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Vigilantes of Love

Vigilantes of Love

Christian rock group

The Vigilantes of Love have been difficult to classify as a band. With admirers in the roots-rock, Americana, and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) communities, the group also resisted pigeonholing with several shifts in instrumentation. They started out as an acoustic duo and moved through various rock band configurations with the usual electric instruments. Songwriter Bill Mallonee's compositions were lyrically dense constructions, replete with everything from biblical quotations to literary references, and he specialized in story and portrait songs of a kind that weren't always easily grasped on first hearing. All these factors combined to earn the Vigilantes of Love consistent critical praise and a core of devoted fans, even as commercial success remained just beyond their grasp.

The Vigilantes of Love were created and maintained by Mallonee, with other musicians rotating in and out of the group over the years. Mallonee (pronounced MAL-a-nee) was born in Martinsville, Virginia. Mallonee's father, a scientist employed by Dow Chemical, moved the family to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, when Mallonee was young, and the two sometimes attended Durham Bulls' baseball games together. The portrait of that small-time team drawn in the hit film Bull Durham accurately depicted the world of minor league North Carolina baseball at the time, and Mallonee came away from the games with a lesson that applied to both baseball and music. "You do it because you love it," he told Country Standard Time. "It seems there's a certain degree of honor that's gone out of it."

Mallonee earned a degree in history from the University of Georgia in Athens. After graduating he stayed on in Athens, teaching history and also working as a teacher with emotionally disturbed children. He lived in the midst of one of the country's most vigorous college-town music scenes, and slowly began to gravitate toward a musical career. At first he sat in on drums with various Athens bands, and then began writing songs when he was in his mid-20s.

Depression played a role in Mallonee's creativity. "I've been given to a kind of cyclical depression for most of my life—nothing real severe but enough to shut me down for short periods," Mallonee told The Other Side. "When I was in my teens and twenties, it scared the hell out of me. And it was worse after I first became a Christian, because I couldn't reconcile my depressive periods with the shiny, happy attitude of some friends who'd say: 'You're just not getting enough victory, brother. We'll pray for you,' and all that."

The songs he wrote, Mallonee told Country Standard Time, served as "pep talks." He started to get a hearing for his music while performing with the Athens bands Bed of Roses and the Cone Ponies. His depressive episodes became less severe after he married at age 24, and after he realized that what would be called depression today also affected many of the figures in the Bible's Old and New Testaments. "Jeremiah, for example, was called a 'weeping prophet,'" Mallonee pointed out to The Other Side.

In 1990 Mallonee formed the Vigilantes of Love as a duo with Billy Holmes, who was adept on mandolin, guitar, accordion, keyboards, and other instruments. They released three albums together. Jugular and Drivin' the Nails circulated mainly in Athens, but Killing Floor in 1992 was co-produced by Peter Buck of the famed Athens band R.E.M., and gained national attention. A Washington Post critic noted Mallonee's eclecticism as a songwriter—"a little Bob Dylan here, a little Loudon Wainwright III there, a lot of Waterboys Celtic spin everywhere"—and found that the album "frequently radiates a dizzying, off-center, off-the-cuff charm."

Reviews like that won the Vigilantes of Love a contract with Capricorn Records, a label with a long track record in the field of what would soon be called Americana. Mallonee re-formed the group as a conventional four-piece rock lineup for the Vigilantes' Welcome to Struggleville album; drummer Travis Aaron McNabb later went on to join the band Better than Ezra, and the group also included guitarist Newton Carter and bassist David LaBruyere. Veteran rock producer Jim Scott was brought on board for the album, but All Music Guide declared that "the new electric sound adds little to Mallonee's razorsharp cultural criticism." After a tour in support of Welcome to Struggleville, the band dissolved.

Mallonee went back to the drawing board for the Vigilantes' 1995 Blister Soul album, putting together a quartet featuring guitarist Chris Donahue, and a third album for Capricorn, Slow Dark Train, followed. At the same time the Resound label, the Christian arm of the Warner Brothers conglomerate, released VOL, the band's debut in the Christian market. VOL was probably the most successful album released by the Vigilantes of Love, spawning a chart-topping Christian single, "Double Cure," as well as "When I'm Broken," a song that reached the top ten on modern rock radio airplay charts. The dual genre impact was typical for the band; many of their songs had religious overtones, but Mallonee avoided proselytizing.

