Hitting The Trunk Road | The Siren Song Of The Reunion

Words By: David Schultz

:: HITTING THE TRUNK ROAD - THE SIREN SONG OF THE REUNION ::

When Neutral Milk Hotel put out In The Aeroplane Over The Sea in 1998, it was hardly hailed as an indie rock masterpiece. Released with little fanfare in an era where nothing went viral, the band embarked upon an unsuccessful tour that is only memorable because it made Jeff Mangum no longer want to play music in front of other people. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, the vanishing act performed by Neutral Milk Hotel turned people into manic obsessives. In addition to Mangum’s transformation into a Salinger-like folk hero, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea became one of the most revered and influential albums of the '90s. About a year ago, Mangum emerged from his self- imposed seclusion and tested the waters for a full-blown return. Despite the fact that few could differentiate Neutral Milk Hotel from Harvey Milk or Martha Davis & The Motels when it was current to do so, many are plunking down significant sums to see the band now. Such is the power of the reunion.

As Showtime’s omnipresent documentary rubs everyone’s noses in it, The Eagles can likely take credit for discovering the financial might of the reunion tour. Fueled in no small part by Irving Azoff’s realization that scalpers’ prices on the secondary market best reflected the pricing point for a show, the Breaking Bad quantity of cash to be reaped from freezing over hell surely assuaged any qualms Don Henley and Glenn Frey had about getting back on the same stage. No matter the inherent impossibility of recapturing the magic from a bygone period of time, Lazarus-like resurrections collectively excite the concert-going public to the point where no cost seems excessive. It’s the most logical explanation for why David Lee Roth and the Van Halen brothers choose to put up with each other or how the entirety of Fleetwood Mac can sit in the same room.

A Led Zeppelin tour presently serves as the Holy Grail of reunions but the Davies brothers touring as The Kinks or Roger Waters and David Gilmour setting aside their differences for another go-round as Pink Floyd would probably create as much of a buzz and likely be nearly as lucrative. The unlimited value of nostalgia simply becomes compounded when you can combine it with a show that audiences thought they would never see again. Looking at the number of bands that have stirred more interest in coming back than they did before they went away, there’s an argument to be made that it’s become a valid marketing plan. Spend five years growing the band to the point where there’s a moderate level of name recognition and then disappear and let the legend build. As memories are wont to do, the high water marks become embellished in the rosy glow of memory and the low points usually fade into the background. Once the stories have become lore, announce the reunion and bask in the goodwill. A whole career can be made by simply sitting out a decade or two.

Even bands with no apparent intention of going their own way couch their time off the road in terms that make their eventual resumption of activities seem more significant and worthy of attention. Once Chris and Rich Robinson regained their desire to play together, the resulting Black Crowes reunion proved to be immensely popular. Since then, the Robinsons have wisely declared any period of down time to be a hiatus. What’s more exciting to announce a year down the road: the Black Crowes are touring again or the Black Crowes are back!

To varying degrees, mega-reunions of classic rock royalty and savvy resurrections of overlooked indie-rock treasures are geared towards lining the pockets of everyone involved. Although the prospects of seeing a Replacements or Black Sabbath show in 2014 has widespread appeal, the experience being offered tends to be a relatively personal one. In this aspect, jamband reunions have a markedly different allure. Where highly touted reunions are largely attended by friends that happened to also like the same band, jamband reunions are liberally populated with folks that became friends solely because they liked the same band.

A fine example of this occurred last September at the Brooklyn Bowl when U-Melt reunited for their first show in more than three years and their first with original guitarist Rob Salzer in nearly four. Equal to the excitement of seeing U-Melt reform and hearing songs like “Red Star,” “Clear Light” and “Schizophrenia” get full workouts was the camaraderie in the crowd. Old friends who hadn’t seen each other since the last U-Melt shows in 2010 caught up on missed time and everyone reminisced and reveled in stories of the glory days. Always attuned to their crowd, U-Melt teased the opening strains of “Elysian Fields” for maximum effect, letting the eager anticipation of the audience fuel the moment, which was one of the best of 2013.

As great as the inevitable Led Zeppelin reunion will be, its spectacle won’t generate one iota of the warmth and genuine emotion that filled the Brooklyn Bowl on the night U-Melt reunited.

OFFRAMPS AND REST STOPS

THE SYMPHONY OF TURNSTILES does not entice every artist nor beckon every band from a bygone era. William Onyeabor recorded eight albums in the late Seventies/early Eighties. Along with Fela Kuti, he helped create and shape the Nigerian Afrobeat movement that would go on to inspire bands like Antibalas and The Budos Band. After becoming a born-again Christian, Onyeabor abandoned his musical career and his refusal to discuss his past life or his music has given him an air of mystery. The efforts of Luaka Bop, David Byrne’s world music label, failed to produce a reliable biography but did result in Who Is William Onyeabor?, a marvelous retrospective that compiles the best of the singer’s lengthy funk odysseys. Although the recordings have a slightly dated quality to them, tongues would wag if anybody released something like this today.

A NICE COMPANION to the Onyeabor compendium would be Free And Easy, a collection of recordings from the early '70s by Apple & The Three Oranges. Founded and fronted by drummer Edward “Apple” Nelson, the band released a handful of singles and albums on small Los Angeles labels to moderate acclaim. This is the type of classic R&B soul that Charles Bradley, Lee Fields and Sharon Jones are keeping alive.

RIGHT AT THE START of their show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg commemorating their 10th anniversary, Craig Finn informed the crowd that in late January 2003, The Hold Steady played their very first show in the building, back when the venue was known as Northsix. After pausing for a second, he grinned as he realized everyone in the audience was doing the math. “Yeah, I know, I know. Rock and roll, man Rock. And. Roll.” With eloquent and witty odes that rhapsodically document the confidence and cluelessness of being young and intoxicated, The Hold Steady have always been a band that reinvigorates old souls as well as one happy to leave the math for the accountants. The cozy confines of Williamsburg’s Music Hall admirably served Finn and The Hold Steady. In the band’s gigs at larger venues like The Beacon Theater and Terminal 5, the distance from the crowd makes Finn’s jittery, spasmodic gestures seem contrived and less spontaneous than they do when he’s close to the thrall of the crowd. With an eager crowd writhing and singing every chorus back at him, Finn’s traditional proclamation came across as true as ever and who can doubt him when he declares “there’s so much joy in what we do.”

[Published on: 2/19/14]

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