Come Back Down
No, you few lingering Toad faithful, this isn’t a recording culled from the few reunion shows the band played as opening act for Counting Crows in the winter of 2002/03. This is a Legacy Recordings release, meaning it was pulled from the vaults of the past and pressed to disc a bit too late to truly capitalize on the band’s once good fortunes.
It’s nothing against Legacy, per se, and the label’s stated purpose of reviving and restoring old recordings from the Sony Music Archive (which includes all subsidiary labels) and releasing them with reverent mastering and packaging is a laudable one. But in the case of recordings like Welcome Home, it makes you wonder why these releases were kept shelved during a time when they might have been more commercially viable, which is another way of asking why they’re being released now.
When Toad the Wet Sprocket officially called it quits in 1998, it was after a 12-year career that saw five proper releases and a rarities/b-sides collection, a string of radio and chart hits, and even platinum-selling status. Not bad for a band that emerged from the anonymity of a more folk-rock-friendly ‘80s college scene to become Top 40 radio staples. When Glen Phillips, Todd Nichols, Dean Dinning, and Randy Guss called it quits, no one could deny that they’d had a pretty good run, and produced some pretty solid pop-rock along the way. But in the last six years, it’s only been AC radio that’s kept Toad’s music in any kind of rotation, and it’s hard to see how Columbia and Legacy hope to capitalize on the release of this live disc now, except from the pockets of the rabid die-hards who still follow the careers of Phillips and Lapdog.
The real shame of this is that Welcome Home shows that Toad deserved to have a live disc released at a time when it could have given the band it’s proper dues. Recorded on September 30, 1992 at the Arlington Theater in Toad’s hometown of Santa Barbara, the show was indeed a return home for a group of unlikely chart-conquering local heroes. While their first two releases—Bread and Circus (1989) and Pale (1990)—were middling college radio players, they failed to chart in record sales. Following in the footsteps of R.E.M., Toad’s music was too wistful and unassuming to make a big impression on listeners, something made evident in the woefully under-appreciated beauty of Pale. But in 1992, Toad returned with a third album, the brightly charming and assertive Fear, which found the band expanding its reach into areas that were decidedly more pop-friendly, employing a glossy production that fit nicely into the burgeoning adult-alternative market. That disc spawned Toad’s first successful singles, the charming “All I Want” and the dramatic “Walk on the Ocean”. Suddenly, Toad was a band with real commercial draw and people were paying attention, and just as they started to break into the big time, they returned from a fairly successful tour to play this hometown gig to cheering crowds high on the success of a group of their own.
You can almost hear how surprising it all is to the band on this recording. “This is so weird!” Phillips tells the crowd, and at 20 with an album heading platinum, it must have been. Welcome Home captures the band just as their star began to rise, and as such, it’s an interesting look into how mature the band had already become, and how ready they were for the more secured fame ahead.
The show also traces the band’s progression of sound, which will appeal to current Toad fans. Early favorites like “One Little Girl” and “Scenes from a Vinyl Recliner” come early, and sound much as they did when recorded live in the studio, whereas the depth of songwriting jumps out from Fear tracks like “Before You Were Born”, “Butterflies”, and “Nightingale Song”. Phillips was always a mature-before-his-time songwriter (as evidenced by “Torn”‘s brokenhearted beauty), but the progression in dynamics from Pale to Fear—even performed live—makes it obvious why that latter album became the breakout for the group.
If listeners only familiar with Toad’s radio hits were to pick up Welcome Home, they might also pick up on the depth of subject matter that was the true foundation of the band. While sunny tracks like “All I Want” moved units, they completely belie the seriousness and aggressive frustrations of songs like “Hold Her Down” (the video for which had the dubious distinction of being banned from MTV for being too graphic in its rage against rape, and hence failing as a single). Phillips even cements his intelligently sensitive reputation by tacking on a burst of “Take back the night!” at the end of this live rendition. “Stories I Tell” and “Know Me” are just as heavy performed live, and while “Fall Down” might not have surfaced until future (at the time) album Dulcinea, its appearance here shows that Toad was always willing for there be enough rock in their folk to make a point.
The only real disappointments here are a lack of unreleased and unfamiliar songs, and a somehow thinned-out version of “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted”. The former is the result of history and hindsight (“Brother” and “Fall Down” appeared on later releases), while the latter seems to be the result of Phillips’s already tired voice. “I Will Not Take…” is one of the most gloriously melodramatic anthems ever written, and it was certainly an appropriate capstone to that evening of enjoying a fresh stardom, but as a personal favorite, I was disappointed to hear Phillips’s voice push hard through the chorus, if only because the original is so effective.
Welcome Home proves that Toad the Wet Sprocket was a calmly assured band, accomplished beyond their young age and in defiance of the more lightweight fare that they get associated with. Captured here just as their fame began to burst, it’s not hard to see why they were easily picked up by mainstream audiences for a time. What is difficult is the knowledge that the real weight and depth of the band never translated to radio, and that more people won’t be exposed to it through this disc, which seems to be coming out well after its time. It’s an album that’s likely to only be noticed by the existing fans, even if it’s not necessarily for them, in the sense that only they could appreciate it. But live discs aren’t meant to win new legions, and even in its limited capacity, at least this one is out there now.
// Notes from the Road
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