The Day Before Wine and Roses is an impressive testament to the band’s intensity as a live unit, even though their debut album hadn't been recorded yet at this point in time, reissued just in time for their recent tour.
The contemporary critics who praised the Dream Syndicate for reviving the Velvet Underground and the current day critics who rejected them for the same reason both missed the point. Like the best of the paisley underground bands – many of whom were actually there that night (from the liner notes: “[David] Roback: ‘In fact, the entire Rain Parade was there, Green on Red, everybody was there,’ Wynn: ‘Yeah, that’s true. All the Bangles, I think even R.E.M. was there’”) – the idea here isn’t to simply regurgitate the Velvet Underground to a new audience who might not have heard them, regardless if Wynn claims to not have been inspired by them. Steve Wynn’s vocal style obviously takes a page out of Lou Reed’s book, and the guitars owe a lot to White Light/White Heat, but they’re directed through rhythms and a dirtier sound that assuredly belongs to the post-punk scene happening around them.
Personally, the 2004 reissue of Live at Raji’s gives you a lot more bang for your buck; there’s only nine songs here, regardless of the reissue here that marks its first proper U.S. release. Also, the eight-minute “Open Hour” is an extremely primitive version of “John Coltrane Stereo Blues”, except with less affecting lyrics, guitars that don’t have the same sense of direction and most problematic, current bassist Kendra Smith doesn’t have the chops that replacement Dave Provost (most famous for working with Al Green) did that made the studio version on Medicine Show one of their best songs—if not the best. That being said, The Day Before Wine and Roses is an impressive testament to the band’s intensity as a live unit, even though their debut album hasn’t been recorded yet at this point in time (they introduce “The Day of Wine and Roses” as “the title track of this album that we’re imagining”), reissued just in time for their recent tour.
On that note, I’m glad that The Day Before Wine and Roses preserves all the banter, although certain moments (ie. the asking people to sign them at the end of “Season of the Witch”) are of the you-had-to-be-there variety. But in introducing the set, there’s the hilarious reason given for The Day Before Wine and Roses having three covers (Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul”, Bob Dylan’s “Outlaw Blues”, and Donovan’s “Season of the Witch”), “Because when you bootleg this, we don’t want to pay royalties.” Also funny is how they play a snippet of Cream’s “Sunshine to Your Love” (to one particularly excited audience member, it seems) at the end of “Outlaw Blues” before fizzling out when they realize they don’t know how it goes. Most live albums drop these little snippets so it’s painfully obvious that you’re listening to a live album – this one tries to put you there.
But it’s also worth grabbing The Day Before Wine and Roses for the songs that you can’t get on any studio album or the ones that are better than their studio compartment. “Some Kinda Itch” is reworked here into a hazy opener that’s completely different (and better) than the one that appears on their self-titled EP, delivering the mood that Wynn promised (“We’re gonna get real relaxed, fire-side chat”). But that turns out to just be a false start; soon after, the guitars are turned up to eleven and nothing resembles any fire-side chat I’ve ever seen. They don’t have a harmonica player to make a straight-forward cover of Bob Dylan’s “Outlaw Blues”, so instead they bring in another guitar to kick up a psychedelic sheet of sound (at the 2:04 mark) that proves they’re not just good for namedropping John Coltrane, they also know how to channel him. Their cover of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” takes a while to get going, but once it does, it’s an unstoppable force of nature. At the 3:40 mark, where one guitar lays down a fast-paced chug and the other pings repeatedly over top of it reminds me of Sonic Youth, except this predates their more inspired and similar guitar-work by a good half-decade.
But, if there’s any reason to seek this one out, it’s for “The Day of Wine and Roses”. The studio version was solid, offering one of their best hooks (the rambling “Everybody says they don’t care, and they don’t care” to the shouted “the day of wine and roses!”) but it felt played out before its seven -minute runtime was over. This one doesn’t, because Steve Wynn is constantly fighting with the guitars to see who will come out on top and by the final instance of the hook, he’s shouting the words in a struggle to be heard over the ruckus – something that sounds forced in comparison when I revisit the studio version. In promoting the reissue, Omnivore wrote, “[Wynn] even reveals that the live wee-hours version of 'Days of Wine and Roses' included in this collection, might have been might have been superior to the studio version.” To Wynn and to listeners, it most assuredly is.