Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Best Live Band You've Probably Never Heard Of

Another Christmas has come and gone, the seventh with Sami as the primary person in my life, and the sixth with her as my wife. Hard to believe. I know that most of you have only known me with her in my life, but of course there are whole chapters in my mind without her. Some days it seems (I know this is a cliche, but some cliches survive because at some point they pointed to a profound truth) like only moments ago that the swept into my life, cleaning my mental house and ordering my personal chaos. Of course, since she joined me many of my memories have been re-written to include her. The mind is funny like that. I'll say something like, "Honey, do you remember when..." only to realize that, of course, she couldn't remember that as she wasn't there. But even with the creative editing of my memory, there is still so much of my life that she hasn't yet touched. As the years go by, however, more and more mental territory is claimed by the benevolent invader. I suppose that in a few more years it won't be so strange that we've been together for years.

But wasn't this post supposed to be about an as yet unidentified rock band? you might ask if you've read the title, then the first paragraph, then the title again, just to make sure, scratching your head wondering what the hell the title has to do with the first paragraph and vice versa. But, dear reader, if you're reading this then you've probably read my other stuff, and so you know that I'm prone to near-fatally disjointed digressions. Yes, it's rare to digress before you've even started, but this time of year it is possible.

You see, since Sami has bravely joined my life, I've noticed that she is simply the best gift giver. I know that earlier I wrote about giving gifts without attachment, but, damn it, I'm human, and every year she gets me a better gift than I get her. My philosophy with giving gifts is you match the gift to the person (duh). The trick is, of course, how you go about doing that. I try to find something that, based on what I know of their interests, they would have always wanted if only they knew it existed. My wife doesn't share this philosophy. Rather, she listens to me all year as I rattle on and on about the various items that a covet, but ultimately can't justify buying because of my perpetual guilt at the fact that she makes all the money but in karmically unfair twist somehow I end up spending it. She then waits until - fickle as always - I forget that said item exists. She then hunts it down on the Internet, has it shipped to her mother's house (knowing full well that I would never go there on my own volition!) and keeps it from me until Christmas.

So while I'm out at the last minute fighting through the mobs of holiday shoppers trying to find something she doesn't know about but would simply love (and, most importantly, never buy for herself) she can sit at home, comfortable as she sips her hot chocolate, knowing that once again she will have done better by me than I've done by her.

This year, once again, she got me a collection of odds and ends that amount to a veritable goody basket of the best music you've probably never heard. I won't divulge all of the treats here, but there are two DVDs I'd like to mention, one of which is the source of the title, which has still failed miserably to correspond with any of the actual content of this post.

The first DVD I opened from her this year was by The Lost Dogs, a rootsy Americana group that started as a novelty act put together by some of the most pioneering evangelical Christian rockers. (I've written about them here before.) Originally comprised of Mike Roe of the Seventy Sevens, Terry Taylor of Daniel Amos, Derri Daugherty of the Choir, and the late Gene Eugene of Adam Again, the "three legged dog" of Roe, Taylor, and Daugherty have pressed on in the wake of Gene's tragic death in 2000. This DVD, titled Via Chicago (all we left unsaid) has the three of them strumming their acoustic guitars, swapping songs, telling stories between tracks, and singing some sick harmonies.

The beauty of their music is a testimony to artistic collaboration. While they've each had at least some success on their own, they're at their best together. Both Mike Roe and Terry Taylor have what can be most charitably described as intriguing voices, full of character. While they've fronted rock bands most of their adult lives, their bands have never exactly been commercial powerhouses, and what success they've had fronting them has more to do with their ability to convey the deep meaning behind their songs than with any conventional beauty in the voices. But when they add their voices to the voice of Derri Daugherty (who can sing a little bit) the harmonies nearly stop your heart. The breathtaking beauty of three artists who fit together perfectly.

The disk runs only 28 minutes, but ending as it does on the majestic "Golden Dreams," you realize there's nowhere to go from here. The 28 minutes then, instead of being disappointingly short, is the perfect dose of music which moves from absurdly silly (their cover of the bluegrass "classic" "Dust on the Bible") to hauntingly familiar (the country ballad "Real Men Cry," penned by Taylor, with Roe singing lead) to almost desperate worship in a moment of despair ("Be My Hiding Place," assembled by Taylor from various Psalms, penned in the wake of 9-11). If it had gone on much longer my soul, so filled with music, might have exploded.

