Mike Watt – [Album]

Mike Watt – [Album]

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Artist: Mike Watt
Album: “Ring Spiel” Tour ’95
Label: Columbia/Legacy/Sony Music

Ever walked into a record store and, digging through a vast and vastly disorganized bin of CDs, come across a genuine treasure of the sort that no one ever expects to find? That was the feeling which overtook me when I opened my copy of “Ring Spiel” Tour ’95. Now, I’m familiar with plenty of the back story behind that period of time in Mike Watt’s life; the bassist had released his “wrestling record,” Ball-hog or Tugboat, a couple of months beforehand, and it had really been embraced by the mainstream music press. Called “a publicist’s wet dream” at the time, Ball-Hog or Tugboat featured contributions from a who’s who of alt-rock players including members of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Meat Puppets, Dinosaur Jr., Lemonheads, Pixies, Sonic Youth, Black Flag and more (a lot more), and it gave Watt a look at mainstream success. It was a big deal at the time but, logistically, it would have been impossible to do an “as is” tour on the road because getting the schedules of all those players to align could never have happened. Live promotion for the album was done on a very truncated timetable due to that impossibility, and the players who could come along were the ones who did; ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl agreed to split his time between guitar and drums, William Goldsmith from Sunny Day Real Estate came along as a drummer too (Foo Fighters had not yet released an album or toured much – so notice of their existence was very small) and Eddie Vedder played guitar on the tour, about thirty dates got scheduled over a two-month trip, and the whirlwind took off – if you blinked, you’d have missed it (and a lot of people did – if they knew about it at all).

Since 1995, it has just been assumed that whatever transpired onstage for those two months of dates was just lost to history. Even big Watt fans don’t exactly remember, but Sony Music’s catalogue department, Legacy Recordings, has unearthed a fantastic document from that time. What Legacy has released on “Ring Spiel” Tour ’95 is a presentation of Watt’s show at The Metro in Chicago, Illinois which happened on May 6, 1995. The crew who played with Watt was small that night; the complete backing band was Dave Grohl – who swapped back and forth between guitar and drums, drummer William Goldsmith (then known for his work with Sunny Day Real Estate – this show occurred before Foo Fighters was a household name) and Eddie Vedder on guitar. Pat Smear steps in to help out with his guitar on a couple of songs and a vocal contribution too. This show happened just two months before Foo Fighters would release their debut album and about six months after Pearl Jam released Vitalogy, so life would be getting very, very hectic for everyone involved with this show in the very near future, but this show was simultaneously an exciting moment and the calm before that storm – and the stars were simply intent on helping Mike Watt to shine.

And shine the bassist does here. Beginning with material from Ball-Hog or Tugboat, Watt earnestly seeks to leave an impression on his audience as he growls his way through “Walking The Cow” – a genuine, mid-tempo warm-up intended to ensure that listeners at the show are captivated. Even now, twenty years later, it still works; listeners will find that Watt’s folksy baritone is absolutely spellbinding in this context, and they’ll warm to him because the fact that Watt feels a little uncomfortable being at stage center is impossible to miss. It’s a great way to start – then as now – and as they were then at The Metro, listeners at home will find they’re ready for what’s coming.

And does “what’s coming” ever come hard. After “Big Train” charges through flaunting an inevitability which does justice to its namesake, “Formal Introduction,” “Against The Seventies,” “Drove Up From Pedro” and “Makin’ The Freeway” just keep turning up the power and the volume of the performance by increments until Watt sounds as though he’s frothing at the mouth and there’s a healthy amount of volume-inspired overdrive on his bass. Listening back now, it feels unbelievable that this performance sat unconsidered for release somewhere for twenty years.

As the set progresses, it begins to pull away from Ball-hog or Tugboat and begins to touch upon The Minutemen’s songbook. As soon as that happens, the energy in the crowd audibly escalates and the band responds by turning up too; as a result, “One Reporter’s Opinion,” “Political Song For Michael Jackson to Sing,” “Coincidence is Either Hit or Miss” and a raging cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “The Red and The Black” are absolutely burning, seething, searing and essential listening.

And, after that series of explosions, the set begins to spiral off into oblivion. How could it not? The power prior to this moment in the running reached such a peak. Because of that, the last moments on “Ring Spiel” – where Pat Smear takes the mic and caterwauls out the words for “Secret Garden”before Watt stands alone and plays “Powerful Hankerin’” under the bright lights before simply walking offstage – feel a little confused and incoherent. It’s not a strong end at all but, given the out-and-out power and passion which came before it, there’s no way the show could have ended satisfactorily without something truly superhuman happening.

That said, even though it doesn’t end strongly, no one who runs the length of this “Ring Spiel” Tour ’95 CD will honestly be able to complain that they were shorted in some way. First, no one saw the album on the horizon and, second, the show presents an enactment of a couple of rock stars putting their egos aside in order to help someone else stand tall. Above and beyond the music and the performance (both of which are spectacular), the team effort made to get this music heard is absolutely hypnotic. [BILL ADAMS]




“Ring Spiel” Tour ’95
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon.

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