Guaranteed to go down a storm at Greenbelt '95 is a bluesy band from Athens, Georgia known as the VIGILANTES OF LOVE. Tony Cummings reports.
No name on the Greenbelt '95 bill produced a more enthusiastic "hallelujah" from Cornerstone House this year than Vigilantes Of Love. For since seeing them at a Nashville club during 1994's GMA week, the producer of the Cross Rhythms Experience, Jonathan Bellamy, has been a vociferous VOL fan and the band's surging "Runaway Train" from the critically acclaimed import album 'Welcome To Struggleville' has seen month-in-month-out plays on the Cross Rhythms radio programmes.
The Vigilantes Of Love have been favourites of the American Christian underground since 1992 when the band performed at Chicago's famed Cornerstone Festival. There the band's lead singer and songwriter Bill Mallonee quickly won over the crowd with his intense, darkly brooding songs and manic stage act where he would catapult himself frequently into the air. The band's debut album 'Killing Floor' was released shortly afterwards but though charting in several alternative music publications and receiving mucho college radio play never broke through the sales barrier. In 1994 the band's second album 'Welcome To Struggleville' on Capricorn resulted in more clamorous reviews particularly from Christians drawn to Bill Mallonee's transparent declarations of faith and honest, though often painful, explorations of humanity.
In May the second Capricorn album was released in the States. Says Bill Mallonee, "It's got some gritty rock stuff, as well as sparser acoustic tracks that mix in piano, steel guitar and mandolin. I'd say it's more like 'Killing Floor' than 'Struggleville."
Although defiantly a mainstream band Bill acknowledges that much of VOL's support base is Christian. He says he feels "...incredibly blessed and grateful for the support of Christians. Having people come to the shows and identify themselves as believers is a real boost for me. I truly feel that the fellowship of saints is one means of God's grace."
Although Bill Mallonee is Vigilante's songwriter and spokesman, he's by no means alone in shaping the sound of the group; in fact, Mallonee is always quick to praise guitarist Newt Carter, bassist David LaBruyere and drummer Travis McNabb. One aspect of the band's relationship which many Christian fans find curious is the fact that Bill is the only believer in the group. Mallonee insists that's never caused any undue friction for him. "I love these guys; they're great friends and great players. I've learned to accept where they're at, and I certainly don't ram my faith in Christ down their throats. It's an on-going discussion, and they're seekers. I would like for them to come to see their need for Christ. But our first job is to be a good band and play good music."
Despite his faith, Mallonee concedes that there's a dark side to his lyrics. "I'm definitely drawn to the ugly and twisted," he admits, "because it's that which makes us realise the problem is never 'out there', it's always 'in here'. To me, it's hard to make goodness, stability and holiness look appealing to a world that's in rebellion. All truth is God's truth. Even if it's a testimony to the fallen-ness and the brokenness of man, it's still a part of God's truth."
When he's not travelling with the Vigilantes, Bill assists in the leadership of a small Presbyterian house group in Athens, GA, which is comprised at various times of 60 to 90 members, mostly college students. Maintaining strong church roots is what Mallonee feels has held his marriage and fellowship with Christ together through the long periods of touring and some rather lean financial years. Bill says that, even with his limited exposure to the Christian music scene, he's troubled by the number of musicians who seem to have no grounding in the faith. "Please, that is not meant to sound self-righteous. I know it's hard for musicians who have to be away from .families and their wives for long periods of time. I think there's a way around that, but it's not by dropping out of the organised church."
In 1994 the Vigilantes Of Love recorded a track for the Mark Heard tribute album 'Strong Hand Of Love'. As Bill Mallonee told David Vanderpoel of Visions Of Gray newspaper, "We took 'Freight Train To Nowhere' and made it something totally like the Chilli Peppers would do. And it sounds great. At first I was like really unconvinced. Travis and David said it really works like this so I thought, 'Well...' I got one of those truck dispatcher's microphones, like those little green bullets that sort of distort... Tom Waits uses them... and I did the lead vocal with that in my hand and it sounds like that's really what it needed. So we felt real happy about it when we sent it off to Dan Russell who's putting it together. Kind of held our breath to see what Dan would think and he loved it. And I think Mark would've liked it too 'cause it's just a totally different take on it than what he did on 'Satellite Sky'."
Bill Mallonee became a Christian while a teenager. "It was like 17 or 18. I don't remember. I was in high school. I went to a Bible study in Atlanta that my girlfriend was taking me to...they were charismatics, they were moderately charismatics, but they didn't use that word. I never heard that term. And it just sort of tweaked my interest one summer and I started just buying stuff out of a Christian bookstore and reading and I came to understand the gospel. After about six months I, I usually don't elaborate much on this, I think Christ is exactly who he said he was and I was able to see myself as being a sinner in need of a Saviour.
"For some time I had been emotionally in touch with the fact that whether or not I was conscious of God being there or not somehow if there was a mark in the universe that was absolute I was missing the mark. But I wouldn't necessarily say it was so clear in my mind that it was the God of the Hebrews.
"I remember a time when I was reading a book by Hal Lindsey, something like Satan On Earth. I got to a chapter where Lindsey laid out the gospel in very simple terms...Christ interceding for you on a daily basis. And I remember that it really clicked."
Bill and his fellow Vigilantes Of Love are like thousands of other bands stuck in the hinterland of 'cult' success, with a clear fan base but not one it seems large enough to elevate them to stardom. Was Bill satisfied with his stint in the music world?
"If it all folded tomorrow, I'd be satisfied. The fans are everything. They're our grassroots and they've been so kind to me and they've been so kind to the band...And I know it's been, like, 50 per cent Christians who bought our stuff. I won't ever forget that base. If it all folded tomorrow, it'd still be home to come home to. And I'd be fine with that, yeah. I don't think you can go about anything in life except if the Lord wills. I think you just have to get used to that, and sometimes that means waiting and sometimes that answer is, 'It's not gonna happen.' And I think I can say that honestly. I think there'd be a disappointment on some level, but for me the fun part is sitting in my office writing and then trying that particular song or time out in front of...It doesn't matter, the crowd doesn't have to be 200. It could be two. It could be my wife. That's the fun."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.