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The Right Profile reunion forces band to reflect on legacy, and what could have been

Stephen Dubner, left, and Jeffrey Dean Foster of The Right Profile, circa the mid-1980s. The Right Profile’s membership legacy is connected to Superchunk, Whiskeytown, Mountain Goats, the movie ‘Junebug’ and even ‘Freakonomics.’ The Winston-Salem band is playing its first show since 1987 at ‘Be Loud! ’18.’
Stephen Dubner, left, and Jeffrey Dean Foster of The Right Profile, circa the mid-1980s. The Right Profile’s membership legacy is connected to Superchunk, Whiskeytown, Mountain Goats, the movie ‘Junebug’ and even ‘Freakonomics.’ The Winston-Salem band is playing its first show since 1987 at ‘Be Loud! ’18.’ Photo by Nelson Penninger.

In terms of recorded output, The Right Profile’s artistic legacy is slender indeed. The Winston-Salem band’s discography consists of just four songs, the last one released 33 years ago.

But the picture changes when you consider what some of the group’s members have been up to the past three decades.

Drummer Jon Wurster has become one of indie-rock’s top journeymen, logging time in Superchunk, Whiskeytown, John Darnielle’s Mountain Goats, Bob Mould’s band and many others. He has also become an in-demand comic and writer.

Singer/guitarist Jeffrey Dean Foster has independently released four solid albums, the most recent the soundtrack to 2016’s independent film, “Abundant Acreage Available.” Foster has appeared in two movies himself, one of which earned an Academy Award nomination (2005’s “Junebug,” in which Amy Adams was nominated for best supporting actress).

And Foster’s co-leader Stephen J. Dubner has had the most unusual and high-profile odyssey of all. He became a writer, and a wildly successful one as co-author of the “Freakonomics” franchise, starting with co-writing 2005’s “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything,” a runaway best-seller. The brand has since expanded into a 2010 documentary film, a consulting group and a “Freakonomics Radio” podcast hosted by Dubner.

Dubner hasn’t seriously played music since quitting The Right Profile in 1987.

But they’ll reunite on stage Aug. 24 at the Cat’s Cradle — the first time in 31 years for the key quartet’s lineup — as part of the fifth annual “Be Loud! ’18,” a two-day concert event that benefits Be Loud! Sophie, a foundation that helps young cancer patients.

The star-studded weekend also features 1990s alternative-rock hitmaker Matthew Sweet, and the Chapel Hill band Sex Police, who also is reuniting for the occasion.

The concert has resulted in an interesting trip down the road not taken, as The Right Profile’s members have exchanged recordings to figure out a set list.

“It’s fun because it’s a perfect amalgam of old and new days,” Dubner said. “We get to use modern technical tools to revisit the past and improve on it. Listening back to a lot of these songs now, after so long, I’d hesitate to call them objectively ‘good.’ But they sound like the songs of a promising young band that could have been great, if they’d kept going.”

RightProfileFosterFleming
From left, Jeffrey Dean Foster and Tim Fleming onstage with The Right Profile, circa the mid-1980s. The Right Profile’s membership legacy is connected to Superchunk, Whiskeytown, Mountain Goats, the movie ‘Junebug’ and even ‘Freakonomics.’ The Winston-Salem band is playing its first show since 1987 at ‘Be Loud! ’18.’ Nelson Penninger

A ‘weird fantasy’

The Right Profile first came together in the early 1980s at Appalachian State University, eventually coming to rest in Winston-Salem. They were among the throngs of underground-rock bands that sprouted up across the South in R.E.M.’s wake.

Ed Bumgardner, longtime music critic for The Winston-Salem Journal newspaper, initially encountered the group around the time they released their first independent single in 1983. He remembers them as “very enthusiastic in a Beatles-movie sort of way,” with much of their appeal lying in the contrast between co-leaders/songwriters Foster and Dubner.

“They were like Lennon and McCartney, or maybe Dylan and McCartney,” Bumgardner said. “Jeff was the more poetic and introspective of the two, the mysterious heavy-lidded lead singer, while Steve was the unbridled rocker. Their live shows were a blasting cap of energy.”

The Right Profile cleared a big hurdle in 1986 when they entered the major-label ranks, with Arista Records — courted by company president Clive Davis, no less, a record executive who had signed everybody from Patti Smith to Earth Wind & Fire.