But, for as much as I loved watching that DVD, The Lost Dogs are not the band I had in mind when I typed in the title of this post. Rather, that honor belongs to band that produced the second DVD I opened this year, Mike Roe's primary band, the Seventy Sevens. Their newly released DVD collection is a loosely assemble compilation that spans most of the last 24 years. Disk One features the 7 "official" 77's videos, along with some rare bonus footage of the band. Historically interesting, if not artistically significant. A must have for fans of the Sevens, even if the rest of you might wonder, watching these, just how they became nearly a cult for a few of us. As Mike Roe says in the DVD insert,

Unlike most other pop music bands that came of age during the music video explosion of the early 1980's, the 77's were mostly camera-shy and, for the most part, visually and stylistically confused and unfocused. The reason for this is simple. We never got into this game by design - we were chosen. Someone asked us for help, and we obliged. The result was a mixed bag of weird musical combinations, bad hair, even worse clothing, and a career path made up of mostly lame choices coupled with missed opportunities, poor timing and doggone the rotten luck.

But this retrospective product is not a tragedy, it is a triumph. It's triumph is due mostly to Disk Two, simply the most creative music DVD I've ever seen. Rather than having a single menu and a single track listing, the second disk in this set is a collection of menus, one for each fragment of a live show contained on the disk. The shows, listed chronologically, are pulled from various points in a 17 year period, from 1982 to 1999, and offer musical time capsules. If you'd like to see what the band looked and sounded like in, say, 1989, you'd click on the icon that says Warehouse Ministries/ Sacramento, CA 1989, and that will take you to a track listing from that show. You can then play any of the featured tracks you'd like, or all of them in sequence.

Growing up in Lexington, KY, I particularly enjoyed watching the one track included from their performance at Ichthus '85 in Wilmore, KY. Ichthus was the first Christian music festival, started as an evangelical response to Woodstock, and hosted by Asbury Theological Seminary, a mere 20 or so miles from my parents' house. I went to Ichthus almost every year as a teenager, and then later took groups there as a youth minister. Both of my brothers played there once, in a now defunct group called Dave's Not Here.

In all there are parts of 13 shows which can be accessed individually. Each of these offers a window into one of the best live rock and roll bands to ever play anywhere. You see, the Seventy Sevens were rock. As Mike Roe says, again from the DVD insert, they weren't/aren't "a big rock band playing before the whole wide world in front of God and everybody." They simply rocked anywhere they were allowed to rock, in front of anyone who showed up.

While their sound has morphed considerably over the last 24 years (along with their line-up, as Mike Roe is the only member to have survived with the group the whole time), shifting from New Wave, to 80's pop, to blues, to jam band, to hard rock, to easy listening, and nearly everything else, it has always been authentic. They have artfully avoided the extremes of prog and arena rock (two guilty pleasures, I must confess) and the now artificial iconoclasm of commercial punk, finding instead a rock so pure that it doesn't have to be purist. It is free to venture out, try new things, all the while returning to blues based rock.

While the Seventy Sevens have never been all about Mike Roe, the line-up has changed so many times in its various incarnations that it is difficult to fully explore the various contributions of each of the members surrounding Roe through history. We could spend weeks discussing the drumming of Aaron Smith and Bruce Spencer, each brilliant in their own right, but belonging to different eras. The same could be said for every incarnation of the Sevens. Do you prefer the Roe, Tootle, Eric and Smith line-up that produced All Fall Down, Seventy Sevens, and Sticks and Stones? What about when Jan Eric and Mark Tootle were shed for Mark Harmon and David Leonhardt for Pray Naked (a saga unto itself) and Drowning With Land in Sight. And, of course, the aforementioned Spencer replaced Aaron Smith for 1995's Tom Tom Blues, a period which also saw the departure of David Leonhardt, making the band a power trio.

Each person surrounding Mike Roe at any moment (and Spencer and Harmon have been with him for over a decade now, qualifying them for much more mention than they'll get here - they even wrote much of the material for the past few albums) has been crucial to the success of the music at that moment. But Roe is the constant, and his unique genius makes the band what it is - the best live band you've probably never heard of.

