SoulFolk With a Twist of Jazz

A Conversation with Sarah & the Underground

Peoria Magazine checked in with the band to learn how working musicians are making it through the age of COVID.

Original band lineup with drummer Bob Kelly. Photo by EK Studios
Original band lineup with drummer Bob Kelly. Photo by EK Studios

Formed in 2016, Sarah & the Underground are well-known fixtures on the Peoria music scene, describing their musical style as “SoulFolk with a twist of Jazz.” On a typical evening, listeners will hear everything from golden oldies to ‘80s and ‘90s pop, from Motown to American folk, from jazz standards to indie and Americana—always with a soulful spirit and original approach. 

Sarah Marie Dillard leads the band as singer, primary songwriter and acoustic guitarist. Brandon Mooberry, her partner in music and in life, primarily plays upright bass but is known to spice things up with electric bass, piano or acoustic guitar, while Nick Fairley holds down the fort on drums and an assortment of additional percussion instruments—with both Brandon and Nick joining Sarah for occasional three-part harmonies. Peoria Magazine checked in with the Underground to learn how they came together and find out how working musicians are making it through the age of COVID.

How did you all meet one another, and when did the band form? 

Sarah: Like most bandmates in our area, we met at various open mics, open stages and music festivals. Our band initially formed under the name “SMD & The Underground” in early 2016 after Brandon stepped away from Brainchild, his band of ten years and still our very good friends. We started out with Bob Kelly on drums, who now performs with the love of his life and our incredibly talented friend, Alison Hanna. That May, we parted ways with Bob and welcomed Nick “The Kid” Fairley into our Underground family. 

CEFCU Center Stage on the Peoria Riverfront. Photo by Donald Lindell
CEFCU Center Stage on the Peoria Riverfront. Photo by Donald Lindell

What musical groups were you in prior to Sarah & the Underground? 

Brandon: I've been in a lot of different groups, playing everything from metal and electronic pop to jazz fusion and smooth jazz. I was in [jam band] Brainchild from 2005 to 2016, which showed me a lot of the business and the life of being a musician for a living.

Nick: I’ve performed in the Peoria Municipal Band, Easy Riders, Art of Ill Fusion, The BraziLionaires, Whiskey’s Gone and the Larry Harms Trio, among others. 

Sarah: Outside of worship bands, Sarah & The Underground is my only official band experience, but I have loved being a part of many duos and ensembles over the years. The most memorable of these was my time spent as “partner in rhyme” with Drake Hilliard, who has since taken his songwriting down to Austin, Texas. Over the years, I have been honored to be featured alongside Maia Sharp, Linda Taylor, The Accidentals, Good Morning Bedlam, Lissie, The Way Down Wanderers, Chicago Farmer, David Hoffman (Ray Charles Orchestra), Mike Nellas (Matthew Curry Band), Althea Grace, Josiah Williams, two-time American flatpicking champion Andy Hatfield, and Madisen Ward & The Mama Bear.

What other jobs and community activities are you involved with?

Brandon: My day job is private music lessons. I’m involved on the executive board for Kingdom Life Peoria, a parachurch ministry that involves a lot of outreach to the Peoria community. I also put on a yearly event for autism resources and sensory-sensitive fun called Sensory IGNITE, which is a part of IGNITE Peoria.

Sarah: When I am not gigging, I also work as a private music educator for our teaching collective, The Underground School of Sound, offering lessons in singing, songwriting, ear training, stage performance and music business. I serve on the Illinois Central College Panel for Music Business Development and am an active volunteer with ArtsPartners of Central Illinois. I am especially proud to serve on the planning committees for IGNITE Peoria, Sensory IGNITE, the Business of Art conference, the Peoria Art Guild's Fine Art Fair and the Peoria March To The Polls. 

All three Underground members are established on the Muzique Baux talent bench, and Brandon and I also recently joined the “Will It Play In Peoria” panel, a Muzique Baux initiative to provide free event space to aspiring performing artists and community/cultural organizations. [Muzique Baux is a local contracting firm that provides musical entertainment for all types of events.]

Nick: I also teach private music lessons as my day gig. I have students of all ages and backgrounds that I instruct on drumset, percussion, piano and theory. I am also in my last year of the master’s program in jazz performance at Illinois State University. 

Brandon & Sarah with guest Carl Bopp on flute. Photograph by Beau Commanday
Brandon & Sarah with guest Carl Bopp on flute. Photograph by Beau Commanday

Tell us about some of your earliest musical experiences. What first drew you in?

Brandon: I’ve been playing music since I was 12. I think the first gig I ever played was when I was 14 in an acoustic comedy duo called The Ultraviolet Roses with my friend Tyler Brandon. We would open up for local metal shows, playing songs about people in the audience, and that was a blast. I was drawn to music because I wanted a girlfriend. It’s funny that that was the root of my intention to changing the trajectory of my life, but hey, we all got where we are somehow!