TheRightProfileArista
The Right Profile at their 1986 signing ceremony. From left, Jeffrey Dean Foster, Stephen Dubner, Jon Wurster, Arista Records president Clive Davis and Tim Fleming. Photo courtesy of The Right Profile.

For a scruffy upstart band, Arista seemed an odd fit, a label best-known for mass-appeal pop like the Eurythmics and Whitney Houston. But Arista also had a growing contingent of rock and alternative acts in the mid-1980s, including The Kinks, Australia’s The Church and the Athens, Ga., band Dreams So Real.

With the company president personally invested in their career, signing to Arista seemed like the right move. So they did.

“We went up to play CBGB in early 1986,” Wurster remembered. “Clive Davis had a table reserved and everything, and he came to see us. He signed us a few months later. It was this weird fantasy come to life.”

An odd fit

The fantasy didn’t last long. Soon after inking the deal, The Right Profile embarked on a seemingly endless series of writing and recording sessions, trying to come up with material they could live with and that Arista would get behind.

Pursuing “the hit” led them to move away from home to New Jersey, where they essentially lived in the studio and almost ceased to exist as a performing act. They worked with a series of high-profile producers, too — Dwight Yoakam guitarist Pete Anderson, Jerry Lee Lewis sideman Roland James and Memphis cult legend Jim Dickinson among them.

As part of the process, Arista would send songs as guidelines for what The Right Profile should be shooting for, most of them inappropriate. A low point came with the suggestion of a Jon Bon Jovi co-write called “You’re Not My Lover (But You Were Last Night)” as a model to follow.

“Stuff like that had us asking, ‘What are we even doing here?,’” Wurster said. “They could never figure out what to do with us. It was such an odd time in the music business. We were essentially an ‘alt-country’ band before the term existed.”

‘Heroes, not victims’

As the band continued spinning its wheels, tensions grew. Things finally came to a head during an afternoon rehearsal at the Brewery nightclub in 1987, with words exchanged.

Dubner played one more show — at The Pier in Raleigh, which had just reopened in Mission Valley a few years after the original Cameron Village incarnation had closed — and quit. He went back to his native New York and graduate school at Columbia University, which put him on the writing path to “Freakonomics.”

The rest of The Right Profile enlisted a series of replacements for Dubner and kept trying, recording and submitting demo after demo to no avail. Ultimately, they never finished an album and finally parted ways with Arista.

“One thing we didn’t do that I’m proud of is make any bad records,” Foster said. “We could have, especially after Steve left, if we’d just agreed with what Arista was trying to make us do. They weren’t happy with us not agreeing to do some stupid things. But it wasn’t Arista’s fault or Dickenson’s fault or our fault.

“We were young and just did that thing we did. Hit records are so flukey, everything has to work at the same time for it to happen. You have to have the songs, the look, the right lawyer, manager and label, all at the same time. We just never did.”

The Right Profile eventually changed names to the Carneys before finally dissolving for good after Wurster replaced Chuck Garrison in Superchunk in 1991. Foster continued on as a solo act. Bassist Tim Fleming was burned out and happy to leave the music business behind; he has worked for an electric-supply company in Greensboro the past 24 years.

Several years ago, there was a brief three-song mini-reunion in Winston-Salem but this upcoming performance will be Foster-Dubner-Wurster-Fleming lineup’s first full set in 31 years.

“None of them ever crashed and burned, even though they went through a soul-crushing experience,” Bumgardner said of Right Profile’s four members. “But they made a stand and would not bend. For every person saying they threw it all away are 10 who have been in the business and would tell them, ‘Good for you.’ They’re heroes, not victims. They went up, took a swing, reached the warning track and got thrown out at the plate. It is what it is.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

Details

What: Be Loud! 2018. On Aug. 24, Matthew Sweet, The Right Profile and Surrender Human will perform. The Sex Police, Collapsis and The Veldt will perform Aug. 25.

Where: Cat’s Cradle, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro

Tickets: $40 for a weekend pass, $25 for Friday night only and $25 for Saturday night. The concert benefits the Be Loud! Sophie Foundation, which helps young cancer patients.

Info: beloudfestival.com, catscradle.com or by calling the Cat’s Cradle box office at 919-967-9053.

Dubner will also give a talk titled “Philosophy, Politics & Economics: A Freakonomics Perspective” on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 5:30-7 p.m. at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gerrard Hall. Admission is free.

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