The Voodoo Birds come full circle with May 20 reunion at The Union

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) – In 1990, The Voodoo Birds were accustomed to playing open mic nights and performing for disinterested audiences.

Fast forward three years and the ambitious group of musical Ohio University students were playing all over the region, converting throngs of new fans everywhere they went with their signature “Original Dance Groove.”

What is this “Original Dance Groove,” you ask?

Well, it’s the piping hot creation you get when you take jazz-rock in the Allman Brothers mold, pepper in a sense of fiery psychedelia à la Jimi Hendrix; and coat thoroughly with a kind of playful-yet-potent funkiness in the Parliament Funkadelic vein. It’s also what happens when a group of talented young people with a mighty work ethic are possessed by the lingering idealistic creative and cultural spirit of the ‘60s counterculture.

The Voodoo Birds return to Athens May 20 for a reunion show at The Union, which marks their first such performance since 2019.

The Voodoo Birds promotional graphic that is black with the band's name.

The birth of the groove

Founding band members Roman Warmke and Ben Repp said the core of The Voodoo Birds began performing together early on in their undergraduate years as Strawberry Jam.

Warmke said Strawberry Jam was a “flowery, hippie band” with a sound that was “all over the place.”

After two or three years of this “anything goes” approach, band members wanted to experiment with creating something more unified, specific, and accessible.

The group developed a sound that was equally psychedelic, funky, and jazzy (complete with horns) – all while mostly sticking the general verse-chorus-verse pop/rock song structure. They were pulling from many influences: their idolization of the music of the Woodstock generation; the growing prominence of hybrid musical styles like third wave ska and swing revival, and the DIY work ethic responsible for a growing number of successful bands in the ‘90s.

Thus, the aforementioned “Original Dance Groove” was born. Now it was time to share it with the people.

Spreading the gospel 

“We were very young, we were very hungry, and we were very naïve — and that is a very cool combination,” Warmke said. “We’d play to two people in Columbus one week, then we’d play to four, then we played for eight, then 16 […] and then two years later they say, ‘you’re an overnight sensation!’”

In the ‘90s, getting the word out about your band was far more tactile that it is today. Warmke jokes that the term “cut and paste” originated with The Voodoo Birds and their prodigious use of handmade flyers.

“I’m a marketing guy, and I was a business student at the time,” Warmke said. “So I was really into promoting the band. And before the internet, it was an art form for sure. You had to shake hands all the time, you had to be on the phone all the time – that’s how things were.”

All this grassroots promotion paid off. In 1992 the band recorded their one and only official release – Sneaking Suspicion – also widely known as “the blue tape” because it was released on (you guessed it!) a blue cassette tape.

A picture of the album cover of The Voodoo Birds' "Sneaking Suspicion" album.
Onward to Chapel Hill 

With the same kind of open-minded enthusiasm and youthful creative hunger that had fueled the band’s ascension thus far, The Voodoo Birds decided to set out for Chapel Hill, NC in 1993. At the time Chapel Hill boasted a burgeoning music scene with an alluring resemblance to the Seattle music scene that had changed the world only a few years prior.

“We’d all graduated and we kind of looked each other in the eyes and said, ‘well, do we part ways, or what?’” Warmke recalls. “And we were like ‘Hell no! Let’s try this in a bigger market – let’s see what’s next.”

They promptly rented an eight-bedroom farmhouse that Warmke says was “everything you can imagine.”

“We had girlfriends, babies, hippies, transients, roommates, guests all living there at one time or another,” he said.

The group’s time in Chapel Hill wasn’t just a free-flowing neo-hippie communal living experiment, however.

“[It’s] where we really expanded our touring in the south,” Warmke said. “We started playing on the main drag there in Chapel Hill, which led to shows in Durham and Raleigh and Greensville and Asheville – and we even dropped down into Georgia and South Carolina.”

Fast forward three years, and our heroes are not 23-year-old hungry and naïve postgraduate kids anymore.

“When we all got to be 26, 27, 28 or so – people started having babies and getting married,” Warmke said. “Playing music like we had been was hard work, and eventually, the same way we kind of decided to move to Chapel Hill – we sort of looked at each other one day and said ‘all right, see ya!’ By then we were all so close and had so much history [together] that we knew we weren’t breaking up — but we were gonna move out of this eight-room farmhouse for God’s sake!”

Following their exodus from Chapel Hill the band reunited on a pretty much annual basis for years. Eventually, other obligations made doing so increasingly complicated for band members.

Tragedy struck the group of long-time friends and bandmates in 2019 when saxophonist Robert Bradshaw Quebman (“QBert”) died unexpectedly. The Voodoo Birds reformed for a memorial concert held in Quebman’s honor.

The experience reinvigorated the band, but Covid-19 put the brakes on any further reunions — until now. The upcoming revival show at The Union will feature nine band members, including two who will be playing with the group for the first time. The performance is dedicated to Quebman.

Repp said the upcoming show at The Union represents a kind of full circle for The Voodoo Birds.

“In a weird way, this show represents the circle of life to me because we actually had our first show at The Union many, many years ago,” he said. “It feels like this show represents the beginning of a new cycle for us. I recently retired and I’ve got the time and energy now to put my heart and soul back into the band. I’m feeling many of my fellow bandmates share that sentiment. We’re ready for the next chapter of the Voodoo Birds.”

The Voodoo Birds play The Union Saturday, May 20 at 8 p.m. Find more information and buy tickets at this link