There’s a few bands whose members are still alive that I’ve resigned myself to never seeing due to the old “musical differences” problem. Talking Heads are the most obvious example. The Cocteau Twins are another.
The Dream Syndicate were on that list – but not anymore.
Let’s head back to 1982. I was fifteen and avidly reading the music papers. In the UK, they were pushing the Paisley Underground as the next big scene. We’ll leave the discussion on whatever happened to “next big scenes” for another day.
The Paisley Underground was a primarily west coast USA phenomenon that updated the sixties garage/psychedelic/Nuggets vibe for the eighties. It coincided with the rise of the likes of R.E.M., Husker Du and Jason and the Scorchers from differing parts of America, it felt to me in the Black Country like the start of something significant.
The scene delivered some cracking LPs. The Rain Parade’s “Emergency Third Rail Power Trip” was a personal favourite, as was the Long Ryders’ “Native Sons”.
The Dream Syndicate seemed the real deal though. The least obviously indebted to their forefathers when compared to many of the scene’s other bands, they took a broad template and made it into something more individual. I snapped up “The Days of Wine And Roses” (1982). It was a taut edgy affair. Yes – there was an obvious Velvet Underground reference, particularly in Karl Precoda’s nervous feedback strewn lead guitar, simultaneously channelling both Lou Reed and Robert Quine. Kendra Smith’s lead vocal on “Too Little, Too Late” clearly referenced Nico. But the whole was definitely greater than the sum of the parts.
Their major label debut (1984’s “Medicine Show”) was a more polished classic affair. It got a bit of a bad rep in the UK, primarily due to it widescreen production from Sandy Pearlman. Pearlman was still in the doghouse over his work on the Clash’s second LP “Give ’em Enough Rope” and his association to Blue Oyster Cult didn’t buy him anymore credibility. A&M dropped the band after one LP and the band retired temporarily.
Then Precoda left. Wynn made an LP with Dan Stuart of Green On Red as “Dusty and Danny”. Who did what to whom and when doesn’t appear to be absolutely clear. It often never is in these situations, is it?
I heard a few songs from the follow-up LP “Out of The Grey” (1986) but it didn’t do it for me and with a student budget to allocate on my music, the Dream Syndicate and I parted ways. The guitar tone of his successor Paul Cutler was a bit more polished and it all felt a little less precarious. Precoda went from being the guitar icon in the coolest of the Paisley bands and ditched it all. He gave up the whole music thing and is now a lecturer in the sociology faculty of Virginia Tech, contributing to such articles as “In the Vortex of Modernity: Reading Blackness, Blindness, and Insight” and “Aesthetic or Movement? Fascism, Italian Neorealism, and Social Activism through Film“. The LA music scene appears a distant memory.
Steve Wynn, singer and mainman, continued a successful music career with a number of interesting associates including Peter Buck of REM. The back catalogue was particularly ill served, possibly a consequence of recording four LPs, all for different labels in just a six year period. I know from my good friend Raymond Gorman of That Petrol Emotion how the associated ownership and licensing issues prevent a band’s repertoire getting the due care and attention when its catalogue is in multiple and disconnected hands.
Five years ago, out of the blue, the band reconvened. With original drummer Dennis Duck and long time bass player Mark Walton in tow, he added his regular solo sidekick Jason Victor into the mix. They toured Europe which unfortunately I wasn’t able make due to holiday commitments and this year released the rather good “How Did I Find Myself Here?”
Not this time though. This was the second of two nights at London’s Lexington, one of my favourite venues in the city. And it was “Halloween”.
After the soothing entrance music of Andy William’s “The Days of Wine and Roses”, Steve Wynn entered the fray dressed in a snappy petrol green suit with a matching paisley shirt. “Will they play it?” he asked. “They’ve got a reputation for being difficult“. And immediately he struck up the spare opening notes to “Halloween” and we were transported back to 1982.
The set drew on all of their studio albums. The “Medicine Show” songs got an interesting treatment. “Armed With An Empty Gun” was played to an almost Bo Diddley rhythm. The title track was thunderously tribal. “Merritville” and “Burn” were played relatively straight, using guest keyboard player Chris Cacavas to fill out the widescreen cinematic vision of the original.
What was apparent was how comfortably the new songs sat amongst the older material. All but one of “How Did I Find Myself Here”‘s songs got an airing. “Out Of My Head” was lethal, the Velvet’s influence to the fore. “Glide” was dreamy and “How Did I Find Myself Here” stretched out with a grooving funky bedrock underpinned by Duck and Walton. Wynn commented when there was a shout out for “Glide” as encore, that it was fantastic when people were calling for new songs to be played and it was invitation that the band couldn’t refuse.
It was a truly epic set. The first batch of encores delivered “Boston” with a verse and chorus of Tom Petty’s “Refugee” slotted in as a tribute. It was a raucous singalong, with the “Brown Eyed Girl” coda a particular celebration.
The final ten minute plus version of “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” illustrated everything that was wonderful about the band. The joy of watching Victor and Wynn challenging each other to extract more out of their guitars was palpable. Walton and Duck kept a close watch on things, easing in and out as the dynamics of the song suited. What is almost a one chord jam just kept giving, Wynn taking it up and down with call and response. It was pure electricity.
This doesn’t feel like an exercise in fleecing the crowd disguised as fleecing the crowd in a wave of nostalgia. This feels like an opportunity to get back what the band never quite gained. When new material makes such up such a significant part of your set and no one complains in the slightest, then you are doing something right.
Was it what I wished for after those 30 years waiting? You don’t really need to ask, do you?