Petersburg cow-punk band Bass Thumb has apparently reunited, and will be playing their first public gig since their return this weekend. The question is: where did this mysterious band come from in the first place? RVA Mag received this report.
Walking around the old Southern town of Petersburg, Virginia, you might spot someone wearing a Bass (pronounced bass) Thumb sweatshirt. You might even see a sticker on a lamp post or toilet wall. However, if you ask local residents about Bass Thumb, you’ll likely be met with a shrug of the shoulders. Some argue about how you pronounce the name. Is it bass or bass?
I asked the owner of a local coffee shop if she’d ever heard of Bass Thumb, to which she replied, “I’m not sure what this Bass Thumb thing is about. All of a sudden, people were wearing Bass Thumb shirts and I’ve seen some obscene logos around. I’ve been told the guy that runs Beaunuts [a hot dog and donut shop in Petersburg] is some kind of celebrity, but he doesn’t seem like anyone famous. People go in there trying to catch a glimpse of him, sneaking photos on their phones. And he does have a Bass Thumb shirt in there. Maybe you could ask him.” Hearing this, I took a stroll down the street to Beaunuts in search of Ernie LeBreque, the infamous frontman of cowpunk band, Bass Thumb.
Rumors have been circulating for months now about a Bass Thumb reunion. The source of these rumors seems to be an Instagram account created in November of 2021 using the handle @bassthumb.theband. The account, which does not have a large following, indicates that a Bass Thumb reunion is indeed possible, with one caveat — original drummer Jeff Bourgeois has been replaced by a mysterious figure known as “Reverend Lunker.” According to a CMT article posted to the account, as well as some video footage, Reverend Lunker (Barry Roebuck) is both Bourgeois’ replacement as Bass Thumb drummer and Ernie LeBreque’s spiritual advisor.
Meanwhile, Todd “The Rod” Tipton, the bass in Bass Thumb and co-founding member, seems to have put his differences with LeBreque aside and is back with the band. On the Instagram account, videos appear to depict the band rehearsing material. Not new material, but the same material they released two decades ago on their self-titled EP. My question was: what did LeBreque have to say about all this?
When I walked into Beaunuts and asked to speak to Ernie LeBreque, a woman pointed to a bearded man with dreads, manning a griddle behind a pane of plexiglass. I waved and asked if I could speak to him for a moment. Begrudgingly, he shuffled over, throwing a greasy towel over his shoulder. In utter disbelief, I asked if he was indeed THE Ernie LeBreque of Bass Thumb. Spitting a thick, brown substance into a paper cup he replied, “If you ain’t ordering donuts or a fuckin’ hotdog, get the fuck out.” I tried to explain that I was researching rumors of a Bass Thumb reunion for a story when he reached behind the counter and grabbed a motorcycle helmet. As he brandished the helmet over his head as if he were going to strike me, I turned and bolted for the door. Shaken and disturbed by the encounter, I hurried down the street to find the nearest bar, and a drink to steady my nerves.
As I sat at the bar, I tried to piece myself together with a whiskey. Neat. It was Ernie LeBreque, to be sure. I couldn’t get the image of the motorcycle helmet, complete with a Bass Thumb sticker, out of my head. Moments later, serendipity struck. A man sat next to me at the bar and pulled out his laptop. On it was a Bass Thumb sticker. “Excuse me. Are you a fan of Bass Thumb?” I asked. “Indeed I am,” he replied. I told him about my encounter with LeBreque moments before and he laughed. “That’s Ernie, alright!” The stranger proceeded to tell me he was a photographer and friend of the band. He also told me the story behind many of the rumors.
According to the photographer, the band was rehearsing their old material for an upcoming gig. “Bourgeois left the band because he just couldn’t take Ernie and Todd’s shit anymore. Always at each other’s throats. Ernie kept saying he’d lay off the booze and the drugs, but then he kept calling Henry Rollins to harass him in the wee hours of the morning and talking shit about Keith Richards in interviews. That pissed off a lot of fans, and drove Todd nuts — but he can put up with a lot of shit, you know? When Ernie went after Dwight Yoakam, that was just more than Todd could take and he quit. Ernie took it pretty hard and went on a three-week bender after that.”
The photographer explained that LeBreque had stayed up all night huffing gasoline, then crashed his motorcycle outside Seminole, Texas. “Man, Ernie hates Texas,” the photographer quipped. He went on to explain that finding himself in a ditch with a trashed bike, LeBreque decided to check into rehab. It wasn’t until he made it back to Petersburg sometime after being released from rehab that he started wanting to reunite Bass Thumb.
“When he showed up in Petersburg he started hanging around with Barry [Roebuck] and going to some wild parties at his place,” the photographer explained. “Barry has always been into some weird, dark shit. He strolls around town in a black kaftan and sandals like some disciple of Alistair Crowley. They say his kit is set up in the shape of a pentagram when they practice, and that he summons demons. He brings that mystical, esoteric element that any good cowpunk band really needs.” It was clear that this photographer guy was a fan.
“Next thing you know,” he said, “Bass Thumb is back together with Reverend Lunker on drums, playing the old stuff again. I think if Ernie can keep his shit together and Todd doesn’t kill him, they could really make something happen. They’re actually playing their first gig at a private party. I can get you in.”
