Review & Photos | God Street Wine | New York City
Words by: Scott Bernstein
God Street Wine :: 12.20-21.13 :: Gramercy Theatre :: New York, NY
Just over 10 blocks separate New York City’s iconic Nightingale Lounge, where God Street Wine played their first show in 1988, and the Gramercy Theatre, where GSW performed over the last two nights in celebration of their 25th Anniversary. It only takes about five minutes to complete the half-mile walk between the small nightclub and the theater, but much has changed over the past 25 years as Manhattan has transformed from a gritty urban center to a much safer, though commercially and often culturally homogenous, cityscape. God Street Wine’s music also underwent a number of changes during the ’90s and nearly every direction the band went was on full display as they guided fans on a tour of their vast repertoire on Friday and Saturday nights.
In addition to the shows, God Street Wine celebrated the anniversary by putting together a comprehensive box set that includes remastered versions of a number of their studio albums and a collection of outtakes and demos from their glory days. The group interspersed a handful of these long lost gems, many of which were only performed sparingly in the ’90s, throughout each setlist, along with the much-beloved classics that helped GSW build an impressive fanbase during their hey day.
Unlike past God Street shows since the band reunited in 2010, Friday and Saturday’s performances only featured the “Core 5” of drummer Tom “Tomo ” Osander, guitarists Lo Faber and Aaron Maxwell, keyboardist Jon Bevo and bassist Dan Pifer. While it was a treat to hear former GSW members and collaborators like Pete Levin and Jason Crosby, as well as a slew of guests including Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and Anders Osborne, guest with the band over the past four years, it was refreshing to watch the “Core 5” and only the “Core 5” at work.
Another big change for these shows were the lack of covers. With the exception of Bevo’s solo piano performance of Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown holiday nugget “Christmas Time Is Here,” the quintet stuck to originals for the weekend’s four sets and two encores. Since GSW was digging so deep into their repertoire there were no lack of choices and even the most devoted of Winos were in for at least a few songs they had never seen the band perform live in the past.
Even after four years, the chatter after the first set GSW plays at one of these runs turns to how tight the band is even with the minimal amount of rehearsal that usually precedes each set of shows. The five members clearly spend tons of time on their own working through the material as the performances at this run and other GSW runs were incredibly cohesive. God Street’s compositions are often complex and it’s still surprising to watch how fluidly the quintet works through their songs. Flubs were few and far between even on the first night’s encore of “Mantoloking Town,” one of the most twisted and hard-to-pull-off originals in the GSW catalog.
Improvisation played a huge role in how well the past two shows turned out. The guys haven’t lost a step and continue to explore new ground within their jamming. A highlight was a ridiculous jam that developed out of “Other Shore” based on Tomo’s 4-on-the-floor beat and funky synth work from Bevo. Each member showed off their impressive skills throughout the run with other high points including a jam that was the musical equivalent of NYC’s late ’80s grit out of the “Electrocute” run opener, an unexpected excursion that developed out of the “Good Dream” encore on Night Two and a powerful Phish-like improv coming from “Diana” on Friday.
Yet for all the jams, it was a mashup towards the end of Friday’s closing stanza that turned the most heads. God Street Wine was finishing up “Epilog,” when it appeared a few members of the band were leading the improv in a new direction. This mashed up transition from “Epilog” into the jam vehicle “Hellfire” simulated a DJ moving from one track to the next. Faber kept the end of “Epilog” in concertgoers’s minds by repeating the “I did enjoy the ride” lyric all the way through the start of “Hellfire.”
There’s no doubt the shows were a celebration of the past, yet God Street Wine also gave a peek into their future with Saturday’s performance of “Buttons & Leslie.” GSW debuted new material for the first time this century back in August at Brooklyn Bowl and “Buttons & Leslie” was the most promising of those new tunes. The song has a contemporary feel while still fitting in with the other songs in the repertoire and displayed the band remains capable of cultivating exciting compositions.
In tackling songs from throughout their career, GSW didn’t whitewash their history this weekend. When thinking back to the “good old days,” humans tend to focus on the happier moments. However one can’t forget that the “Story Of God Street Wine” wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops. The group imploded towards the end of the ’90s when the meteoric rise Winos hoped for their favorite band never materialized. Bevo and Osander both left GSW and the other members weren’t feeling so great about the situation either. These “should we still be doing this?” feelings were at the heart of the Faber original “Oh Baby Brother It’s All Going By Too Fast,” which was performed for the first time in nearly 15 years on Friday night. Now that all the members are (presumably) happy and have loving families, it’s easier to gain perspective on the hard times that are an indelible part of the band’s history.
For all the deep cuts, you still can’t beat the power of GSW’s most beloved songs. “Waiting For The Tide” received a wild reaction, while “Wendy” gave fans a chance to smile knowingly during the, “We’re all goin’ in to see GSW, don’t expect to home till’ late…” line. “Bring Back The News” was a fine choice to bring the run to a close with the crowd singing along about walking into the dawn. One fan-favorite original received a fresh coat of paint as Saturday’s show began with a swamp-funk version of “Get On The Train.” The song is usually played at such a quick pace it was nearly impossible to hear what Lo was singing. Many appreciated the opportunity to make out “Get On The Train’s” lyrics.
God Street has been averaging about two runs a year, giving Winos plenty of opportunities to see each other. Not only have old friendships been rekindled by the continued reunion, but new friendships have formed thanks in part to the Internet and groups like Bring Back God Street Wine. However, the frequency of shows lowers the Fear Of Missing Out factor as less diehards seemed to be on hand for this run. Friday’s crowd was the least rambunctious of any post-reunion audience with chatters and those with arms folded outnumbering those who were fully engaged. Thankfully,the equation was reversed on Saturday as the crowd was fully engaged from the first note through the last.
Throughout both shows Osander sported a goofy grin that seemed to increase in width with each passing song. There was a long period of time where it seemed unlikely Tomo, Lo, Bevo, Dan and Aaron would play even one show together, let alone continue a reunion for four years and dozens of shows. Both band and fans aren’t taking the wonderful situation that has developed for granted. Faber noted at one point that as long as fans were up for future performances that the band is as well. After two high-quality nights of live music, there’s no doubt fans are still “up for it” and counting down the minutes until God Street Wine announces their next plans.
Here’s the setlist for both nights of God Street Wine’s 25th Anniversary run:
Set One: Electrocute > Thirsty, Brand New Pussycat > Straight Line, Oh Baby Brother It’s All Going By Too Fast > Wendy, Cheap Utah Blues > Fortress Of Solitude > Stone House
Set Two: Light My Candles > Epiphany > Flame > Imogene > Diana > Wall, Princess Henrietta, Epilog > Hellfire
Encore: Mantoloking Town
Set One: Get on the Train > Goodnight Gretchen, Don’t Say Goodbye > 6:15 > Whatcha Gonna Do, Other Shore > April Rain> Driving West, Hammer & Spike, Happy Birthday Mr. President
Set Two: When The Melody Plays, When She Go, Big Papa, Ballroom > Molly, Buttons & Leslie > Waiting For The Tide > One-Armed Man > Christmas Time Is Here > Home Again > Into The Sea
Encore: Good Dream, Bring Back The News
JamBase | NYC -25 Years Later
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