Poff’s Prophets of Pop Part Ways
By Stephanie Sowder Dorris
“Oh the missionary man,
he’s got god on his side
He’s got the saints and apostles
backin’ up from behind
Black eyed looks from those bible books,
he’s a man with a mission,
got a serious mind…
But don’t mess with a missionary man.”
Beloved Roanoke band and indie staple, the Missionaries, will be playing their final show this Friday at The Spot on Kirk. The event will be presented by The Bazaar, a combination record and retail shop, coffee/tea café, and music venue created, owned and operated by former Missionaries band member Jamie Booker. The store recently gained status as a non-profit, enabling the funds from its retail storefront to provide space and opportunity for musicians and artists to share their creations with the community. Booker and The Bazaar’s dedication to fostering and cultivating artistic expression in SW Virginia, is something we are particularly grateful for here at Blue Ridge Rocks. And it is in this moment of appreciation for Jaime, and with my fond memories of so many Missionaries shows, that I recognize the positive influence that dedication has had on their band.
It was an attitude that sprang from its founding member, Seanmichael Poff, and quickly spread, finding its way into the hearts of each and every band member that would join them on their decade-long journey. You could always depend on two things from a Missionaries show. First, their set would be killer. Secondly, other impressive bands would almost always be on the bill along with them. Often these were groups that you would not see playing at any other local venues. Missionaries members not only encouraged and shared the stage with the traveling artists, but even hosted them, often in their own homes. Their commitment to bringing in these special acts supplied the Roanoke Valley with a fresh vibe and expanded the music scene greatly.
In addition to growing our local scene, their decision to host them made an impact on their own sound as well. With each passing year, their music grew and their shows gained more and more momentum. People couldn’t wait to see what they would do next. Clearly the exposure to so many different types of music had inspired their work to expand in thrilling and unexpected directions.
For the Missionaries, the scene was never about competition. Their focus was always on honing their craft, which ultimately made them every bit, if not more, talented than many of their peers. They pushed themselves creatively by changing the line-up from time to time and by adding new instruments or only using certain ones on certain tracks. Their 2011 E.P. “Lilies Among Thorns” for example, had a total of 12 contributing musicians.
For many other bands, such change-ups could have been disastrous. But not for the Missionaries. Practically every member was a multi-instrumentalist, so they could easily adapt to the additional members and extra sounds because chances were they had played the same instrument before. What could have been distracting to fans, ultimately impressed them while it helped the band to garner more. The constant cohesiveness of their ever-evolving tribe made them seem like a family of creative geniuses that we all wanted to join.
I can still remember one of the first times I heard the Missionaries perform at the Bazaar. I walked into the magical store; its walls bathed in tapestries and shelves armed with vintage treasures.
Stepping into the crowd that surrounded the performers, I immediately became entranced by the haunting melodies and subtle harmonies emerging from an unusual combination of voices and instruments.
This self-proclaimed “sonic guitar-driven” pop band of “weirdos and weird lookers” actually looked and sounded like everything I wanted to be… or at least be around. They were casual, quirky and talented. You could immediately feel that each one of them had a laid back personality combined with a quick-thinking mind. Within seconds of meeting them you knew that they were not only mesmerizing performers, but were fascinating individuals as well. They were smart, and they made smart music. They were also cool… nerd cool! Theirs was that unintentional hipness that only comes about by not actually caring if you are hip or not; something I still struggle with at age 30.
I continued to follow the Missionaries throughout their many years. The mathematics of their musical prowess combined with a faint aura of the early Liverpool and Wirral music scene always made for memorable, quirky and intoxicating shows. I remained constantly impressed by their ability to do something unique and risky while still managing to be catchy and relevant. You don’t encounter that often in a world that primarily rewards songwriters and performers for churning out quick, cheap hits or covering the same old, tired songs just to fill a bar. Perhaps that is how they managed to remain so captivating over all of the years; by always having something new to contribute.
