We Opine on Pearl Jam

Over their nearly 20-year career,  Pearl Jam has become a hard band to define. Of course some will forever think of them as a Grunge band, but while 1991’s Ten somehow both defines and transcends the subgenre, their follow-up Vs. shows the band had already outgrown the limitations of that label. Fifteen years and seven more studio albums later, the band’s instantly identifiable yet unclassifiable sound combines punk energy, progressive complexity, folky melodic simplicity and arena rock bravado.

Some critics have seized upon that seemingly incongruous blend and suggested that Pearl Jam may indeed be a jamband! And while the very thought may send a shiver down the spines of longtime Ten Club members, the comparison does have its merits. Though they don’t tour every year (and perhaps because of this) fans follow the band for multiple shows, and lasting friendships and families have been born from the resulting community atmosphere. And while they don’t scramble the setlists every night to the degree that Phish does, there is a true sense that any song in their catalog is in play on any given night.

To really get to the essence of Pearl Jam, all you need to do is see a show like the one they played last Saturday at the Clark County Amphitheater in Ridgefield, WA. It becomes apparent that this band does not need a label or a genre. You know what you are getting at a Pearl Jam concert – a heavy dose of the new album, plenty of singalongs from Ten and Vs., a few lesser-known album tracks and a song or two that will not be heard again for the rest of the tour. All played with the same urgency and passion as the day they were written. 

 I suppose it’s become somewhat cliche’ to say that a band transcends genres and defies classification, so let me just say it this way. Pearl Jam is a rock band. When was the last time anyone had to explain what kind of music is the Who or Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones or U2, Bruce Springsteen or Jimi Hendrix? While Pearl Jam may not have reached as wide an audience yet, they have earned the respect given to those legendary names by creating music that defines their era.

Sep 26, 2009
Set 1
Gonna See My Friend, Last Exit, Why Go, The Fixer, In Hiding, Johnny Guitar, Green Disease, Amongst The Waves, Even Flow, Off He Goes, Unthought Known, Daughter, Supersonic, Present Tense, Got Some, Once, Life Wasted
Encore 1 Golden State*, The End, Red Mosquito**, Inside Job, Go
Encore 2 Do The Evolution, Not For You(Modern Girl), Black, Porch, Yellow Ledbetter(The Star-Spangled Banner) 
*Eddie w/Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney) 
** w/Ben Harper

Donna was psyched to get a t-shirt with the classic stick man logo.
Donna was psyched to get a t-shirt with the classic stick man logo.

Back to the Gorge

I’ve been away from the blog for a while now, mostly due to computer trouble, but also due to a lack of downtime. Summer has been full of musical adventures – unusual Mystic Canyon gigs, new collaborations, and a jammin’ reunion in Jersey – all stories for another day. Right now, the journey that is freshest in my mind is the trip I took last Saturday with my buddy Tom to see Phish at the Gorge Amphitheater.

The most Gorgeous venue in America
The most Gorgeous venue in America (photo by Thomas Micale)

This would be my 55th Phish show, and my first since the last time they came to the Gorge in 2003. My expectations were mixed – after Phish fell apart in 2004, I’d accepted it as a bittersweet end for my favorite band, but the buzz about their return this year had my hopes up. Were they really playing better than version 2.0, or were people just glad to have them back and more willing to overlook a little sloppiness?

As the show approached, I tried to clear my mind and just appreciate the moment for what it was. When I saw some of the songs on my wishlist popping up on setlists from Shoreline and the first night at the Gorge, I decided to abandon all preconceptions and surrender to the flow. My faith was rewarded with the best Phish show I have seen in ten years.

The Gorge scene was amazing as always. The remoteness of the venue has a way of weeding out the less desirable elements of the lot scene, rewarding those who commit to the journey with a mellow freaky flea market vibe to enjoy. After haggling for some shirts, Tom and I downed our last brews and headed for a spot on the lawn.

Just after the sun ducked behind the canyon wall, Phish treated us to a Mango Song opener, a rare treat that set an “anything goes” tone from the start, followed by a more traditional firestarter, Chalkdust Torture. I’d never heard Mike’s Middle of the Road before, but it sounded like classic Phish to my ears. I always love a good Tweezer, and this one was focused and funky. Driver was an unexpected change of pace, but it piqued my attention for the new song Twenty Years Later, which is enjoyably darker than the other new ones. Ya Mar is always fun and Its Ice is a personal favorite that demonstrated the band’s renewed focus on the composed sections of their trickier songs. Wolfman’s Brother brought back memories of the thick funk grooves of 1998, and peaked with an energy that could have closed the set. But Phish had another trick up their sleeves, playing a somewhat predictable Character Zero but then following it up with the tightest Antelope I can remember.  The frenzied peak maintained a driving intensity without ever losing control, contrary to the lyrical plea at the end of the song, I suppose.

