Every time I get to see Mike Roe play, I consider it a privilege.
Roe is a guitar player, but that never seems to cover it for me. Let’s put it this way: if I were able to simply pick up a guitar and do with it what Mike Roe can, I’d never get tired of it. I’d play all day, every day, and marvel at the magic I’m making. I’ll go to pretty much any lengths to hear him play. Lately, that’s involved trekking three and a half hours south to the Cornerstone Festival, and sitting in the sweltering heat to hear Roe’s brief sets.
But on Friday night, I got the rare pleasure of seeing Roe play in a room a couple miles from my house. And it was fantastic.
The show also drew the largest audience I can remember seeing at one of Mike’s local concerts. I think there were a couple hundred people there, an audience far smaller than the man deserves, but still far larger than normal. I was thrilled, and at the same time saddened – Mike’s been so good for so long that I think he should be a household name by now. But despite a remarkably consistent recording career (on his own, with his band the 77s, and with the Lost Dogs) that spans 30 years and a long history of magical shows, very few people know who he is.
But that means I still get to see him in small, intimate rooms like the Warehouse Church in Aurora, where he and former 77s guitarist David Leonhardt alternately strummed acoustics with deft grace, and let loose with a scorching twin electric guitar assault. The acoustic portions of the set were uncommonly beautiful, particularly “Kites Without Strings,” played near the end. Roe hasn’t lost any of his soaring falsetto, and the song remains simply gorgeous. (Here, check out the video from Friday night.)
It was the electric stuff, though, that brought down the house. Roe and Leonhardt are touring behind a massive three-CD re-release of Sticks and Stones, one of the most popular 77s albums, and they tore through this old material with a vengeance. Using programmed drum beats, the two played explosive versions of “You Walked In the Room,” “The Days to Come” and the awesome “This Is the Way Love Is.” And they topped it all with “God Sends Quails,” a dark and foreboding masterpiece that I never thought I’d get to hear live.
By the end of the set, when we were all singing the wordless parts of “Ba Ba Ba Ba” and “Nowhere Else,” the show achieved some sort of transcendence. Every time I get to experience this, I feel lucky to have found Mike Roe’s music, and to have had the chance to see him as often as I have. If you get the chance, you really should take it.
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And of course, I picked up a copy of that Sticks and Stones re-release.
When Sticks and Stones came out in 1990, I was a high school sophomore, and I’d never heard of the 77s. It was my obsession with the Choir, one of their contemporaries, that eventually brought me around. I’ve said this before, but the Choir’s Circle Slide was my gateway drug to this whole corner of the music world. I followed lead singer Derri Daugherty to his side project, the Lost Dogs, and from there found the 77s, Daniel Amos and Adam Again, all incredible bands.
I think the first Roe album I bought was his solo project, The Boat Ashore. (His name’s Michael Roe, and the album is called The Boat Ashore. That by itself may have sold me.) I’m pretty sure the first 77s album I heard was Tom Tom Blues, the fiery debut of the current trio lineup of the band. So I worked backwards, beginning with the more Zeppelin-esque heroics of the ‘90s and hearing the poppier ‘80s stuff later. And I’m not sure which I liked better at the time. In fact, I’m still not sure – both eras are so good, and the current Gospel-inspired stuff is marvelous too.
Among 77s fans, Sticks and Stones is a classic, which probably comes as a surprise to Roe and the band, since it really is a collection of demos and also-rans. Listening to it as a whole, you’d never suspect that it wasn’t intended as a cohesive album of songs. It flows better than many records conceived as such. Sticks and Stones is the last gasp of the original 77s lineup of Roe, keyboardist Mark Tootle, bassist Jan Eric and drummer Aaron Smith, and it serves as a love letter to an era.
