Music: The Statute of Libertines

With 'freshness' as its only rule, Cincinnati's Libertines US return after 13 years

Jul 12, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Libertines US

Call 'em the "non-crack" version: Though they came first, Cincinnati's Libertines added "US" to their name to avoid confusion with the Brit band.

"Jimmy (Davidson) calls me the Rock & Roll cicada," says The Libertines US frontman Walt Hodge with a laugh on the deck of his Sycamore Township home.

It's an apt description. Since guitarist/ vocalist/lyricist Hodge walked away from The Libertines (and music itself) in the early '90s, he's gotten a full-time day job, raised a family and kept a relative arm's distance from anything that might entice him to want to revisit The Libertines' Rock dreams from two decades ago. Davidson remained active in the local scene as a guitarist, music-store owner and ubiquitous sound tech and bassist Randy Cheek found a measure of success with The Ass Ponys, but Hodge was happy to be on a more stable track at home.

Davidson's persistence in needling Hodge about getting back together to do something finally spurred the guitarist to action when the pair played at last year's local Katrina benefit, performing a couple of Willie Nelson songs as Los Amigos del Jimmy D.

"It was a Farm Aid-related thing," says Hodge of the Nelson-based charity gig. "I didn't know any Willie Nelson stuff, but I love that song 'Seven Spanish Angels,' which isn't a Willie Nelson song but he did that duet with Ray Charles that's so beautiful. Jimmy pitched it on the phone: 'We ought to do this, learn a couple of Willie Nelson songs and get out and play. We haven't played in forever.'

"I said, 'OK, if nobody's doing "Seven Spanish Angels," I'll do it,' thinking that somebody's already nabbed that one. Lo and behold, nobody had claimed it, so I was stuck.

It was a lot of fun. I was relieved I could still sing."

At this point in our narrative, the age-and/or-geographically challenged might be wondering how Pete Doherty's drugs-and-debauched-Rock circus could possibly have been transplanted from Cincinnati to London. The answer, of course, is it wasn't — our Libertines came long before theirs. And while the UK version has since dissolved in a haze of crack, acrimony and unfulfilled potential, Hodge still felt obligated to append the band's name with "US" for their evolving reunion.

"There was the British band that had some success using the same name, but I wasn't overly concerned about that," Hodge says. "Just add 'US' to the end and move on. No big deal."

The name has caused a certain amount of confusion as browsers searching the web for information of Doherty's late, lamented Libertines invariably wind up at the Cincinnati band's Web site ( or at their MySpace page ( Hodge is heartened by the fact that, while some visitors disconnect after discovering they aren't the resurrected UK iteration, more often than not they remain and check out the posted MP3s.

"There's like 90 million pages out there, and it's so cool that people will stop by and check us out," he says. "We're pretty careful to make clear who we are, because we've had a couple folks who've gotten on and said, 'You're not the other guys.' But I think our viability is better now than it was 20 years ago because of the avenues that are out there. We know we've got folks in our age group that liked us, but what's really cool is when we get MySpace adds from 16-, 18-, 20-year-olds. That's awesome."

For the uninitiated, Cincinnati's Libertines began in 1983 as a three-piece (Hodge, Cheek and drummer Joe Hamm) and almost immediately made an impact on the local scene, amassing a small following that enjoyed the band's frequent shows on the Short Vine strip, around the UC area and across the river at Newport's blossoming/festering Jockey Club. The band eventually included Hodge's high school buddy Davidson as a second guitarist, and drummer Greg Blanton replaced Hamm, and throughout the band's club activities in the '80s they recorded a pair of singles (including their local quasi-hit "Everybody Wants to Be My Sister"), the Ohio cassette and their 1988 full length, Tilt-A-Whirl.

Not long after Tilt-A-Whirl, Davidson's schedule dwindled due to his expanding duties as a tour manager for hire, making his presence in the band difficult to rely upon, often forcing The Libertines to revert to three-piece status. Cheek departed for the Ass Ponys in 1989 and was replaced by Ted Nagel. By the early '90s, Hodge's daughter was a toddler and he began to think seriously about a more structured future; his son's birth a couple of years later cemented his position. The Libertines officially shut down in 1993.

Although there were long periods when Hodge had almost no contact with his music, often going months without playing his guitar, the idea remained in the back of his mind. Davidson's repeated suggestions of some kind of informal activity coupled with the growth of Hodge's children (now 16 and 10) convinced him that now might be the time to resuscitate The Libertines.

"We weren't interested in getting together and doing something as old guys," Hodge says. "I didn't want it to be like a bowling league except with instruments. If it was something where we were going to do a quality thing, then let's do it."

At first, The Libertines' were restricted to Hodge/Davidson jams, but with The Ass Ponys' recent hiatus due to Chuck Cleaver's schedule with Wussy, Hodge invited Cheek to join their jams and he readily accepted. The only position left to fill was the drum chair; both Hamm and Blanton had moved out of state. Enter journeyman drummer Todd Witt, who ecstatically offered to keep time for the reforming Libertines.

"We had mutual admiration from pre-Jockey Club days," Hodge says. "That chemistry thing is so important, and immediately it just clicked. Todd's energy is amazing, he's a dynamo. And Randy's bass playing fills a lot of void. When you've got a singer/inept guitar player, thank goodness you've got a dynamic bassist back there filling it in.

"It was like riding a bike. I came away astounded. We don't want to be a parody. Everyone's in agreement — we're going to have a good time doing this and do it because we like it. We certainly never made any money at it."

At the heart of it all, Hodge credits Davidson's persistence for making The Libertines' reunion a reality.

"Jimmy's the glue that sticks us together," Hodge says. "He's so smart musically. We've been friends forever. I just love him to death."

When The Libertines and BPA play Northside Tavern this week (with Witt drumming all night long for both bands), the Libs will be offering an EP for sale, appropriately titled Reunion, that samples their all-too-brief catalog and includes a couple of rarities (particularly their single session outtake, "Black Garage Door," and the unreleased "Regina").

After that, the Libertines are planning at least monthly gigs around town (including next month at Stanley's and a MidPoint appearance in September), and Hodge says the band is already thinking about hitting the studio with new songs. Their only directive is to keep things fresh.

"We'd like to get some new recordings and also we need to move around to some other venues. Playing the same spot would be old hat," he says with a laugh. "We're already old hat. We just don't want to be older hat."

THE LIBERTINES US and BPA play Northside Tavern Friday.