Sarah: I’ve spent more of my life in choir than not, and took piano lessons from a young age. My gene pool is saturated with musical ability, so there were very few times when no music was being made in our house. I learned to play guitar on my mom’s old Gibson and started writing songs in junior high—I remember drawing guitar strings on the edge of my notebook so I could hold it in my hand and practice in class without getting in trouble. 

The first time I got to see live music, outside of school or church, was at Leonardo’s Pizza in Peoria. I was a tiny little thing. I remember feeling glued to the band the whole night, and I even worked up the courage to request a song. I’ve since befriended several of those musicians, and it is an incredible honor to call them colleagues. The first time I realized their life was an option for me was when I saw India Arie perform on Oprah. That idea would later be affirmed while watching Laura Hall and Linda Taylor on Whose Line Is It Anyway? The most famous improv stage in the country… and those two ladies were making it all happen at a moment’s notice. Incredible! Sharing a bill with Linda Taylor at the Limelight was a major milestone in both my performance career and my journey as a woman. The little girl inside me had a field day!

Nick: I’ve been playing professionally since I was 17. In high school, I often played in pit orchestras for local community theater productions, which really honed my ability to adapt to changing musical circumstances and vastly improved my sight reading skills. However, as a child, hearing Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue was when I fell in love with jazz. My first serious gig was in the Joe Park Trio, playing Wes Montgomery-style jazz during my high school years. As an adult, I traveled the country in a couple of  touring rock bands for a number of years before getting off the road and going back to school.  

Brandon and Sarah, tell us how you first met. When did you discover you had feelings beyond musical kinship? 

Brandon: I met Sarah at the Putnam County Music & Arts Festival; she was on a date with a friend of mine. I was probably somewhat professional in meeting her, but man, I was infatuated with how cute she was, how she carried herself and her smile. That’s just not something you say to someone who is on a date with your friend, however. 

Brandon Mooberry, upright bass. Photo by EK Studios
Brandon Mooberry, upright bass. Photo by EK Studios

I left Brainchild in January of 2016, and after making a social media post about how much the band meant to me, Sarah commented, “Dibs!” We talked and I explained that I was leaving the Midwest and putting out audition tapes to Cirque Du Soleil, some cruise lines, and other professional commitments around the world, so if I was going to play bass for her, it was going to be short-lived. Cirque Du Soleil responded within a couple of weeks that I was accepted into their casting roster. But by the time I read that email, I was already hopelessly in love with Sarah. I didn’t even hesitate when I wrote them back and told them to remove me from their casting roster. 

Eventually, we went out after a gig and had a nice dinner together. That quickly turned into “Oh wow, she’s my girlfriend now!” Within five months of dating, I was having recurring headaches and went to the doctor to get checked out, and they found a cyst in my brain blocking my cerebral fluid which needed to be removed immediately. Sarah stayed by my side day and night during that experience, and never seemed annoyed taking care of me. When we looked at each other before they wheeled me off to brain surgery, we pretty much got married right there.

Sarah: Brandon’s love of music, his unwavering character, his love for his family and his sense of humor all made a big impression on me. He talked about music like it was a romantic relationship, and that really resonated. I remember feeling my heart warm as I watched him care for his little brother with special needs… or the first time the band went on the road and I saw him give his fresh, hot meal to a homeless man. When we realized our shared faith, that’s when we really started getting psyched! Brain surgery certainly sealed the deal, but I felt inexplicably sure from day one that I’d be sticking with Brandon. We were married on September 30, 2017. The wedding was held on the same family farm where we now live on my grandparents’ former homestead. We recently celebrated our third anniversary, and we have five cats to show for it!

What’s it like playing music together as a married couple? What are the challenges and benefits?

Brandon: The challenges are kind of unique. At first it was difficult to get used to her singing all of the love songs she wrote for previous boyfriends. That was the root of some pretty big heartaches for both of us, initially. I love her writing and she wrote some great songs for those idiots. That’s definitely one of the biggest hurdles we had to get over. The benefits to being married to my bandmate is she is the absolute best friend I’ve ever had. Instead of coming home and complaining about this crazy thing that happened at work, we live it together and get through it together. 

Nick, what is it like for you to play in a band with a married couple?

Nick: Oh boy, that’s a question! I’d like to think Sarah and Brandon have fostered a healthy, democratic and collaborative spirit when it comes to creating and performing. That said, occasionally there are times when the debate goes beyond the scope of the music... and that’s typically when I step outside for a smoke break. 

What have been the challenges and benefits of calling Peoria home?

Brandon: We have a hungry artistic community. It’s a benefit because people are pouring themselves into music, art, poetry and theater. Yet it’s difficult to get people to come to shows and support live local music compared to other areas around the country, and the countless conversations I’ve had with other musicians hasn’t gotten me any closer to an answer. But we love Peoria and the right people love us back. We’re hungry to play and create, and that’s probably better than if we made our art from the position of being well fed.

