Mad Season & Seattle Symphony – “Sonic Evolution” (2015)

madseasonsymphonyI’ve expressed my love for Mad Season many times before on Life in the Vinyl Lane.  I can’t think of another band that ever released such a brilliant album their only time out (the other candidate would be another Seattle band, Temple of the Dog, which was intended as a sort of one-off project to celebrate the life of the late Andy Wood), and the horrible toll that addiction took on them just adds to the Greek tragedy quality of their Icarus-like trajectory.  I was tempted to get tickets to this live performance knowing that it would draw a veritable who’s who of Seattle musicians (and it certainly did), but I was also hesitant.  The symphony treatment isn’t for every band, that’s for sure, and to me it makes the most sense in the the heavy metal realm, perhaps nowhere more perfectly than Skálmöld Og Sinfóniuhljómsveit Íslands.

But the real challenge is the absence of Layne Staley.  He was a unique vocal presence, the man with the voice that shouldn’t have worked, but that worked perfectly for both Mad Season and Alice in Chains.  Some of the bonus tracks on the various re-releases of Mad Season featured other vocalists, and frankly it’s just not the same.  Obviously that goes without saying, but it’s not just the sound of Staley’s voice that was missing, it was then sheer force of his being, the deeply flawed artist who allowed himself to be exposed on stage.

And that was the most difficult thing for me about Sonic Evolution.  Don’t get me wrong, Chris Cornell is brilliant on his songs, actually being very non-Chris Cornell-ish by staying low and not trying to be like Layne at all.  And the other vocalists were excellent as well.  But there was just something missing, that spark that only Layne could provide, that power and pain that is all over Live at the Moore.  It’s like a big hole in the middle of the songs.  The music is fantastic, to singers powerful, the orchestra rich.  But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit hollow to my ears, conveying a sadness for Layne’s absence as opposed to the sadness for his soul that his songs conveyed when he sang them.  Truth be told, the Temple of the Dog songs are best on the album.  Cornell sounds incredible on “Call Me a Dog,” a singer who fits the song like a glove.

Sonic Evolutions was a wonderful and moving tribute to both Staley and John Baker Saunders, both who died due to the evil that is heroin, the drug that took so many from the Seattle scene and is making a very unfortunate resurgence.  And I know from friends who attended the show that the live performance was a powerful experience.  But sitting here in my living room tonight I just want to put on Live at the Moore or Mad Season and remember Layne the way he was, with all of his flaws and open emotional wounds.

Mad Season – “Live At The Moore” (2015)

..For little peace from God you plead.
— “Wake Up” – Mad Season

I didn’t even realize that Mad Season’s infamous April 1995 show at Seattle’s Moore Theatre was scheduled for a vinyl release.  But I happened to take last Friday off from work, so I decided to head over to Silver Platters and do some digging.  And that just coincidentally happened to be the day Live at the Moore was released.  I don’t believe in fate, but if I did I’d probably find that meaningful in some way.  Perhaps I need to sell my soul to the vinyl gods.

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but whenever I think about those bands that absolutely blew me away the very first time I heard them, as if somehow they’d tapped into my unconscious and pulled out exactly the kind of music I’d be searching for but never heard anyone play, there are two that come immediately to mind:  Godsmack and Alice in Clains.  For Alice in Chains it was the song “Man in the Box,” and it was mostly the music, but Layne Staley’s voice was still impressive… though only got more so as the band got heavier and slower and sludgier, and Staley’s voice got more raspy and desolate.  That was around 1990, and the subsequent albums and EPs, Dirt (1992), Sap (1992), and Jar of Flies (1993) were, in my opinion, the band’s strongest material and allowed Staley to come into his own.

Layne Staley was born not far from where I live today (as in I doubt it could be much more than a 10-minute drive from here), and while a little older than me, we’re close enough in age that we would have been in high school at the same time.  Hell, it’s quite possible that I was in Cellophane Square at Bellevue Square Mall shopping at the same time as him in the mid to late 1980s.  That gets harder for me to fathom when I realize he’s been gone for 13 years now, having burned so bright and so fast.  Another Seattle heron tragedy. (♠)  But that voice endures.

I decided to make a point of sitting down and really listening to Live at the Moore.  While that may sound kind of obvious, seldom do I find myself purely listening to music.  There’s almost always something going on – I’m at work, or driving, or doing something around the house, or looking up something online, or even writing a blog post.  The music is usually the soundtrack, but not often enough just the sound, of my life.  And in sitting in the dark for an hour or so I made two very starting discoveries (at least for me).

