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Soul Asylum

(26 Oct 2005: Bowery Ballroom — New York)

PopMatters Events Editor




The Bowery has seen younger, slinkier roadies; that’s for sure. This guy has a road-worn sketchiness about him, hard leathery skin and the kind of perfectly round potbelly that’s reserved for the most slippery of skeeves. I can’t hear him, but it’s clear that he’s trying his hand at some well-rehearsed roadie pickup lines. I crane my neck to see the woman, catching the front of her face as she turns: she’s at least 40, with equally sunken skin. Whatever he’s saying, she’s only mildly impressed.


Of course she’s not thinking clearly; she’s too distracted. Her T-shirt says “Soul Asylum” (yes, I suppose she’s “that guy”) and her eyes keep peering past the man, towards the stage. Sensibly-dressed 30-somethings surround her, sharing the space with smaller groups in their early 20s. These are all the aged radio-grungers of the early ‘90s and the former pre-teens whose curfews kept them from seeing Soul Asylum in their hey-day. They’ve all gathered to bask in the lost sound of their mopey teenage years. Soul Asylum is mounting a come-back (not a reunion) and these are the true-blue, the fans that have laid in wait.


I’m skeptical, as any good music writer (or listener) would be. After all, the whole thing has the stink of stale nostalgia. While I liked the band’s singles, I’m the first to admit that I long ago banished them to the embarrassed back-reaches of memory, the place where Buffalo Tom, Collective Soul, Pauly Shore, and the Goo Goo Dolls all reside.


But I’m intrigued, interested to see the sad, mournful eyes of lead singer Dave Pirner, the long locks of hair that wooed my middle school love (Winona Ryder) out of my arms. I was never insulted; I figured he was just the better man.


When Pirner emerges he’s immediately recognizable, though the introverted grunger charisma that he once possessed no longer radiates with the same certainty. His younger skin has been supplanted by more solid, stony features: a harder, tighter face and a host of small wrinkles. The young man I saw on MTV is there, but hidden behind the mask of a mid-career Neil Young—his once-long hair still falls mischievously across his eyes, but it’s much shorter.


Pirner’s counterpart, lead guitarist Dan Murphy, has also aged. The only other original member to grace the stage (their bassist Karl Mueller passed away earlier this year), he looks like someone that could be my dad while Pirner, for all his age, looks like someone I’d WANT to be my dad.


When they begin to play, it’s with honest energy—they may look weathered but their riffs remain forever frozen, the same sounds that they perfected (if that’s what you’d call it) in the early ‘90s.


Radio hits like “Runaway Train” and “Somebody to Shove” are trotted out shockingly early in the evening. As the solid rock rhythms fall over Pirner’s affected keens, I close my eyes, letting memories of high-school dances and Reality Bites wash over me. This isn’t a bad thing. There’s warmth there, if also a trove of adolescent grief.


Pirner delivers the lines “Wrong way, on a one way track…” with all the resolve of a frustrated, stunted teen, falling backwards into a little shimmy, his body shaking behind his guitar. The ax itself remains almost completely still.


At one point he drops his instrument entirely, letting it dangle on the strap. Head in front of the mic he raises his arms, like they’re filled with helium; they waft above him, floating on the air. It’s the kind of move that can only be pulled off by a grunge-rocker or late ‘60s gypsy.


When the band is on, they’re really on, delivering all the sugar-coated memories they can muster. Of course there’s schmoo too: the stunted, unfortunate cuts that don’t stand the test of time (if they ever stood at all). These are the moments when my eyes open, and the spell is broken.


The band is filled out by the Replacements’ Tommy Stinson on bass and Prince studio-drummer Michael Bland on drums. Stinson brings a strange, oily energy to the show, with well-practiced head-bobs and an unceasing stream of precise, controlled enthusiasm. He plucks the notes (eliciting his own set of cheers) like a consummate pinch-hitter. Of course, his antics border on shticky and one can’t help but feel his glossy excitement is the stuff of a well-practiced actor. His notes fall in the right places, but his presence is off-putting. He brings an immediate energy (or the semblance of it) while the others seem less concerned with convincing the crowd of their vitality.


Bland is an equally off-putting spectacle. His drumming is sparse and tight, but his aesthetic just doesn’t mesh. A large man, he dwarfs his set. He looks more the kind of musician spotted on a smoky blues bar stage, whiling away the hours with old jazz-hounds. His rhythms are on track, but he himself is a sore thumb.


This is a very strange lineup: two old radio-grungers, an ex-Replacement, and a former Prince studio drummer, masquerading as Soul Asylum. They’ve come together to rekindle the band’s long-lost spirit. What’s weird is that when you close your eyes, they almost do.


New songs continue in the tradition of Soul Asylum’s old b-sides, with heavy riffage and more precise, high-octave vocals. The cleaner aesthetic (as opposed to the affected, guttural grunge croon that adorned their hits) strips some of the likeability from Pirner’s voice, leading him dangerously close to neu-Motley Crew territory. That said, true fans of the band may be excited: as the set wears on it becomes difficult to tell which songs are the deep cuts from their catalog and which are new.


Of course there’s no difficulty in recognizing their hits as they continue to trot them out. “Misery” and “Just like Anyone” come across powerfully, dispelling the anxiousness that comes from listening to the band play its less classic cuts. As these tunes are expertly executed, I admit, I feel goosebumps gathering. They really are driving numbers and resonate well into a new century. Of course, my more critical faculties are also piqued, and listening to the songs (after so many years), I realize that they are mostly just a slew of generalized sentiments bound to poppy hooks.


I realize that Soul Asylum’s gift (and curse) was an ability to write sweeping, anthemic numbers, far-reaching tunes with lofty themes. This sometimes backfired and there is a lot of filler. When Pirner’s words are married to anything less than inspired pop hooks, their holes become shamefully apparent. Trite themes abound and at times I’m almost embarrassed by the combination of words, as spliced metaphors bite at my inner editor. How could I have missed this when I was a kid? Maybe I didn’t. Maybe I just fast-forwarded through the band’s records, lending my attention to the hits alone.


Towards the end of the set Pirner takes a moment to dedicate the show to their lost friend and bandmate, commenting “We’re really happy to be here. We’re happy to be, well, anywhere right now.”


I suppose they should be. Despite the oddity of this new endeavor, the band has managed to pack the house (even if it’s hardly the size it once was). It’s clear that the crowd is out for the sake of nostalgia but at least it’s being delivered with convincing, honest enthusiasm.


I couldn’t get anyone to come with me to the show because they were all sure it’d be a devastating clunker. It was a strange evening; that much is true. But it was also strangely comforting to see these boys in the flesh, alive, and back doing what they do: moping unapologetically for the masses.

Andrew Phillips is an entertainment writer/editor living in Brooklyn, New York. He recently left his post as Managing Editor for the Daily Washington Law Reporter, a small legal periodical in the District of Columbia to pursue his fortune in the big(er) city.


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