Tom and I moved down from the lawn to the floor for the second set, which kicked off with a monstrous version of Velvet Underground’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. I had always found this tune a little boring, but this 21-minute jam session was anything but. After some mesmerizing twists and turns, the band settled into the thick reggae of Makisupa Policeman.  Mike Gordon’s bass dominated this show, particularly the outstanding fuzzed-out solo he took on this tune while Trey worked the octave pedal to keep the bass line going. Having thusly exchanged roles, they closed out the song by switching guitars for a few minutes, before switching back and launching into the bouncy new tune Alaska. The Wedge is one of my favorite rarely-played tunes that has a way of feeling like the perfect song choice at exactly the right time. Phish followed with You Enjoy Myself, once again showing restraint and focus that resulted in a highly enjoyable groove, featuring more bass virtuosity from Mike and some particularly creepy vocal jamming at the end. Perhaps further demonstrating their renewed confidence, they fired up an extended version of the new tune Backwards Down the Number Line, a melody that echoed through my head for the next few days. This segued smoothly into a Piper that seemed to launch the crowd into the night sky, culminating in an atmospheric soundscape, intermittently punctuated by Fishman, who seemed to be teasing Llama before joining the rest of the band at the front of the stage for an a capella set closer, Grind.

Good Times Bad Times has been a frequently appreciated encore for me, giving my first 2009 Phish show a very old-school finish. Page’s vocals in the out-chorus sounded better than ever, taking on a hearty growl that I’d never heard before. As much as I loved the first set Tweezer, it does have a way of telegraphing the final encore. I found myself hoping for the Reprise to pop up earlier in the show. Still, no matter how expected, it’s one of the most kickass finales I have ever seen by any band. 

Two light shows (photo by LP)
Two light shows (photo by LP)

Phish 3.0, as the kidz are calling it, lived up to the hype and sounded better than they have since before their first split. Their playing was precise when it needed to be, with a few minor flubs from which the band  seamlessly recovered. The jams were looser and more adventurous than they have been all year, from what I have heard, but they never wandered off aimlessly. I’d say the magic is back for this Phish fan, and from the way they seemed to be enjoying themselves, it’s clear that the magic is back for Phish.

Set 1
The Mango Song>Chalkdust Torture, Middle of the Road, Tweezer, Driver, Twenty Years Later, Ya Mar, Its Ice, Wolfman’s Brother>Character Zero> Run Like an Antelope

Set 2
Rock ‘n’ Roll>Makisupa Policeman, Alaska, The Wedge, You Enjoy Myself, Backwards Down the Number Line>Piper, Grind

Good Times Bad Times, Tweezer Reprise

The Dead at the Gorge: 5 Years Later

In July 2004, 4 weeks before my wedding, I had the rare opportunity to see the Dead and the Allman Brothers at the Gorge Amphitheater with some of my bandmates, sort of an unofficial bachelor party under the stars. At the time it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime occasion, and the show exceeded expectations. The Allman Brothers delivered a knockout set culminating in a Mountain Jam>Whipping Post and a Layla encore. The Dead followed with one of the best shows I have seen from any incarnation of the band. Haynes and Herring brought fire and energy throughout. Needless to say, the Mystic Canyon caravan hit the road once again to relive the experience on May 16, 2009.

The Gorge Amphithater (photo Alan Hess 2009)
The Gorge Amphithater (photo Alan Hess 2009)

We arrived inside the grounds just in time to hear the end of the Doobie Brothers set while we got water and snacks. Our friends had snagged a spot on the lawn Phil-side, much further back than last time, but there was plenty of room to get down. Or, as it turned out, lie down and watch the stars. The excellent show 5 years earlier had my hopes high for a rockin’ tour closer. What we got instead was a very mellow evening with moments of adventurous improv and stellar playing, accents that popped from an otherwise pastel and impressionistic canvas.

The Allmans are a force of nature every bit as powerful as those that created the breathtaking landscape behind them. The set-opening Mountain Jam sent a clear message that they came to play, and they did so with power and grace throughout a late afternoon set of Allman goodness. They ended with a Mystic Canyon favorite, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, that included hints of Les Brers in A Minor and just generallly kicked our asses. In hindsight, the Dead were wise not to attempt to match the energy of the Allman Brothers’ set, creating instead a mellow denouement and an ambient soundtrack for the natural wonders all around.

The first set opened with a lot of promise with The Music Never Stopped, then Loose Lucy, which I had been thinking about since earlier in the day, when I saw a shirt from the 1990 Buffalo show. Crazy Fingers was the highlight of the show for me and led to some great moments in Dark Star and Dire Wolf. Tom Thumb, Into the Mystic and Man Smart, Woman Smarter closed out what felt like a short first set that peaked early, but the peaks were very enjoyable.