(1)  Mike McCready is a tremendous guitar player.  And, way more shockingly,
(2)  Mad Season is a blues band disguised as a grunge band. (♦)

The first of these shouldn’t have been a surprise, and I guess I can only plead ignorance – I’ve never been a Pearl Jam fan.  I don’t dislike them or anything.  I’m just generally ambivalent.  Their debut album Ten is the only Pearl Jam record I’ve ever owned, though they’ve had enough airplay over the years that it’s hard not to know a number of their songs by heart.  That being said, I still think their best song is “Alive” (Oh, she walks slowly / Across a young man’s room / She said, “I’m ready… / … for you…”) which is off that first album.  So I’ve never spent any time paying attention to Mike McCready.  Which was obviously a mistake.  In fact I’m most familiar with his work on the one Mad Season album he played on, but that’s almost the point.  His guitar playing on Mad Season doesn’t sound guitar-ey.  He’s using distortion and playing in such a non-rock way, combined with an album mix that doesn’t over-emphasize the guitar over the other instruments, that to my ear all of the instruments become like one unified, flowing sound.  My bad.  Because McCready can play like a mofo.  Which brings me to point #2.

Mad Season is a blues band.

Hear me out.

madseasonliveatthemoore

Listen to the way McCready cuts loose toward the end of “Wake Up” (with it’s slow, jazz-like rhythm during much of the song), the song having held him back for countless minutes before finally setting him free in a flurry of blues-guitar.  He’s Johnny Lee Hooker when he gets intricate on a portion of “Lifeless Dead” before slipping quickly back into an almost rhythm role to let John Baker Saunders’ bass push the song forward while Staley gives it life with is voice.  And if “Artificial Red” isn’t perhaps the perfect version of rainy Seattle blues, I don’t know what is.  It was blues for the flannel and hiking boots generation, but still the blues.  And the lyrics include a reference to the “house if ill repute,” and if that isn’t a blues lyric I don’t know what is.  This was a Jack White song a few years before we knew who Jack White was.  And that’s just the first side of this four-sided album.  Every single piece of this band is pure blues, but what made it so unrecognizable as such was Staley’s voice, the high pitched antithesis to the classic blues singer.  But that’s the updating of the sound.  His lyrics, however, venture towards the darker, sadder side of the human experience, which is also bluesy.  As if all that isn’t enough, there’s a lot of saxophone on the second half of the record.  Just listen to the sax solo on the John Lennon cover, “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier.”  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

To see if maybe I was crazy, this morning I listened to the band’s only LP, 1995s Mad Season.  While I will go prolonged periods without listening to it, you always know exactly when the time is right for Mad Season, so it still gets played from time to time.  Anyway… it doesn’t sound nearly as overtly bluesy as Live at the Moore.  So maybe it’s more a characteristic of this live show, the nuances in how the band approached the material that one given night.

Right from the opening of “Wake Up” the first time I played Live at the Moore I could hear the richness in the low end – this is a quality live recording.  And that, combined with the show being miked up for shooting a video of the entire thing, ensured that the sound was captured almost perfectly.  All four artists (and guest performers, like Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees) are given room within the sound – you can pick out every instrument easily and quickly, and Staley’s voice is crystal clear.  In fact the whole thing is quality, from the attractive, colorful, and sturdy gatefold jacket to the pristine condition of the two heavyweight records (♥), to the nearly flawless recording.  The only thing missing is a download card.  C’mon guys.  Seriously.  Seriously!  I bought the record.  Give me the files.  Please.

We’ve seen the DVD of the performance, and it’s excellent as well.  Three of the songs appeared on a short CD called Live that came out in 1995, and “I Don’t Know Anything” was the B side of a 2012 RSD Black Friday 10″, but I don’t think the whole show was available independent of the video prior to the re-release of Mad Season in 2013, versions of which included the entire Moore show.  So this material is still pretty fresh if you’ve never seen the video.

I think Live at the Moore is an excellent record in every way possible.  If you’re on the fence, thinking “I already have all of these songs on the original album, and I don’t really care about that John Lennon cover” (but you should, because it’s cool), take my word for it – it’s worth the money to hear Mad Season recorded live this well.

 

(♠) Bizarrely, Staley wasn’t the first person from Mad Season to die of a heroin overdose, as the drug took the life of bassist John Baker Saunders in 1999, three years prior to Staley’s passing.

