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November 3, 2010

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6 p.m. Saturday, Orange stage

When influential Chicago emo rock band Cap’n Jazz — and that’s Pixies influential, mind you, short-hand for “influential and popular largely after the band could have actually used it” — ended its run for the second time, after a 1995 show in Little Rock, Ark., it did not end well.

Guitarist and vocalist Victor Villareal, battling a drug habit that would continue to dog him into the next decade, had taken a dangerous combination of pills. He was soon unresponsive, and the other four members of Cap’n Jazz rushed him to the emergency room. Ten hours later, Villareal was discharged, and Cap’n Jazz emerged a broken band.

“I wanted to keep it going on some level. But at the same time it was really obvious that it needed to end right there and be done. There was no question that it was going to happen eventually,” sighs Cap’n Jazz guitarist and sometimes-vocalist Davey von Bohlen, 35, from his home in Milwaukee, where today he works as accountant and fronts the band Maritime. “It was a really long drive back from Arkansas. Nobody was happy. There was no conversation. It was pretty silent, and pretty sad. As an ending, it was pretty emblematic of who we were then.”

But 15 years later — “a nice round number,” quips von Bohlen — Cap’n Jazz, the band of adolescent upstarts with a heart-on-their-sleeve sensibility who rocked basements and VFW halls all over suburban Chicago, have returned for a small run of reunion dates that will end with Saturday at Fun Fun Fun Fest. And it looks like that will be the end for Cap’n Jazz.

“This is it, and there’s no ?°»for now’ there. We didn’t plan to do more than one date, which turned into 13 or so, and if we kept going at some point we’d all just be in this band again and I don’t think, as much fun as it has been, any of us are really looking to do that,” says von Bohlen. “Every one of us is in other bands, and being in one band for a lot of us is just about all we can do at this point.”

The world looked very different when von Bohlen first joined Cap’n Jazz. Brothers Tim (vocals) and Mike Kinsella (drums and vocals) started the band in 1989 — at the ages of 15 and 12 — with Villareal and Sam Zurick (bass). As befits a group of adolescents, they played punk rock, but with a skewed sensibility — just as fast and emotive and intense, but more melodic, with a healthy amount of vulnerability on display. It was a style with origins in the Washington, D.C., punk scene — one often dubbed “emo” or “emo-core,” a term resented by nearly everyone involved.

Cap’n Jazz built a loyal regional following on their energetic live reputation and a series of 7-inches. But by 1993, the band had disbanded for the first time after Villareal made an unexpected move to California. Shortly thereafter, the Kinsella brothers began playing with von Bohlen, who found himself, initially reluctantly, incorporated into Cap’n Jazz as the band’s second guitarist after Villareal returned.

“I was in a band at the time called Ten Boy Summer, and Tim is as far as I can tell the only person that enjoyed it at all. He was at a few of our shows and we got to know him and we got to talking about how we should start a band, which is a totally teenage thing to do,” says von Bohlen. “So we started a new band up, which quickly became Cap’n Jazz again, and then I felt maybe a bit hoodwinked because I wanted to be in the other band.”

The band’s members went their separate ways one year after Von Bohlen joined, releasing only one album, a cumbersomely titled debut record that fans refer to as “Shmap’n Shmazz.” Tim Kinsella started the experimental rock project Joan of Arc while von Bohlen took center stage in cult-favorite emo band the Promise Ring.

But word on Cap’n Jazz kept spreading. A two-CD anthology of most of the band’s material, “Analphabetpolothology” found a steady audience that kept royalty checks flowing. And the band proved influential in Chicago and within the emo subgenre.

Even with Cap’n Jazz’s cult following — and the brief emergence of the Owls, a von Bohlen-less reunion of the band that produced one album in 2001 — von Bohlen’s hope for a reunion was dim. When Villareal cleaned up and von Bohlen got the call last year — the last member informed — he was surprised.

“I would have given it a zero percent chance of occurring,” says von Bohlen. “But it had been 15 years and by this point any lingering emotional antagonism was gone. And for the first time, really ever, everybody both had the time and was at a good point in their lives.”

And though the size and fervor of the reunion shows — several sold-out gigs in Chicago and large outdoor festival concerts — didn’t come as a huge surprise to von Bohlen, the return of Cap’n Jazz has at last put the band’s fans and its members on the same page.

“People have talked to us about Cap’n Jazz everywhere we’ve gone in music for the last 15 years, so it’s not like it’s a shock to see people interested in these shows,” says von Bohlen.

“But it’s been nice to play for big crowds, with a lot of young people in them, and to be able to touch and experience that legacy and have it driven home. We were so attached to Cap’n Jazz when nobody cared and so not attached to it when everybody cared, so it’s been nice to resolve that disconnect.”


Patrick Caldwell