The Vigilantes of Love, in fact, were urged to turn to the rapidly growing world of Christian pop as a way of improving their commercial fortunes. But Mallonee would have none of it. "I really have come to believe, in spite of the artists who do that with all sincerity, that to commercialize your faith is the same thing as cheapening and trivializing it," he told the Musicians Online website. "Nashville CCM seems to be heavily into marketing their faith. A sort of what I call 'shiny-happy Christianity' that seems to have more in common with MTV image and sound—with 'Christianese' thrown in on top of it for the youth pastors."

Mallonee's own faith was personal. He was variously affiliated with the Catholic and Presbyterian churches and with evangelical groups. But his was not a questing or doubt-ridden faith. "The Gospel of Christ is precious to me," he declared in the Musicians Online interview.

Mallonee went on to release two Vigilantes of Love albums, 1998's To the Roof of the Sky and 1999's Cross the Big Pond, on his own Meat Market label. Audible Sigh (1999) was distributed by the large Atlantic conglomerate, while the group moved to the smaller Compass label for 2001's alternative country-oriented Summershine. The marketing effort for that album unfortunately coincided with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and although the Vigilantes' solid fan base stuck with them, the band once again failed to break through to a wider audience.

Eventually the difficulties inherent in keeping a money-losing band on the road got the better of Mallonee. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't bitter about the whole thing. I'd say one of my biggest spiritual battles is accepting the 'critic's darling status but not selling records stigma,'" he told Musicians Online. The Vigilantes of Love officially disbanded at the end of 2001. Mallonee later released several individual projects, including 2003's Perfumed Letter. Despite family responsibilities—he described himself to the Grand Rapids Press as "boringly family" and "120 percent dad"—he remained active as one of American rock music's most intelligent figures.

For the Record …

Members include Chris Bland , bass; Jacob Bradley , bass; Newton Carter , guitar; Tom Crea , drums; Chris Donahue , guitar; Kevin Heuer , drums; Billy Holmes , multi-instrumentals; David La- Bruyere , bass; Bill Mallonee (founder and ongoing organizer); Travis McNabb , drums.

Group formed in Athens, GA, 1990; gained national attention with release of Killing Floor, 1992; released three albums on Capricorn label; released album VOL to Christian market on Resound label, 1996; released Tothe Roof of the Sky on own Meat Market label, 1998; signed to Compass label; group dissolved, 2001.

Addresses: Record company—Bill Mallonee, c/o Paste Records, P.O. Box 1606, Decatur, GA 30031, website: http://www.pasterecords.com.

Selected discography

Jugular, Fingerprint, 1990.

Driving the Nails, Core, 1991.

Killing Floor, Fingerprint/Sky, 1992.

Welcome to Struggleville, Capricorn, 1994.

Blister Soul, Capricorn, 1995.

VOL, Resound, 1996.

Slow Dark Train, Capricorn, 1997.

To the Roof of the Sky, Meat Market, 1998.

Live at the 40 Watt, PasteMusic, 1998.

Audible Sigh, Compass, 2000.

Summershine, Compass, 2001.

Sources

Periodicals

Grand Rapids Press, September 15, 2000, p. 10.

The Other Side, January 1999, p. 32.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 2, 2003, Get Out section, p. 23.

Washington Post, April 9, 1993.

Online

"Bill Mallonee: Fact Sheet," Paste Music, http://www.pasterecords.com (August 30, 2004).

"Interview Archives: Bill Mallonee of the Vigilantes of Love," Musicians Online, http://www.musiciansonline.com/Docs/interviews/int_040298_vol.html (August 30, 2004).

"Review: 'It Could Be a Lot Worse,'" BeliefNet, http://www.beliefnet.com/story/57/story_5703_1.html (August 30, 2004).

"Vigilantes of Love," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (August 30, 2004).

—James M. Manheim

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