(♦) I swear to god I came to that conclusion prior to reading Mad Season drummer Barret Martin’s liner notes that state, “I’ve always said that Mad Season was the heaviest blues band that ever came out of Seattle…”  I tell you this not so you think I’m super-smart and deeply insightful, but so that you don’t think I’m taking stuff I read in the liner notes and passing it off as my own opinion.

(♥) Seriously.  These were the two most perfect looking records I’ve ever pulled from jackets.  Inevitably even brand new, still sealed records usually have a mark or two on them, some being legitimately scuffed.  Drives me crazy.  But these things were perfect looking.

Mad Season – “Above” Record Store Release 2013

I wrote yesterday about the luck I had in picking up a copy of the Record Store Day release of Mad Season’s 1995 album Above (remember… I live in Seattle; it was probably not as “in demand” in other places).  I previously wrote about Mad Season when their 10″ was released as part of Record Store Day Black Friday in 2012, so I won’t rehash the history of the band here – that info is available in plenty of other places.  Today I want to reflect on Above and its importance to me personally and to music in general, plus touch on the new tracks sung by Mark Lanegan, formerly of the Screaming Trees that appear on this release.

There were two times in my life when I heard a band for the first time and was flat out stunned and thought to myself, “this is exactly the type of band I’ve been waiting for.”  One of those bands was Godsmack (“Whatever”).  The other was Alice in Chains (“Man in the Box”), and Lane Staley’s voice was a huge part of that reaction.  Alice in Chains was dark, brooding, and heavy, but Staley’s voice had this odd high pitch that made it stand almost separate from the music.  The man could reach enormous emotional depths with his voice, depths that he certainly wallowed in as part of his own experience as a heroin addict spiraling around the drain of life.  You felt that the pain he sang about was real and came forth from a wound in his soul.  A friend of ours once referred to Alice and Chains as “slit your wrist and die music,” which, while a major exaggeration, speaks to the strong reaction people, including me, have to to their work.

My pain, is self chosen,
Or at least I believe it to be.
I could either drown,
Or pull off my skin and swim to shore,
Now I will grow a beautiful
Shell for all to see.
“River of Deceit”

The Record Store Day vinyl re-release of Above is a limited edition of 5,000 copies, and I scored #1280.  It consists of two 180 gram, heavy duty records, with the 10 tracks of the original album filling up the entire first record and accounting for the first three tracks on side C.  The remaining five songs are “new” material.  Logically I probably should have just bought the CD version, which in addition to the all of the songs appearing on the vinyl also comes with a live CD and DVD… so most likely I’ll break one of my own rules and buy both the vinyl and CD/digital version of the same album (plus I still have the original CD I bought back in 1995).  For Mad Season I’m willing to make that sacrifice.

The cracks and lines from where you gave up
Make an easy man to read.
For all the times you let them bleed you,
For little peace from God you plead.
“Wake Up”

Heroin took a major toll on the Seattle music scene in the 1980s and 90s, and Mad Season could be the poster band for staying away from it.  All four members had battled various addictions prior to working together as Mad Season, and heroin eventually claimed the lives of two of them – John Saunders in 1999, and Staley in 2002.  The pain and longing of addiction can be felt throughout Above, and one wonders if such a powerful album could have come from men who weren’t struggling.  But the cost was staggering.  The album is beautiful, but the toll was too much.  Can you separate the struggle from the art?  Could Above have been so brilliant if the musicians hadn’t had such deep reservoirs of pain to dip into?  I don’t know.  But it would have been a different album.

I don’t know anything,
I don’t know anything,
I don’t know anything,
I don’t know who I am.
“I Don’t Know Anything”

It actually hurts to listen to this album.  It always creates an emotional reaction in me… a slight tightness in the chest that comes from being able to “feel” the pain of another person.  So why listen to it then, right?  That doesn’t sound enjoyable.  But here’s the thing:  It’s real.  It’s the most real album you’ll ever listen to.  Ever.  The band members open themselves completely bare and say, “here we are, with all of our faults and struggles… come take a look, because we have nothing to hide.”  They don’t hold anything back, and that type of honesty is all too rare.

So what about the new songs?  Well, Mark Lanegan has a great voice… but it’s hard to think of his songs as Mad Season.  It just doesn’t sound right.  It’s hard for a band with a distinctive singer to continue without that voice, though some have certainly pulled it off successfully (AC/DC immediately comes to mind).  But really it may as well just be a new band.  And when the voice is as unique and integral to the band’s sound as Staley’s was, it’s almost impossible to continue on.  The new Alice in Chains album Black Gives Way to Blue is good… but it’s not Alice in Chains to me.  Lanegan can sing a soulful and even a sad song, but he doesn’t convey the type of anguish that Staley brought to every single word.  The songs are good… but to me it just isn’t Mad Season.

