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The plan was in place. Mulehead, arguably Little Rock's most popular band in the late '90s and early '00s, was set to reunite earlier this year at Riverfest. And it would get plum billing: playing just before Lucero and The Black Crowes. The guys in the group got excited, started telling friends and began to practice. Three weeks later, Riverfest called back and told front man Kevin Kerby that Mulehead had been bumped — for Uncle Kracker.
Still, the Riverfest debacle planted a seed. With urging from Last Chance Records' Travis Hill, the band booked White Water for this weekend's two-night stand. It'll be the first time Kerby, guitarist Dave Raymond, drummer Geoff Curran and bassist Brent LaBeau have played together since a thrown-together gig during Towncraft week in 2007 and, before that, since 2004.
The alt-country boom was on during Mulehead's heyday, and, for fans of wry, boozy lyrics and spiked country rock, it didn't get much better. The group regularly sold out local venues, with, as front man Kevin Kerby remembers it, three distinct crowds cycling through during the band's lifespan.
"There'd be a bunch of people coming to see us, and they'd get older and quit going to the clubs so much, and then the next group of kids would come along," he said last week.
That steady brand of loyalty might have something to do with how the band came about. In 1992, just as he was beginning to form an early version of Mulehead, Kerby joined Ho-Hum and stuck around for six years playing guitar. Ho-Hum, as those familiar with the band know, came within steps of pop success, only to be kicked down, unceremoniously, by the vagaries of the music business. When he quit Ho-Hum in 1998, Kerby was determined to do things differently.
The night after he quit, Kerby went into the studio to record Mulehead's debut album, "Never Again." Local vets Greg Spradlin, Chris Michaels, Dave Hoffpauir and Jeff Matika backed him up. The permanent line-up of Curran, LaBeau and Raymond came aboard for album number two, "The Gospel Accordion 2" (no one is pun-ier than Kerby in local music).
From the outset, Kerby said Mulehead was a local project. The album cover of Mulehead's third record, "Rocket Surgery," shows an actual highway sign in Northeast Arkansas with one arrow pointing to (the town of) Success and another towards Little Rock. Mulehead always chooses Little Rock. Out of loyalty. Out of a desire to stick close to family. And because Kerby and LaBeau — who went through similar label frustrations as a member of The Gunbunnies — had played the big music business game and weren't interested in another turn.
Kerby remembered a conversation with someone who wanted to manage Mulehead.
"He told me 'If you guys would tour, I'd make you famous.' And my response was, 'If you'd make me famous, I'd tour.' "
"We only wanted to be so successful," Kerby said. "We didn't want it to go huge. Which really works to your advantage when you're in a band. Because you're not going to be."
Kerby conceded that Riverfest probably made the right decision bumping Mulehead for Uncle Kracker. Beyond Little Rock, and maybe even beyond the local club crowd, Uncle Kracker's radio ready pop reigns over Mulehead's country-rock bar stomp. But it's hard to imagine that a fourth wave of fans, joining survivors from the first three, won't fill White Water to the brim on Friday and Saturday.
Particularly with two fine openers. On Friday, Kerby's childhood friend Brent Best, the lead singer of Slobberbone, opens the show. Saturday is a double reunion as rockers Il Libertina (Joshua Bentley, Paul Bowling, Graham Cobb and Marcus Lowe) play again in the opening slot.
Advanced tickets are available via lastchancerecords.com for $10. Otherwise, tickets are $12 at the door the day of show. Both shows begin at 10 p.m.