Each of the tracks on Disk Two's time walk show us a band that, when off, is nigh unlistenable. But, when they were on the room could levitate. That begins with Roe, the frontman and guitarist. I've already described his singing when discussing the Lost Dogs' DVD, but I was surprised looking back at the earliest performances of the 80's that he was once a credible singer. He's always had ridiculous range, though you couldn't describe it as "effortless" range since he often looks like his eyeballs might fly into the front row if he tries any harder. But with the Seventy Sevens, though he is the primary vocalist, it isn't really about his singing. It is about that electric six string in his hands.

Roe is not a conventional guitarist. He certainly isn't a technique freak, though, like with Eric Clapton or Dave Gilmour, the ability to make a single note say exactly what you want it to say has as much to do with your technique - even if it is a different sort of technique - as the speed and precision of a Eddie Van Halen or John Petrucci guitar solo. He can often be almost clumsy, going up and down the fretboard with all of the precision of blunt force trauma. There are times when it looks like not even he knows just what he is supposed to be playing.

But there are moments - and not rare ones, they happen much of the time - when his eyes glaze over like the artist who paints the future in the NBC show Heroes, and the resulting sound is angelic, otherworldly. His best solos take you to the deepest, most spiritual places. They force you to explore your emotions, making you laugh and cry at the same time as a nearly divine beauty overwhelms you.

There are other moments when his guitar explodes in a fireball of sound, bursting forth from the primal beat of the bass and drums, the dirtiest rock and roll. The Seventy Sevens have always been pigeonholed as a "Christian" rock band, because they are Christians and they make rock music, and because they got their start making music for evangelical Christians. But, though they love Jesus and the Rolling Stones, they never wanted to be Jesus' answer to the Stones. In those fiery moments you can see that what they really wanted to do was test themselves against the Stones, making kick ass rock that isn't bound to a genre or ideology.

And, on their best days, they were and are simply the best live band you'll ever see.

So, as you can see, Merry Christmas to me!

Both of these DVDs were released by Lo-Fidelity Records, and can be purchased either from Lo-Fidelity or directly from the bands.


T.B. Vick said...

Wow! Very good bands. I'm actually very familiar with the Seventy Sevens (77s) and Mike Roe and have heard the Lost Dogs.

I own just about everything the Seventy Sevens have released - even a few live CDs and EP CDs that are extremely hard to find.

My all time favorite album by them is titled Sticks and Stones. This band goes way back to the 80's and they were way ahead of their time! Good stuff! Thanks for the post!!

Sandalstraps said...

T.B. Vick,

Thanks for your comment.

I first got into the 77s in the early-mid 1990s. I had my conversion experience in the spring of '94, and they were one of the first "Christian" bands I was introduced to. At the time I was more into grunge, but I quickly came to love the quirky schtick.

I share your love of Sticks and Stones, a collection of material recorded through the '80s, much of which was not released until that album was put out in 1990, after the band broke up (that didn't last long) after the fall out with Island records. Some of the loose ends that never managed to make their way onto the three albums of the '80s (Ping Pong Over the Abyss, released in 1982, All Fall Down, released in 1984, and Seventy Sevens, released in 1987) were of such quality, and went over so well in live shows, that I often wonder if their relative lack of commercial success didn't come from their decisions concerning which tracks made it onto their "official" albums.

Sticks and Stones also shows, with the "Lost Island Treasures," that there were better versions available of the songs that were previously released. For instance, the "demo" version "Pearls Before Swine" - one of my favorite songs from that period, and a live favorite included on the DVD - is 8 minutes and 12 seconds of raw energy. Next to it, the official version seems so sterile. But at the time they were, I suppose, aiming for polish, a goal which played against their strengths.

If you haven't heard it, you should check out Echos O' Faith a live acoustic album released in 1996 but recorded in 1992, with Steve Hindalong of the Choir playing drums. It has some of my favorites from Sticks and Stones.

Always nice to hear from another fan of this music.

Happy New Year to you!

T.B. Vick said...


Sorry for the delayed response. I have the CD "Echos O' Faith," a most excellent CD. One of my seminary professors was a huge fan of the 77's and he got me turned on to them - this was around 1998. Since then I have collected just about everything I could find by them or certain members through the band's years of being together.

Anyway, great band.