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Golden Smog breathes life into music

Mississippi Nights, St. Louis, April 24

By Bill Sacks

ST. LOUIS - At the end of their first encore, just as the rag-tag band playing under the moniker Golden Smog struck the final chords to its joyously irreverent cover of Roxy Music's "Love Is The Drug," Jeff Tweedy found it necessary to apologize to his mother.

Tweedy, formerly of Uncle Tupelo and currently the leader of Wilco, is a Belleville, Ill. native whose parents have routinely attended his shows in nearby St. Louis.

But this was very likely the first time they were subjected to an impromptu striptease.

During "Love is the Drug," a member of the Geraldine Fibbers (the opening band), who shall remain nameless for the sake of Mrs. Tweedy's modesty, climbed on stage and, gyrating his hips, dropped his pants. The incident was, unfortunately, one of the evening's more adventurous moments.

Most "supergroups" (along with Tweedy, Golden Smog's other bright lights include Gary Louris of the disbanded Jayhawks, Soul Asylum's Dan Murphy, and Kirk Johnson of Run Westy Run, augmented by members of The Geraldine Fibbers and the supporting Health and Happiness Show) rarely evince the power and vision of the bands, which gave rise to them..

That was certainly the case in concert where a stage full of fine guitar players and songwriters (much of whose best material wasn't performed) rarely amounted to the sum of their musical parts.

To begin with, four or five guitars played at the same time on any stage is likely to result in as much din as musical dynamics. When a band has a player of Louris's or Murphy's caliber feeling obligated to add in on every tune but refusing to really stretch out for fear of stepping on the other's toes, the performance is bound to feel muted.

Golden Smog couldn't make the music's subtlest emotional dimensions project consistently even to an audience as attentive and gracious as the 500 people in attendance at Mississippi Nights.

The band's few attempts at traditional Nashville song structures lacked focus and inspiration, with a few notable exceptions: a version of "Backstreet Girl" sung with flourishing harmony by Tweedy and Johnson, and punctuated by Louris's refined steel licks; Murphy, pushing his vocal limits on an impassioned version of "Made To Be Broken," a song from the outlaw tradition which Soul Asylum first recorded a decade ago; and a closing rendition of "On The Beach," which captured Neil Young's bleary desperation.

On the other hand, the songs from Golden Smog's recent release on Ryko were among the most disposable material.While, for example, Johnson's songs from Run Westy Run's heyday such as "Kiss The Night," displayed real character and a way with metaphor, the majority of his contributions to this new project amounted to a pound of unfocused earnestness for every gram of invention.

Golden Smog seemed to be in their element when at their most raucous: especially memorable were covers of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?," and David Bowie's glam-dirge "Five Years," which succeeded because it was played with ironic glee.

At its best, this 90-minute evening of music was an opportunity for some talented young musicians, all who have assumed the burden of matching standards set by Roger McGuinn and Gram Parsons, to throw off their yokes and enjoy a bit of loose fun.

But one wonders what this moment of retreat will serve when each of Golden Smog's members returns to the more important work of giving back to their traditions more than what they owe.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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