I hate saying “you had to be there.”
In a lot of ways, that phrase is antithetical to what this column is about. I set out to chronicle my musical experiences not so that readers would be jealous and upset over the music I heard and saw, but so that my excitement for that music could serve well those who do not get to hear the volume of music that I do. Saying “you had to be there,” for whatever reason, is like throwing my hands up and admitting that no matter how well I describe something, no matter how evocative the language I use, reading my words is a paltry substitute for hearing the music itself.
Trouble is, that’s true. There’s little I can tell you about Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer, for instance, that you could not glean just by listening to it. And nothing I write here should be seen as a proper stand-in for your own musical experience. That’s all well and good for albums one can buy in a shop or online (or hear in any number of ways), because even if I’m helpful to you in deciding what to listen to, you’re not dependent on me to provide the experience itself. You can listen for yourself.
It gets trickier where live performances are concerned, though, and some of the most transcendent musical moments of my life have come while watching an incredible band play on stage. This past Saturday I experienced another one in a small-ish ballroom in Nashville, surrounded by strangers who were nevertheless brothers and sisters that evening, there to witness something that may never happen again. And nothing I write here is going to capture for you the thrill of being in that room.
In short, you had to be there. But let me tell you about it anyway.
In 1993, while the Seattle grunge invasion was in full swing, I happened upon an album called Shawl by a still-unknown California outfit called The Prayer Chain. If you’ve guessed that I found this record in the same Christian bookstore where I had, three years earlier, picked up the Choir’s Circle Slide, the album that set me along a path of amazing spiritual pop and rock music, you’d be right. At this point I was buying anything and everything that looked cool from that store, and I remain surprised at how much good stuff I had found in such a short time, bands and artists that have stayed with me for a quarter-century.
This Shawl album, for instance. I saw that it had been produced by Steve Hindalong, drummer for the Choir, and that was enough for me. I bought it sound unheard, and I liked it a great deal. It reminded me of Jane’s Addiction in places, but it was weird in its own way. The first sound on the album is a full-throated “HI-YAH-HI-YAH-HI-YAH,” repeated four times like a test to see if you want to continue. “Fifty-Eight,” an emotional tale of parental neglect, was in 5/8 time. (Hence the title.) “The Hollow” was a Peter Gabriel-esque interlude with lots of hand percussion. “Never Enough” used that percussion for texture on an epic which ended with a ghostly choral round.
Shawl is a great rock record, one of those never-heard classics that you stumble across and wonder why no one else knows about it. Two years later, though, the Prayer Chain released what is still one of my 20 favorite albums of all time. Mercury remains unlike anything else I’ve ever heard. The songs got a lot more elliptical, the arrangements more bizarre, and for most of the record the Prayer Chain leaves their identity as a rock band behind entirely.
Andy Prickett’s guitar plays characters here, spinning gossamer magic one moment and filling the room with crazy noise the next, while Eric Campuzano’s bass holds down the fort, because the drums and percussion are off on their own trip. Some of it is inhumanly beautiful (“Mercury,” “Bendy Line”) while some of it is unsettling in the best ways (“Grylliade,” “Shiver”). And the closer, “Sun Stoned,” still astounds me. It’s nearly nine minutes long (one of two songs here to stretch to that length), built around a single bass figure, and though it begins almost inaudibly, it ends as one of the most exuberant alien celebrations I have ever heard.
No one’s ever made an album quite like Mercury, and so of course the band broke up shortly after. Their half-live album Antarctica has remained the closest I thought I would ever get to seeing The Prayer Chain live for more than 20 years.
You all know what’s coming, right? A couple successful Kickstarters to get Mercury and then Shawl pressed onto high-quality vinyl, and then the bombshell: The Prayer Chain would reunite for two shows, one in Los Angeles and one in Nashville, to celebrate Shawl’s 25th anniversary. It’s a dream, it’s a miracle, and there was no way on God’s green earth I was going to miss it. Add a full-on rock show by the Choir and an opening set from spiritual pop-punkers Dakota Motor Co. (who also had not played together for two decades), and what was already a must-see turned into the most important musical journey of my year.
