Live Review: Screaming Treesby Mitch Goldman
RKCNDY, Seattle, WA 3/23/97
There's no question that the Seattle grunge scene has all but disappeared. Kurt Cobain's suicide was only the beginning of the unraveling; Pearl Jam can no longer sell multi-platinum, Soundgarden has called it quits, the future of Alice in Chains is questionable at best, and the Melvins live in California. Thank God for Screaming Trees.
Hailing from the Eastern Washington town of Ellensburg, the Trees have been making rich and rewarding music for over a decade. Their early SST recordings found the Connor Brothers (bassist Van and guitarist Gary Lee) laying down riffs as fat as they were (and that's a considerable achievement). Vocalist Mark Lanegan, he of the deep spooky voice (a la Nick Drake) and frequent black eyes (the Trees are nothing if not bar-brawlers) added the touch that made the Trees unique.
They really hit their stride, artistically and commecially, with 1992's Sweet Oblivion and its hit single "Nearly Lost You" (also on the Singles soundtrack). Clearly riding the crest of the Seattle wave, the Trees were poised for stardom. But a four-year delay before the next album (during which they recorded and scrapped another album) hurt their stock, and by the time the superior Dust was released last summer, the Seattle buzz was over. The Trees were frozen at a level of popularity below their peers. All of which is meaningless beside the triumph that is Dust: from the eastern-tinged opener "Halo of Ashes" to the apocalyptic closer "Gospel Plow", Dust found the foursome in peak form. A Lollapalooza slot last summer only delayed the gratification of seeing them headline, and really show off some new material.
Three Seattle shows in March proved the band to be as solid as ever, despite Lanegan's drug bust the following week (and his absence onstage during the encore covers at all the shows). Aided by Josh Homme on rhythm guitar (the former Kyuss guitarist helped out during the Lollapalooza tour as well), the Trees careened through much of Dust and a few tunes from Sweet Oblivion; only "Bed of Roses", the only Lanegan encore vocal, predated the 1992 release. As usual, Gary Lee and Van made formidable onstage figures, rolling around on their backs, leaping and hopping, and making Pete Townshend-like windmill gestures during the louder numbers. Opening with "Halo" and closing the set proper with "Julie Paradise", the show was full of great moments. "Nearly Lost You" pleased the sold-out RKCNDY crowd, "Butterfly" flat-out rocked (and Lanegan sounded truly sincere on the line "I'm sick and I wanna go home") and "Witness" was awesome. Quieter numbers like "All I Know", "Dying Days" and "Winter Song" were truly moving.
As usual with the Trees, the show's only drawback was its shortened length. After one Lanegan encore, drummer Barrett Martin turned in a shaky vocal on "Got a Good Feeling" and, with Lanegan offstage, Gary Lee did a surprising vocal turn on the old David Bowie chestnut "Memory of a Free Festival". The epic glam-rock saga was interesting but certainly sounded like an odd end to a great show. Lanegan's absence pointed up the tension in the band, but so far, that tension has worked to the Trees' advantage: they clearly stand out as the only band to survive and grow artistically after the collapse of the grunge movement. Here's hoping it won't be another three years before we get a follow-up to Dust.
Halo of Ashes
Bed of Roses
Copyright © 1997
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