Friday, November 13, 2009

THE STAGE HECKLER: Gin Blossoms' Greatness Goes Beyond the Music

What you see here is the set list from tonight's live performance, courtesy of the Gin Blossoms. I grabbed it at the end of the gig, much to the amazement of 20 onlookers with the "I didn't know you could do that!" look on their face.

Grabbing the set list is the ultimate souvenir in many ways. It's hand-crafted by the band for just that show (printed from a computer, but you know what I mean), and typically reveals quirks or things they were considering playing that they didn't, such as the "Cajun Song" that you see on the list...and if you're lucky, and it was on the ground, you might get the guitarist's shoe print on it...or someone's spit. Or worse.

I'm always amazed how many other attendees don't think to ask, as tonight I was the only one inquiring to a roadie about it. He nodded, knelt down in front of where guitarist Jesse Valenzuela had been playing on stage right, removed the tape, and handed it over. No problem. I think that's the fourth set list I've been part of grabbing...there was Live in 1994, Matthew Sweet in 1996, Ratt a couple weeks ago, and now the Gin Blossoms.

Now let's talk about the band.

They might be touring the casino circuit these days, and they might be leaning heavily on material from their signature album, 1992's New Miserable Experience, for their live set...but this band from Tempe, Arizona -- now going on 20 years strong -- are survivors.

The sound of the Gin Blossoms is timeless in some ways, but also heavily rooted in the Tempe bar scene of the late 1980s & early 90s around the Arizona State campus. I should know, as I was attending ASU during those exact years that the Blossoms flourished from bars like Long Wong's, which has sadly since been demolished as Mill Avenue literally erased any sign of its history block after block (when Tempe whored out what remained of its soul to development interests in the late 90s -- Long Wong's...Bandersnatch...Cannery Row...the list goes on -- but that's a long story for another day). They'd also play local frat houses until they turned into a worldwide touring act. I had the pleasure of seeing them perform at several parties back in the day.

Seeing them live tonight conjured up many of the influences from back in the day that one might overlook, but are rather obvious if you know their music. The Stones and R.E.M. seemed to be the most obvious...the interplay between the two guitarists, Jesse Valenzuela and Scotty Johnson, echoed elements of the duo of Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood. Lead singer Robin Wilson seemed to have a mic & stage style in the likeness of Michael Stype. He handed his tambourine to someone in the audience to play along, and sang into someone's cell phone on a couple of occasions. It was amazing how much he sounded like Elton John when they played "Rocket Man" in the encore.

The Blossoms are one of those bands born to play live. They shine and thrive in the live setting, and very much have a live sound even in their studio recordings.

In their early days, there were years of hiccups, false starts, and the difficulty of getting known beyond the Tempe scene. Between the long frustration of trying to get on with a major record label, losing their co-founder /guitarist /main songwriter Nicky Hopkins to alcohol and eventually a suicide in 1993 (as the melancholy lyrics and feel of Experience reveals much of his illness), and after surviving a breakup in the late 90s, these guys appear to be back and stronger than ever. A new album is due out in 2010.

The most impressive thing about this band, however, is their character and heroism...which comes from an incident that occurred in 1994. Every August, when students start the fall semester at ASU, a popular activity is to raft down the Salt River. Unfortunately there can be lots of accidents on the river, and to/from the river, caused by drinking or recklessness. That fall, a female student was severely injured in a motorcycle accident enroute to the river and didn't have medical while she lay recovering in a local hospital, the band got together to put on a benefit concert at Long Wong's bar in Tempe. The result was thousands of dollars raised through donations to help pay for the girl's medical bills...and remember, this is 1994...interesting context to current times.

If that isn't the mark of greatness, I don't know what is. The music of the Gin Blossoms is timeless and a personal sentiment, as they are part of the soundtrack to some incredible and memorable college years...but I believe it's that single act of thoughtfulness and heroism that defines them.

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