In this new series, Injustice League, Popdose looks at some long-standing wrongs in the world of rock and roll that will thankfully not live on for another year.
Mike Watt • “ring spiel” Tour ’95 (Live)
Injustice: It was one of the decade’s most legendary tours; but 20 years later, the opening act is still the headline.
Justice served: The top man on the bill steps back into the spotlight with a long overdue, high-fidelity, absolutely essential concert LP
As the early part of my career proved, I am one of the world’s worst salespersons. Case in point, I could not convince my top concert buddies who were die-hard Nirvana and Pearl Jam fans to go with me to this gig.
“It’s Mike Watt! From the Minutemen — and fIREHOSE”
“Yeah, but he was the bassist”
“Dave Grohl’s new band is opening!”
“Yeah, but he was the drummer.”
“And the first act on the bill is led by Eddie Vedder’s wife!”
“Would you pay to see Trudie Styler in concert?”
“It’s only ten bucks!”
OK, so most of that conversation never happened. My friends had girlfriends and dates on the weekend and I usually spent my Saturdays acting in A Dinner Party To Die For.
I wound up going with a co-worker who I always thought kinda loathed me but was impulsive and fearless and she didn’t blink to say yes. By the time we got there, Chicago’s Cabaret Metro was packed to the gills. Metro is one of the best rooms in all of rock and roll, the acoustics are amazing and there are no bad sight lines, so long as some 7-foot tall asshole doesn’t stand in front of you.
The audience waited with baited breath — partially because you could still smoke in clubs back then — partially because everyone from the international alternative rock scene contributed to headliner Mike Watt’s star-studded LP, Ball-Hog or TugBoat. Frank Black, Evan Dando, Henry Rollins, Eddie Vedder, Flea, J. Mascis, Mike D. and Ad-Rock — to name a few. Who would show up and jam with the band? Nobody knew.
I went there that night with hope of seeing new life emerge from scorched Earth. Watt, bassist for the Minutemen, lost lead singer and best friend D Boon a decade earlier and had recently buried his last band, fIREHOSE. Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear all made appearances on Watt’s album, marking their first appearance on vinyl since the death of Kurt Cobain. Grohl was the big draw tonight, there was a blurb in Rolling Stone a few months prior about his new UFO-themed band. A bigger story about this tour followed later that summer, and remember, this was before the Internet was more than chat rooms and message boards. As an Internet “newbie” who was terrified of being “flamed”, I rarely ventured outside the comfy walls of AOL to read about music. I didn’t know much about Foo Fighters beforehand, but there were rumors the most powerful drummer on the planet wasn’t even playing drums in it.
Vedder was a safe bet to show. He had recently married Hovercraft’s Beth Liebling and you know how newlyweds can’t stand to be apart for too long. Plus, Vedder sang on Tugboat‘s big single and Chicago was like a second home to the Evanston native.
The lights went out and Hovercraft took the stage in wigs and masks. They played in the dark under a series of disturbing projected movies. It was all “art party” bullshit and I was beginning to think my friends were right to stay home. They came and went fast, and if that was THE Vedder sighting of the night, I would have talked it up to have been way cooler than it was.
Would Foo Fighters also be an avant garde band; perhaps fulfilling Grohl’s long held jazz fusion dreams? Well, about three chords into their first song, any fears were put to rest. Grohl, Smear, Nate Mendel and William Goldsmith (Sunny Day Real Estate) immediately blew the roof off the joint. Somewhere out there, future Foo Taylor Hawkins was probably drumming for Alanis Morissette in a stadium ten times this size.
While the Foo Fighters self-titled album wouldn’t be released until later that summer, the new songs were immediate ear worms. The pit exploded. Smear never stopped smiling. Grohl was a natural frontman. The tight rhythm section kept the high speed train on the rails. The best song of the night, ‘Winnebago’, never made the album but thankfully emerged as a b-side; the first gem in a treasure trove of b-sides the band would eventually release.
Oh if only everyone had 4K video cameras on their cell phones back then. Sadly, this is one of few video documents of the tour. The audio sucks, but a crisp bootleg of it is easy to track down.
Where Nirvana was about angst, confrontation, alienation and disruption, Foo Fighters were about pure unbridled joy, community and carrying on. Their set delivered Nirvana fans into an actual nirvana — a year after the world’s most dangerous band exploded on take off, life would go on, and it would be glorious. This tour is where Grohl learned how to fly beyond the dark shadows of Cobain. Now here we are, some 20 years later, with Foo Fighters infinitely bigger than Nirvana ever were; selling out stadiums, making documentaries, and enjoying life as one of the biggest rock bands on the planet.
SPIN magazine commemorated the Chicago date on its Sweet 16. There was some reference to the headliner set that followed, but Watt’s part of the show has never taken its true place in rock and roll history.
Until now. This is where our story truly begins.
With the blessing of everyone involved, Columbia/Legacy is finally releasing Watt’s performance on CD (and other formats), fans can finally hear what went down when the lights went up and the decade’s premier supergroup took the stage. “ring/spiel” tour ’95 will be released on November 11, 2016 in all formats (see below).
