It’s hard to imagine now, given the sterilization and utter lack of character along the campus strip of High Street, but during a particular epoch – let’s say 1985 to 1995 – that stretch was always a hedonistic thrall of students. It was a scene so congested that the cops would install a thick steel wire about waist-high to prevent inebriated coeds from spilling into traffic. There were countless dance clubs, record stores, head shops, beer bucket dive bars, and, above all else, live music from local bands emanating from every other venue. And there was one band, the Royal Crescent Mob, who truly embraced and exemplified that playful, party culture. It wasn’t a rarity for them to marquee a sold-out show at the Newport.
While some of that reminiscing might be exaggerated, the larger-than-life presence of the RC Mob among what was then a very crowded field of prestige Columbus music groups is not. Arriving in Columbus a bit too late to experience their high-energy mélange of punk, funk, hip-hop and revelry, I was only privy to the lore the Mob left in their wake. Regardless of if you were part of the underground Bernie’s crowd, the grassy knoll behind the student union, fraternity row, or somewhere in between, the success of RC Mob was indebted to all types of freaks. Perhaps that’s why there’s been such a groundswell of enthusiasm when the band recently announced their return to the stage.
The last time the four original members of the Royal Crescent Mob – including guitarist Brian “B” Emch, vocalist Dave Ellison, bassist Happy Chichester and drummer Carlton Smith – played together, was New Year's Eve, 1993. A lot has happened in the last 30 years, but it’s the circumstances of what Chichester called a “very cruel year” that brought them back. Emch’s wife recently died from pancreatic cancer, Ellison has been treated for prostate cancer, and most pressing is Smith’s diagnosis with glioblastoma – a rare, aggressive form of brain cancer. These tragedies though, can’t obscure the joy that Chichester says was apparent the moment the group started rehearsing again.
“There is so much love between the five of us,” Chichester said. “And I say five because that includes Montie Temple, our sound man, who will be there next weekend with us. It’s been really tough for all of us. But the things that we can do for each other is to give each other this gift of music and to remember those 10 years we spent together playing, writing, recording, and the thousands of miles we spent on the road. It’s been wonderful. It’s a love fest. I hate using that phrase, but that’s what it is.”
For those in need of a history lesson, the Royal Crescent Mob formed in 1985 and quickly became a campus staple. They subsequently inked a deal with Moving Target and released their widely praised debut album, Omerta. The success of that album and multiple tours of the states and Europe caught the attention of Seymour Stein – famed owner of Sire Records – who, in 1988, signed the group.
“With Moving Target, we were doing quite well, touring Europe and getting great crowds,” Chichester said. “When we had signed with Sire, it was a step up. All of a sudden, we were label mates with Madonna and the Pretenders and the Ramones and the Talking Heads. It was the coolest of the major labels. It was so great because he (Stein) didn’t want to meddle with us on that first album. They let us do whatever we wanted, and we did.”
For Sire, they recorded and released 1989’s Spin the World, which ultimately led to MTV exposure and opening slots for the Replacements and the B-52s. But that wasn’t enough to sustain the band within the fickle machine of the popular music industry, and the RC Mob were dropped by Sire shortly after the release of 1991’s less-celebrated Midnight Rose’s. While they soldiered on to record a live album and 1994’s Good Lucky Killer, they unceremoniously split later that year.
While Chichester was modest about RC Mob’s lasting impact on the Columbus music scene, it’s negligent not to imply that they were responsible for opening the door for the post-grunge boom of Columbus bands who found similar national success outside of High Street.
“When we started, it was an interesting time in music. We didn't sound like anyone else,” Chichester said. “There weren’t many bands to compare us to – the Chili Peppers were a band we were often grouped with, but I think it was because they also didn’t sound like anyone else. It wasn’t even really ‘alternative,’ then, it was just college rock. What flew under the radar was a very prolific underground scene. And I always considered us very fortunate to be from Columbus, because so many of those underground bands came from Columbus.”
Though the shadow of those years loomed large on the members of the Mob, they each persevere with successful careers in music. Ellison went on to become, and continues to be, a high-profile touring manager for the likes of Miley Cyrus. Chichester soon formed Howlin’ Maggie, themselves giants of the ’90s Columbus scene, as well as playing with Greg Dulli in the Twilight Singers. Smith played in 24-7 Spyz and joined with Chichester in his various projects through the years. It’s assured that if you're a fan of live music in this city, especially a summer Comfest, you’ve seen one of them in concert on a local stage. But the RC Mob’s real legacy is easily those infectious positive vibes that still proliferate throughout the Columbus community. Gaunt, Scrawl, Watershed, Pica Huss… there’s probably a line, no matter how skewed, that connects to the Royal Crescent Mob.
To that end, I asked Chichester if he had gained any new wisdom in resurrecting a band that hasn’t played together for three decades.
“All of these years of making music and bringing it to people in the live setting – I think all of us in the band would agree that it’s one of the greatest experiences,” Chichester said. “It’s an amazing way to make your livelihood and live life. Music is so deep and there’s so much information in music. It’s ineffable. It’s the stuff you can’t write into the music and the lyrics. When I go back and listen to Omerta, all that information comes back and hits me. The music outlives the musicians. It’s immortality’s gift to culture, and then we give that to the next generation. To be able to leave that behind is great. To pick it back up again is like your younger self teaching your older self about life, and it’s been really beautiful.”
The Royal Crescent Mob will play Friday, Dec. 16, at the Athenaeum in Columbus, and on Saturday, Dec. 17, at the Madison Theater in Covington, Kentucky. All proceeds will benefit the Tri-State Area Cancer Research Fund.