Vexine members (from left) Paul Pearce, Sarah Frances Gleason, Jorge Santamaria and Michael Skiffington (photo by by PJ Sykes)
The moody-noir lounge rock group Vexine performs Saturday, April 30, from 4 to 7 p.m. at Ashland’s Center of the Universe Brewing Co. You can catch a Vexine preview Friday at 9 a.m. on WTVR Channel 6's "Virginia This Morning," which is at an early hour for rockers, and no less for lead singer Sarah Frances Gleason. Her characteristic vintage style and elaborate hair, however, go with the music. “I might just wear my snood” — she gives a hearty laugh and says of her appearance, “It’s a lot of effort.”
The occasion is the release of Vexine’s latest recording and Center of the Universe Brewing’s small batch beer named after it, "Little Sin," described by the brewer as “a black ale brewed with oats and rose hips that is smooth and sultry just like Vexine's music.” The label features an illustration of Gleason by artist Nathalie Rattner, that also appears in the CD jacket.
Gleason’s smoky cabaret chanteuse/blues-rock growler persona didn’t take hold until she came into her 30s. She studied interior design at Virginia Commonwealth University. For a time, she lived in the Johnson Hall dormitory. Her then-boyfriend on the men’s floor had a roommate named Sam, “a real soft-spoken, sweet guy, and he’d play guitar and I’d hum along.” At one point, he asked her to sing with him the Stevie Nicks/Don Henley song “Leather and Lace.” Her style impressed Sam the Roommate, who told Gleason she possessed an amazing voice. That guitarist was Sam Beam, who went on to create music for Iron & Wine.
But Gleason didn’t follow up on Beam’s praise for years. “I never thought I’d be a singer, much less a writer,” she says.
The change came in 2005, when she and a friend visited the Stratford Grill, “A real dive bar,” she recalls, that underwent a complete overhaul to become the C&M Galley Kitchen.
They went, for some reason, on karaoke night. “I believe she and I were the only two chicks in the place, other than the waitress,” she recalls. The then apparent king of the joint’s karaoke reminded Gleason of a strung-out Santa Claus in a Members Only jacket. That evening, he held forth his stylings on Tone Lōc’s "Funky Cold Medina" and "Because I Got High" by Afroman.
Gleason’s friend persuaded her to do a duet. She’d never wanted to sing karaoke, and this seemed neither the time nor the place. She made a half-hearted contribution to "Honey I'm Home" by Shania Twain. The night went on until eventually musician Jorge Santamaria met them. Together, the friend and Santamaria persuaded Gleason to take the stage alone. She agreed after seeing a song in the book she knew, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s "Simple Man.” Though reluctant, she figured her voice couldn’t be worse than that of the grotty Santa Claus. A month later, Santamaria and Gleason were in a band and five years later, as members of the Velvet Marias, they opened for Lynyrd Skynyrd. Gleason adds, “The moral of the story is: Don't stick your nose up at karaoke ... you might get something out of it.”
Jorge, the percussionist, and Gleason, the singer, anchored the Velvet Marias, but they’re also in an acoustic folk rock group, The Articles. “Something we can do when we’re old,” she chuckles. Vexine — a quartet with lead guitarist Paul Pearce and bass guitarist Michael Skiffington — gives rollicking shows performing originals and covers of a suitable vein. “Little Sin” includes a romance tune that turns into a crack-up after a break-up, a cover of Elvis Costello's “I Want You."
Formed in 2012, the band derived its name from Gleason’s reading of Jane Austen novels. “The characters are always getting vexed, or getting accused of vexatious behavior,” Gleason explains. “Sometimes I’ll tell Jorge he’s vexing me.” She played with iterations of “vex” along scores of other names, including The Southern Bell Curve. She came up with Vexine, first liking the way it looked in type but in her bona fide South Richmond accent, adds, “Everybody thinks our name is “’Vixen.’” But it also sounds like a name — a Tennessee friend of the band says Vexine sounds like a Southern girl’s name that a mother yells from the house: "Vexine, get up on this porch!" But there’s also a sense of a potent potion. “We’re the problem and the cure,” Gleason says.
The 11 tracks of “Little Sin” are examples of Vexine’s brew of dangerous situations and love affairs gone quite wrong. Yet there’s a sense, too, that they are from another time and part of the soundtrack for a movie that doesn’t yet exist. One of the more personal pieces concerns the vanished dance hall Tantilla Garden (1933-1969) that stood on the south side of West Broad Street by Hamilton Street near the present expressway cut. Here’s a 1951 Library of Virginia aerial view that shows Tantilla situated at the lower left corner, and a couple other images and a reference to my 2002 Flashback column.
For Gleason, the aura of Tantilla came transmitted by family lore. Her paternal grandmother, Ava Madelyn Crawford, who became Gleason, got picked up from her Amherst County home by Chesterfield County cousins to go have a good time at Tantilla. Gleason became entranced by the story of the roof rolling away for dancing under the stars. “Everyone took their own cocktails. She spoke of it in such a way that gardenias were in the air. I was intoxicated by her story.” Ava, a flaming redhead, passed along some of her exuberance for living. But Gleason’s mother’s mother, Irene, didn’t share the fascination with Tantilla. She didn’t like to dance and objected to getting taken onto the floor by a family member and never forgave his behavior.
Gleason's grandmothers Madelyn and Irene, two very different women with opposite memories of Tantilla.
As seen at right, the rain-slicked sidewalk, the lights of the 3600 Building in the background and the glow of neon gives this a big city noir look suitable for Vexine. The second album of Richmond’s House of Freaks (Johnny Hott and Bryan Harvey) in 1989 took the name of the dance hall and used this Valentine museum image on the cover.
“I get melancholy thinking of how that whole era got swept away,” she says. “If Tantilla was still around we could’ve played here.”
You can get a sense of what was there in Gleason’s and Vexine’s bluesy memorial.
Her approach to facing the world, too, comes from a romantic sense of what went before. “I was in Lowe’s the other day, and three people came up to take up my picture,” she laughs. “They don’t know quite how to articulate what they’re trying to ask. What am I doing? Well, I’m coming to Lowe’s.”
Her aunt and uncle both went to VCU in the 1980s, at the time when punk was in fashion, but they leaned more to the 1920s, and they gave Gleason clothes reminiscent of that earlier period. She grew up and embraced a vintage wardrobe. She wears out her snoods and crinolines because these aren’t affectations, but her life. “I don’t own normal clothes,” she says. “I don’t wear jeans. So I’m either in yoga pants with paint all over them from various projects or full makeup and hair. That’s just who I am: full-time fancy.”
You ask me, “Full-Time Fancy” sounds like a song title.