By Allison Babka
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Throughout their recent nationwide two-month tour, the 7 Shot Screamers typically ended their performances with their tribute to tragically underappreciated musicians, "Keep the Flame Alive." Glistening with sweat and breathless from the dynamic performances for which they're known, the band members would exit the stage albeit temporarily.
Guitarist Dan Sabella, drummer Kevin O'Connor and upright bassist Chris Powers returned to the spotlight nightly, leaving singer Mike Leahy to hawk the band's wares at the merchandise table. In his place, Exene Cervenka, the singer from legendary LA punk band X, would stride onstage and pick up the microphone. In the blink of an eye, the 7 Shot Screamers transformed into the Original Sinners, the latest project of Cervenka and husband/guitarist Jason Edge.
It obviously takes a lot endurance to play two sets a night, but do the 7 Shot Screamers find it challenging to be the opening act for themselves?
"It's tougher closing for yourselves," O'Connor says. "But it's like a cool-down almost. We're [Cervenka's] backing band, and we're not going to try to outshine her."
The Original Sinners debuted in 2002 but have gone through musicians like Kleenex during hay-fever season. (In fact, the 7 Shot Screamers are the longest-lasting and, coincidentally, the seventh Sinners lineup.) When in the market for a new band, Cervenka knew she wanted to work with musicians who understood one another as well as the music they were playing.
"We thought, 'Why don't we hire a band instead of hire a bunch of musicians that don't know each other?'" Cervenka recalls.
Initially, the elder punk heroine had been impressed by the raw energy and passion of a 7 Shot Screamers show she saw at the Schlafly Tap Room in 2000, while Sabella says the idea of playing as the Original Sinners had been kicked around for some time. But it wasn't until the Screamers received the call in early 2005 to come into the studio and record the recently released Sinners album, Sev7en, that it hit them that this was really going to happen.
Still, other people in town knew from the start that the band was destined for great things.
Before the guys had even graduated high school, their songs were being played on the KDHX (88.1 FM) radio show The Greaser's Lunchbox, and host Al Swacker was putting in a good word for them at local venues. That was how Way Out Club co-owner Bob Putnam ended up booking one of their first shows at the venue the band members now regard as their home.
"I was blown away by the fact that they were so young and so talented," Putnam says about the 7 Shot Screamers' first performance at his club.
When Putnam traveled to Chicago to see the Original Sinners (a tour date was never booked in St. Louis), he was equally impressed by the way they were able to make the music their own. "By playing music someone else wrote, and they pull it off the way they do, that's when you really see what good musicians they are," he says. They've been back in St. Louis for less than 48 hours, and the 7 Shot Screamers are happily telling tales from the road over a pitcher of beer at the Hi-Pointe. Adjusting to the dynamics of playing on large stages, nearly brawling with some teenagers in a McDonald's and having the windows shot out of their van were all part of the learning experience.
"Did I mention we met Morrissey?" Mike Leahy gloats.
Playing for many older X fans on the tour, the twentysomething bandmates found they could win over fans from all generations.
"It's really neat to have played in front of eleven-year-old kids and forty-year-old adults and see that they both enjoyed it," Chris Powers says.
Part of the 7 Shot Screamers' appeal is their uncategorizable blend of music. Most bands armed with an upright bass today tend to come across as cookie-cutter rockabilly. But the 7 Shot Screamers throw dashes of punk, glam and classic rock & roll together as well, creating a truly original sound.
In addition to their distinctive songs, the Screamers put on one of the most captivating live shows of any St. Louis band. Leahy's tambourine shimmying and his prominent raven's nest of hair command attention even when he's not bounding and writhing manically across the stage. And Powers' rapid bass-slapping and Sabella's swift guitar licks garner them as much attention as their flamboyant outfits, which range from coats that resemble 1970s upholstery to skin-tight snakeskin pants. To keep local audiences on their toes, the band also tosses in unexpected covers (including OutKast's "Hey Ya!") for good measure.
Leahy, who met Powers back in his days at Parkway South High School, says it was always his goal to be a rock star. After some failed attempts in a few punk bands, the two gravitated toward rockabilly music. Following a tip from a friend, they attended a jazz concert at Lindbergh High School with the hopes of recruiting a drummer. Leahy recounts seeing a young, talented drummer that stuck out because of his leopard-print shirt and creeper shoes. He immediately knew that Kevin O'Connor was the right guy for the band. Sabella, still jokingly referred to as the rookie, joined three years ago.