My long-suffering girlfriend agreed to accompany me and we made a six-day Nashville vacation out of it. We visited Kix Brooks’ vineyard and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. It was a great time, and I’m glad we did it, and I’m doubly glad she got to see the Prayer Chain play, since she enjoyed it. (I was joking with her that she was there for something monumental, but she couldn’t really brag about it because anyone who cared about it was in that room.)
I’m not going to be able to tell you what it was like to see this show, or to be in a room with so many people who loved this band the way I do. That alone would have made the trip worth it for me – I connected with several people I had only met online, including Robert Berman, with whom I sang old Choir songs in Centennial Park, and Matthew Coppola, who graciously gave us two of his early access tickets. The show was a who’s-who of spiritual pop music – among the luminaries there were Kevin Max, Steve Taylor and Phil Madiera. If you don’t know who any of them are, their presence might not mean much to you, but to the folks in that room, they were royalty.
Dakota Motor Co. had not played together in 20+ years either, but you would never have known it. Their brand of ‘90s punk-pop is still fun, and they played with a lot of energy. I understand they’re recording new material, and I’ll be first in line to buy it. The Choir is The Choir – they’re amazing live, and for this show they were accompanied by Stephen Mason of Jars of Clay on guitar and Wayne Everett from the Prayer Chain on percussion. They ran through some new songs from Bloodshot and then played the classics, including “Robin Had a Dream” in celebration of Robin Spurs joining them on bass for this show. “Circle Slide” was, as always, a highlight – swirly and massive and chaotic and loud, with sax player Dan Michaels jumping off stage and roaming through the crowd for the breakdown section. If you haven’t seen the Choir live, you should remedy that. Thirty-five years into their career and they’re still fantastic.
And then the seas parted and we made it up to the front row for the main event. I expected the Prayer Chain to be good. I did not expect them to be magical. It’s sometimes easy to compare bands, but the Prayer Chain to me doesn’t sound like anyone. For this show they had three drummers, including the indomitable Steve Hindalong from the Choir, and their astonishing guitarist Andrew Prickett unveiled his full gamut of sounds. The band played all of Shawl in order, so we got more of the Jane’s Addiction style from them, but songs like “Fifty Eight” were life-changing, and the transition from “The Hollow” into “Never Enough” was one of my favorite concert-going moments ever. The crowd sang every line of every song, and singer Tim Taber stood on the railing in front of us a couple times, towering over us. (Tim had just turned 50, and I hope I look half that good when I’m 50. I mean, I don’t look half that good now, so the odds are not in my favor, but you know.)
As I mentioned above, I like Shawl, but I love Mercury, and my favorite moments of the show revolved around finally getting to hear the Mercury material live. They opened with a shortened version of “Sun Stoned,” and man, that was something to see. We also got the title track (my favorite Prayer Chain song) and “Sky High,” the epic. I could not have anticipated how physically draining (in a good way) it would be to hear these songs performed. I shouted along with every word, I swayed to the glorious guitar textures, I moved to the tribal percussion. Audience and band were as one, and there was no greater evidence of that than when bassist Eric Campuzano kept stopping “Chalk” to make sure he was in tune with Prickett (and that he remembered how to play it). The crowd never turned on him, but rather lifted him up. “Aside from my children being born, this is the best night of my life,” he said.
All that plus my girlfriend got a free copy of Shawl on vinyl, handed out by Taber himself. After the final encore, we all stood around stunned at what we had just seen. And of course the band hung out afterward, taking pictures and just talking with whoever wanted to stick around. They knew, like we knew, that this would never happen again. Those of us privileged enough to see it witnessed something that burned brightly, but briefly, like the Prayer Chain themselves.
I hate to say it, but you kind of had to be there.
If you missed the Prayer Chain during the ‘90s, well, you’re not alone. They do have a Bandcamp page. Shawl isn’t there, for some reason – I expect they’re waiting until all the Kickstarter vinyl ships before listing it – but Mercury is, as is Humb, the album as originally handed in to their record company. It really is unlike anything else you’ve ever heard. Twenty-three years later and I’m still singing its praises.
Next week, I have no idea. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.