and the Hammond organ set up to the right, and as the band’s diminutive leader, the good Reverend Glasseye himself (aka Adam Beckley), took hold of the microphone: all hell broke loose. Within the first few moments of their first song, as the Reverend began preaching in front of a rollicking big-band carnival waltz on steroids, the room was transformed from a casually interested smattering of music watchers into a captivated audience that literally had the Higgins Alley floor shaking. The Reverend’s figurative sermon—an impassioned lesson in mixing rock ’n’ roll with classic Americana iconography—was met with an amen chorus.
“That night there was a ridiculous number of bands playing, so we cut it down to the most striking, the most absolute memorable Glasseye set,” says Beckley in a phone interview during the band’s current tour. “When we’re left to our own devices the set is much more dynamic and segues more from the performance of it all into the songs. We try to fool people into listening to our music, is the truth of it.”
But the music is what’s so captivating about Reverend Glasseye—a sound that’s actually uncommon enough to make anyone take notice, a little too strange to recommend outright, that makes one feel obligated to preface any turn-on session with a multitude of disclaimers. Beckley calls the music, often compared to that of Tom Waits because of their dark, full and rickety delivery, “gospel cabaret punk” or “post-romantic revivalist glam,” and then adds: “But I’m not good at the one-word descriptions. Those are mostly just fun ways to play off our name.”
To describe it another way, Reverend Glasseye is a conceptual rock band comfortably stuck in a 19th-century time warp, folding oompah-laiden carny tunes, stark funeral dirges and a flare for musical theater dramatics into a dusty package that only a snake-oil salesman could peddle. And it works: earlier this year the band—which includes the Rev. on vocals and guitar, Timothy Maher on drums, Piet Masone on organ and backup vocals, Paul Dilly on upright bass and guitar, Cassandra Lomas on trombone and tuba and Kevin Corzett on saxophone and clarinet—won WBCN’s Rock and Roll Rumble, Boston’s popular battle of the bands, with its singular style and sound.
“The band is all things Americana, really,” says Beckley. “I consider it like a Mexican collage box—all the little knick-knacks and pieces of history and culture. There’s not a religious bent to it, but religious fervor. I think there’s a distinction there. It’s not based on belief as much as the raw energy and fervor that we can make a crowd feel. It’s about playing to everyone on the same level.”
Reverend Glasseye is currently touring to support its latest release, Our Lady of the Broken Spine, a nine-song effort that Beckley calls the band’s best to date. Of the songs Glasseye played during the band’s last Missoula stop, their first two LPs, 2003’s Black River Falls and last year’s Happy End and Begin, were represented with just one song each. The remainder of the high-energy set came from the new album.
“The new one’s a little more rock and roll—certainly more arranged and more thoughtful, and a little more about the songwriting,” says Beckley. “And maybe a little more long-winded—we’re like the Salman Rushdie of the musical world.”
Beckley, who describes himself as an “imperialist musical hack with no formal training in the slightest,” says it’s taken the band a long time to fully embrace its own sound. Aside from himself, Maher and Masone, the lineup has changed often since the band formed in 2000, and Our Lady is the first time he feels they’ve hit their mark.
“We’ve been evolving into sort of what we had hoped to become,” he says. “With what we’re doing, and our particular style of music, it took a lot to start out and we had to feel our way through the beginning songs.”
Part of Glasseye’s process of finding itself was Beckley developing his own performance style. Armed with an impossibly deep and gravely voice, he often breaks from songs and assumes the role of preacher, booming asides about whatever bleak story his lyrics convey, or riffing on the band’s attributes like a big-top ringleader. Not surprisingly, Beckley is an ordained minister and just recently started performing wedding ceremonies for his friends—something he says is infinitely more nerve-racking than a concert. But his on-stage demeanor shouldn’t be confused with any theological agenda—it’s simply part of the spectacle.
“I look at religion as a cultural phenomenon,” Beckley says. “It’s a pinnacle of energy through a community where the focus becomes one thing, and I consider our brand of rock ’n’ roll very much the same.”
Reverend Glasseye plays Higgins Alley Upstairs Saturday, Oct. 29, at 9 PM. Wuzhen and Poor School open. $6, or $5 with a costume.