Reunions are the Hostess cakes of the music world — they often sound like a treat, but by the time they’re finished, you’re left feeling dissatisfied and a little unclean. And these days, band breakups tend to last about as long as your average soap opera character stays dead, so listeners have learned to distrust the idea of a permanent creative split; as soon as band members go their separate ways, we clamor for them to get back together — until they do, at which point we complain that their new stuff sucks.
It can seem a no-win proposition, one it’s become progressively easier to be cynical about from a fan’s perspective — so when, say, Randy Brecker decides to call his new group the Brecker Brothers Band Reunion even though the other Brecker Brother, Michael, passed away in 2007, it might seem safe to dismiss. But that’s because most reunions don’t really live up to the true meaning of the word: they’re just people getting back together, minus the spirit that bound them to begin with. That spirit is a fragile thing, but it can also be surprisingly persistent — sometimes, not even death can extinguish it.
Case in point: the CD/DVD package The Brecker Brothers Band Reunion, which finds Randy leading a crew of Brecker Brothers associates through a live set of mostly new material that manages to recapture the band’s quintessentially New York jazz vibe while remaining utterly fresh. It has all the urbane musical wit of any Brecker Brothers studio set, but the band’s sonic template isn’t used in a way that feels self-conscious; it sounds like a tribute as well as a step forward — loose, affectionate, and complex in that seemingly effortless Brecker Brothers way.
“For me, the Brecker Brothers was really where I wanted to be,” Brecker told me during our 2012 interview. “In a way, it still is — not that I don’t want to do other things, but it’s at the core of my being, my legacy.” You can hear that in The Brecker Brothers Band Reunion, an album that serves as an act of loving remembrance (witness the tender “Elegy for Mike”) as well as a potent, vibrant reclamation. Core meets legacy.
“I was probably craving some independence and autonomy,” reflected Neil Finn during a 2007 interview following Crowded House’s surprise reunion. “But in the passage of time and contemplating it from another angle, it’s not a lot of fun, apart from anything else. You end up giving each other comfort, humour, confidence. You can take the slings and arrows so much better. You don’t take it as personally, or think it as important. And you’re not as earnest.”
Although Crowded House’s sound always relied heavily on Finn’s songwriting and vocals, it was definitely a band, and when drummer Paul Hester died in 2005 (nine years after the group’s breakup), the idea of a reunion seemed a little ridiculous. Reduce a trio to a duo — one of whom is writing and singing the vast majority of the material — and what are you left with? A band in name only, right?
Nine times out of 10, that’s probably true. But as 2007’s Time on Earth and 2010’s Intriguer attest, Crowded House 2.0 isn’t simply Neil Finn working under a different name. It isn’t just the presence of bassist Nick Seymour or utility player Mark Hart that makes it “Crowded House” — it’s that spirit of comfort Finn referred to. Without explicitly addressing it as a theme, Time on Earth and Intriguer are albums about brotherhood, just as much as either of the duo records Neil has released with his brother Tim.
“I think there’s a lot of heart and spirit in the album, which is connected with the loss of our dear friend Paul, but also an attempt to try and make sense of it and move forward,” Finn explained in a press kit video for Time on Earth. “And as such, it seemed the most obvious and best way to do that was to be playing music again with each other, Nick and I. I want to be in a band, and what other band could it be?”
I want to be in a band. It’s a simple statement, and kind of an obvious one, but I think it’s also really powerful, and even though neither Time on Earth nor Intriguer hit me with the same force as Crowded House’s earlier albums, there’s still a lingering, aching beauty that lends those records a different kind of power — the bittersweet gravity of a bond once broken, then renewed by choice.
