It was an amazing spectacle. One that became stuck in my brain like few things ever do. I don't know what band the crowd was there to see on that autumn night two years ago in a dimly lit Portland club. But I could tell from all the leather jackets, dyed hair and sullen rock posturing around me that most of them were not there to see and hear the western stylings of cowboy singer WYLIE GUSTAFSON and his band, the Wild West. The tension (a mixture of indifference, irritation and morbid curiosity) in that room seemed to build exponentially as the quintet, in full western regalia -- cowboy hats, bandanas, boots and all -- mounted the stage and fine-tuned their instruments. And it was electrifying to be standing in that crowd and to experience such a complete shift in room attitude -- from something bordering on hostility to what could only be described as unconditional love -- all before the group had finished its first song.
"I remember that audience," recalls Gustafson from his home in Dusty, Wash. "I was so mad at the promoters for putting us on that night. I think one of the other bands wore cowboy hats, but they were the furthest thing from what we were doing. That was one of the few times I've actually been a little bit afraid to go up on stage. But it turned out to be one of the best gigs we've ever done."
Wylie and the Wild West are proud purveyors of western music, an American roots form that lost favor with country radio programmers and the suits in Nashville a long time ago (the group will perform at the Met Friday night). Gustafson is the driving force of the band -- a talented songwriter and expressive singer (and yodeler) able to win over just about anyone with his unself-conscious enthusiasm and honest love for the music. He's also about as authentic as cowboy singers come these days. When not on the road or recording (the new CD on Rounder Records is called Paradise), he's at home on his ranch in western Whitman country with his family, horses and cattle.
But what exactly is western music? And for that matter, how did contemporary country music become so sterile and completely divested from its roots? As always, Gustafson -- who has experienced the country music industry firsthand -- has a few opinions on the matter.
"There is a distinction between, first of all, old country and old western and then, new country. In traditional western, the lyrics dealt more directly with the West and the cowboy and wide-open spaces and things like that. But there wasn't much of a difference back then. That's why they called it 'country and western.' In the 1970s, Nashville made a concerted effort to get rid of western. They wanted to simplify the name but they also wanted to distance themselves from the rural image -- they wanted to go pop. It's the same thing they're doing today. They want to appeal to the pop, urban audience, which to me, defies the name, 'country.' "
But western music -- indeed, many roots American musical forms including folk and country -- is currently experiencing a resurgence among discriminating music consumers.
"People have become so disenfranchised with pop music and what Nashville has to offer that they're really going after these roots bands that keep coming up. It's like the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. It was No. 1 on the country charts for a long time -- and Nashville totally ignored it."
The Wild West is, ironically, most popular with urban audiences and music lovers on the prowl for real, honest alternatives to commercial pop, rock, R & amp;B and country.
"Our audience is not just the cowboy hats," says Gustafson. "Western is kind of this alternative music form that's becoming popular again. People can relate to it. It's honest and real and the lyrics mean something."
Stranger still, although the band has no trouble packing 'em into the Met these days, Wylie and the Wild West was initially a tough sell in Spokane.
"Spokane is kind of interesting. Sometimes it seems they're a little bit embarrassed to like bands like us because we represent too much of what Spokane is trying to get away from -- the hick image. We're too rural. Spokane has always had that chip on its shoulder. It wants to compete with Seattle and be cool, and sometimes it goes a little overboard. But Seattle is like Austin, Texas -- people don't need a band to be labeled as a certain kind of music, it just has to be good music. That is the only qualification they're looking for. Still, in some places, they want to know what type of music it is. 'Western' doesn't mean much to them. You say 'country' and they associate us with Garth Brooks."
In so many ways, Gustafson is living a charmed life. He's doing what he loves for an appreciative audience. He's paying his bills. And he's winning converts to a just and holy cause: the preservation of passionate and vital American music.
"In my mind, we are successful," he says. "We're not doing it for the paycheck. That's the last reason we're doing this for. This is the priesthood of western music, and it's kind of a spiritual thing. We feel like warriors going out there and spreading this music just for the sake of the music, just to keep the form alive. There's an audience out there that just eats it up. They're a little hard to find sometimes, but that's really what keeps us going. We're making a good living so we don't have to sell our souls to the devil. Or to Nashville."
Wylie and the Wild West perform at
the Met on Friday, Nov. 2, at 8 pm.
Tickets: $10. Call: 325-SEAT.
