The year is 2025. The place: St. Paul Simon’s Academy, nestled in the rustic autumn-shaded hills of central New England. A clutch of wool-scarf wearing, fresh-faced lads is rifling through the stacks of the school’s musty music library, in the basement of its famous vine-clad clock tower. After spending several minutes marveling at the inconveniently bulky size of the retro “compact discs”, they get down to business poring through the vaults for the secret inspiration that will unite them not only as future millionaires with hippie tendencies, but also as friends. They are the Dead Jam Band Society. The boy with the biggest, most camera-friendly eyes and strongest jawline picks up a disc that appears to be the Grail: a multi-ethnic, co-ed group of happy faces looking up through curls and dreads in a slightly sepia-toned photograph. Carpe diem! it seems to whisper to him. Carpe diem!
The disc in question is The Best of Poi Dog Pondering (The Austin Years), and it may very well come to be viewed as a lodestone of ‘80s/‘90’s jam-oriented music. Less commercially explosive than any of the successive waves of similar bands that spread across the continents in their wake, Poi Dog might nonetheless possess a good deal more lasting power. A young prep in 2025 might be as surprised as this old prep in 2005 at how fresh the first track, “Pulling Touch”, sounds though it was recorded in 1989, the pinnacle year of bad music production decisions. It’s telling that “Pulling Touch” is presented first on a non-chronological compilation, as it represents “the heart and soul of the early Poi sound” according to bandleader Frank Orrall’s liner notes. It’s a sound born out of the band’s egalitarian ethos-which in a band that encapsulates upwards of ten individuals, is decidedly diverse. It doesn’t sound like world music by design, but by nature. Traditional rock elements of bass, guitar, and drums are augmented by strings, conga, mandocello, Cajun-style accordion, even turntables and samples. None of these sounds tilts the scales towards separate and distinct genres, it all ends up part of a stew.
Some eyes may roll when Orrall writes of “plugging our espresso machine into gas station outlets along the way” on early tours, or at the incessant tin whistle on “Living With the Dreaming Body”, but I’ll take the geeky sincerity of the funk-lite peace/freedom anthem “The Hardest Thing” over the smarmy frat-boy posturing of current college circuit jammers every time. In a lesser band’s hands, the mariachi-style horns on “The Watermelon Song” would be a goofy gimmick or a self-consciously multi-cultural statement of PC-ness. But Poi Dog was kicking it on their own terms, cool or uncool, long before DMB (to their credit) helped familiarize mainstream ears with worldbeat textures and rhythms.
Poi Dog’s career is ongoing, and they’ve experimented and diversified even further over the years, so The Austin Years covers the band from their inception until their move to Chicago in 1992, including tracks from three albums. As opposed to a band like Nirvana, where most people who would buy a “Best Of” already own all of their regular albums, Poi Dog’s likely to be the first exposure many people have to their recorded output. In that respect it’s a well-sequenced, cohesive document of eclectic, exuberant rock. And if you’re already an aficionado, there are a couple single edits of songs like “Everybody’s Trying” and “Be The One”, as well as a Roky Erikson cover and the unreleased track, “Bury Me Deep”. That song closes the album with buoyant bass, swirling fiddles, and themes of reincarnation to spur all good hacky-sackers present and future to seize the day and dance in the dirt.