Reminisces by Ray Ashley
I. "We're all going in to see GSW, don't expect to be home 'till late"
I was going through my tape collection this week, and among all the Dead and Phish bootlegs I found my old cache of God Street Wine tapes. What, you've never heard of God Street Wine? Where have you been? GSW, for all of you who don't know, were the greatest band in America in the 90's - period. Maybe now that 5 years have passed since they called it quits, it's time to look back on that era, when dot coms were booming, the world was at peace (mostly), and jam bands reigned supreme!
I first "got on the bus" with GSW in the summer of 1993. I was at a Phish show at the Wolftrap pavilion near DC, and I was at a parking lot fan gathering set up by my good friend and co-conspirator Joe D'Andrea. This kind of fan meet-up was for all of us internet types, really a minority of Phish fans at that time. We all had our Phish.net t-shirts - all of us except one, that is. I remember Eric Budke, who was a frequent poster to the "Phish net", wearing his GSW "Bag" t-shirt, and (in his own very low key way) saying that he was only catching one or two Phish shows becuase he was devoting the "entire sunmmer" to following GSW. I struck up a conversation with Eric, he being a student at my old alma mater, Union College, and something about the way he described this mystery band led me to believe he was serious - this was a bar band on the same level as Phish, or maybe better. The cool thing was that if I went to a small bar in the East Village the following Thursday night, I could see them play - a secret gig! The kind that only insiders were supposed to know about, where they would play under a false name, and all that. This was way too cool to pass up - I was only 25 years old and staying out all night was still a pretty regular thing for me. And besides, at work we had half-days on Friday in summer, so I only had to caffienate my way through 5 hours at the office.
So, Joe and I went to this show, and man, we were blown way! It was at Nightingale's Bar on Second Avenue, and the place was only moderately filled - it really was a secret. The secret band name was "Jon Bevo's Love Orchestra". Some of the songs made a big impression on me, even though I had never heard them before - "Epiphany" (like - this is my life story!), "Stupid Hat" (cool imstrumental), and I distinctively remember "Stranger" opening the second set, I was really moved by that one. Later in the set, I remember them doing their vocal showpiece "Upside Down and Inside Out" but with a ten minute jam stuck in the middle! I've never heard that song done that way since.
Maybe I should take a moment to describe the band. They had formed in 1988 in New York. Some of the band members were from the Manhattan School of Music, some from NYU, and Tomo was a car salesman before joining the band. The band had two frontmen - two singers who both played lead and rhythm guitars - Lo Faber and Aaron Maxwell. Lo was, as far as I could tell, the band's leader, he wrote 90% of the songs, and was generally the frontman addressing the audience. However, Aaron had, in my opinion, a stronger singing voice. But then again, Lo's voice was pretty unique in the way he could style his songs. So, it was a good pairing, it gave the band two distinct voices, both vocally and on guitars. Lo sang more of his songs, but most of their cover tunes were sung by Aaron, so it came out to about 50/50. And there were also a number of songs where they traded lines.
Their drummer, Tom Osander, better known as Tomo (that's pronounced Tom-oh), is worth mentioning next, as he had a huge on stage presence, both as a drummer and a backing vocalist. Bass player Dan Pifer seemed such a reserved fellow, just hanging out in the back of the stage, delivering the perfect bass line for every song, and rounding out the band's four part vocal harmony, when needed. Rounding out the quintet was Jon Bevo, a keyboard player who mainly played piano and organ, but could deliver some cool synth sounds when needed. As this was really a guitar band, Bevo also knew when to really lay back and let the guitars shred, but then the next tune he could come in with some really in-your-face funky lead synth. Arrangements of GSW songs always suited the song, rather than being showcases for virtuosity.
Even though Lo wrote most of the songs, this didn't keep the other band members from picking up their quills - Dan wrote one of the most classic GSW tunes of all time "Feel the Pressure", and in later years Bevo contributed a few really dark masterpieces, such as "Don't Tell God".