Tool (tool) n. 1). A simple mechanism used chiefly in the direct moving, shaping or transforming of material. 2). A person used to carry out the designs of another, a dupe. Both of these dictionary definitions could indeed be clues into the mysterious minds behind the band that has discreetly become one of the music industry's most intense and enigmatic entities. TOOL has intelligently and soulfully transformed the boundaries of the genre they are most often identified with (that is, heavy metal). However, they have also used their knowledge to move and shape not only themselves but listeners alike while commenting tongue-in-cheek on our mass-produced, homogenous society. Tool will materialize in Spokane this Monday at the Spokane Arena to delve into the depths of consciousness with their darkly symbolic visions and musical revelations.
Formed in the entertainment cesspool of Los Angeles in 1991, Tool began with four members ("geeks" as they refer to themselves in liner notes) who were pursuing different venues of artistic expression when they met. Originally from Ohio, singer and frontman Maynard James Keenan landed in California after being discharged from the Army and spent his time as most promising rock stars do: remodeling pet stores and practicing stand-up comedy on the L.A. underground scene. He eventually started singing and playing with guitarist Adam Jones, whose special effects work on films such as Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park molded him into the creative genius behind Tool's award-winning videos later on. Drummer Danny Carey gravitated to Los Angeles from Kansas and met Adam through Tom Morello, guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, with whom Jones had played guitar with in high school. Finally, southward came their first bassist Paul D'Amour, from our own Spokane, to complete the quadrant.
Tool's first release, the Opiate EP, was put out a scant year after they were together in 1992. April 1993, saw the debut of their full-length album, Undertow, which vaulted them into the spotlight of alternative music. The ground-breaking video for the song "Sober" featured Adam Jones' stop-animation clay sculptural techniques and won them two Billboard video awards for Best New Artist and Best Clip. Another video from the album, "Prison Sex," was nominated for Best Special Effects at the 1995 MTV Music Awards. None of Tool's videos actually featured the members and ironically were rarely aired on the network, which only added to their mystique and conceptual appeal.
Bassist Paul D'Amour amicably left Tool in 1995 to pursue other interests, and the next year welcomed the release of Aenima, along with the addition of new bassist Justin Chancellor. King Crimson producer David Bottrill was now on board, and a Best Metal Performance Grammy award for the song, "Aenema" cemented their musical presence. A lawsuit with their record label in 1997 over contractual disputes delayed album prospects but also created the opportunity for singer Keenan to help form the now multi-platinum band, A Perfect Circle. During this downtime, a mixed media package called Salival was issued, containing their hard-to-find videos and an impressive live disc. Tool eventually came to terms with its label and the spiritually probing album, Lateralus was released this year, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
Few bands have lived long and prospered without the help of heavy MTV video rotations, without selling their music to corporations for use in advertising or without projecting an easily consumed marketing package. Tool is naturally included in this rarefied realm and have proven themselves as cultural Svengalis, albeit with an emotional, Jungian twist. Their specific combination of mysticism, powerful metaphor, sly humor and tidal-wave heavy atmospherics have made Tool's multi-dimensional music, for many, a biblical oasis in the modern-day desert of rock 'n' roll.
Tool and Tricky play the Spokane Arena on Mon., Nov. 5, at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $35. Call: 325-SEAT.
Night of the grateful dead
While there are lots of tribute bands out there attempting to exhume the rotting corpse and musical legacy of Grateful Dead patriarch, Jerry Garcia, THE DARK STAR ORCHESTRA is in a class by itself. DSO is no den of hippie wannabes in stinking patchouli, tie-dye and fake beards. And they don't just play Dead cover songs. Believe it or not, they recreate entire Grateful Dead concerts, duplicating the set lists song-for-song and using the same arrangements (right down to those twin drum kits) used by Dead members of whatever hazy period they're attempting to reconstitute. It's a little scary, if you ask me. And plenty weird. But then, I've always considered the tribute band concept in general to be a little kooky (I mean, you know, get a life, will ya?).
Part of Dark Star Orchestra's mystique is that fans never know exactly which of the Dead's countless (though apparently meticulously documented) live shows will be recreated. Will it be the Providence Civic Center show from back in May 1981 or the 1973 Denver Coliseum gig? You just never know.
Deadheads, it seems, have always been rather reluctant to let go of their dear old band. And with Dark Star Orchestra they don't have to. If Phish and the String Cheese Incident just don't do it for you like Jerry and Bob used to, let the Dark Star Orchestra take you on a long, strange trip this Sunday night. It'll be a happening, man. -Mike Corrigan
The Dark Star Orchestra performs at WSU's Beasley Coliseum on Sunday, Nov. 4, at 7 pm. Tickets: $17; $15, students. Call: 325-SEAT.