The last song is a remix of “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier,” one that didn’t appear on Above but still includes Staley’s vocals.  To hear this after a few songs sung by Lanegan simply confirms what I already thought – without Staley there is no Mad Season. I’d never heard this song before, and while it’s more of an upbeat tempo piece that the songs on Above, there’s still a longing quality to it, a man expressing his fears in a very clear way.  It’s a cool track, one that gives you a sense of what Mad Season’s second album could have sounded like – not as dark as Above, and with a more rock sound and faster pace.  I’ll bet it would have been great.  But we’ll never know.

Record Store Day 2013

I have a love/hate relationship with Record Store Day.  I love that so much cool stuff is released on vinyl – from the re-releases to the limited edition versions on colored vinyl, different formats, rare b-sides, you name it, I get excited to see all of this coming out on vinyl.  It’s a huge boon for indie record stores as the crowds waiting in line attest to.  The selection is deep, and it’s fun.

But I hate waiting in insanely long lines, and perhaps even more so I really hate all the jostling and overall poor behavior as people try to get their hands on items as if they were starving and reaching for a loaf of bread.  Let’s get it straight – these are just records.  They’re completely unnecessary.  But from the looks of some rabid collectors foaming at the mouth you’d think a life or death struggle was underway.  The stores could perhaps do more to control this, but they’re outmanned – you’ve got a small number of employees who still have to do normal employee stuff, a relatively small amount of space and product, and a big group of people.  Mind you, only a handful are truly unruly or rude, but it can certainly sour the experience.  This isn’t the fault of Record Store Day, or even of the stores; this is more a comment on our society.

So… it was with some trepidation that we decided to head out to West Seattle to hit up Easy Street Records, which was opening its doors at the ridiculous hour of 7AM.  I had one item on atop my want list – the re-release of Mad Season‘s one and only album Above, a limited edition pressing (of 5,000) with a few new tracks sung by Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees.  I figured my chances of getting it were 50/50 – Easy Street was having Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready (former member of Mad Season) in for a signing later in the day, so I figured they’d secured a decent number of copies.  But I wasn’t planning on waiting in line to get in, so we got there around 7:30AM and I headed upstairs.

The vinyl section was a bit of a madhouse, but not terrible.  Unfortunately, however, the Record Store Day section was packed and those in the area were informing everyone around that Above was totally gone.  Some guy right next to me somehow found a random copy that made it into the Miscellaneous M section to my immense dismay, as I figured I was SOL at this point.  But then… about 10 minutes later, while I was still trying to shoulder my way into the RSD section, an Easy Street Employee next to me opened up a cardboard box and shouted, “Who wants Mad Season?  I got Mad Season!”  Bam!  I managed to get ahold of a copy, and it made the whole thing worth it.  While there I picked up a copy of the Bombino 10″ (edition of 3,000) and a newly released Soundgarden 10″ and got into line… where I slowly, over the course of an hour (no exaggeration), made my way to the register.  Along the way Holly and I chatted with a few people around us (one of who told us he arrived at 5AM… and was the 20th person in line, two hours before the store opened) and picked up a few CDs as we weaved through the aisles, most notably the new Depeche Mode and a three CD box set of early Wipers albums, plus a vinyl copy of The Zombies that someone evidently didn’t want and just put down randomly.  Knowing I had my copy of Above, plus the good company, made the wait tolerable, and overall the haul was a good one.

We were going to head down to Hi-Voltage in Tacoma next, but I already had my top three items, and a quick check of Facebook showed that the line waiting to get into Hi-Voltage was long, so we skipped it and headed back to Bellevue so Holly could run some errands and I could check out Silver Platters.  It was a lot less crowded there, and I picked up a few more decent items – a PiL 7″ (edition of 2,200), the Jimi Hendrix “Hey Joe” 7″ (edition of 3,000), a Factory Records 10″ featuring Joy Division and New Order (edition of 1,000), and a sweet box set of Scientific Dub on three 10″ records, none of which I saw at Easy Street.  From there we made a quick stop on the way home at our truly local shop, Vortex, and while they didn’t have any RSD titles I wanted, I did find a used copy of Black Flag’s Jealous Again in the “New Arrivals” section, so it certainly wasn’t a wasted stop.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to go out and buy a bunch of new stuff after just having returned from Reykjavik with a huge pile of vinyl and CDs, but RSD only comes around once a year and I knew I’d be sorry if I missed it.  I sort of lucked out in getting my hands on a copy of Above, but that’s the way it works sometimes.  So now I have an even bigger backlog of vinyl to listen to… so I suspect the blog posts will be coming fast and furious over the next few months.  Stay tuned!

