Sunday, May 13, 2012

Gourds on Film

Since the turn of the century, I’ve been saying The Gourds are my favorite American band.  I’m not sure what that means.  Most of what comes out of the UK these days is the same old stuff, which is not an insult, but not since Pulp has a band from over there blown my doors off.  Favorite American band?  I think what I’m trying to say is they’re the my favorite band still playing.  Period.

And now some folks are trying to raise money to do a documentary on them. After I post this story, I’m going to get over to Kickstarter and make my donation.  Why not?  Even if I buy the DVD when it comes out, I’d still be dropping $20 or so after shipping, so it makes sense to kick in on the funding and make the thing happen.  Every few days I check in, and I suspect they’ll make that $45,000 goal by June 11.  Most likely from word of mouth at gigs and among fans on the web.  And things like this – if you’re reading this, a fan, and didn’t know about it, please, drop a few dollars, you know these guys are worth it.

I can’t even recall how I got into The Gourds.  I had the first album: 1996, Dem’s Good Beeble.  I can’t recall if I first heard them on Vin Scelsa’s radio show on WNEW, or if longstanding pal, P.J. turned me on to them.  P.J. actually knew the band at their inception, having lived in Austin in the early 90s, literally across the street from Jimmy Smith, and was privy to the early days of the band before the first album, which must have been a blast.  P.J. had followed his college flame to Austin, eventually married her, moved back up here to live on a farm her family owned in Otisville, NJ, eventually divorced her after the birth of their child, and I guess the one thing he can thank her for, aside from a good daughter, was her turning him onto The Gourds.  (It’s always a good idea to take the good with the bad when you look back on major disasters in your life, because there’s always some kind of good mixed in.)

That first album didn’t floor me at the time.  I remember thinking, “These guys sound like an updated version of The Band, with Kevin Russell nailing that rural Levon Helm vibe, and Jimmy Smith providing the looser Rick Danko element.”  I also recall the band denying they ever heard of The Band at the time, which was utter BS, even I knew that.  They knew their country and rock history.  I’d eventually come across Kevin’s earlier work in the Picket Line Coyotes, and that was one dude who must have worn out his copies of Murmur and Reckoning … so fucking glad he morphed into something else with his next band!

The next album, Stadium Blizter in 1998, that was where I got into them and started sending that “favorite band” vibe.  That was also the year of “Gin and Juice” … which probably would have been a lower Top 40 hit had they released it as a single.  But the band didn’t want to be considered as a novelty/cover act at the time, and the song floated all over the web in the nascent days of Napster, getting mis-labeled thousands of times over as being performed by Phish by stoner jam rock guys who must have had their heads completely up their asses.  It may not seem like much now, but that was a crucial point in the band history, one that could have broken them onto an entirely different level.  But, by choice, and by that weird misidentification, the big Wilco-style tour bus drove right by them, leaving them with the rental van and the 2-3 week touring schedule.

Son of a bitch, that and the next album, Ghosts of Hallelujah, blew my doors off.  Gangsta Lean.  Magnolia.  I Ate the Haggis.  There was such a looseness about their sound, the kind of looseness you had when you were seventeen, and the kind of looseness you never lost, providing you didn’t turn into a shithead when you grew up, as so many adults do.  This was the kind of country music I liked, and still like now.  Made by smart, loose guys from a rock background, who grew into country as they got older, but never forgot that sense of fun rock and roll has in its heart.  This was the sound of America, that melding of so many southern influences into one coherent whole, the same way people like Chuck Berry, Elvis, The Beach Boys and CCR did, once upon a time.  Not so much a conscious effort, just people joining their musical backgrounds and fitting it into a format that may be as old as the hills, but can easily sound new when someone brings his own take into it.  As opposed to the current state of pop country, which is a pathwork of bad cliches, 80s stadium rock with the occasional fiddle and/or steel guitar solo.

People are carrying about their latest album, Old Mad Joy, as if it will be their “breakthrough” … but let’s cut the bullshit.  These guys are never going to “breakthrough” in that blockbuster commercial way I’ve seen so many people imply in reviews.  Either these people aren’t listening correctly, or they’re just full of shit … knowing music critics, you know which option I angle towards.  It’s a good album.  All their albums are good.  The hype leading into it was this “real” producer Larry Campbell was going to take the band, in Levon Helm’s studio near Woodstock, no less, and forge a new sound of sorts that highlighted all their strengths.  I think we all pictured the guys in the cellar of Big Pink creating their version of The Basement Tapes.

