The Power of Pop
Early ‘90s band Jellyfish was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The San Francisco power-pop group came roaring onto the scene wearing their Dr. Seussian stovepipe hats and berets while mining a very retro-y sound at a time when glam-rock in the form of hair-metal was a big thing, making them seem a little out of sorts with the age. And, of course, the next big thing wouldn’t come in the form of the paisley swirls of a band like Jellyfish, or even American contemporaries such as the Posies, the Cavedogs, or Redd Kross, it would be the unrelentingly bleak grunge of Nirvana. Plus, a band that clearly embraced the poppier aspects of ‘70s rock and seemed cartoonish at that – their video for “Baby’s Coming Back”, probably their most remembered song, featured the band being chased around a cityscape by an animated giant baby – just seemed a little too over the top for those heady, recessionary times.
Needless to say, Jellyfish only lasted for two albums (the final one composed with the help of session musicians since a couple of the group’s original members wound up defecting) and were basically just a blip on the MTV-addled consciousness. In 1990, it seemed the world just wasn’t ready to embrace power-pop all over again head on. And, in the end, it’s our loss, as the new Jellyfish live set, Live at Bogart’s, recorded on February 21, 1991, at a club show in Long Beach, California, so effectively proves. How could so many people let music this good slip beyond their grasp? Well, when the public was kinda beholding the likes of Winger at the time, it’s sort of easy to see why.
The bulk of Live at Bogart’s has actually been available commercially in bits and pieces in some form: Some of the material graced b-sides from the band’s heyday, and some songs even made it to the Jellyfish best-of compilation released quite belatedly in 2006. However, this set contains what appears to be the complete concert presented in proper chronological order, with five unreleased tracks nestled against the previously issued material, some of which has fallen out of print. Even though Live at Bogart’s is a bit of a patchwork quilt of stuff you haven’t heard and stuff you may have heard (assuming you were one of the few truly diehard fans during the group’s prime and collected everything), it is still very much a relevant document at what must have been a typical night during the band’s tour behind their 1990 debut album, Bellybutton. Stripped of studio trickery and their gimmicky video prowess, Live at Bogart’s is simply a telling document of a band in fine form trotting out their stellar originals, with a few grand covers thrown in for good measure. What’s more, the band is clearly having fun – and so is the audience. The stage banter from singer/drummer Andy Sturmer is delightfully hilarious at times, such as when he shoots down a request from the front row to do a medley of Foreigner songs during the encore.
What’s quite intriguing about this record, though, is that it shows the band fitting their material together in new and invigorating ways. Here, the group moves Bellybutton’s closing song, “Calling Sarah”, up to the No. 2 slot in the setlist, and they often combines songs together into a singular, long melody—like when they careen from “She Still Loves Him” and crash right into “Will You Marry Me” to create a seamless, 10-minute long selection. The covers, too, are rather interesting, and might just crack you up: aside from a full rendition of Badfinger’s “No Matter What” (which almost matches the intensity of the original), the group drops in fragments of such ‘70s goodies as Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up”, Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Let ‘Em In”, and “Baby Come Back” by Player (“the greatest rock ‘n’ roll group that ever lived,” quips Sturmer by means of introducing the song). The latter is also used to introduce the live version of “Baby’s Coming Back” – get the joke? “Now She Knows She’s Wrong” even starts off with Sturmer singing the opening line from Harry Nilsson’s / Three Dog Night’s “One” to comedic effect, as well. If there’s a single thing that Live at Bogart’s shows, aside from an undeniable droll humor, is that these guys clearly loved the ‘70s before it was culturally cool to do so. (After all, That ‘70s Show wouldn’t debut for another seven years after this concert happened.)
It’s telling that archivist label Omnivore is releasing this album in early July. If there ever was a case for putting out an album in the summer, this would be it. In a fair world, Live at Bogart’s would be played at every cottage and backyard barbeque in America during the upcoming couple of months: This is a live album that offers the perfect soundtrack to just about any recreational activity you can do during hot weather. The only real knock against this album is that it appears there hasn’t been much fussing with the original source tapes: There’s a little bit of hiss that introduces opening track “Hold Your Head Up/Hello”, and the sound cuts out and back in again between the main set and the encore, which suggests that the label has simply just taken the master tape and copied it exponentially with without much work done to it.
However, slight sonic flaws be damned, Live at Bogart’s is refreshingly infectious: a great starting point for those new to the band, or had barely caught a glimpse of them on MTV back in the day, or long-time (and long suffering) fans who simply want to relive the glory days of their youth. Jellyfish might have not been in the perfect place and time when they formed, but now’s as good a time as any to dive right in and find out what the majority of music listeners have been missing out on all along. Power-pop doesn’t get quite as much better than it does on Live at Bogart’s, and those who appreciate the genre (and, quite frankly, who doesn’t – or shouldn’t?) will find a great deal here that will be hard to resist.
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