Each one of them had a story to tell through sound and it was the weaving together of those tales and those experiences that made up the layers and textures that would ultimately become every one of their songs. And I loved hearing every new tale. While saddened that this will be their final chapter as this band, I take solace in knowing that each of them gained myriad skills from their time together, and that they will undoubtedly carry those skills with them into whatever projects and endeavors they have planned for the future. Still, saying goodbye to these prophets of progressive pop is no easy task. I can only imagine how bittersweet it must be for them.
Poff made the announcement for their final show over Facebook, along with these kind words,
“When I started using the moniker back in 2005/06 it meant something very different to me. I’ve grown a lot while making music under this name and the music that came with it changed with me. Missionaries was never a set in stone group but I think we had finally found our core with Marshall Hicks, Megan Glassman and Taylor Lineberry. I can’t thank them enough for playing music with me.
Missionaries has seen a lot of members contribute their time and talents to the project. Thanks to Jamie Booker Cheatwood, Jonathan Woods, Adam Painter, Camellia Delk, Heidi Garrabrant, Cat Conover, Austin Ray Alderman, Doug Cheatwood, Sam Lunsford, Daniel Cundiff, John Thompson, Scott Baldwin, Wil Cleveland, Susan Honer and John Francis Lindsey for making the group differing and fun throughout the years.” Even in his humble exit, he makes it about the musicians around him.
To those of you who have never heard the Missionaries, I highly recommend you check out their albums and songs which can be accessed through the website: http://themissionariesva.bandcamp.com/. Even though they will not be performing together as a band after Friday, you can still reap the benefits of their sound and make them a permanent staple in your music rotation. I, for one, will always have a place in my playlist for these hometown heroes. Take a listen and prepare to be changed. Whether it is Megan Glassman puppet-mastering your heart with her smooth, OMD-esque synth sounds while emphasizing the poetry of Poff’s lyrics with her soft, school girl voice, or Taylor Lineberry anchoring a song with his flawless bass crawls, clever passing tones and careful attention to dynamics, you can’t help but be moved. Marshall Hicks, the heartbeat of the band, has always been their perfect time keeper, standing out as a drummer that has clearly mastered the art form. But what really drives home the effectiveness of his rhythm is the way he uses “fills” (that’s drummer talk!) to intentionally change the movement of a song (as opposed to just being for show or filler). When Hicks speaks up rhythmically, you feel it in your bones. Seanmichael Poff’s voice, whether live or recorded, sails like a weightless feather, while his sometimes temporal, sometimes spiritual, but always clever lyrics grab your attention with the tightest of grips. When his guitar commands you to follow, you do it. Your ears immediately hop into formation, curious and full of anticipation.
They say that the best music makes you feel something you have never felt before, and there is no doubt that the Missionaries have always accomplished that with great ease. But perhaps more intriguing to me, is the way their music helps you to remember. Their music, for me at least, somehow has this magic ability to resurrect a lost feeling from long ago; a sensation that you have forgotten you once felt. Nostalgia, isn’t the right word. “Transcendence”, perhaps? Whatever you call it, their music clears away a mental fog you had no idea was there. Yes, listening to the Missionaries can conjure a sneaky, emotional awareness to climb into your soul and then snap you awake with its presence.
There are moments we assume to be unforgettable, simply because we are so swept up in them at the time. But those moments add up, and after time you only have room to keep so many of them at the forefront of your mind. Still, that doesn’t mean those other ones aren’t in there somewhere… hiding… and waiting for someone or something to pull them forward again. For me, the Missionaries’ songs have always been a landline to those thoughts; an alarm clock for those sleepy dreams.
So to everyone in the band, thanks for the wake-up call! And thank you for sharing your talents with all of us. Getting to know your music has helped so many of us to better know ourselves. On behalf of all of the Molly Ringwald-worshipping, sonic youth listening, nerd representing, disciples of the magic twig… we are going to miss your ministries. Here’s to the Missionaries! Consider us converted.