..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.
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.