Come see what it’s all about
Tonight will mark the culmination of a decade of patience and fandom. Tonight I’ll see Drag The River play at the Biltmore Cabaret in Vancouver. I made the 2,700 kilometre trip from Regina for three days solely to take in the show.
I’ve been following the careers of Chad Price and Jon Snodgrass for over a decade. I’ve written about their band before. But right now I’ve got a lot of time on planes to kill so I’m going to go back a little further.
I started listening to ALL in the late 90s after I began spiralling fully into the world of California pop punk. ALL are not California pop punk; The Descendents, the precursor to ALL, was. ALL is three-quarters of The Descendents with a variety of different lead singers. They’re based out of Fort Collins, Colorado, where drummer Bill Stevenson (himself a former Black Flag member as well) runs The Blasting Room, one of the most sought-after punk recording studios there is.
Colorado is also home to Jon Snodgrass, the single-mindedly unique singer and songwriter behind almost literally a million albums. He started his band Armchair Martian in the early 90s, seeking to marry his two-stepping country influences with the buzzsaw guitars and aggression of bands like Husker Du. His Armchair albums chart the incredible evolution he has gone through as a songwriter. He sets out his career path from his first record on, creating one of the harshest, thickest, most visceral guitar tones that has ever been set to tape and penning songs like “Jessica’s Suicide,” a track that carried as much weight in its initial rendering as it did when Joey Cape’s Bad Astronaut reimagined it as a less-straightforward piano and cello-laden heartstring-tugger on a split album almost a decade later. On the last Armchair album Snodgrass had gotten used to stretching his legs, starting the album with the longest and slowest, least-distorted song he had ever written for the band up to that point. The songs on their last record Who Wants To Play Bass? varied greatly but were still anchored in Snodgrass’ guitar shredding and his almost stereotypically Nashville-sounding vocals.
ALL has created some of my favourite records. While they put out some of their most definitive work on SST in the late 80s and early 90s with other singers like Dave Smalley and Scott Reynolds I think they did their best work with Price; the out-of-print major label release Pummel has some amazing songs and their Epitaph records Mass Nerder and Problematic are virtually flawless from back to front, intensely-focused blasts of pop punk driven by genuine passion and emotion (”Birthday IOU” is a tortured account of an abortion that never sat quite right with Stevenson; “Bubble Gum,” “Until I Say So,” “Can’t Say,” and more are all perfect syntheses of break-up and lost love emotionality). Price is the perfect fit for the band thanks to his undeniably gruff but note-perfect singing and his ability to convey wrought tension and pain.
Unbeknownst to me until 2003 the two already had personal and professional associations that had borne considerable fruits. In 1996 they got together with some other Colorado musicians to play some genuine country (and less-genuine alt-country/cowpunk) music. The songs they drew from were a mix of newly-penned originals, re-arranged covers from their better-known bands or songs that didn’t quite fit the mold of those other bands (or, in at least one case, songs that those other bands hadn’t gotten around to doing their own versions of yet), and their own interpretations of songs by artists they liked and admired (over the years that has included punk rock never-was’ like Pinhead Circus, country rock hero Steve Earle, and country legend George Jones, among others).
Those songs were set to tape but none emerged until 2000 when Hobo’s Demos came out on what I believe was essentially their own label, Mars Motors. It didn’t do much. But in 2002 they put out Closed, one of the few albums that are absolutely and unequivocally perfect from the opening note to the closing decay. I can’t remember how I would’ve found out about it but once I learned there was a band featuring both Price and Snodgrass I was into it full-tilt. I have been ever since.
I could proceed to write a thousand words on each of the group’s individual albums. I might still do that at a later date. I’d count on it.
But what I’m excited about right now is to find out where they’re at as a live band. They have two live recordings, 2002’s Live At The Starlight and 2005’s Live At The Green Door, which were eventually combined for a double-CD release. The two feature the same band in subtly different moods; the Starlight set is a very proper live recording, the performances a little more polished and even-keeled, while the Green Door set sees the band a little more fun-loving and unhinged. The performances are more energetic and, arguably, sloppy; Price and Snodgrass even swap lead vocals on four songs, taking over from the other with less-than-perfect results (Snodgrass memorably fumbles a line from the Steve Earle cover “Johnny Come Lately;” the line “Death raining out of the London night/we made love ’til dawn” becomes, somewhat less artfully, “We made love and we did something/we made love ’til dawn”). They seem to play a very tight set either way, their respective vocals as easy and well-delivered as on record.
Of course, those live records are 12 and 8 years old, respectively. The bulk of the band’s catalogue has come out since they were recorded and they’ve gone through at least two “beak-ups” in that time as well. Both Snodgrass and Price have released solo material over the years and the future of Drag The River has been in question even more times than that.
Of course they’ve always seemed to operate at a continuous creative peak, one that continues to this day. Over the course of their studio careers they’ve incorporated a thousand sounds into their songs; from the mandolin that peppers Hobo’s Demos to the painfully intimate acoustic guitars bleeding all over Closed to the distorted rock guitars all over Chicken Demos to the gut-bucket rhythm of Hey Buddies to the growing disparity between Price and Snodgrass’ writing (one gravitating to bruised and bleeding acoustic ballads and the other to frenetic electric guitar leads and rock noise showcased on It’s Crazy to the unmistakable divide that separates You Can’t Live This Way but gives it an inherent tension that makes most of it crackle (though, admittedly, the songs that bring them together, often featuring honky-tonk piano and tin pan alley horn sections, are some of their most sublime to date) to the laid back, return-to-their-roots acoustic meanderings of the just-released Fishin’ Songs 7″ pictured above and the 2010 demo LP pressed over in Germany (which you can bet your ass I imported a copy of, expense be damned). They also have plans to issue a new full-length this fall.
So the contents of their sets right now remain largely a mystery to me (I neglected to ask some friends to go into detail about the set in Bozeman, Montana they saw last weekend; I’m convinced it was my subconscious insisting the rest of my brain not spoil it). But, obviously, it also doesn’t matter a whit. I couldn’t be more excited.
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