Morgan Geer was raging. It was pushing 1 am at the East End, and the Drunken Prayer frontman, under a top hat and leather coat, guitar in hand, hollered out at a group of early-twentysomethings attempting to leave the club's tiny basement performance space. "Please don't leave," he worked into a song's lyrics for the half-amused, half-terrified clique, his Southern drawl more pronounced than usual. Audra Fleming continued to pound at the keys, her face hidden behind a wall of hair. It's saying something that the group's calmest member was legendary Portland drummer Sam Henry (the Wipers, the Maroons), who stared down his kit with a furrowed brow, holding his sticks jazz-style and listening closely to Geer and Fleming.
That was two months ago. At a booth in Northeast Portland's Tonic Lounge last Friday night, Geer seemed an entirely different character. Tugging at a stray patch of his wild beard, the 32-year-old spoke thoughtfully about Jerry Lee Lewis and Public Enemy's dance squad/security force, the S1W's. When reminded of his wild night at East End, he laughed. "Sometimes you just gotta go with it."
"The first thing I ever did onstage was an Elvis impersonation in the third grade," Geer remembers. "It was a talent show. My mom made me a white jumpsuit with an eagle on the cape. I sang 'Hound Dog' a cappella, and I won. I always loved it. I feel more comfortable onstage than I do like this."
Geer met Fleming at one of her regular yard sales in Asheville, N.C. "I bought a bunch of Happy Days memorabilia," Geer says. An 8-track and a "Fonzie toboggan" that Geer still owns were among the finds. "Except everyone here thinks 'toboggan' means sled," Fleming says to avoid any dialectic confusion. In the South, it means hat.
The duo, who married in 2003, is used to explaining Southern terminology to confused Northwesterners after three years in Portland, though their backgrounds couldn't be more different. Geer was born to hippies in San Francisco but grew up (and played in rock bands) between New Orleans and Asheville. Fleming came up Southern Baptist in Bristol, Tenn. (a town often cited as the birthplace of country music). "I hated country music," she says. She spent her teenage years "trying different bodies of water to get baptized in" and playing piano in church. She once penned new, devotional lyrics for the Doors' "People are Strange" and played it for the congregation. No one recognized the tune.
In 2005, Geer came to Portland to visit with a friend, and while he was here, Mount St. Helens had a minor eruption. He thought it must be a sign: "I said, 'Audra you're gonna love it; the ground explodes.'"
But Portland, Geer admits, has been a "tough nut to crack." Between Drunken Prayer's hillbilly name and the singer's Southern accent, it's too easy to write the band off as a shallow country act. Further inspection disproves the theory. Geer is the real deal as a frontman, a barking ringleader with chops between Tom Waits and the Butthole Surfers' Gibby Haynes (with whom he also shares some vocal similarities). His interplay with Fleming gives the band depth, and the duo harmonizes as if they were raised in the same traveling family band.
The aptly titled new EP, …with Sam Henry, catches Drunken Prayer at its bruising best. Geer opens the record with guitar-tuning and an offhand dig at his own macabre songwriting. "Another song about killing people," he mumbles to the silent crowd. The six-song release, recorded in the parking lot of the Centaur Guitar music shop in Northeast, takes off from there in a storm of twang, feedback and crashing cymbals. Sure, there's a buzz in the background on the lovely "Brazil," or when the band stops to receive its scattered applause. That only makes this strange little recording more special.
Geer and Fleming are now in the early stages of recording new material, and while they don't expect Sam Henry to play on the new record (the group's latest live incarnation includes Jose Medeles on drums and Matt Brown on bass), they do feel like Portland is starting to look past the group's Southern veneer to take Drunken Prayer a bit more seriously. "Seems like we've hacked our way out of that," Geer says. "And we've gotten better. I think we're twice the group now that we were even a year ago."
Drunken Prayer releases
at Doug Fir on Friday, March 20. 9 pm. 21+.