So there was this band that I’d read about in college but never really had a chance to listen to back in the day: The Minutemen. And I’m not entirely sure why.
Perhaps it was the circles I was traveling in. Perhaps it was the music I was listening to — a rich mash up of Zappa, King Crimson, Eno, Captain Beefheart and new wave-y bands like XTC, Elvis Costello, Rockpile and such plus lots of first wave British Invasion stuff I grew up on, especially The Kinks and The Who.
Since, I wasn’t much into buzzsaw hardcore punk, speed metal and the like, I realize that I mistakenly lumped a lot of the newer bands coming out around then into one bucket even though they were all very different (Meat Puppets, Flipper, Black Flag, etc.).
I should have been listening to The Minutemen back then, for sure.
I later learned that a lot of this post punk, proto-alternative rock stuff was really just good old rock ‘n roll at its root and some of it was really really great. Into the ’90s, some friends told me that the Minutemen’s album to get was Double Nickels on the Dime but that I should get it on vinyl as the CDs back then apparently didn’t sound real good. Took me years to do that (and eventually I did when it was reissued a few years ago, and its great!).
But back in the mid 90s I was getting into Pearl Jam and a lot of the “alternative” rock stuff that was coming out at the time….
When I happened upon a new album from Mike Watt — bassist and co-founder of The Minutemen and Firehose — called Ball Hog or Tug Boat I figured I’d check it out. I mean, it had a bunch of people on it I liked already including Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and The Pixies’ Frank Black and Parliament Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell and Flea from The Red Hot Chili Peppers on it, so what could be bad?
It was on clear blue vinyl and it was priced around $15 or so which made buying it a no brainer impulse purchase.
A good impulse, it was! Ball Hog or Tug Boat turned out to be pretty great, but as with a lot of things in the 90s, it kinda came and went in terms of people’s consciousness. I still didn’t know anyone else at the time who had it, but I liked it so that was all that mattered. I pull out the album every now and then and revel in the pureness of tunes like “Big Train” and “Against The ’70s” and that cover of P-Funk’s “Maggot Brain.”
Fast forward …
Imagine my surprise when a live Mike Watt LP recorded on that tour — called Ring Spiel Tour ’95 — arrived in the mail late last year from Sony Music Entertainment’s Columbia Legacy Records (full disclosure) with out any sort of pitch letter or press release. Nope. Nothing in the package. Just the record, left alone to speak for itself.
And it was only good fortune that I was familiar enough with what it was that I bothered to open and play it. For here was a new live album recorded at The Metro in Chicago (probably for a radio broadcast or a video shoot, I’d suspect). It features cover art that turns out to mirror the red t-shirts being sold on the tour — at least that is what a friend told me when I told him about the album — and is a very unassuming affair on the surface.
Indeed, its the music that matters and in the case of Ring Spiel Tour ’95 it speaks for itself and it rocks rather righteously. How could it not? A band that features Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl alongside Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder on guitar and vocals plus Pat Smear of The Germs on guitar.
As it turned out, the liner notes on one of the inner sleeves does tell the story behind this recording, everything and more that might have been on a press release. And it is a cool story of peers pulling together to support their friend, Watt who was regrouping after the implosion of his band Firehose (and was still probably healing after the sudden death of Minutemen lead singer / guitaris D.Boon in 1985).
Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam was pretty huge then and filled in as support guitarist and backing vocalist. And certainly Grohl was a superstar in his own right due to Nirvana’s explosion (and subsequent tragic implosion). Yet, apparently they all drove around in a van — no fancy big rock star tour buses — loading in and setting up their own gear for each show. All there to support Watt.
What a band they formed…
The result is a kick ass live show! The songs on Ball Hog or Tug Boat were great to begin with and — if you’ll pardon the reviewer-ly cliche here — they do come to life on this new album. I mean, this was no mere pick up band. These guys were firing with all cylinders on, playing songs from the album as well as some choice covers. Indeed, tracks like “Big Train” and “Against The ’70s” really benefit from the energy they developed playing as a band on the road. This live album was recorded more than half way through the tour so they had lots of shows to build up on and find their groove.
But curiously it is some of the non Ball Hog tunes which get the most benefit from this power house band. “Formal Introduction” is a song by Watt’s post-Minutemen band Firehose and the difference between this live version and the original is night and day. No disrespect to Firehose’s drummer, but Dave Grohl’s playing really kicks some big time booty on this one in a way that was only hinted at on the original (note: adult lyrics, NSFW if you decide to click through here to listen to the song on YouTube).
Eddie Vedder breaks out a then-new tune “Habit” on this tour (which showed up on Pearl Jam’s No Code album a year or so later). And, as they point out in the liner notes, Dave Grohl’s drumming at times on this show is absolutely Keith Moon-like, especially on tracks like “Drove Up From Pedro.”
Yeah… these kids are alright, no doubt…
]]>Side Four of the set features a searing cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “The Red & The Black” — a song which Watt has continued to do over the years with subsequent bands such as Missing Men and there are even recordings of The Minutemen doing it. Its worth noting that for this tune, Dave Grohl is featured on lead guitar. This is an interesting moment (brought up in the liner notes) because up until that tour, no one really knew that he — the drummer from Nirvana — was such an accomplished guitarist. The solo smokes.
The world would soon find out about his many talents as Foo Fighters broke out a month or so after this tour ended. Those who saw these shows witnessed their debut. Foo Fighters were one of the opening acts on the tour alongside Hovercraft which included Eddie Vedder (and was led by his then wife).
Ring Spiel Tour ’95 is an important document and I’m glad its seen the light of day. From the pictures on the inner sleeve it looks like there may be some video from the show so maybe that will surface some day in a formal release. Actually, one clip that I found up on YouTube may already have been put out and it looks like its where the photos for the inners sleeve may have been pulled from. Click here to check it out.
Dang. I really wish I’d seen this tour now.
Ah well… at least we can hear this album and get to see Mike Watt on his next tour. (sigh)
Oh, and for you audiophiles reading this and wondering: yeah, it sounds pretty darn great as rock records go. The standard vinyl is dark, well centered and quiet; apparently there is an orange vinyl pressing out there as well. No idea how this was recorded but I would guess that it was probably pulled from the DAT or perhaps an ADAT type digital source, so keep that in mind if you are an analog purist. It is a clean live recording, and ultimately it bears the hallmarks of the best rock records: a rip roaring, lungs-snorting, balls-out four piece band playing without a net.
Ring Spiel Tour ’95 is about the music.
And it is indeed further proof of the power of rock ‘n roll, the spirit of which will never die.
Hey hey, my my…