After listening to Live at Club 2, it’s hard for me to understand how Friends of Dean Martinez began as part of the woebegone Space Age Bachelor Pad Music trend of the mid-‘90s. Friends of Dean Martinez, although reduced to a trio on this 2001 live performance, present themselves as a tight, in control, full-on rock band, just as capable for blowout climaxes as subdued soundscapes. The band stakes its claim right on the opening two tracks, as the Santo & Johnny-inspired, slow-burning “For All Time” ends with a triumphant fury that segues without pause into the schizophrenic “Main Theme”, which, in turn, builds into such peaks and valleys that it seems (as its cinematic name implies) to be accompanying a dramatic battle.
The rest of the album follows similar dramatic shifts, with the album’s ten individual tracks flowing together into a mini-suite, trapped somewhere between all-out space rock epic and down-to-Earth grunge-rock song cycle. Imagine mid-period Pink Floyd if Neil Young, not David Gilmour, had replaced Syd Barrett. The fact that the Friends create such a broad (and often loud) sound with just a guitarist, a steel guitarist, and a drummer is just astounding—I refuse to believe that there’s no overdubbing on the monumental slab of the fury that is their rendition of “Inner Sanctum”, or the almost-metal swagger of “Ethchlorvynol”.
Although the editors trim down the concert into this mini-suite, taking care to keep the album a manageable and hard-hitting fifty-minute experience, the Friends of Dean Martinez’s sound gets a little wearisome after a while. There’s simply too much drama on Live at Club 2, and there’s only so many dramatic turns per song that a listener can take before they start to lose focus. Plus, the band occasionally loses its collective ear for melodies in their jazz-like approach to dismantling songs and spiraling into different instrumental directions. When the band gets it right, the songs are thoroughly thrilling, but when the band goes too far, they get a little too cerebral and lose track of the song.
The cover songs chosen by the band reveal much about how their approach to a song’s structure can either bring something new out of an old standard, or, conversely, bury what was good about the original in wrongheaded exploration. “All the Pretty Horses”, which concludes the album, is an absolutely brilliant take on this classic piece of Americana. Friends of Dean Martinez keep the original melody intact, using it as a springboard for some acid-tinged country & western explorations, but never straying too far from the anchoring melody. Their rendition of “Summertime”, however, is practically unrecognizable, as the band slows down and warps the main melody like they were attempting a Gershwin Chopped & Screwed album, until the whole thing collapses apart on them. It’s certainly a noble effort, and it’s not like the world needed another straight rendition of “Summertime”, but it essentially takes the classic song and makes it just another melodramatic horse opera number on the disc.
Still, Live from Club 2 is a good live document, capturing Friends of Dean Martinez creating some thrilling and, perhaps, definitive versions of some of their numbers (“Cabeza de Mojado”, in particular, stands out). The bonus disc more than rectifies the fact that this release is clearly edited to make Friends of Dean Martinez into a more monochromatic band than they actually are. An unlabeled 2004 live performance from Berlin, the bonus disc presents Friends of Dean Martinez in a fuller context, a sprawling seventy-minute set that shows them mixing up their headbangers with softer, more thoughtful pieces. The bonus disc acts as more of a chill-out album, not quite as exhausting as the main album with all of its dramatic peaks and lulls, but not quite as thrilling as the main album either. Taken together as a package, the two CDs show a band that, after a decade in the business, several bandmate defections, and several different attempts to pigeonhole them into unsuitable genres, is still—at least on-stage—making the music that they want to make, regardless of current trends.
// Notes from the Road
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