Watt strode out in his trademark flannel shirt (tucked in mind you, not wrapped around the waist), he was joined by a mask-free Vedder and Grohl, both wielding guitars. Goldsmith returned to the drum kit.
‘Walking the Cow’, a Daniel Daniel Johnston song that Pearl Jam had covered the previous year, kicked off the set with Watt’s lonely, wandering bass line easing people into his world. Watt has a deep, rich tenor and a ferocious growl. His charming version of ‘Cow’ rivals a lovely A Camp cover sung by Nina Persson of the Cardigans.
Grohl then tapped out Goldsmith and took the kit. This is when I thought, or possibly shrieked, “Holy freaking shit, I am finally going to witness the drummer of Nirvana attacking the skins in person!”
Grohl’s muscular kit thrashing ushered in the second sonic boom of the night as ‘Big Train’ blew away what was left of Metro’s roof. Like Nirvana, I’ve never seen Pearl Jam live, so this was the first and only time I’ve heard Vedder sing live on stage. Just when you think the song is over, the engine revs and the band lets loose with exhilarating jam.
Next, the band rips into fIREHOSE’s ‘Formal Introduction’. Holy fuck. The gloves are off. This one is just Grohl, Vedder and Watt — a formidable power trio. Watt takes a blistering bass solo. The trio then rips into ‘Against the 70’s’, the Vedder-led other big hit from Tugboat; one we thought we’d have to wait until the encore to hear.
The trio keeps on chugging through the next three songs. On ‘Drove Up From Pedro’, Watt takes over Tugboat vocals that were handled by Carla Bozulich of The Geraldine Fibbers. Next up is Vedder soaring through an intense early take on ‘Habit’, a song that would make Pearl Jam’s No Code a year later. The trio’s mini-set comes to an epic end with a looser, funkier jam: fIREHOSE’s ‘Making The Freeway’.
Goldsmith returns to the kit and Grohl reclaims his guitar for ‘Chinese Firedrill’, the Tugboat track originally sung by Frank Black/Black Francis of the Pixies. Had the set ended here, it would have already been a night of legend. But we’re only half way through.
Surprises keep coming at every turn. Watt pulls out The Minutemen’s ‘Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing’ and later in the set, Smear opens the encore to speak/sing/shred Madonna’s ‘Secret Garden’, a playful nod to the Tugboat track ‘Intense Song for Madonna to Sing’. Moments earlier, Grohl and Vedder took their bows after a rousing take on Blue Öyster Cult’s ‘The Red and the Black’ closed the main set.
Watt, alone with his bass, closed the show with fIREHOSE’s ‘Powerful Hankering’. By this point, the crowd was exhausted. All had been given. We hung on every bass slap until there was nothing left. Soon Watt was gone. The house lights came up and our drenched bodies were cooled by the night breeze. I walked home alone with swag, memories and bragging rights to last a lifetime. Not sure where the girl I went with wound up, I lost her in the pit mid way through the show.
Thankfully, I would see the band one final time when they played the Jon Stewart show on MTV:
Preorder Mike Watt’s “ring spiel” tour ’95 on Amazon or pick it up on vinyl or CD in your favorite local record store on Friday, November 11. The Columbia/Legacy 2LP vinyl set will be available on 150g black and a limited edition orange pressing. It sounds amazing — and while it will also be available digitally, this is truly one to own.
This particular show was recorded by the folks at JBTV, a Chicago institution whose archive of live and in-studio recordings rival Prince’s vault in terms of unreleased rock and roll history. Get a taste of it here.
With its sterling, almost studio quality sound, I have a feeling “ring spiel” tour ’95 will become one of the defining albums of Watt’s career, much like Cheap Trick at Budokan and Frampton Comes Alive. Whereas Tugboat was Watt’s version of Santana’s Supernatural, this album showcases his vocals at nearly every turn. The prominent Grohl and Vedder performances make the album a must-own for their fans, and what better way to bring kindred souls into Watt’s world? fIREHOSE’s ‘Brave Captain‘ and the Minutemen’s more-relevant than ever ‘Paranoid Chant‘ are among my all-time favorite songs:
As star-studded as it was, Ball-Hog or TugBoat (released in February), was trampled in the herd of what just might be the greatest year of rock and roll in my lifetime. 1995 also saw the release of Rancid’s And Out Came The Wolves, Pulp’s Different Class, Lush’s Lovelife, Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness, Radiohead’s The Bends, Bjork’s Post, S/T’s by Foo Fighters and Elastica, D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, and blockbusters by Jewel, Oasis and Alanis Morissette. Here’s hoping the new live album rekindles interest in its companion LP.
Watt has gone on to release a mountain of solo records, new projects and he even had a stint with the Stooges (subject of the next chapter of this series).
Foo Fighters just reunited LAST WEEK for a gig that included a new supergroup of sorts, including Sammy Hagar and members of KISS.
Eddie Vedder lives 1/4 mile down the street from me here in Seattle, but I’ve never bumped into him. For the next two weeks, he will likely return to Chicago to cheer on his beloved Cubs in the World Series — Wrigley Field is a few feet away from where Vedder played that legendary gig with Watt some 21 years ago.