Re-Meet the Raisins

Cincinnati’s most endearing Pop/Rock foursome returns for WEBN Album Project celebration

In fall 1983, I did publicity/promotion for Bogart’s, which necessitated distributing posters and flyers around Short Vine. I was on my rounds when Raisins guitarist Rob Fetters turned the corner at Charlton at a full gallop, wild eyed and hair flying. The Raisins’ debut album, produced by future bandmate Adrian Belew, had just dropped and the city’s most popular band had somehow become bigger.

Although Fetters didn’t actually know me, he skidded up to me, grabbed my shoulders and began shaking.

“They just played my song on WEBN!” he shrieked joyously, accosting other strangers similarly before disappearing around the bend. It was a perfect Rock moment, like every Raisins gig I ever attended.

Dissolved in 1985, The Raisins remained active individually and semi-collectively but the band’s most renowned lineup — Fetters, bassist Bob Nyswonger, keyboardist Rick Neiheisel (now better known as Ricky Nye), drummer Bam Powell — has reunited sparingly. This Saturday promises something special, as The Raisins join several reanimated Cincinnati favorites, including Rock Duster, Haymarket Riot, Carefree Day, The Michael Denton Group, Sorry Charlie, Dan Barr, Peter Mayer and Johnny Schott — to perform at the WEBN Album Project Reunion Show at Covington’s Madison Theater.

Beginning with 1976’s The Vinyl Days, WEBN cemented their status as the city’s top Rock radio station by launching the Album Project, an opportunity for local bands to gain wider exposure with the radio play that accompanied an appearance on the annual compilation album. By the end of the concept’s 14-year, 11-album run, many tracks were performed by session musicians with a good song rather than actual working bands. But initially, the Project was an invaluable audience-builder for bands working the club trenches.

“It was slightly legitimizing, because we didn’t have anything on vinyl at the time,” Nyswonger says over water, Coke, iced tea and beers at the Gaslight Cafe in Pleasant Ridge. “We had a four-song demo. We would record songs periodically that our manager would futilely send to New York City …”

“And begin the endless rounds of being passed on by major labels,” Fetters adds. “It felt like we won something, but we didn’t really win anything. There was a prize; they played it at the fireworks that year. That was really cool, because we were tripping.”

“You hear your own music under the fireworks, that was a high point,” Nyswonger says. “That was a good surprise.”

“Your Song is Mine” was the Raisins’ first appearance, included on the third album in 1978 (featuring Charley Harper’s distinctive frog illustration on the cover). Back then, The Raisins included drummer Chris Arduser (who returned for the psychodots/Bears chapter) and keyboardist Tom Toth (the song’s co-writer and subsequently an excellent and longstanding solo artist). Although the band’s famous configuration never graced an Album Project (they cameoed on AP#8, singing behind Gary Platt & the Porkopolis All Stars’ “Livin’ in Sincinnati”), The Raisins’ first appearance was a big deal.

“The Album Project was cool because it gave bands a shot at the radio,” Fetters says. “It was pretty adventurous for WEBN.”

For The Raisins’ still-loyal fans, the reunion is a return to the band’s heady days as one of the area’s most popular and reliably entertaining groups. For The Raisins themselves, it’s a terrifying attempt to revisit material they haven’t played in over a quarter century.

“I’ve been listening to stuff in the car and it was a big bunch of noise, in a good way,” Nye says. “I’m trying to figure out what the hell I was doing.”

“I’ve been playing along with our cassette recordings and they’re not in tune,” Fetters says with an incredulous laugh. “I can’t wait to play with you guys because it’s going to sound right.”

The Raisins have regrouped sporadically — for Powell’s late ’90s solo material, George Cunningham’s heart surgery benefit and 2000’s Jammin’ on Main — but the new millennium finds the quartet at perhaps their musical peak. Nyswonger has played with eight different outfits recently, Powell has gigged relentlessly, Nye’s Pop chops have yielded to his love of Boogie Woogie piano and Fetters continues to make a living doing commercial music. They’re all working solo projects, there’s talk of another psychodots album and no one discounts a possible Raisins recording at some point, given the material written and never recorded.

For The Album Project Reunion Show (where the merch table will include a new Raisins T-shirt and a fresh pressing of the long out of print four-disc set, Everything and More), the first roadblock was scheduling the date, particularly with Nye’s transcontinental touring. From there, they massaged the song choices and rehearsed separately ahead of getting together the week before the show.

“The last time we had a lot of music to prepare,” Nye says. “Everybody’s busy as hell, so the fact that we’re doing a concise set, there’s not a lot of stress involved. Maybe a little.”

As Fetters mentioned, The Raisins’ story includes an almost endless succession of seemingly brainless industry decisions that kept them working at the local level and eventually sent them on separate paths. They weigh in on the subject reflectively.

“I think a lot of people hurt for us because they thought we should be big,” Fetters says. “It’s how I feel about Todd Rundgren. How the fuck could Phil Collins be a bigger star than Todd? Looking at you guys, I think everybody’s doing great.”

“It’s not like we’re old, miserable fuckers,” Nyswonger says. “We’ve all done exactly what we wanted to do.”

“To be a star is kind of a perfect storm,” says Powell. “You have to be honest, and you have to be lucky enough for your honesty to be what’s selling at that point. Then you have to have somebody with money or clout to push you.”

“Stuff happens for a reason,” Nye says. “It could have imploded. We were lucky to have such a loyal fan base. So many people felt like, ‘Hey, this is our band.’ That was very beautiful.”

There’s an legit bestseller in the memories dredged up by the musicians’ reminiscences (Naked Party Boat? Scaring Men at Work’s crew at Timberwolf? Dan the Helicopter Man?), but if the last, best question to ask Cincinnati’s own Fab Four is “Will you ever get together again?” Nyswonger answers with another question.

“You want to book us for New Year’s?”

The Raisins reunite for the WEBN ALBUM PROJECT REUNION SHOW Saturday at Madison Theater in Covington, joined by Rock Duster, Haymarket Riot, Sorry Charlie, Dan Barr and many others. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.

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