Brandon & Sarah at Cyd’s in the Park. Photo by Keith Cotton
Brandon & Sarah at Cyd’s in the Park. Photo by Keith Cotton

Sarah: It can be difficult to get the community excited about things, no matter how amazing those things may be. “Will it play in Peoria?” is certainly a well-earned phrase. However, the wonderful thing about Peoria is that “amazing” is pouring out of pretty much every nook and cranny. We have so much art in constant production that we don’t know what to do with it all. Our musical offerings rival Nashville in terms of exceptional talent and diverse selection, but the difference is that our musicians are being compensated for their hard work. When musicians in other towns feel like they’re bleeding dry and need to head for greener pastures, I want them to set their sights on Peoria. I want every artist to know the joy and hope of working in a community that values their contribution. I want every child to grow up knowing that creativity and security can go hand in hand.

Nick: As a musician, I’ve found there are some distinct advantages to calling Peoria “home.” Before COVID, there was no shortage of opportunities to perform and get paid a decent wage, but it took a while to get there. Creating a sustainable environment for live music involves more than the musicians. It requires venue owners who believe in local artists and are willing to invest, even on nights when things don’t go as planned. Fortunately, we have a number of those in Peoria. Beyond that, it requires a community of fans and patrons willing to spend their precious time and money “investing” in local artists. We are lucky to have found that in Peoria. 

As with any smaller city, there are unique challenges to being a professional performing artist, but the spirit of improvisation that pervades our music also guides our decision-making, and I’m consistently impressed by Sarah and Brandon’s ability to adapt to an ever-changing landscape. I don’t know many local musicians who are still playing regularly during this pandemic, while also taking every precaution to keep themselves and their audiences safe. This really is an unprecedented time, and I respect anyone who can make it work through this. 

What are some of your favorite local venues? 

Brandon: We absolutely love playing Cyd’s in the Park, and we love the Betty Jane Brimmer Center for the Performing Arts. Both offer wonderful settings to enjoy live music in Peoria. If you go to Cyd’s, get the hot honey chicken sandwich. Seriously. 

Sarah: Cyd’s in the Park has become a favorite spot for me, too. Not only is it an excellent venue all around, but they really do treat us like family. I also love the indoor/outdoor space at the Betty Jayne and the new rooftop patio at the Twelve Bar in the Heights. Some other favorite places include the Peoria Civic Center Theater, Contemporary Art Center, Spirit of Peoria, the old Tannins & Hops, the historic Apollo Theater, and WTVP’s State & Water series, where we recorded our debut album. 

Singer/songwriter Sarah Marie Dillard. Photo by EK Studios
Singer/songwriter Sarah Marie Dillard. Photo by EK Studios 

Can you tell us about some of your most memorable or unusual gigs?

Brandon: One of the coolest gigs we played was in Chicago at an event for the show Making a Murderer. Sarah’s gorgeous song “Bad Man” was written about one of the characters, and the makers of the show heard about it and invited us to open with that song to a forum of lawyers involved in the case of Brendan Dassey. I was so proud of her!

Sarah: The Making a Murderer event was incredibly special for me, and I really enjoyed hosting our first Christmas special with Chamber Orchestra 309 in 2019. I also have to mention performing “The Star Spangled Banner” for Red, White & Boom 2017 on the Peoria Riverfront, which was a dream of mine since childhood.

Tell us how you have spent the last year, and what your plans are for 2021.

Brandon: We spent most of 2020 playing outdoor shows in more relaxed environments where Sarah and I were asked to perform as an acoustic duo. The hard quarantine we spent at home not playing gigs. As private teachers, we were grateful that we could up our intake of students to try to cover the income lost from not regularly gigging.

Sarah: I’ve been using this newfound free time to work on areas of my life that tend to take a backseat to music, like taking care of our home and staying on top of my inboxes. I am so excited to share that my student, Emily Antonacci, is joining our Underground team as marketing manager, while our teammate Andy Corbin will transition to special projects manager. We’re going into our first-ever season of no live performances, but with these two magic makers on board, our business will still be cooking! 

In the coming weeks and months, you can expect a few virtual performances, including a living room Christmas special, and we even have a couple tracks on deck for release. I also have five students working on original releases of their own, so much of my focus will be directed toward those projects. Seeds have been planted for many other exciting ideas, and Emily and Andy are here to see that those seeds grow into something special!

Brandon: We’re keeping our ear to the ground on when it will feel safe enough to start playing indoor shows. I’m taking up woodworking and hope to make some extra income that way, so we’re being creative in making up for our lost income. We both trust the advice of those who have spent their careers studying virology and viral transmission, so in order to protect others, we will continue to not play indoor gigs unless it is promoted and maintained as a safe show. The longer people don’t take this seriously, the longer that businesses—including small businesses like ours—will suffer. Wear a face covering and mind your distance to others. It’s never too late to start trying. PM

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