Soul Asylum House of Blues December 30, 2010
'90s alt-rock mainstays Soul Asylum took the House of Blues stage Thursday night, 18 years after their breakthrough release Grave Dancers Union. Front man Dave Pirner is conceivably regarded as one of the era's most colorful alt-rock personalities, remembered for his signature dreadlocks, torn Spaghetti-O's T-shirts and actress arm candy (then-girlfriend Winona Ryder).
While Pirner, now 46, has since shed his 'locks, it seemed at first glance, that not much else had changed: Still long-haired and unkempt, sporting torn-to-shreds jeans and a baggy T-shirt, Pirner's youthful, energetic spirit was noticeable within seconds.
The Minneapolis quartet has glided relatively under the radar over the past few years, as the decade has dealt them a tough hand; in 2005, bassist and founding member Karl Mueller passed away from throat cancer. The following year, the band released their ninth album, Silver Lining.
After Mueller's death, SA recruited fellow Minnesotan and Guns N' Roses (and former Replacements) bassist Tommy Stinson, who was subbed Thursday by Figgs bassist Pete Donnelly, as GN'R is currently on tour. In addition to original guitarist Dan Murphy, drummer Michael Bland, who has worked with Prince and Paul Westerberg, now rounds out the SA quartet.
The band kicked off their set with "Marionette," a track from their 1988 major-label debut Hang Time. "Somebody to Shove" followed, its memorable opening guitar riff stirring an eager reaction from the crowd. Pirner owned the stage instantaneously, dancing about and hurling his guitar around his body. Judging by his endless energy, the past 20 years haven't fazed him one bit.
"This song is about... Missouri," Pirner playfully quipped, before breaking into 1995 Let Your Dim Light Shine track "Misery." It was the first (but not last) taste of the dry but endearingly funny sense of humor Pirner revealed throughout the set.
SA evenly spanned their lengthy catalogue, hitting nearly every era of their history, including highlights from Silver Lining, like "All is Well," "Lately," and the droll "Whatcha Need." Though lesser-known Hang Time track "Cartoon" seemed to go unnoticed at first, it quickly reeled in the crowd when Pirner veered into a brief cover of Wyclef Jean's "Gone 'Til November."
Though Pirner traded in his raucous electric guitar for an acoustic for the memorable Grave single "Black Gold," it in no way restricted his rocker will, as he and guitarist Murphy literally dropped to their knees side by side during the song's breakdown, trading rumpled guitar solos.
"Here's a song we don't usually play," mused a loquaciously jovial Pirner. We were onto his jokester nature by now; we could guess what was coming. Within the first few seconds of Grammy Award-winning single "Runaway Train," the room became illumninated by the glow of cell phones, cameras, and recorders, the crowd nonverbally communicating their appreciation for a song that undeniably helped define an era.
We were pleased to see SA pick up the pining pieces of "Runaway Train" and immediately splinter them with the speedy "Closer to the Stars." It was hard to overlook the handful of people exiting after the band's hit single had been played, but that's when the mood of the show shifted, and everyone still present was there because they knew that Soul Asylum's 25-plus year history encompasses way more than a radio hit.
After a short break, SA returned to the stage for an encore, Pirner taking to the mic solo, offering his a cappella cover of Janis Joplin tune "Mercedes Benz," most of the crowd singing along with his every word. Motivational Silver opener "Stand Up and Be Strong" closed out the set, its riffs dancing into Guns N' Roses territory.
Pirner then looked into the crowd toward a small, particularly and steadily rowdy group of SA super-fans, asking ever-so-genuinely whether they were having an "OK time." After receiving approving cheers, he took off his guitar, jumped into the crowd, and hugged a few lucky fans. It's moments like these that not only make a show memorable, but also produce respect for an artist who shows such appreciation toward his fans.
But it's moments like the next one that make a show memorable for other reasons: As Pirner climbed back onstage, his loose-fitting jeans drooped, exposing one hell of a plumber's crack. Realizing his faux pas, Pirner jokingly treated the crowd to a half-assed (pun obviously intended) mooning, leaving the crowd in stitches.
Contrary to what we may have believed, sagging pants evidently didn't necessarily go out with the '90s.
After the band's speedy one-song encore, Pirner repeatedly thanked the crowd, sincerely acknowledging, "You all can be anywhere in the world tonight and you've chosen to be here with us. We thank you." And just like that, the jester unveiled his earnest side.
Personal Bias: We appreciated such a varied set list, including hits and rarities alike. Still would have liked to see the Spaghetti-O's T-shirt though.
The Crowd: Extremely mixed, from twentysomethings to fortysomethings, and one SA shirt-wearing dude who kept the dreadlock dream alive.
Overheard in the Crowd: "How do you spell 'asylum'? Is it with two 's''s?"
Random Notebook Dump: Did you know SA's "Misery" can be heard on the radio during Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee's sex tape?
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Marionette Somebody to Shove All Is Well Misery Lately The Streets Whatcha Need Black Gold Without a Trace When I Ran Off and Left Her (Vic Chesnutt cover) Gravity Cartoon / Gone Till November tease (Wyclef Jean cover) Into the Light I Did My Best Runaway Train Closer to the Stars Just Like Anyone
Mercedes Benz tease (Janis Joplin cover) Stand Up and Be Strong