At the end of the summer of 93, September, actually, I went to my second show, this time at my old school, Union College in upstate New York. Eric Budke was there running the show, and most of the audience were Winos like me who came in from out of town. We were elated to be seeing our favorite band for $5, while the college students scoffed at having to pay to see a band in a 'dry' hall, when they could be drinking for free at some fraternity house. Needless to say, I was blown away again, and I beacme a Wino for life on that night. I helped load out equipment for the band, and Eric rewarded me by making some very nice copies of his soundboard tapes of that show for me. From those tapes I quickly became familiar with the bands active repertoire from 1993.
But still, each show always had surprises - these guys had even more songs in their bag than Phish, it seemed, plus more cover tunes, and some very intricate ways of seguing them together. There may have been only 20 people in the audience at Union College, but they rocked as hard as they would at Irving Plaza in front of 2,000 a few weeks later.
That fall they released their self-produced live album "Who's Driving", and there were more shows to be seen. The most memorable for me was the Thanksgiving weekend show at City Gardens in Trenton. I remember Lo coming out and sating that they were only allowed to play one set... but that it would be a long one. And he wasn't lying, they played for over 2 hours, plus a couple encores. The set climaxed with the 20 minute long "Mantaloking Town", maybe the perfect prog-jamband song.
II "Come on over, put down your money, and be like us"
As 1993 became 1994, GSW continued to roam the land touring everywhere, east, west, and inbetween. They still, however, played more often in the northeast than in other parts of the country, so I had more opportunities to see them than other bands I was following at the time. And it usually cost only 10-15 dollars to see them, at some bar, college, whatever. Once I drove out to a show at Lehigh University on a weeknight. At this show, unlike Union, it was mostly college students and I was the only Wino who had come there via roadtrip. So it was on this occasion that I first met Tomo, as he was sitting on the theater steps shooting the breeze with fans before the show. Tomo was always such an accesible guy, always going out of his way to meet the fans. He also had a perfect photographic memory - about three months later when they were at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, I ran into Tomo again and he remembered who I was. I was really impressed by this, he must meet hundreds of fanatical Winos on the road, and that he would remember the names of the people he met.
Anyway, around that time, the band got signed by Geffen. I remember, in the spring, there was so much exitement about finally getting signed, that they played some really hot shows. The April 1994 Irving Plaza show really stands out in my memory as being transcendental. In the summer, they went down to Memphis and made their major label debut "$1.99 Romances". In the fall, they started touring again, very heavily, to support the album, which was cool because I got to see them more often.
What was also cool, for me, was that around that time Brendan O'Neill, famous Phish taper, became their sound-man. I went to high school with Brendan, and although I didn't know him well back then, I had since gotten to know him and he had been very kind in sharing some tapes with me. I, in turn, shared the love with the rest of the Wino community, by running a few tape trees. For example, Brendan taped the Halloween 1994 show right off the sound board, I then took this tape and made cassette copies for a few Winos, who made a few copies, and so on. It was all very well organized, the Dead Heads and Phish Phreaks really paved the way in this respect. This was long before CD-R's and MP3 file sharing on the net.
Moreover, tape trading was also a way that the fan community got to know each other. I remember meeting up with two guys, Nolan and Landry, (only remember their last names) at a show at the TLA in Philly, to give them tapes. Then, every time I went to a show in the NY-NJ-PA area, it seemed that I would run into one of these guys, so even if I was flying solo at a show, I would always know somebody there, through my tape trading connections. And , of course, the aforementioned Budke seemed to appear at any show within a 500 mile radius of Schenectady New York.
About that TLA (Theater of the Living Arts) show. It was February 1995. WXPN had given "$1.99" some airplay, and generated a little extra buzz in the city of brotherly love, where they had a following anyway from all the colleges there. This was the first theater show that the band had ever sold out in advance, so they were really exited. At one point, Lo was talking to the audience, plugging the new record, and someone in the audience shouted up that it was available through the Columbia House Record Club (you know, ten records for a penny...). At that point, Tomo jumped up from his drum kit, "whoa, we made it!!!" and ran off stage in mock elation. Although I don't know how many folks in the mainstream included "$1.99 Romances" in their ten CD set for a penny, the band really was exited to be selling out theaters for enthusiastic crowds. They rewarded us with the epic, but not often played "Mantaloking Town" that I mentioned earlier. I'll digress for a moment and describe this masterwork, as great as any 20 minute song in rock.