As Roe says in his new liner notes, the songs set this album apart. They’re all terrific, from the danceable rock of “MT” to the delightful full-on pop of “Nowhere Else” to the absolutely smoking “Perfect Blues,” on which Roe laments the failings of his gender. (“Face it, we’re all jerks.”) “The Days to Come” is a barnburner, Roe spinning out those guitar lines effortlessly, and the aforementioned “This Is the Way Love Is” should have been a hit single. Tootle’s simple piano line and Roe’s spoken vocals at the start give way to a relentless beat and some blistering lead guitar. “It’s a one-sided double-minded mirror with no reflection…”
But Sticks and Stones contains two songs I would consider among the best of the 77s material, and pretty high on my list of all-around favorites. Roe describes “Don’t, This Way” as the saddest song he’s ever heard, and it’s up there for me. A farewell to a departed friend, this seven-minute wonder is all about Roe’s guitar lines – to this day, I can’t hear that moment when the ascending guitar melody kicks in at 0:45 without getting chills. The recording is minimalist in the best way, leaving plenty of space for that guitar, and it’s just a heartrending piece of music.
And then there’s “God Sends Quails,” which Roe considers a failure. I can name 50 songwriters off the top of my head who would be thrilled to count this among their successes. One of the darkest pieces in the 77s canon, this song opens with two full minutes of Roe soloing over an oppressive, ominous bass line before getting to the meat of things: “You failed, you try half-hearted and fail…” All that and a lovely melodic chorus, too. Of course, Roe’s guitar playing is tremendous here, but his voice is in fantastic form as well. It’s a song you’ll never forget.
The album has been completely remastered, and it sounds remarkable. I’ve heard Sticks and Stones probably 75 times, and I’ve never heard it as clear and bright as this. And it’s been augmented with two whole discs of never-released bonus material – mostly live tracks, but some interesting demos and unearthed tunes too. The second disc, entitled This Is the Way Love Was, has the highlights: demos of three songs we’ve never heard before, including the fun “Problem Girl” and the absolutely stunning “Cross the City Sky.” (Man, I wish they’d recorded this for real.)
The Sevens really know how to stretch out live, and the second disc has plenty of evidence. My favorite is a 10-minute take on the crawling “Pearls Before Swine” that dips into Dick Dale’s “Misirlou.” You also get extended runs through “Bottom Line” and the tremendous “You Don’t Scare Me,” and two versions of “This Is the Way Love Is,” one of which runs to about 14 minutes.
The third disc, Seeds and Stems, is only available with the super-deluxe version of the re-release, but it’s worth it, especially if you’re a longtime fan. You get some quality live takes on oldies “What Was In That Letter,” “Ba Ba Ba Ba” and the terrifying “I Could Laugh,” you get a loose jam on church song “The Prodigal Son,” and you finally get to hear Mark Tootle’s original demo of “This Is the Way Love Is.” Roe’s been talking about this demo for years – Tootle imitates Roe’s vocal style, and in turn, Roe imitated Tootle’s impression when recording the real deal. It’s neat to have both sides of that equation at last.
All of this is thanks to the fine work of Chicago’s own Jeffrey Kotthoff with Lo-Fidelity Records. It’s all lovingly put together, from the sound to the packaging, a fine tribute to an album too few have heard. If you’re not one of them, you can rectify that by heading here. And if you want to hear some of what Mike Roe does for free, go here. You’ll be glad you did.
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All right, it’s time for the First Quarter Report. I’m amazed at how quickly 2012 is flying by. So far, it hasn’t quite lived up to its promise, musically speaking. There have been a fair few disappointments, like that new Shins album. But there have been some surprises too. Here’s what my top 10 list would look like if I were forced to publish it right now.
#10. Van Halen, A Different Kind of Truth.
#9. Ani Difranco, Which Side Are You On.
#8. Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas.
#7. Fun., Some Nights.
#6. Nada Surf, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy.
#5. Kathleen Edwards, Voyageur.
#4. Esperanza Spalding, Radio Music Society.
#3. John K. Samson, Provincial.
#2. Shearwater, Animal Joy.
#1. Punch Brothers, Who’s Feeling Young Now.
Nothing against many of those records, but this is a pretty weak list. Certainly not up to the standard set by the first quarter of 2011. There are some promising albums on the horizon from Keane, the Choir, Marillion, Rufus Wainwright, Beach House, Bryan Scary and Jukebox the Ghost, to name a few. Plus, I just heard a record by a band called Lost in the Trees that I think is a strong contender. I need to listen a few more times, and review it properly, but it’s a stunner on first blush.
Next week, more reviews in a variety of genres. That means I have no idea what I’m writing about yet. Come find out in seven days. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.