Fucked if I can tell, but it sounds like any other good Gourds album I’ve bought in the past 15 years.  Not a breakthrough.  Not a higher level.  They always work on a high level.  It sounds like Campbell might have encouraged them to tighten up their sound, but that doesn’t necessarily make them a better band.  It sounds like doing so had the best effect on Jimmy Smith, or at least “Drop What I’m Doing” is the best song he’s done in years, one of the best Stones-style riffs you’ll ever hear.  I’ve always been more of a Kevin Russell fan (Gourds fans always seem to lean one way or the other), but the sum is always much greater than the parts with these guys, and Jimmy’s songs have that necessary rough-and-tumble quality that the band could not function without.  (Jimmy's song "The Blue Bottled One" from one of his solo albums is surely in my Top 3 by the band.)  Their greatness is that sense of union and tension between Kevin and Jimmy.

And it seems like they’re good enough guys, like each other enough, that whatever differences they have, they can keep it together and go on as a band.  That’s rare with musicians, and the whole band seems like they’re friends.  Compare and contrast with, say, The Ramones, driving around in vans for decades, and no one talking to each other at all, mile after mile, week after week, year after year. 

That’s got to be hell.  I sometimes fret when bands I love don’t make it on that larger level, but I’ve learned, by the same token, not making on that level generally allows you much more control of the product, and if you have enough of a fan base, freedom to tour at will and still make some kind of money.  Most people I know have no idea who The Gourds are, and I’m completely comfortable with that.  For the songs I’m compiling for a class reunion in July, I’m including “Gin and Juice” but doubt I’ll get a chance to slip it on between the Toby Keith and Rihanna and Beyonce and Loverboy and Seger and Madonna and Kid Rock and Lady Gaga and whatever else people in their 40s want to hear that still makes them feel cool.  Shit, I’d have about two dozen Gourds song in that mix if I were going to do it by my personal taste, but I’m not.  Class reunion is not hipster funhouse time, and like it or not, at least in the northeast, you’ve got to be a bit of a hipster, a 90s-style hipster of sorts, to be into The Gourds.  Or into alt country in general.  It might be different down south, and surely is in Texas, but up here, you say you’re a Gourds fan, the general response is, “Why not squash?”

I’ve met the guys a few times through P.J., and it always felt weird, as we’re talking pre-show in NYC.  Once, we even went backstage when they played the Bowery Ballroom.  I just felt like a dick.  The band is always a little nervous and in their own space before a show – any band is like that.  Well-wishers came by, guys who were clearly hipper than P.J. and I were, and we all felt like dicks … because The Gourds aren’t a black-turtleneck hipster sort of band.  I struck up a conversation with Kevin about college football which eventually turned into periodic email exchanges, but we lost that thread a long time ago, long before the demise of Paterno which I’ve written about extensively here, but Kevin struck me as a very smart, funny, warm guy … just like his songs.  Jimmy’s just like his songs, too, you half expect the guy to wear a bell around his neck so he doesn’t get lost in the streets before the show.  I remember one show, pre-show, seeing him on the street, and looking away, because I figured he wouldn’t remember me, but damn, when I looked back, I caught him looking away with a “shit, I know that guy, but this is New York and we have to play it cool” look on his face.  Shit.  I’ve always felt like an asshole over that moment.

But, I’m rattling on here.  Go find the band if you already haven’t.  I’m now going to head over to Kickstarter and drop down a healthy donation, so I can get my DVD when the time comes.  There are two bands I grew up with: The Replacements and The Gourds.  While Paul Westerberg seems to have dropped out for the time being, and that’s somebody I’ll hang in there with, no matter how much he pisses me off, The Gourds have never let me down as musicians.  I was well into my 20s when I heard them, as were they, and they've felt like that one band I could pace my life with and still feel some ongoing connection in the music they make and how I live.  They’re never going to get what they deserve, but that seems to be a running theme in most of my favorite musicians’ lives, not to mention my own!


Jordan Hoffman said...

Just left my donation at Kickstarter.

William S. Repsher said...

Can't think of a better way for you to check in here! Still remember the time we saw The Gourds at The Rodeo Bar in 199.... a wild night.