Mantaloking is a beach town at the Jersey shore, just one town up from where I used to go to the beach as a kid, so this tune had special meaning for me. The song was also special because they did not just break it out for just any occasion, it really was only played sparsely, and it was a big deal when they did play it. I divide the song into four parts, and to me, it represents a symphonic poem describing a perfect day down the shore. The first section is like the morning; this is the part with the vocal verses, anticipating all the fun to be had at the beach. Part two is mid-day, under the bright sunshine. In this section, Aaron plays a soaring theme on lead guitar, and scat sings in unison with it. This, to me, is some of the most fantastic music ever composed by Lo. Part three, is a little more fragmented, like walking down the boardwalk in the evening, seeing the different sights, one after the other in rapid succession. Some people on the boardwalk are happy, some sad, as the carousel spins - right across from the haunted house. But then we get to the fourth section of the song - the jamming part, two guitars, two wondeful chords, and a churning rhythm section. This is the night - full of possibilities, in a black light bar where the band plays loud and strong. In this extended jam, the tone picture becomes self portrait. The song ends with a brief reprise of the first verse, bringing to mind that it all happens again tomorrow, in this endless, perfect summer.
This song, in concert, also demonstrates all the strong suits of GSW: great songwriting and lyrics, precise composed instrumental muisc as good as 70's prog rock, plus the improvisational prowess of the Dead, and the intensity of the Allmans!
III "Feel the pressure"
As 1995 dragged on, the band seemed to be trying harder and harder to plug the album at shows. For me, the downside of this was that there was less variety in the setlists than there used to be, but understandably, the band was under a lot of pressure from Geffin to move some CDs from stores. I don't know exactly what went on between the band and it's label, but I can imagine some difficulties. Around New Jersey, only independant radio station WXPN seemed to play them at all.
Around this time, I got to know Dan a little. I was with a group of friends at the Stone Baloon in Delaware, and somebody heard that he had taken up the Chapman Stick(r), which was my instrument of choice at the time. So naturally, I had to meet him, he had a bunch of questions to ask me, about gear and music. I was flattered that he was consulting me on something. One thing he told me later, was that the song "Are You For Real" off of the forthcoming album "Red" had a bassline played on the Stick. This turned out to be the tune that got the most airplay from that album, although live he always played it on a regular bass.
One other highlight of 1995 was the two nights that they played at the Wetlands around Fourth of July. The plan was that they would record a live album on this occasion. I took two days off from work to go to these shows, since on weeknights and I would have to sleep all day to see them. These were, maybe, the best rock shows I have ever seen in my life. At the end of the second night, they played another one of their epic songs, "Other Shore", and random people came up on the stage to dance, or hang out with them. Normally, you'd think that when fans do this kind of thing, they get throttled by security, or they mess with the band, and it turns ugly. In this case, it was, as the Aquarian Weekly wrote, "nothing less than a %^*& love-in". One participant was a young girl from Switzerland who had never been to an American rock show before, and she just thought that's what everyone did. Another was the band's artist-in residence, a white guy with dreadlocks called Squib. He had this wild look in his eyes as he grabbed the microhone and shouted "when are we going to get to the other shore, Aaron??". His concern was not unfounded, as commercially, it seemed that the band was at its high water mark.
IV "No matter how high I go, I always come crashing down"
At the end of 1995, the band got out of its contract with Geffen, and then was independant for a while, before getting into another record deal with Mercury. So anyway, somehow, GSW survived their first record deal, and were able to make an independant record that later got picked up by Mercury, called "Red". I did not enjoy this record as much as "$1.99", for a number of reasons, but it definately had some cool songs, like the Dylanesque "Red and Milky White" and "Get on the Train". I wish, though, that they had thrown in a few of their concert classics from the early 90's - there were dozens to choose from that were never released as studio recordings.
