Let’s cut to the chase on today’s edition of Bootleg City. While I could tell you a story about the time Mayor Cass took a bunch of taxpayer money and decided to build a heated ice rink, I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to take you to another place where it gets really cold in the winter and only occasionally warm in the summer. Actually, judging by my experiences in Minneapolis, I can tell you that it seems to get hot as hell in the summertime to make up for the “you ain’t goin’ outside during this time of the year” weather that dominates winter.
In Walker, Minnesota, at least, they make really good use of the warm-weather period and hold an awesome rock ‘n’ roll festival called Moondance Jam. For years it’s featured a lot of the standard classic-rock fare, from Sammy Hagar to REO Speedwagon to Foghat (in other words, it’s my dream festival, and I have yet to attend!). In recent years Moondance Jam has expanded its focus to include some popular ’90s alt-rockers; this year’s bill included Tonic, one of my very favorite bands from that era.
I always felt like Tonic got the shaft during the ’90s, doomed as “that band” because of the success of the mushy hit single “If You Could Only See,” from their first album, Lemon Parade (1996). To those of us paying attention prior to that, Tonic was a great rock band with great singles like “Open Up Your Eyes” (a coworker called it “Open Up Your Thighs”) and “Casual Affair” (which should’ve been a bigger hit on rock radio).
When I saw Tonic in concert before the release of Sugar (1999), they showcased a number of songs from that sophomore effort and proved that Lemon Parade was no fluke. “Knock Down Walls” and “Drag Me Down” were two songs that kicked down the door the first time I listened to Sugar.
Skipping ahead a lot, Head On Straight (2002), the band’s third album, was nominated for a Grammy on the same day Tonic found out they were being dropped by Universal Records — while on the road, no less. Although guitarist Jeff Russo says they never really called it quits, lead singer Emerson Hart launched a solo career, and the other members of the band pursued their own projects.
Whether ballads or rockers, Hart and his bandmates wrote some of the finest music of the ’90s; they deserved more of an audience than they received. Tonic regrouped for a new, self-titled album last year, and although I can’t say it hits the mark like their previous LPs did, I wouldn’t count these guys out — I think they’ve definitely got another great album in them.
Tonic’s set from Moondance Jam on July 15, 2010, is nearly perfect: five songs from Lemon Parade, four from Sugar (including the wonderful title track), one from Head On Straight, and, surprisingly, only one from Tonic. Perhaps they simply wanted to take the typical approach and come loaded for bear with a festival-friendly “greatest hits”-type set, and if that was the goal, they certainly achieved it. The guys at Classic Rock Revisited, who have been Moondance Jammers from the beginning, wrote, “I don’t think anyone thought before the show that Tonic would be this good — or heavy.” That kind of reaction is a common one for many who are seeing the band live for the first time and are perhaps only familiar with “the big hit.”
The fanboy in me can’t really argue with this set list. I’d love to hear the previously mentioned “Drag Me Down,” “Knock Down Walls,” or a couple more from Head On Straight, but the men of Tonic make up for all of that with a pavement-peeling, seven-minute version of “Casual Affair” that rips. If you’ve never given these guys a shot, skip ahead to that track and then check out the rest of the set — I’m guessing it’ll make you a believer.
Moondance Jam celebrates 20 years this summer. I’m thinking the time might be right for me to finally make that trip. Now I just need to see if my buddy Brian can drive me.