A lot of great shows came through Hampton Roads in 1997. Bob Dylan, the Who and Elton John were among the biggest acts to play at the Virginia Beach Amphitheater; INXS, Green Day and Weezer all played at Norfolk’s infamous and more intimate Boathouse.
It’s unlikely that the five members of Falstaff, a popular Virginia Beach band of that era, saw those shows—or any others, for that matter. They were too busy releasing their second record, “Streetcar Giant,” not to mention playing 299 gigs of their own that year.
“We worked our butts off,” Martha Roebuck, the band’s co-lead singer, explained in a recent interview. “We just didn’t go to the next level. I think we quit before we could have.”
Martha reunited with her bandmates in August to play for a friend’s 50th birthday party. Since they put so much time and effort into preparing for that gig, they decided they should also play in public, so they booked a reunion show on Saturday, Oct. 14 at Peabody’s Nightclub in Virginia Beach.
Falstaff started as an acoustic duo comprising Chris Bergren and Mike Peter.
Bergren had been learning guitar and was inspired to write songs after performing in a musical theater production with Phillip Roebuck. Phillip went on to form the Hollowbodies with his cousin, Shea Roebuck; when Bergren and Peter formed Falstaff, their first gigs were opening for the Hollowbodies.
Phillip, of course, went on to “one man band” fame and currently performs with his wife, Phoenix, under the name Roebuck. Shea is married to Martha, who attended Bergren and Peter’s first performances and eventually started singing with them.
“There really wasn’t a floor plan,” Bergren explained. “It just kind of all came about organically over time. No architect sat down and drew it up.” (The heaviest hand may have been Bergren’s brother, an English major who suggested the band’s name, a reference to the Falstaff character in three of William Shakespeare’s plays. “The idea of relief among everyday tragedy was cool,” Bergren said.)
Jon Best joined next on bass. He saw enough potential in the band that he moved back to Virginia Beach one semester shy of graduating from college in St. Louis. “I think everybody felt in or not,” he said. “I didn’t leave school to play twice a month and just mess around and get a job at McDonald’s. … It just seemed like: If we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna do it.”
Kenny Stamey wasn’t technically the band’s first drummer, but he was the one that stuck. Like Best, he was committed enough to scrap plans to move to Washington, D.C. “It got really serious really fast,” he said. “Within a couple of months of joining the band, I was in the recording studio to do our first demo.”
Greg Wikle joined last, replacing Peter halfway through the recording of the band’s first album, “Camp Songs.” Everyone had admired his work from afar—most notably, with the Kilroos—so they brought him on to play “dedicated color lead.”
“The rest is history,” Martha said, neatly summing up the whirlwind that ensued over the next four years. “It was just show after show after show.”
What was the key to their success?
“It’s because of the material,” Stamey said. “It really is. It’s because of the songs.”
While the jangly, modern rock style of music was popular at the time, Falstaff was unique in that Bergren and Martha both sang lead on almost every song. A reviewer on IndieMusicSite.com described the combination of their voices as “a beautiful, rich vocal ensemble not found in most rock bands.”
Most importantly, Stamey said, they were just a fun band. “I think people got a good vibe from coming out and watching us play,” he said. “The music that Chris wrote and the way we played it, it was just upbeat. It might sound kind of cheesy, but it was just a positive vibe. We didn’t take ourselves too seriously. Everybody just had a good time.”
The break-up came in late 1998—partly because of burn-out, partly because “the next step” seemed just out of reach.
Stamey suggested that Falstaff might have experienced broader success if it had a dedicated manager or producer. “Most bands that end up being successful and do end up rising up to the next level have that man behind the curtain,” he said. “We never had that, so we were guessing and trying to do all that on our own. … We needed that. At some point, every band needs that.”
So what have they been doing over the last 19 years?
Bergren played in a couple bands—including Hopscotch, which he calls a “noisy, arty-farty experimental kind of thing”—before setting music down “for a long time.” He said he was skeptical when he picked up his guitar to start practicing for the new Falstaff gigs, but after “a couple hours … things started working again.”
Martha played with Shea and Stamey in a short-lived band called the Lazy Stars, but they broke up soon after her first child was born. “I remember recording with one baby at the breast,” she said. “I was trying to keep it going, but I like to focus on one thing, so I kind of went with the kids for a while.”
Best managed a music store for a while and then opened a recording studio in Pungo. “The last few years,” he said, “I’ve been watching my 14-year-old daughter surpass me on double bass.”
When the Lazy Stars broke up, Stamey moved to Dallas, where he ran a nightclub and “discovered house music.” He lives in Raleigh now but has yet to play in another band. “I always had a drum kit laying around,” he said, “but I never played them. … If I wasn’t playing with musicians, they just make an awful racket.”
Wikle has been the most prolific musically, playing with as many as five bands at one time. He currently plays with Gina Dalmas and the Cow Tipping Playboys.
The bandmates got together in August to rehearse for the birthday party gig.
“It was surprising,” Best said. “We went four-plus hours, and nobody died. … We were all thinking, ‘This could be a train wreck.’ At the end of the first practice, I don’t think we played more than a couple of songs more than once. … It’s ridiculous that there’s only four songs that need work.”
They held another rehearsal in late September for the Peabody’s gig.
Before running through their repertoire, they reminisced about their CD release parties and Christmas night shows at Peabody’s that drew close to 1,000 people. They also joked about the early start time for the upcoming reunion show. Jonny Cardigan will open, playing a 45-minute set that starts at 8:30 p.m.; Falstaff will go on at 10 and play until midnight.
“We know our audience,” Martha said.
The band has already received another booking request, but they haven’t made a collective decision about their future beyond the Peabody’s gig. “I don’t think anybody’s like, ‘Absolutely not,’” Martha said. “We’re just like, ‘Whatever. We’ll see what happens.’”
Stamey is more definitive. “I’m not moving back to Virginia Beach,” he said. “I enjoy living in North Carolina … but if we play three, four shows a year—if something comes up that we decide is perfect for us that fits everybody’s vibe and schedule—I don’t see why not.”
Bergren said he’d consider a longer-term revival if the band focused on writing new material. For now, he’s “happy to be here, happy to be doing it again.” “They’re four of my best friends in my life,” he said. “That’s cooler than the music.”
Falstaff will perform on Saturday, Oct. 14 at Peabody’s Nightclub in Virginia Beach. Tickets are $10 in advance. For more information, visit “Falstaff Reunion Show at Peabody’s!” on Facebook.