My pseudo-staycation for 2011 put me in the enjoyable position of seeing “Toad The Wet Sprocket’s” kick-off public performance for their summer reunion tour. My gal and I secured mezzanine tickets and dinner for their 7pm show, and we showed up just before 5:30 to get our table. (Will-call started at 5:30, so we wanted to be nearer the front of the line.) We were surprised to find the foyer with the will-call empty of patrons, but the staff was happy to let us head to our table. Turns out, we were the second group to be seated. The first group was the band itself.
At about 6:30pm, they headed down the stairs for backstage. Since the restaurant was still pretty empty, I got up and welcomed them to the Cities, thanked them for their music, and wished them a good show. Then I headed back to my table and my pint of Surly Furious.
Theirs was a single-set show lasting from about 7:15 until 8:30pm. The original four was accompanied by a fifth musician, Jonathan Kingham, who played a bit of keyboard, mandolin, slide lap guitar, acoustic guitar on various songs, and added his vocals to many. He was full of smiles all night, seeming very happy to be playing with the group.
I’ve listened to the bands CDs in heavy rotation for years, but I’d never before seen them live. They played many fan favorites (see the set list below). From the intros to the vocals to the instrumental solos and interludes, their performances were close approximations to what I’m used to hearing on their album recordings. Bassist Dean Dinning was always grooving out front, and guitarist Todd Nichols rocking in an understated way on the other side of the stage, eyes shadowed under the brim of his hat. Behind them, drummer Randy Guss stayed out of the way but pumped energy into each song, just as we fans have come to expect. Back behind Todd, newcomer Kingham attended to his supporting instruments and vocals. At the center of them all was Glen Phillips providing some witty banter, biting tenor vocals, and colorful guitar that is part of Toad’s identity.
They played two sets to two different crowds, both of which responded to them in similar ways. Phillips was chattier during the second set, and the band played an additional tune second time around.
Afterward, all the members hung out near the merchandise table to sign posters, CDs, and chat with fans. Glen, Todd, and Dean were out longest. I was able to catch Russ and compliment him on a good show, but he might have dashed for the bus after that. Kingham had management duty and spent most the time with crew packing things up for the bus so they could head out to St. Louis for their show at the Pageant on the 27th.
- Something’s Always Wrong
- Whatever I Fear
- Good Intentions
- Come Down
- The Moment (new song)
- Friendly Fire (new song)
- Crazy Life
- Nightingale Song
- Dam Would Break (second set)
- All I Want 14Fall Down
- Come Down
- Walk On the Ocean
If you’re a Toad fanatic, you might not want to read on. What follows are my musings on what the band is doing in 2011. I’m no music critic. I have never written this kind of essay before, and I don’t even plan to edit this. But I want to put this out there as food for thought. I love the band and their art. But I’m also a middle-aged guy who thinks a bit too much about what it means to have a good life.
In December 2010, the band announced that they were reuniting. Their website makes it sound like they decided to get together to capitalize on the sustained interest by their fans, and to screw Sony. I don’t know the intellectual property law governing this, but it sounds like Toad re-recorded their ‘best of’ catalog and released them as ‘All I Want’ (available for purchase and download on their website).
This is a natural action for any popular band to take. Technology of the 21st century makes it easy for them to record and distribute their work in a way that allows them to keep all rights to the music and its recording. Lots of people have been very successful doing this. Ani DiFranco and Jonathan Coulton are two of my favorites musicians who have ‘gone it alone’ with great success.
I hope Toad is going down this road, and I hope that it allows them to create music that has the political, emotional, and poetic edge that I’ve come to expect from them. But there are two reasons that I fear their road will be short.
First, their music is recording-based. Perhaps I’m biased toward the musicality displayed by bands who are live-oriented. I think of jazz musicians or jam bands like Dave Matthews or Phish. Bruce Hornsby displays variety in his live shows, and markets that variety effectively online. Those kinds of musicians let solos take them off the recorded paths. They trade phrases with bandmates that are spontaneous and creative. They arrange progressions of songs that merge into one another in ways that surprise their fans. This isn’t Toad’s way, I guess.
When I asked Todd Nichols about this after the show, he told me this. “We can up during at the same time as Nirvana, with their solos and stuff. We decided that we’d be the anti-solo band, and that’s just us.” I can buy that. But their live performances leave little room for in-the-moment expression. This is good for an industrial-age model of production, where each consumer gets a copy of the product bought by the previous consumer. But that age is behind us. Lucky for Toad, there will be many fans who will be living in that age for a long time.
Second, it’s not clear to me that the band enjoys being together. Granted, I work with people I don’t socialize with. And we all work with people we don’t particularly like. But I don’t work in a four-person organization. I hope my read off the band after their nine o’clock show was wrong. I hope they enjoy working together, making music together, creating new art, and shipping it together. Perhaps they are, as their cyclical history suggests, ‘friends with benefits’. They get together when the money is good and split up when the benefit of the green can’t outweigh the pain of artistic differences or diva complexes.
I hope that’s not what they are doing. But if that’s what’s happening, I only wish them all the luck in maintaining the collaborative energy that leads to shipping engaging art.