“Bands are just weird,” laughed Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips during a 2013 interview with Matt Wardlaw. He went on to describe that need for choosing renewal, admitting that the band’s early success bore personal pitfalls. “We worked hard, but we really couldn’t help but take it for granted to a degree and take each other for granted,” Phillips pointed out. “To get back together and really need to appreciate each other and need to show up for each other, I think it made a huge difference…For a band that hadn’t gotten together as early as we did, it might have been a little bit easier. But we started playing together when I was a freshman in high school and they were all seniors…We didn’t get together as adults and choose each other.”
Phillips’ frank talk sounds like it might describe the sort of business-driven reunion that seems to be exemplified by hit-flogging acts like Daryl Hall and John Oates, but the album it produced — last year’s New Constellation — is not only my favorite Toad record but perhaps my favorite release from all of 2012, a piercingly thoughtful collection of uniformly lovely arrangements wedded to a series of haunting meditations on essential, grown-up topics like the nature of happiness. As he put it in his conversation with Matt:
Once again [we’re] at this age where our generation has seen a lot of their hopes and expectations, you know, the social contract basically, being broken. [It’s] a point at which doing your best and working as hard as you can and doing your part of that equation doesn’t guarantee you a whole lot anymore. So to make something useful out of that shared experience, you can take the lesson that we’re all screwed, which is probably true, but it may not be the most helpful lesson. Or you can take the lesson that you’re responsible for your own happiness. It’s not something that’s going to be given to you if you do your job — it’s a practice and it’s something we need to claim internally and claim with the people we love the most and who are closest to us, to kind of reinvest our faith in the people right around us. I think a lot of the album is about that [effort to] refocus, a loss of faith and trying to restructure something that’s a little closer to home.
Reinvest our faith in the people right around us. That’s damn fine inspiration for an album, not to mention a pretty good manifesto for life in general. I was never a huge Toad fan during their early ’90s heyday, and I admit I was at least 50 percent cynical about the band’s slow-building reunion, but God, this record is beautiful — a really inspiring testament to the ties that bind us and a terrific collection of pop songs in the bargain.
“We’ve taken so many punches — from the critics, from ourselves,” said Toto’s Steve Lukather when we spoke last year. “Death, illness, losing band members, anything that can go wrong, but something brings us back to this, and I’ve gotta think there’s some kind of destiny involved in it. We’re not trying to change the world, we’re not the biggest band in the world, but something about us connects.”
That comment stuck with me — they’ve never been critical darlings, and they had a fairly faceless image even at their peak, so it’s always been easy to imagine a sort of emotional absence in Toto’s music, even as they’ve been dogged by misfortune and tragedy. From their remarkable bad luck with singers in the ’80s, to the awful death of drummer Jeff Porcaro in 1992, to bassist Mike Porcaro’s ALS diagnosis, there’s almost always been some sort of personal darkness at play, and yet for most of the last 35 years, the band has kept going. In fact, when Lukather quit in 2008, effectively ending Toto, it was basically because he missed his old pals.
“As I looked around, I was surrounded by friends, but it wasn’t the band of brothers that I grew up with. This was me making money on the road,” he told me. “I went into a very dark place. I didn’t look well, I wasn’t playing well or performing well — I hated my life, and I hated what I was doing. I had to make a change for my life.”
Two years later, Toto was back on the road, but as easy as it might have been to scoff at the notion of a supposed breakup that turned into an extended pause between renditions of “Hold the Line,” the band’s reunion came together out of love — starting with an effort to raise money for Mike Porcaro’s medical care. “I said, ‘Look, I’ll do this again. But [singer Joseph Williams]’s gotta come back and Steve Porcaro’s gotta come back, and then you’ve got me,'” he explained. “It was all for the right reasons, and it was happy — it was like, ‘Hey, my buddies are back!'”
With another round of tour dates (and plans to finish recording a new studio album) lined up for 2014, Lukather’s buddies are still back. And although Toto’s reunion may not bring the band the respect that’s evaded their music for so long, I eagerly await another opportunity to hear that spirit of the true reunion. Of choice, of reinvestment, of renewal; of artists honoring their legacy by returning to their core.