Second set just did not feel like a tour closer to me. Passenger>Hell in a Bucket, then Althea all felt like filler until Eyes of the World got every one grooving. Drums took on a fresh techno groove with Chimenti adding some electronica that may have been lost on some of the older heads. Any energy they had injected into the crowd by this point would evaporate into the night sky during a 45-minute excursion through Space>Days Between>Dark Star that had the whole lawn on their backs, enjoying a specatular panorama of stars. Nightfall of Diamonds indeed, words that were repeated over an intensifying jam that eventually brought everyone back to their feet for a set closing One More Saturday Night.  

All in all, a good show when appreciated for what it was, but perhaps a bit underwhelming for anyone who had built up their expectations. I suppose I am guilty of that, though I should have known better. My history with the Dead has a few highlights, but I never had that transcendental epiphany that so many others have. I have had that moment with Phish, Umphrey’s McGee and a few other bands, even my own. But for me the Dead have been enjoyable live but never quite measuring up to the stuff from the 70s that keeps me going back. Still, it was hard not to get a little choked up listening to Phil sing the Box of Rain encore for what could very well be the last time.

Mantis – The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Umphrey’s McGee released their new CD Mantis about two months ago, but that was just the beginning of the phenomenon. The band is rewarding its die-hard fans with an unprecedented wealth of bonus material, from the mammoth treasure chest that was unlocked by a successful pre-order campaign, to the monthly gems made available via the Mantis Push website, which can only be accessed with the CD in your computer’s disc drive. As if that wasn’t enough, the band’s blog The Floor is constantly updated with backstage videos, late-night demo recordings and streaming audio, sometimes from that night’s show. I’ll try to keep track of it all here and in future comments to this post.

gal_174_649_e_fullPre-Order Bonus Material

Nearly 70 files of audio and video downloads were made available just after the album dropped. Two box sets could be compiled from the material included here. One (let’s call it The Complete Mantis Sessions) documents the genesis of Mantis, from early demos and unfinished tracks to remixes and the entire CD Release Party set from the Vic Theatre. Like the second disc of 2007’s The Bottom Half, the behind-the-scenes tracks offer a fascinating look at the creative process, even if some of them won’t get a lot of play on my Ipod. The other box set is a mid-career rarities set featuring demos and seldom-heard live material. Umphrey’s McGee makes almost every concert available for purchase, but they managed to hold back a few treats, including holiday benefit concerts, a legendary Taper’s Appreciation Night at Milwaukee’s Shank Hall and an appearance with Bela Fleck on 2006’s Acoustic Planet tour.  

Push Content

February’s download gave us another live rarity from Brendan and Jake’s 2008 Acoustic Christmas concert, the seldom-played Never Cease to Amaze, plus the live debut of Prophecy Now in the middle of an epic Bridgeless in Madison, WI. On St. Patrick’s day, we toasted with the Shank Hall 40s Theme and some guest sit-ins from Bela Fleck, Jeff Coffin and Adrian Belew. And once again proving anyone can join in the fun, they released the Umphrey’s McNES version of 1348, a truly unique fan interpretation of the closing track from Mantis.   

I am hoping the band plans to offer more live versions of the Mantis material, perhaps even a complete live version of the album by the end of the year. Think about this – for the price of one CD, Umphrey’s McGee has already given me a great album plus two box sets and they will continue to deliver hours of free music throughout 2009. Is there a better value for your entertainment dollar than that?

Birth of a Song, Part 3: Bringing it all together

I started with a few verses, then decided that the song should end with a chorus I wrote 3 years earlier. The first part is an A-minor reggae groove, while the Rejoice! chorus in D-Major has a more West African feel – same tempo, but straighter eighth-notes. Since the song was inspired by memorable jam sessions, I have always envisioned Our Own Holiday as a jam vehicle. So I wanted the middle section to be an instrumental improv with a little bit of structure, ideally in A-Major. I may eventually write something for that part, but for the sake of getting to work rehearsing what I’ve got so far, I asked my good friend Scott if I could borrow a tune he wasn’t using.

Signs of Life is a jangly instrumental jam in A-Major, built on an Allman Brothers-style bass riff, set to a tribal sort of beat that would flow nicely into Rejoice (A>D.) Scott wrote the song a few years ago, right about at the time that Mystic Canyon went full-time acoustic, so it never found a home in the stage repertoire, but we’ve revisited it in casual jams a few times. Scott agreed that it would be a good fit.

One final touch was a brief turnaround in F-Major, to transition from the A-minor verse to the A-Major Signs of Life section. I put together a chord and lyric sheet and headed over to Keith’s house for Jersey Rhythm Mafia rehearsal.