So, they continued to tour a lot to support the new record, but around this time they seemed to do a lot of gigs opening for other acts. This is very cool if you want to build a new fand base and sell records, but for us old time Winos, these shows were not as enjoyable. So, I have to admit that around this time, I started going to shows less frequently. I might have been burned out alittle, having seen them about 25 times to this point.
But I do have a few memories from the late 90's worth re-telling. They played a really hot show at the Birch Hill in June 1997. The Birch Hill is a rock joint in the middle of nowhere that mostly showcases old heavy metal bands these days. Anyway, being in the middle of nowhere, the Birch Hill was only 5 minutes from my apartment at the time, and it was cool to see them so close by, after having driven many hours to see them in the past. The other great show I saw in '97 was totally by accident. I was in Rochester, NY, in December, visiting friends, and I saw the advertisement in a record store, GSW were playing in town that night! So of course I dragged my friends out to see this band, we all had a great time. The band was in fine form, and for me it was like old times.
Another memory I had from around this time was when I was playing bass with The Other Way, and we had a gig at Nightingales. As we were setting up, who should walk into the bar but Tomo. He immediately came up to me and said "Ray, what are you doing in my bar?". We had a couple of beers as I reminsced about specific shows from the previous four years. Again, Tomo's photographic memory of some of the details of these shows was really impressive. He also kept one of those day-timer calendars, but he kept the pages in the binder from previous years, so he had a record on him of every gig they had played through all that time. He stuck around for a few tunes, which was really gracious, as I am sure he had more important places to be that night. They were in the middle of recording their fourth studio album "God Street Wine".
However, as 1997 became 1998, some line-up changes were in the wind. Tomo and Bevo left the band. Their replacements were fine musicians for sure, but for this fan, the old chemistry was slipping away. I saw a few shows around this time, the last one being in the summer of 1999. At that time they had Jason Crosby on keyboards, and he also played some nice fiddle on the bluegrass numbers. So musically, it was really happenning, but it was not the same. by the end of the year, they called it quits, and I can't blame them. These guys were too sophisticated to be playing in bars for the rest of their lives. I think some of them are still working in music, while others have gone on to different careers.
V. Epilog: "Though I didn't get where I wanted to go, I did enjoy the ride"
For a while I didn't listen to GSW, but lately I have been breaking out the bootlegs. Especially the ones from 1993-1995, really bring back the memories. I know that a bunch of these can be downloaded off the net, so for the curious, I would recommend starting there. I also think that "$1.99 Romances" was the best of the studio albums. It's probably out of print, but look for it in the used bins. All the songs on it are great, and really well recorded. The only fault I find with it is that it is too long for the caual listnener. There are just so many songs! Their self released studio album "Bag" may suffer from the same problem, it's a really big "bag" of songs, and it is a lot to digest if you are not already a fan.
Conversely, their fine live album "Who's Driving" for me is way too short. Why couldn't they have made this a double album? They played so many hot shows in those years. Those awesome 1995 Fourth of July shows also were taped to multitrack, but only three songs ever saw the light of day, as a bonus disc with "Red". Instead of three songs, those shows could have produced three discs of fine live Wine. But enough of my Monday-morning quarterbacking! They played their asses off for 11 years, and deserved much greater rewards than they got.
And speaking of songs, yes there were so many great ones. I believe that a band lives and dies by its songwriting, and in Lo Faber GSW had one of the great ones of that generation. Sometimes his influences showed - Dylan, the Beatles, Zappa - but they always do, and in the finest songs, like "Epilog", "Epiphany", "Mantaloking Town" - Lo faber's songwriting voice came through. "Wake Up Now" was a subtle masterpiece, a still life description of a car accident. I could write a whole thesis on his songs, so I'll stop here (I'm getting misty just talkin' 'bout it!).
Wherever you are now, GSW, I salute you, and thanks for the memories - God Street Wine, the best band of the nineties!