By Josette Keelor
Winchester-based band Blackmail, a 12-year fixture in the valley until its breakup in 1997, credits its fans with its return.
During the 1980s and '90s, the rock and metal band rose about as high as it could have without a record contract. Then music trends started to leave them behind, heading more toward grunge; life intervened, and the four remaining members went their separate ways.
They raised their families and played with other bands, but now founding members Rob Welch, Rick Alger, Kevin Levi and Chuck Whipkey are back together and ready to rock.
"There we are," said lead vocalist Welch, of Williamsport, Md. "We come full circle."
During their first run, Blackmail produced two albums -- "Hot, Hard and Heavy" and "Second Album," according to Welch -- and now its members are working on a new one, yet to be named. They also have been scheduling performance dates locally for about once a month, with their next performance Saturday at 9 p.m. at Blue Fox Billiards Bar & Grill in Winchester.
"This is kind of our anniversary," Welch said. "We started rehearsing at the beginning of the year."
What brought them back together was more a series of circumstances than anything intentional.
Two years ago, Greg Shiley, of Shiley Acres in Martinsburg, W.Va., called Welch about the 2012 summer grand reopening of the music festival at Shiley Acres.
"What would it take to get Blackmail?" Welch remembered Shiley asking him.
Welch, who had been playing gigs at Sweet Caroline's in Winchester and other area venues, said he often received requests for Blackmail's songs. After hearing from Shiley, he texted drummer Levi, of Winchester.
They then sought guitarist Whipkey, of Stephens City, and bassist Alger, of Winchester.
Through Blackmail's first run, Alger had been succeeded by three other musicians, including Buddy Verloop, the band's bass player for 10 years. Him an original member, though, Welch and Levi wanted to offer Alger first refusal. He defied their expectations.
"It's made for a great reunion for us, because of how people have accepted us," Welch said. "Next year we're hoping to spread out more." Before, he said, "We played from Maine to Florida."
Though they never made it big, the four friends say they have no real regrets, despite the opportunities they passed up.
"It's hit and miss," Welch said. "Not regrets, I don't think regrets is the word." He later added, "Truth is, we probably would have done it the same way all over again."
Like any other group of aspiring 20-somethings, they kept holding out for the one offer from a big name record company.
"It's a very glamorous ending when you see these bands like Guns n Roses and Aerosmith," Welch said. "In those days, that was the reason."
Blackmail, he said, "Had several record deals that we turned down, and then we got above ourself a little bit."
"When's our turn come up?" Levi remembered thinking at the time. They were fearful of taking the wrong offer, though.
"It's kind of like signing your name ... to a mortgage," he said. Plus they all had day jobs and were making more money at home than they thought they would have elsewhere.
Said Alger, "We're doing it for a lot better reasons now."
Now they do it for fun, and for the fans.
Since reuniting, Levi said, he most appreciates that people are willing to spend their money to come out and see Blackmail play.
Welch enjoys when audiences request songs from Blackmail's past.
"When you're singing songs that you've written, and they're singing it along with you," Welch said, "... It makes it worth it when people actually give back to you like that."
Said Levi, "We don't have a whole lot of regrets. We did what we did. I regret seeing grunge coming into it."
"When you write an original," he said, "you have to think of the time."
Welch agreed, "You've got to have your own sound. Fortunately for us, we all had that desire to write our own stuff."
Some of their favorites, for fans and band members alike, are "British Knights," "Pull My Trigger" and "Blackmail."
Working on the new album with Blackmail will be record producer Beau Hill, who, the band said, also worked with Poison and The Kix.
Still, they don't expect to hit it big now. Just saying they're working with Hill is enough, said Welch.
"He's going to produce our CD. Which is pretty cool," he said.
Blackmail also has been updating some of its old songs to reflect today's sound.
Since reuniting, the band has found its fan base waiting eagerly to hear songs they still remember years later, and though the band plans to introduce new material to its audience, it also will weave in the songs that first made it popular.
"People still when they come to see us ... they expect it," Welch said.
Blackmail's influences are widespread, too, encompassing big names from '80s and '90s rock and metal, which they cover during their concerts, often upon request.
The musical repertoire that all four men know combined, "It's a vast amount of songs," Whipkey said. "Into the hundreds."
Levi agreed, "It would blow most people's minds."
Blackmail will perform today at 9 p.m. at Blue Fox Billiards Bar & Grill, at 1160 Millwood Pike, Winchester. For more information about Blackmail, visit www.facebook.com/ BlackmailBand.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org