“I think we’re in rare form,” quips Dean halfway through track one. “I’m not sure.” With Ween, can you ever be sure?
They’ve mocked HIV in song. They’ve emerged from Nashville with an album-length country parody. They’ve coaxed inspiration from a bout of mononucleosis. No, Dean and Gene Ween (or Mickey Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman respectively, as they are obligatorily identified in print) have never been the sort to follow the rules. To reflect on their history, however, is to recognize just how gleefully reversed from the norm their progression as a live act has been.
Let me explain. Consider, for example, the Flaming Lips, whose post-Yoshimi use of backing tracks in concert (as a supplement to live performance, of course) has long been a sore spot for fans. The tapes preclude spontaneity in performance or setlist, argue veterans of the psychedelic noise-drenched shows of yesteryear, and indeed, the band’s recent shows feel like their most scripted ever, from “Race for the Prize” to the “She Don’t Use Jelly” singalong.
But then there is Ween, the rare band to flip the trend: their shows have become looser, freer, more impulsive over a twenty-year career. Today, the band launches regularly into spans of improvised interplay ten minutes or longer, yet they performed until 1994 as a duo; the rhythm section in its entirety consisted of a DAT machine’s backing tracks. The result, as heard on At the Cat’s Cradle, 1992, is a show with “no jamming at all whatsoever,” and therein lies its central paradox: that Ween’s most starkly predictable shows were also its most intimate (and, to many fans, most precious). “Every night we had to face the crowd pretty much naked, there was nowhere to hide,” recalls Dean in the album’s liner notes. “A lot of our closest friends feel that Ween live pretty much ended when we switched to a traditional band format with a bass player and drummer.”
Wait. Ween’s show “pretty much ended” when they... stopped syncing their shows to a clinically precise Yamaha tape deck? Seems a bit backwards, no? Maybe.
And so it's seething with typical self-deprecating sarcasm when Dean (on-stage in 1992) introduces the set opener as “a totally improvisational decision, a nice loose jam by Ween called ‘Big Jilm’.” The reality, of course, is that “Big Jilm” is about as spontaneous as Springsteen’s Super Bowl halftime show, which also made use of pre-recorded backing tracks, the Purist Musician’s Worst Enemy. But Dean and Gene, like the Boss in Tampa, use their charismatic personalities to transcend the music’s pre-programmed cadences. (Did I really just draw parallels between Springsteen in `09 and Ween in `92?) Clearly frustrated with nine and a half months of the same show, the duo peppers their performance with irreverent, personable stage banter, the highlights of which online music reviewer Mark Prindle lovingly compiles in his review.
Curiously, the set represents the band’s 1990 debut GodWeenSatan: The Oneness -- a brilliant, schizophrenic mess of an album in its own right -- far more heavily than the more recent The Pod and Pure Guava records. And, as if in an attempt by the band to counter the constraints of the DAT, these songs’ live renditions are by no means identical to their studio counterpoints: “Don’t Squeal on th’ Pusher” is rendered far noisier and messier than its originally sleazily restrained blues, “Fat Lenny” is given a slow, teaser intro, and the gorgeous “Birthday Boy” sounds as earnest as ever stripped of its unwavering fuzz sheen. The exception is the brilliantly obnoxious duo of “You Fucked Up” (“This is about that fucking bitch!”) and “Papa Zit”, each nearly indistinguishable from its 1990 recording.
The Pod and Pure Guava selections are also fairly removed from those albums’ druggy, reportedly disease-fueled haze, an element that pervades the sluggish tempos and cheap artificiality of the drum machines and vocal effects. “Pork Roll, Egg and Cheese” sounds slightly less creepy sans helium-voiced harmonies -- “Demon Sweat” is a bit brighter, too -- and the band adds to “The Goin’ Gets Tough from the Getgo” an infectious funk wah-wah guitar. Elsewhere, similarly titled prog odes “Captain Fantasy” and “Don’t Get 2 Close (2 My Fantasy)” are as deliriously tuneful as ever, with Dean’s pompous Bowie impression well intact.
There are rarities, too: from the “Push th’ Little Daisies” single comes “Mango Woman” (so that’s where the Spongebob Squarepants theme singer caught his big break!) and “Ode to Rene”, a jazzy French-sung shuffle, like "Weird Al" goofing on Serge Gainsbourg. Of most interest, however, is the eerie, eight-minute -- and mostly DAT-free -- “Buckingham Green”, pulsing steadily but intently toward a blistering apex. (“This is heavy shit,” declares Dean; “It’s what happens when you smoke too much opium.”) The song would only surface half a decade later on The Mollusk, a dense, prog-inflected album often regarded as the coherent magnum opus for a band that seems to mock coherence with every note.
This release also includes a DVD of performances from 1991–1992, the sort of grainy, camcorder-style live footage that seems to comprise the most videos and the least views on YouTube. Certainly it’s an entertaining bonus for the hardcore fans, and those seeking a visual element (and don’t miss the hilarious, seemingly impromptu take on the Doobie Brothers’ “Listen to the Music”!), but it's nothing earth-shattering.
The show captures a turning point in Ween’s history -- a last hurrah of sorts for this first chapter in their live career. By 1994, Chocolate and Cheese had signaled a far more polished studio sheen on record, and a more traditional set-up on tour. One wonders if this 1992 recording is wonderful because of or despite the tape deck structure, but the question seems pointless: the DAT was an unalterable facet of early Ween’s identity, so entrenched in the nauseatingly fake, and unmistakably “brown,” drum machines that made recording from their apartment (or “pod”) possible. And nowhere is their guiding principle more aptly summed up than after “Buckingham Green”’s scorching finale: “Well, we’re having a good time.”