New bands show supergroups can get it right


November 2, 2001



Throughout rock history, the legacy of the supergroup has been a spotty one. A handful of these arbitrary assemblages of monumental talents and even bigger egos have indeed yielded gold. There was Cream, of course, when it was crafting singles and not in indulgent jam mode. Parts of Blind Faith's first album are cool, as is some of what Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young have done. And the progressive-rock trio U.K. (Bill Bruford of Yes, Eddie Jobson of Roxy Music, and John Wetton of King Crimson) was a favorite of mine, the first band I ever saw in an arena.

A few others have been good for a passing smile: the alt-country heroes who gathered as Golden Smog had good taste in covers, and the Traveling Wilburys recorded a few good singles, though they lost points for putting up with the smarmy Jeff Lynne. But even more of these supergroups have been complete and utter failures.

The only thing that Asia, GTR, Chequered Past, the Neurotic Outsiders, the Power Station, and the Firm ever accomplished was cheapening the legacies of their star members.

  Reader gets in groove with 'Layla'







Jim: I'm not usually prone to write to anybody, but after reading your feature in Sunday's paper on "Layla" [Sept. 23], I felt compelled. Music is a huge part of my life and to see a great album treated with the insight and appreciation that you gave "Layla" makes me smile. I have a teenage son who I have been able to share my love of music with, and this type of thing only enhances my ability to do so.

Greg Coate

Jim: Thanks for the article on Warren Haynes and Gov't Mule [Sept. 28]. I'm glad that he's out playing, despite the hardship of losing [bassist Allan] Woody, and the hardship America and us New Yorkers have had to face recently. I'm glad Warren has somewhat adopted our city as his second home. I have lots of friends who work for the NYFD and NYPD, and it was a hellish few days. But he is right about music being very healing.

Chris Heiman

Jim: Your review of the Family Values show [Oct. 14] brought a smile to my face and a tear of pride and joy to my bloodshot eye. I don't remember quite when these manufactured, white-bread, rap-metal, goatee-sporting buffoons emerged from my local chain music store, but that awful day will forever live in musical infamy. I can't venture anywhere without hearing the wall of undiscerning caterwauling. Perhaps Britney's not so bad after all.

Bobby Fowler

Jim: I agree that "The Concert for NYC" [Oct. 22] was pretty awful and nowhere near as good as the earlier fundraiser. But the evening's purpose was to provide relief (financial and spiritual) for the rescue workers of N.Y., so your musings on bloodlust, jingoism, grieving family members as props, office workers, and Afghan innocents were misguided and laughable. Stop being a politically correct liberal [idiot]. You're a music critic, not a political pundit. I thought the rest of your column was real good.

Ted Hans

Jim: I think I sense a touch of Bon Jovi-envy [Feedback, Oct. 5]. Could it be because the guy is happily married, loved the world over, incredibly wealthy, wanted by women, star of music and screen? Or is it because you hide a secret desire to be a rock star behind a pathetic critic's job? Choose one. And by the way, don't run this with a reply if you choose to print it. I know how the critics' "we always get the last word in" game works.

R.C. Bilotti

Against such a backdrop, I had low expectations for the new albums by Oysterhead (Trey Anastasio of Phish, Les Claypool of Primus, and Stewart Copeland of the Police) and Tomahawk (Duane Denison of Chicago's late, lamented Jesus Lizard, Mike Patton of Faith No More/Mr. Bungle, John Stanier of Helmet, and Kevin Rutmanis of the Melvins and the Cows). But I'll be damned if both don't rock like a randy rhinoceros. Oysterhead first came together last year in New Orleans when Claypool invited the others (whom he knew from earlier, separate jams) to perform as part of the annual Jazz Fest. Tapes of that set became a hot commodity among fans, and the musicians were so impressed with the results that they committed to a month of recordings at the Barn, Anastasio's home studio in Vermont.

Phish is on hiatus partly so its members can do this sort of thing, recharging their batteries before regrouping (fans hope). Claypool is famous for jamming and/or starting a band with everyone he meets. The kinetically busy percussionist was the wild card--Copeland hasn't played the drums in a decade, concentrating instead on scoring films.

Given the reputations of Phish and Primus for free-flowing jams/self-indulgent noodling, you'd think that would be the order of the day on "The Grand Pecking Order" (Elektra). But the album is actually an impressive and tuneful collection of 13 wonderfully weird rock songs that draw as much from Frank Zappa circa "Joe's Garage" as the former bands of any of the participants. The material ranges from creepy but catchy ("Mr. Oysterhead"), to catchy but creepy ("Shadow of a Man")--a little late for Halloween, perhaps, but still a cool vibe.

Whether the trio will maintain this delightfully unexpected concision in favor of sheer wankery in concert is still a question. "Oysterhead is going to play by Phish rules" on stage, Copeland told Billboard. "I'm not used to walking onstage and not knowing the entire set list from front to back, but I'm going to learn how to do it a different way. Something that Oysterhead has taught me is that getting out of the comfort zone is a really good thing."

In these bland, conformist pop times, that's a worthwhile lesson for the mainstream to relearn. And Oysterhead's efforts seem to be paying off: Tonight's show at the Aragon is sold out. (Drums & Tuba open the show at 7 p.m.)

More of a sure bet to slash and burn onstage is Tomahawk. Patton is always a galvanizing performer, and Denison is, of course, a guitar god. The two met at a Mr. Bungle show in early 2000 when Denison was living in Nashville and working with Hank Williams III. A profession of mutual admiration led to an exchange of tapes, a jam session, and finally an album, a self-titled release for Patton's ultra-cool indie label, Ipecac.

There's a lot of intense, scorching, Jesus Lizard-like noise-rock ("Flashback," "God Hates A Coward," "Jockstrap"), but there are also moments of surprising quiet and subtlety ("Cul de Sac," "Narcosis"). Once again, these succeed because they are songs--strong compositions with hooks and structures--and not just flimsy excuses for pointless displays of instrumental prowess.

In the end, the thing that has sunk a lot of supergroups is too much emphasis on being "super" and not enough on being a group. Whether or not they endure past these recordings and tours, Oysterhead and Tomahawk are both great rock bands that are well worth your attention.

(Tomahawk performs at Metro, 3730 N. Clark, at 7 p.m. on Nov. 24. Tickets are $15. Call 773-549-4140.)