You could call it a reunion if you want. You could say, like guitarist and vocalist Mark Bilyeu does, that the band members are just poking their head up a bit.
After more than 16 years and 1,000 shows together, the Missouri-based band decided to call it quits in June 2012. They closed the year with a New Year’s celebration in their hometown of Springfield, Missouri, but that was it.
It was a good run. Here in Fayetteville, they’d performed dozens of shows at the well-regarded Chester’s on Dickson Street before performing dozens more at George’s Majestic Lounge after Chester’s closed. During those 16 years together, the band released seven albums and toured extensively. They had the honor of opening for acts such as EmmyLou Harris, Doc Watson and The Avett Brothers.
The band came out of semi-retirement to perform a New Year’s Eve gig in 2016 in Springfield. It was billed in the Springfield News-Leader as a “one-off engagement.” Except it went well, and everyone had a good time. There was another New Year’s Eve gig to close down last year and ring in this one. Which takes us to the present. It might not be a full-blown reunion, not like when they were playing a hundred shows a year, but …
What: Big Smith / Opal Agafia
When: 9 p.m. July 21
Where: George’s Majestic Lounge, Fayetteville
Tickets: $20-$25 via stubs.net
“We’re going to do 4-5 shows per year. And that’s about what I expect for next year, too,” Bilyeu says. The group will be very selective about the gigs it takes. Each of the band members have other obligations now, and Bilyeu has been focusing on his project called The Creek Rocks with his songwriter/guitarist/vocalist wife, Cindy Woolf. That group performs Friday at George’s before Saturday’s show with Big Smith. Everyone in Big Smith has continued playing music, some more than others. That’s just a way of life for the group, which is comprised of three sets of brothers – Mark and Jody Bilyeu, Bill and Rik Thomas, and Mike and Jay Williamson. The group members are all cousins. The music of Big Smith is an extension of the kind of front-porch jams their family members made decades ago and continue to make any time there’s a big family gathering. The original group had five members. When Mike Williamson left for a time, Bill Thomas filled in for him. Now with both available, they’re both part of the band, and both have upright basses to play, among other instruments.
There’s a familiarity with each other and the music that made the reunion easier than might be expected. It took a minute to find their footing ahead of the first reunion show, but only a minute.
“We sat around saying ‘Who sang what harmony?’ But you’d open your mouth, and the right note would come out. That was the best way to remember it,” Bilyeu says.
The first reunion show for New Year’s Eve 2016 picked up right where the band left off and focused on their most recent material, Bilyeu said. But they soon learned fans were hoping for a healthier dose of songs from early albums. The setlist soon veered in that direction.
“We don’t have any illusions of this being anything other than a greatest hits show,” Bilyeu says. “We haven’t been working on new material. We’re happy to give people the show they expect and remember.”
Saturday night’s show includes an opening set from Eureka Springs-based band Opal Agafia and the Sweet Nothings. As of Tuesday afternoon, about 60 tickets remained for the show. It is expected to sell out in advance of the start.
So, yes, it’s a reunion. Perhaps a limited-edition reunion, but one nonetheless.
“And as long as we’re in that mode, we’ll keep coming to Fayetteville,” Bilyeu promises.