We worked on a bunch of other stuff earlier in the evening, and in retrospect, we would have had a better first read if we had done the new tune earlier. It was a good reading that kind of ran out of steam, as we never quite worked out the ending. But I felt I was able to communicate what I was looking for. With a few more tries we’ll smooth the transitions and lock in the rhythms. A recording was made of the final run-through but I have not heard it yet. I’m hoping to see Keith before he skips town for a week so I can listen to what we’ve got so far.

I’ll continue this series in a few weeks when we’ve got a few more rehearsals under our belts and hopefully a recording worth sharing.

Birth of a Song, Part 2: Rejoice!

In July 2005, Mystic Canyon played at the Bend Summer Festival, still the farthest we have ever traveled to play. We did the right thing and rented a cabin so we could sleep well and jam throughout the weekend. At the time, Matt Kuerbis was moving beyond “new guy” status and starting to show us some songs he was working on. We also discussed collaborative writing, something the band had never really tried. He even suggested a lyric idea from a store marquee in his neighborhood, an optimistic twist on the familiar incantation of doomsday street prophets:

“Rejoice! The Beginning is Near.”

This line repeated in my head for most of the afternoon while driving around Bend and setting up my percussion gear. I thought about other ways to spin a potentially fearful situation into a message of hope.  The weather took an unusual turn that day as storm clouds blew in and drenched our audience. But the rare summer storm also provided the perfect metaphor I was looking for:

“The rain will wash away fear.
The storm will be chased by the dawn.
We will be one! We will be one!”

The last line was inspired by the sense of tribal unity that I felt all weekend, especially later that evening at the cabin, when I taught the rest of the band my new melody and Scott helped me figure out the chord progression in D. We made a joyful sound that night, working out the three-part harmonies I had been hearing in my head all day.

Upon returning to Portland, I was eager to add some verses to this new chorus, but I was never satisfied with the results. I tried to come up with stories of people perservering through dark times, et.al. but every attempt sounded forced, not at all as natural and inspired as the chorus had come to me. Eventually I accepted that it was a great but incomplete idea and kept it filed away until I could find some use for it.

As I alluded to in Part 1, I have now found a home for this chorus as the ending of Our Own Holiday. The message of hope in the lyrics, which I had originally conceived on a more global scale, fits well as an addendum to the first verses about overcoming social discomfort through music. The beginning of a beautiful union is near, if we are not afraid to let it happen.

In Part 3, I try to tie it all together with an instrumental jam section in the middle. I’ll also report on how the first rehearsal goes tonight.

Birth of a Song, Part 1: Inspiration

Being in a band with four very talented songwriters, it is hard not to be inspired to write music of my own. I have never considered myself a composer, but I have often had musical ideas pop into my head that capture my imagination. Most of these ideas go no further than that inital spark, as my attempts to develop them usually end in forced lyrics and incomplete chord progressions. But I have tried to keep these song fragments in mind in case I am ever compelled to complete them. Recently, inspiration has taken hold and I am finally ready to share a creation of my own with my musical brethren.

This will be the first in a series of posts documenting the Birth of a Song. Since songwriting is new to me, I thought I would share my process here for the sake of discussion and facilitation of future compositional endeavors. The song is called Our Own Holiday, an upbeat jam tune with multicultural influences. I am sharing writing credits with my Mystic Canyon bandmates Scott Hewitt and Matt Kuerbis, but since the song does not really fit the MCB repertoire, I will be introducing it via my side project with Scott, the Jersey Rhythm Mafia.  

The first part of the song, an A-minor reggae groove, came to me in July 2008 after a particularly fun jam at Horning’s Hideout. I was invited there by some friends for a birthday party, although I did not know the hosts or the guest of honor. When all of the scheduled bands had finished, there was plenty of time left before the sound curfew, so I joined up with Chris and Ken from Jersey Rhythm Mafia, Dave from Jerry Rig and Josh from High Ceiling for an impromptu open stage jam. Afterwards, the campfire jams continued well into the morning hours.

The next morning I was filled with wonder at the ability of music to bring people together. There were a lot of people at Horning’s who I could not pick out of a lineup today, but that night we were one musical family. Drawing from that feeling, I sketched out some lyrics – essentially an invitation from one musician to another to let music be the bridge across their fleeting acquaintance. One line is even borrowed from an actual party invitation I had sent a few months prior: “No gift but your presence, no presents but your gift for music and conversation.” This line in particular suggested that the song would work best in a reggae style.

After writing two verses and a B section, I hit a snag. I wanted an instrumental jam section in the middle, followed by a return to the verse and chorus, but I didn’t want to repeat myself or force some lyrics to fit the form of the first part of the song. It then dawned on me that the jam section should be followed by a distinct third part, and a long-abandoned melody jumped immediately from the back to the front of my mind. In Part 2, I’ll flash back to the Summer of 2005 to revisit the creation of  a chorus that waited a long time for the right verse to come along.