Friday, November 11, 2016

A Look At The Alt-Rock Legacy Of Punk Pioneer Mike Watt On The Occasion Of The Release Of His Ring Spiel Tour '95 Album

That Mike Watt is a legend is not something that even needs to be said anymore. Hopefully, his rich legacy from both The Minutemen and various other projects is something that's at least acknowledged more widely these days. In 1995 he put out his first solo album. Ball-hog or Tuboat? might have been a Mike Watt release but it featured members of Sonic Youth, Nirvana, and The Meat Puppets. It was a linking-up of the earlier American hardcore traditions with those of the alt-rock era and, as such, it was a seminal record. Almost as important as that album was the subsequent tour which saw Dave Grohl join Watt's band even as Dave was getting Foo Fighters underway. The addition of Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder to the group was a further solidification of the ties between earlier hardcore styles and those of the grunge boom. Luckily for us, that tour was captured in recordings and the result is the new album, Ring Spiel Tour '95, out today via Sony.

On the best cuts here, stuff like the Vedder composition "Habit", one is hearing a sort of dream super-group of Mike Watt on bass, Grohl on drums, and Vedder on guitar and vocals. That there's fire in these recordings is an understatement. On "Against the '70s", the trio burns through the material, the effect an incendiary and rabble-rousing one that recalls briefly the best of harDCore in its shouted fury. On some of the cuts Grohl switches to guitar with the kit handled by William Goldsmith from Hovercraft, an opening band for Watt on this tour in 1995. On the odd alt-rock radio hit "Piss-Bottle Man", Watt takes over lead vocals with Grohl and Vedder helping him out on backing vocals and guitars while Goldsmith pummels the skins. So refreshingly bright and bold that it's hard to believe this sort of thing did get played on the radio, "Piss-Bottle Man" is even more forceful in its live version than it was in its original form.

A Minutemen classic, "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing", gets an airing in tribute to the late D. Boon with Watt taking over vocals as Vedder and Goldsmith hold down things behind him. Another notable cover here is a weird run at Madonna's "Secret Garden" with Fear's Pat Smear on backing vocals. But, truly, perhaps the highlight of the Ring Spiel Tour '95 live album is the scorched-earth stab at "The Red and the Black" by Blue Oyster Cult. Here, Watt, Grohl, Vedder, and Goldsmith sound like the best punk group that never got signed, their playing collectively recalling the glory days of the American (music) underground. The album closes with the entirely solo "Powerful Hankerin'", Watt singing and unleashing a few unbelievable runs on the bass that blur the lines between punk rock and jazz fusion.

One of the more significant releases of 2016, Mike Watt's Ring Spiel Tour '95 offers up not only proof of the talents of the players involved, but confirmation of how vital and richly important the music made in the Eighties and Nineties was. Watt here has, with these players, offered proof that the independence of The Minutemen was appreciated and honored by the work done by Grohl and Vedder and others in their generation later. Rather than see grunge and its rise as the moment that the underground was co-opted by the MTV-aided mainstream, we should see a sort of unbroken tradition in American alternative music that extends from The Minutemen and their peers all the way up to the more accessible tunes made by Grohl and Vedder and their bands as their popularity skyrocketed. They weren't selling out but, rather, bringing the tradition laid down by Watt and other pioneers to the masses.

Ring Spiel Tour '95 by Mike Watt is out today via Sony on a whole lot of formats.

Follow Mike Watt on his official website.

[Photo: Maikki Kantola, Mike Watt's web page]