God Street Wine: Seeing Red (Relix Revisited)
In the early days, the bridge and jams threatened to choke the songs. The joke around the scene was that one day the band would put out a double live album with three songs on it. As the tunes have evolved, the band has consciously toned down the more noodling aspects of its arrangements without losing the ability to jam when the time is right. There was that night in Delaware last May when GSW played the whole show straight through, without a set break, without stopping at all, with each member being given responsibility for linking a couple of the songs together. Later that week, at the Capitol, the songs were self-contained and carefully sequenced. Experience enables this band to play within its own form.
But it was touring, extensive grassroots gigging, that built the franchise for God Street Wine. As Tomo puts it, “It became apparent to us that a record company wasn’t going to come up to us and say, ‘Do you guys want a deal?’ by us playing the Bitter End once every two weeks.” Besides, he says, “We found that playing live was what got us off.”
From the earliest days, the band attracted a group of fans known as “Winos,” who followed them to all the gigs. As the band developed, so did its fans base. Soon the band developed a mailing list, then a phone hotline and finally an Internet address where fans can get tour information, set lists and sometimes even answers to questions from band members who occasionally log on.
A major turning point for God Street Wine came in 1991, when the band held a meeting to decide, in effect, whether to settle for being a bar band or to strive for something else. It chose commitment. “We said, ‘we either do this 100 percent, or not at all,” Tomo says. “And that meant everybody moving to the house [in Ossining] and basically rehearsing and doing nothing but music.” So they all quit their day jobs, and the house became home to all five members of the band and its road crew, a place where rehearsals could take place at any hour of the day or night, where the band’s nascent four-part harmonies could be worked on, or where new songs or new arrangements could be worked out. Tomo credits the move to Ossining with really pushing the band on the road to success in terms of its musicianship and commitment to doing what it would take to succeed.
Then came what should have been the climactic moment of the band’s career: a contract with Geffen Records and the release of $1.99 Romances. According to Tomo, despite many words of encouragement from Geffen, the label’s lack of support for the record was apparent from the beginning. “It’s not like [Geffen] helped out a little and [the record] just bombed; they really did absolutely nothing,” he says.
The band began to realize what was, or wasn’t, happening soon after the album was named #4 most-added on to playlist on Triple-A radio, an alternative format that has served as a launch point to AOR radio and commercial success for acts like Sheryl Crow and Pearl Jam. “At that point, [it was] looking really good,” Tomo says. “It was time for the album to go to AOR, and Geffen just didn’t do it. Nothing. Like a wall, like a fucking wall.”
The experience with Geffen has made the band a little gun-shy about dealing with labels, which is why it is not rushing into another contract. GSW will record first, then take the product around to those labels who have offered them a deal and who are as puzzled as the band over Geffen’s lack of support. The band refuses to look at the experience with Geffen as any kind of omen, remaining convinced, as apparently do those labels wanting to sign them, that God Street Wine can become a successful recording act. “We’d like to be known as recording artists, as opposed to the road hog road warriors,” Tomo says. “Phish makes their living playing live, sold-out sheds. They don’t sell records. We want to sell records. We really do.”
The road warrior reputation coupled with the way God Street Wine has gone about building its grassroots following and the nature of its crowd (“The same audience any band has today,” Tomo says, “your basic semi-affluent white kid”) has elicited what seem to be obligatory comparisons to the Grateful Dead and Phish.
Sometimes the band gets tired of the comparisons. Indeed, there was the review of a GSW show by New York Times rock critic Jon Parales, who mentioned the Grateful Dead more often than the name of the band he was actually seeing, which convinced some people that he was paying more attention to the audience than to the music. “People need labels,” Tomo says, “until you get to the point where you get established enough, and then people start comparing other people to you.”
For God Street Wine, a band that has been following a relatively smooth, if not necessarily meteoric, path of ascension in the music business, the troubles with Geffen were a blow, but there wasn’t all that much time to think about it with the Ossining sessions to finish, the bigger rooms to play and the little matter of the H.O.R.D.E. tour followed by another round of touring this past fall. “It’s never taken a huge step backwards,” says Tomo, referring to the band’s career. “This ordeal with Geffen, at times it seems like going backwards, but the reality is it’s just another lesson.”
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
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Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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