CHICAGO — For most of the ‘90s, the best live band anywhere was the Jesus Lizard. Its cutthroat music may not have been for everyone, but the Chicago quartet’s performances were everything a rock ‘n’ roll show should be: a spontaneous blast of personality in which anything could happen, and often did.
So when the Jesus Lizard set foot on a Chicago stage Friday at the Pitchfork Music Festival for the first time in more than a decade, singer David Yow, guitarist Duane Denison, bassist David Wm. Sims and drummer Mac McNeilly will have a certain standard to uphold.
“I want to live up to that,” says Yow, the band’s primary onstage provocateur. “I’ve been hitting the gym pretty hard.”
What’s the world coming to? David Yow, working out?
“We’re thinking of calling ourselves The Old Jesus Lizard,” he says.
“But the main objective is to play these songs as good as we possibly can.”
The type of nostalgia that leads to reunions has never been part of the Jesus Lizard mind-set. As Denison says, “We wanted to be the one band that didn’t do a reunion. It almost feels like a cliche for bands to do the reunion thing and do an album, and most of them aren’t that great.”
But it turns out the band felt it had some unfinished business.
In its 1987-99 lifetime, the Jesus Lizard ripped it up on several continents, played hundreds of shows, recorded a half-dozen studio albums and left behind a legacy that still brings involuntary smiles to the faces of those who were there when Yow threw himself into harm’s way. Nirvana were such huge fans that they cut a split single with the Jesus Lizard in 1993.
The music didn’t just have teeth, it snarled; the riffs concocted by Denison and Sims were thick with menace and tattooed themselves on the subconscious, the kind of sound you’d imagine hearing in a bad dream or a slasher movie. The heavy-hitting McNeilly somehow made it all swing, the indie-rock answer to Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. And Yow was one of a kind: jester, exhibitionist, instigator, daredevil. He suffered broken ribs, was knocked unconscious and tried to set himself on fire, all in the name of rock ‘n’ roll — truly the greatest show on two legs.
The quartet’s reputation and record sales expanded through the decade. But after McNeilly quit in 1997 to stay home with his young family (he now has three children) and was replaced by Jim Kimball, the band was never really the same. Two years later it played a final show in Sweden, and then drifted apart.
“I had told an interviewer earlier in the day that there was a good chance it could be our last show,” Yow says of the 1999 concert. “And when we performed the last song, I felt privy to a secret that no one in the room knew. It had become a job; we should’ve called it quits when Mac left the band.”
Yow settled in Los Angeles, where he worked in computer graphics and then began playing with the band Qui. Denison ended up in Nashville, where he has continued to play music in several bands, most recently the Legendary Shack Shakers. And Sims wound up in New York, where he practiced accounting and dabbled in home recording projects.
Denison says the notion of a reunion had been discussed off and on for a few years but didn’t gain any traction until the band got an offer from avant-rocker Mike Patton and the Melvins to play a festival they were curating last year in England.
The Jesus Lizard couldn’t make the date last year, but when it was discovered that everyone in the band’s original lineup was interested, the foursome scheduled some rehearsals last January at Denison’s Nashville studio.
“It’s a very flat and dry-sounding room, there is no fooling yourself, and David Yow was a little put off the first day because we didn’t sound that good,” Denison says. “But it kept getting better.”
For Yow, the reunion with his old friends and apartment mates was emotional. He hadn’t seen McNeilly since he left the band; the drummer was in many ways his closest friend in the original lineup.
“When we first saw each other, we hugged for two minutes and giggled like a couple of kids,” Yow says. Performing with McNeilly, Sims and Denison onstage at the first Jesus Lizard reunion show in May at the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival in England led to another epiphany: “I was really nervous at first and throwing up backstage before we went on. I hadn’t planned on taking my shirt off. But within the first 10 seconds, it was off and I was in the audience and we were in it. I swear to God it was the playing that did it.”
Denison agrees. “It was intense, emotional. None of us will ever have that again. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, especially from our side of the stage.”
The band’s longtime label, Chicago indie Touch & Go, will punctuate the reunion by reissuing the band’s first four studio albums with bonus material in September. Denison hopes it will prompt a reassessment of the band’s legacy.
“Back in the day, we were primarily known for the live show,” he says.
“The albums got a decent critical response and sold well from an indie perspective, but we never got that much respect as songwriters and arrangers. But those albums have legs; they’re showing up on a lot of lists of the best albums of the ‘90s.”
Less clear is what the band will do once its string of approximately 50 reunion shows is capped off by a multinight stand in Chicago around Thanksgiving.
“When we played our first show ever as a band, we knew it wouldn’t last forever,” Yow says. “This is much more ephemeral. I never thought this would happen, so I’ve learned never to say never.”
GET TO KNOW THE JESUS LIZARD
The essential Jesus Lizard on disc:
“Goat” (1991): The band started as a trio plus drum machine, but the addition of Mac McNeilly on drums exponentially spiked the excitement level, while David Wm. Sims’ bass sounds like a power drill.
“Liar” (1992): Mix a little Birthday Party mayhem with Led Zeppelin’s taut riff-o-rama, and the Jesus Lizard’s maximum-rock allure begins to come into focus. The peak of the band’s work with engineer Steve Albini.
“Down” (1994): The sound is gussied up slightly with a smattering of overdubs, but the force is still shattering.