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Friday, December 08, 2006

Steve Wynn


I was fortunate enough to see Steve Wynn playing in a small barbecue restaurant last weekend- doubly fortunate to see him in such a small venue, and because he was only playing a pair of oneoff dates, not a full tour. It'd been ten years since Wynn last played in the area, and he didn't disappoint- he and his band blew the walls out of the place, storming through songs running the gamut of his 24 year career.

Steve Wynn is a little beyond the scope of this blog, which mainly concerns itself with hopelessly obscure regional acts, most of whom have long since broken up. Since 1982, Wynn has released something like 17 studio albums with various bands, the most famous of which was the Dream Syndicate. I'm making an exception because of something he said from the stage- he'd run into someone at the show who told him they'd been a big fan of the Dream Syndicate, but didn't know he was still playing. So, I'm harnessing the miniscule power of my little corner of the web to help get the word out.

The Dream Syndicate started in LA in 1982 as a band equally inspired by the Velvet Underground and punk rock. By the time the band split in 1989, the only original members were guitarist/vocalist/main songwriter Wynn and drummer Dennis Duck. The intervening years had seen the band's sound shift from skeletal, psychedelic noir to sweeping guitar rock in the best Crazy Horse tradition. Given that they recorded during the '80s (when it was almost impossible to make a good sounding rock record), the band's recorded legacy is mixed. Their best studio albums are the first (The Days Of Wine & Roses) and the last (Ghost Stories), although the live album Live At Rajis remains the definitive document. At all costs, avoid the horribly overproduced Medicine Show, the good songs from which are presented in significantly better form on Rajis.

I first became aware of the Dream Syndicate during my freshman year of college, when a friend pulled the just-released Ghost Stories out of the rack at the college radio station and informed me that they had opened for REM, and were great (good thing the station didn't have a copy of Medicine Show). After one listen, I had to concur with his analysis.

After the demise of the band, Wynn decided to re-invent himself in singer-songwriter mode, and made a few albums in that style through the early '90s. I'm not a fan of that genre, so I more or less lost track of him. The exception during this period was the band Gutterball, a side project involving Wynn and members of the Long Ryders, the Silos, and House of Freaks. 1993's Gutterball sounds like a bunch of friends jamming on each others songs over a boozy long weekend, which is essentially what it was. 1995's Weasel sounds a bit more professional (at least until the last track), but the casual "guitar band" approach of both records plays to Wynn's strengths. Both CDs are highly recommended.

In 1996, Wynn recorded Melting In The Dark backed by the Boston band Come (in the final document of their original lineup). The result was a whirlwind of noirish guitar rock, a tour de force for both parties. Wynn had successfully returned to loud rock while moving past the legacy of the Dream Syndicate. I saw him on tour for this record with drummer Linda Pitmon, guitarist Rich Gilbert and bassist Armistead Wellford- it was my first time seeing Wynn, and they absolutely blew me away.



This being my blog, I'm going to make a pretty serious detour here and talk about Rich Gilbert. I first saw him with his band the Zulus (featuring future Sugar drummer Malcolm Travis) in the early '90s- it was in a small club with about 20 people, but the Zulus hit the stage like a bomb. Gilbert doesn't play guitar like anyone you've ever seen- he's less about conventional notes and chords, and more about pulling completely new sounds out of the instrument- the only points of reference I can think of are Richard Lloyd mixed with Jimi Hendrix. He's managed to completely reinvent rock guitar playing, and it's a crime he isn't world famous. Sadly, I never got their album (Gilbert specifically mentioned having distribution problems with their label when I talked to him after the show) so I won't be able to feature the Zulus here. Gilbert currently plays with Frank Black and the Catholics, whose first two albums (the self-titled debut and Pistolero)are slices of garage rock well worth owning. OK, sorry- back to Steve Wynn:



1997's impressive Sweetness And Light featured the same band I'd seen the previous year (Pitmon's been playing with Wynn ever since), but by 2001 Gilbert had left and Come guitarist Chris Brokaw joined for Here Come The Miracles, a sprawling 2CD set recorded in Tuscon, AZ. Miracles displays all of Wynn's different styles in a way that makes a coherent whole- melodic pop to garage freakout and everything in between. Thus inspired, Wynn recorded his next two albums (Static Transmission and ...tick...tick...tick) in the same Tuscon studio as part of what he somewhat jokingly refers to as his "desert trilogy". The albums all have a similar feel, but Wynn's writing keeps them from getting samey.

Since 2003, Wynn's live band (the Miracle Three) has consisted of Pitmon, guitarist Jason Victor and bass player Dave DeCastro (who debuted on Miracles two years previously). They play his songs with fire and skill, breathing fresh life into the old Dream Syndicate songs that by now could be just as stale as the Stones playing "Satisfaction" for the 800 billionth time. This far into a fine 24 year career, it seems that Steve Wynn is just now hitting his stride.

Lester Young from Gutterball
Stare It Down from Melting In The Dark
Click here to buy "Melting In The Dark" from Amazon
Sustain from Here Come The Miracles
Bruises from ...tick...tick...tick
Click here to buy "...tick...tick...tick" from Amazon

Wynn was one of the first musicians to grasp the importance of the internet, and his website continues to be one of the best-
Steve Wynn Web

3 Comments:

Blogger lil birdie said...

Rich Gilbert now plays with Tanya Donelly and is on her latest album, This Hungry Life (Eleven Thirty Records), and he is a GREAT guitar teacher.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Lobsterman said...

That's about the only thing that'd make me want to listen to a Tanya Donelly record...

I take it you speak from experience about the guitar teaching? Man, I'm seriously jealous.

8:01 PM  
Blogger lil birdie said...

I've taken guitar lessons from Rich Gilbert, Tim Shea (Green Magnet School / Black Helicopter), Roger Miller, Glenn Jones (Cul de Sac) and Chris Brokaw.

Rich Gilbert and Roger Miller are the best teachers. Rich teaches technique really well. and he is just the nicest human being. On stage he knows how to put on a persona, but in person he's totally with you. Roger has this way of showing you how to find your own voice... and I have to say the coolest thing was watching him play Alice Cooper's "Eighteen" sitting in the middle of his living room. Those insane eyebrows... the joy he showed playing... On Fire!

Now if only I could get confidence lessons from someone! The guy at that other blog I referred you to says I'm a great guitar player and songwriter, but... I think ego comes with a penis. Wait... so that would mean that Courtney Love & Madonna have penises???? So I guess that theory is bunk. Turning up loud, though... the strut just comes along.

The Tanya solo records... eh. Sad, because she's a really great person (I actually know her, too) and she really puts a lot of creativity into her songwriting. But once her songs get into the studio, I think the producers take all her character out. I once saw her do a solo show of the songs she'd been writing before she went into the studio to record them. It was incredible. She did all kinds of creative stuff with her guitar and voice. It only sucked when she brought Chris Colbourn & some chick from Fuzzy in to back her on a couple of songs.

9:51 AM  

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