I’ve never actually seen Mudhoney play live. In 1998, I watched them do a soundcheck with “A Thousand Forms of Mind”. For reasons too complicated, I could not stay for the actual show. In 2008 they came to my hometown but it was my firstborn’s first night home from the hospital. A good friend of mine attended; I did not. Not long ago I got to review a live DVD that documented one of their first overseas shows in 1988. It was a crazy little artifact from such an ambiguous era in music, but I suspected that it didn’t give me a sense of what Mudhoney was capable of these days. Let’s face it, scouring Youtube for live footage will never be a substitute for watching the real thing in person. Do Mudhoney, after all of these years, still put on a hell of a show? That’s a question for the eyewitnesses.
As I continue to wait for another opportunity to see Mudhoney, Live at Third Man Records fell in my lap. The influential Seattle quartet was touring in support of its latest album, Vanishing Point, when they barged in on the Nashville label/store Third Man and played this set. It’s only 10 songs, and I don’t know if it’s the full set or not (online details are pretty slim, but you can purchase the vinyl here). But from the moment the emcee announces the name “Mudhoney” to the audience, you know that it’s not going to be one of those tame in-store PR opps. The crowd roars, drummer Dan Peters pounds the skins, the ugly guitars of “Slipping Away” grind into gear, and suddenly the cover art of Superfuzz Bigmuff doesn’t feel like such a distant memory.
Five songs from Vanishing Point make it onto the record. The remaining five feature a few less-than-obvious choices like “Ghost”, “I’m Now”, and “When Tomorrow Hits”, the last of which has lead singer Mark Arm paraphrasing Wire’s “Lowdown” just before it ends. There are a couple of old favorites, but neither of them are “Touch Me I’m Sick”. “In ‘N’ Out of Grace” is a show stealer. The catatonic beginning sounds ungodly loud, so it’s a little surprising to hear some screams and yelps cutting through the mix when Arm starts abusing his vocal chords to the tune of “Jesus take me to a higher place!” Speaking of which, it’s hard to believe that Arm still has a voice after all of these years. If he sings like this on every night of a tour, he must be doing something miraculous to keep it intact for so long. Peters’s drum solo lasts for two minutes before guitarists Arm and Steve Turner slide into their dueling solos for two seemingly different songs. Even when the song lasts eight minutes, the crowd laps it up. “Here Comes Sickness”, from a similar era in Mudhoney’s history, is another barnstormer that sounds like Mudhoney have yet to grow tired of playing it. That’s saying something, considering that the band’s eponymous album is now 25 years old.
The five songs from Vanishing Point sound unsurprisingly like their studio renditions. But considering how well the 2013 songs sit alongside the 1989 songs, Live at Third Man Records proves just how Mudhoney have stayed true to themselves over the years. Anyone with a limited knowledge of the band could hear that “The Final Course” has just as much vitality as “Here Comes Sickness”. “Chardonnay” cracks faster and louder than almost anything else they’ve done, and their in-concert rendition does it justice. Only “What to Do with the Neutral” doesn’t tap into the high energy in the same way. Guy Maddison’s wonky bass line is more funk parody than Stooges homage, but the chorus still packs the punk. Mudhoney’s thick guitar sound remains undiluted; put just two of them on stage and it sounds like more.
So I still have yet to catch Mudhoney, but at least I’m safe with the knowledge that their live heyday is not behind them. Live at Third Man Records is proof positive of that. I’ve watched that 1988 DVD, I’ve been listening to this record — I believe they’re in good shape. Now I just have to go and see it, not just hear it, for myself.