The annual Big Cats holiday show almost didn't happen this year.
The longtime Little Rock band has a longstanding annual tradition of playing around Christmastime, when a good many Central Arkansas expats are back in town. Well, half of the band's members live in Little Rock. Bassist Josh Bentley and singer/guitarist Burt Taggart reside in Arkansas, while drummer Colin Brooks (who plays with Dan Zanes & Friends) lives in New York and guitarist Jason White (who's also a member of Green Day) lives in California.
But White and his wife are expecting a child in January, which made traveling back to Arkansas for a Christmas show a no-go. And Green Day is in the midst of releasing three new studio albums. However, Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong entered rehab back in September, so the band was forced to postpone any touring into some time in 2013.
"We were like, 'OK, well would it be too much to ask if we could do something for Thanksgiving?' " Taggart said. With White's schedule suddenly open, the band booked a show on the Saturday after Turkey Day at White Water Tavern.
"There was a very real scenario that we were going to release a 25-song triple LP and then not play one goddamn show to support it," Taggart said, laughing.
That album, "The Ancient Art of Leaving," was just released on Taggart's Max Recordings label. It came out in two parts on CD, the first installment in late 2011 and the second a few weeks ago. Taggart said despite the staggered release schedule, he thinks of the album as a single entity. The band thought of it that way too at the outset of recording.
"It wasn't until we got a little bit further downstream that we kind of figured out, 'Whoa, do we really want to release this at one time, or would it be better to do bite-sized pieces?' " he said. "But now that I'm at the end of all that I think the way that I'll forever think about this project is the vinyl version."
And what a version it is. The packaging is stellar — a triple gatefold album housing three 180-gram slabs of vinyl, containing 25 tracks of the sort of effortless-seeming power-pop brilliance that the Cats have mastered over many years.
There probably aren't too many other triple LPs from bands that only play one or two shows a year. Hell, there aren't too many other triple LPs from any other rock bands, period. So did comparisons to "Sandinista" — The Clash's classic (but often misunderstood) six-sider — come up at all?
"Yeah," Taggart said. "Collin was funny the other night, because we were talking about how proud of it we were because we'd finally gotten copies of it. And he was like, 'Yeah, there's "Sandinista," which basically bankrupted The Clash ...' "
Perhaps it's fitting that The Big Cats would release such an uncommon format. After all, as was pointed out in a recent article on the band in the music magazine Magnet, The Big Cats have stuck it out for nearly two decades in the face of a number of tragedies and mitigating circumstances that have meant the end for countless other bands.
Original member Shannon Yarbrough died in a car crash in 2000, and Brooks and White had long had their hands full with musical commitments on opposite coasts. But Yarbrough's death brought the band closer together, Taggart told Magnet's Matthew Fritch.
"When Shannon died, I think it crystallized the fact that we were all in this together and that no matter where any of us lived, it was important to stay in better touch as friends and try to make new music whenever we possibly could," Taggart told Fritch.
It's going on two decades since The Big Cats formed, playing their first show at one of those raging New Year's Eve parties at the storied Rice Street house. So does Taggart see the band staying together and releasing albums for another 20 years — or even longer?
"As long as it's available to us, and we can eke it out, then I think it definitely fulfills something in all of us," he said. "We're very thankful to have it."
The Big Cats play at White Water Tavern Saturday. The first set is an all-ages show for $5, at 6 p.m., with The Bad Years. The second set starts at 9:30 p.m., $8, with the venerable Kevin Kerby opening.
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