Jackpot! Several nights later I walked a few blocks away from my AirBnB to what looked like a deserted warehouse building — what I was told was the Reverend Lunker’s temple. Red light spilled from a small door on the side, and I walked through it. Ascending a small staircase, I followed the sound of voices, unsure of what to expect when I reached the top. A group of 20-30 people mingled in a low-lit room drinking PBR and some potion poured from plastic jerry cans. As I navigated the space, I recognized the photographer I met at the bar. “Glad you could make it,” he shouted over the din. “You’re in for something special,” he added with a wry grin.
A further scan of the room revealed another surprise. Well-known punk rock critic Haakon Dahl of Norway was sitting in a chair a few feet away from a stage set up for a three-piece band. He was engaged in conversation with a tall blond, who I recognized as the coffee shop owner I’d spoken to days earlier. I wondered if she indeed knew nothing about Bass Thumb, or if she was part of an elaborate scheme by the locals to cover up the rumors of a reunion. But if there was a cover up, why would the photographer have told me about the party? Why would Haakon Dahl be here? Surely, he would have somewhere better to be? Moments later, three figures emerged from a back room, working their way through the shadows and onto the stage, which was trimmed with blood-red curtains.
Without a word to the audience, the band took up their instruments like gladiators entering the arena. The spectators looked braced for carnage. LeBreque stepped toward his guitar amp, summoning distortion like a shaman summons a ghost at an ayahuasca ceremony. Jaw clenched, Tipton started into a killer bass riff with the force of a machine gun. Reverend Lunker feigned as if he was trying to find the rhythm with a few slaps on his cymbal before bursting into the blistering speed of Bass Thumb’s classic hit, “Andy.” The assembled crowd stood frozen, as if unsure what they were seeing was real. Tipton slowed the timing down to a crawl under LeBreque’s distorted guitar as Roebuck’s drums staggered to a subtle finish. The room was silent for a brief moment, before the cluster of onlookers erupted in applause. The band looked at each other, grinning with satisfaction, relishing the spotlight once again. One couldn’t help but feel a sense of euphoria as the greatest cowpunk band in history seemed poised for an epic comeback.
They carried on with the set, playing staple covers from their catalog, such as John Anderson’s “Seminole Wind” and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” There were moments when the tension between LeBreque and Tipton was palpable. Non-verbal language suggested a few disagreements over tempo, and Tipton winced in anger at least twice when LeBreque seemed to lose his lyrical way. However, all in all, the set was a triumph, and the audience reaction confirmed this.
But, does a single set in front of a limited audience portend a full-fledged Bass Thumb reunion? A few days after the party, I went to an exhibition of local tattoo artists at the Petersburg Area Art League. And who was playing a solo acoustic set in the main room? None other than Todd Tipton. I waited for him to finish a song before approaching him, though I had to line up behind a few other fans looking for autographs. I told him who I was and that I saw the Bass Thumb show a few nights prior.
When pressed about a reunion, he skeptically replied, “Yeah, well, we’ll see. Ernie is, well, Ernie. I’ve got plenty of side projects and a lot of bands I can play with, like Campbell’s Bridge. I don’t have time for any of his bullshit. If we’re going to play, let’s play, you know? None of this ‘will we or won’t we’ business.”
Tipton did at least seem to feel good about the band’s new drummer, but his skepticism showed through there a little bit, too. “Barry’s influence seems to do [LeBreque] some good, but I don’t know how long that’ll last,” he said. “Not sure how I feel about kaftans, neither. I thought we were goin’ to get nudie suits and matchin’ boots like Dwight Yoakam, but…”
I asked him whether any new Bass Thumb material was in the works. “I’ve been working on some songs with my other projects, including some I wrote myself,” he said. “Not sure the guys want to play any of ‘em, though. Hell, Ernie has a hard time remembering the words to songs we’ve been playin’ 20 years.” Having satisfied my curiosity, I thanked Tipton for his time and turned for the door. As I walked away, he called after me, “Hey, buddy. Best not tell anyone you seen me here. Throwin’ stones in ponds make ripples, know what I mean?”
The next day I drove back to my camper in Dinwiddie to write this story. Something I initially thought was a red herring instead brought me quite a tale. Bass Thumb lives. Ernie LeBreque, out of rehab and making donuts, had reunited with Todd Tipton. Joined by the spiritual backbone of the band, Reverend Lunker, they did in fact seem poised for a comeback. Though the bonds holding this reunion together seem dubious at best, it would appear that the group some consider the greatest cow-punk band in the history of the genre intends to soldier on. Rumors continue to circulate around the band. I heard they’ve been in the studio re-recording the songs that made up their first and only release, Bass Thumb EP. But, as Todd Tipton said, “we’ll see.”
Right now, all we know for sure is that Bass Thumb is playing at the Kegs & Eggs event in Old Towne Petersburg, at the Appomattox Iron Works on April 16th at 7PM. They headline following Tiara & Andrew, Campbell’s Bridge, and Gold Station Melody. The event begins at 2PM.
All Photos by Daniel Jones