On a wing and a Drunken Prayer
Morgan Geer of The Merle and Unholy Trio returns to Asheville with his new sound
The band name Drunken Prayer doesn't actually stem from the time singer/songwriter Morgan Geer and keyboardist Audra Fleming spent holed up in a cabin in California's wine country. It's also not about dogma, though Geer used to front Asheville-based blues-rock outfit The Unholy Trio. "Religious themes work as iconic imagery on an everyday level, without getting too specific in your stories," says Geer.
By phone from his home in Portland, Ore., the musician downplays the occult pall of his latest creative turn (Geer's Drunken Prayer, with David Wayne Gay of the Unholy Trio and Will Chatham of the Merle/The Whappers, opens for The Bottle Rockets at the Grey Eagle this week), but photos of Geer and Fleming tell a different story. The couple is haunted by gray scale and shadows of a bygone era. Fleming is a pale beauty; Geer broods behind a hank of hair. One image titled "1974" places the pair in a tapestry-bedecked living room their clothes enviably retro, their coifs perfectly shaggy. And then there's the matter of Geer's moniker: the artist who departed the Unholy Trio (and, before that, rock trio The Merle) as Chris resurfaced a few years later as "Morgan Saint Christopher."
"I changed to Chris when we moved to [WNC] when I was little," Geer says. "I didn't want to be Morgan [his legal first name] in Black Mountain." In Portland, a string of theatrical shows during which Geer wore "a cool old dusty top hat" brought about the Morgan Saint Christopher persona: part outlaw poet, part carnival barker.
"It was fun to get into character," he says.
But the real East-to-West coast transformation for Geer (who cut his teeth as a drummer in Warren Wilson College bands when he was still a student at Owen High School) has been from rock-band guitarist to songwriter and mainly acoustic performer. About seven years ago, he and Fleming traded Asheville for, according to their Web site, "Woodshedding on a farm in Northern California." (Turns out woodshedding is less about splitting logs and more about dedicated musical practice.) "It was nice being isolated," Geer says. "There was nothing to do but sit around writing music."
From there, the duo headed to Portland (a town Geer says "we didn't even have on our radar") to visit a friend. The Northwestern city fit Drunken Prayer's bill for "a great songwriting scene" (though Geer also describes his home of the last five years as "real politically progressive; almost annoyingly so").
Back to that songwriting scene: Geer describes his current sound as gravitating toward fellow Portland band She & Him (that's M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel) and "later Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, which is real acoustic," Geer says. "More song-oriented and less crank it up and jam out."
So, is it difficult to go from the full-volume garage rock of the Merle (which, according to its MySpace page, is a "goddamn band who have received the word, the calling of the rock and roll demon in their souls") to the relative subtlety of Drunken Prayer? "It's kind of a transitional period," Geer says. "We'd started doing a lot of shows as a two- and three-piece which meant I'd switch over to an acoustic guitar. I didn't enjoy it as much but it sounded better and that's really what matters. After a while I'd switch to electric and miss the acoustic guitar."
These days, Drunken Prayer sets are two-thirds acoustic. "The way the songs are based, they fit better with acoustic guitar accompaniment because we also have piano and organ and often times steel guitar, plus the bass and drums," says Geer. "It's more song-driven music than solo-driven of steamroller-y."
But that doesn't mean Geer has gone soft: Drunken Prayer's recently recorded live EP includes the songs "The Demon" and "What Made Me Kill," those same dark/religious themes that drove both the Merle and the Unholy Trio and which Geer sites as "a way for me to sort through the complexities in my own mind." And "Take This Hammer," a traditional work song set to a fierce, Zeppelin-like tune, is a blistering example of bad-assedness.
"Ultimately," Geer says, "You want the person who's listening to be as moved as you were inspired to do it in the first place."
who: Drunken Prayer (opening for insurgent alt-country gems The Bottle Rockets)
what: Folk-rock noir
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, Aug. 29 (9 p.m., $10 advance / $12 day of show. www.thegreyeagle.com)