Mad Season – “River of Deceit / I Don’t Know Anything (live)”

I wasn’t planning on going to look for Record Store Day releases today.  It’s “Black Friday”, and I didn’t feel like being out there on the roads with a bunch of half-crazed Walmart bargain hunters who have been on the go since sometime last night.  That crowd is bad enough when working on a full night sleep.  Plus there was only one thing I really wanted, the Mad Season “River of Deceit / I Don’t Know Anything (live)” limited edition 10″ single.  My local record shop wasn’t carrying it, so that meant going to Seattle… and this being the home of Mad Season, I figured my chances were about zero of getting a copy without standing in line in the cold and rain for two hours.  I even contemplated buying a copy someone had on eBay the night before the release for $29.99, but figured there would be more chances to pick it up online cheaper after the event.

But Holly was persistent, and with the promise of lattes from Uptown Espresso regardless of our level of Record Store Day success, it seemed worth a shot.  So we got in the car and drove to Easy Street Records in West Seattle, getting there at 7:15 AM, just after they opened.  Lo and behold, the group crowded around the Record Store Day section was small, and I was able to pick up a copy of the Mad Season 10″ (#1,767/2,000 on red vinyl, and only $6.99!), along with a mono 180 gram re-release of Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain”.  I also picked up a collectible used record I’m super excited about that will appear in a future blog.  Stay tuned.

So… Mad Season.  For those of you not familiar, this band formed in Seattle in 1994 and was a bit of a super group, featuring Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, Barrett Martin from the Screaming Trees, and bassist John Saunders.  They released their only album, Above, in 1995, and I personally was blown away by it.  It’s heavy and dark, and the songs perfectly fit Staley’s vocal style.  I played the hell out of the CD for a year or so, before shelving it for over a decade.  When I came back to it, it sounded just as amazing as it had before, if not more so.  Unfortunately Staley’s heroin addiction limited the band to just a handful of live shows, and he couldn’t get it together enough to work on another album.  Saunders died of a heroin overdose in 1999 (ironically he met McCready in rehab prior to the formation of Mad Season), and when Staley too succumbed to addiction in 2002 this dashed any hopes of a future album.  However, in 2012 there was a reunion concert, and allegedly there is a new album coming in 2013 with Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees doing some of the vocals.

I was excited about this 10″ because of the live version of “I Don’t Know Anything” (the A Side “River of Deceit” is the album version).  This is only the second live track I’ve come across, the other being, ironically, a version of “River of Deceit” appearing on the 1996 compilation, Bite Back – Live at the Crocodile Cafe.  The difference between the two is that  this vinyl track was recorded live in studio for radio in January 1995 prior to the release of Above, while the other was actually live from a show the band played at Seattle’s infamous Crocodile Cafe.  This radio version of “I Don’t Know Anything” was supposedly part of Pearl Jam’s Self-Pollution pirate radio broadcast, which Mad Season contributed along with “Lifeless Dead,” which will hopefully see the light of day on another record someday.  The track is of good quality, though it doesn’t sound like Staley’s voice was at it’s best.  There are some moments when you can really hear that classic Staley power and delivery, but overall it doesn’t capture his essence as well as the song on Bite Back does.  And that’s too bad, really, because few singers could plumb the depths of emotional despair the way Staley could.

There is also a VHS of Mad Season Live at the Moore, and this will supposedly come out on DVD in 2013 around the same time as the new Mad Season album.  Any chance to get some more live Mad Season songs is one I look forward to.  And I’m sure I’ll pick up the new album as well, but much like the post-Staley Alice in Chains album, replacing Staley will likely prove a daunting if not impossible task.

I’m disappointed that I never got a chance to see Alice in Chains or Mad Season live. The opportunities were certainly there, but that’s just the way it goes sometimes.  Staley was yet another Seattle heroin casualty, and we lost an amazing musician way too soon.  You can hear his pain in some of the Mad Season songs, most notably (in my opinion) “Wake Up”, just as you can in many of the Alice in Chains classics.  It’s a shame that no one was able to reach deep enough to help him with that pain before it was too late.