Tuesday, October 2, 2007

KQED Music: Don't Look Back

A friend of mine once told me his theory that everyone's favorite album is one released in the same year they start college. It's a flawed proposition, not least because we don't necessarily hear albums for the first time in the same year they are released (nor does everyone go to college, obviously), but the guiding principle behind it is surprisingly accurate.

For example, most of my all-time favorite bands are ones I was listening to when I was around 18 years old: Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Pavement. So it's probably no coincidence that now they are all hitting the nostalgia market at around the same time too.

While the emotional scars caused by seeing one of the Velvet Underground's unfortunate European dates in 1993 have largely healed for me, I still have mixed feelings about reunion tours. One constant is that my levels of enthusiasm seem to depend largely on whether or not I saw the band in question the first time round.

For example, I was thrilled to finally get the chance to see the Pixies in 2004, as I had missed my one previous chance way back in 1991 (although in the end I didn't miss much in Glasgow that night as part of the stage collapsed just a few minutes into the gig: you can read more here).

In contrast, I'm much less enthusiastic about seeing The Jesus and Mary Chain when they play San Francisco next month (they appear at the Fillmore on October 26 and 27, 2007), or about the rumors that My Bloody Valentine might reform for next year's Coachella. I saw both bands play on the same bill of the Lollapallooza-inspired "Rollercoaster" tour in 1992, and it was almost certainly the greatest concert I've ever been to.

JAMC had almost finished their opening song before I even realized which one they were playing through the dense torrent of feedback (it was "Sidewalking," for the record). And I can't think of anything as brutal, beautiful or astonishing as hearing My Bloody Valentine play "You Made Me Realise" live, complete with its earth-shaking "apocalypse" interlude (Mike McGonigal devotes a whole chapter to this experience in his book on the band's defining album Loveless).

Also appearing were fellow feedback fans Dinosaur Jr. whose albums Bug and Fossils backed JAMC's Barbed Wire Kisses on a 90-minute cassette that changed my life (and of course they've also recently reformed their classic line-up and played San Francisco's Mezzanine on September 9), plus some perky young indie pop upstarts called Blur, whose music career I confidently predicted would soon disappear without a trace. Oops.

To what extent my memory of that night has been colored by 15 years of sepia-tinted reminiscing is kind of beside the point. What's important is that there is little chance now either the Mary Chain or MBV could live up to what I remember.

One sentimental exercise I am a fan of is bands playing one of their old albums in its entirety, as yet another act I was heavily into as a teenager, Sonic Youth, did in Berkeley this year to promote the "deluxe" reissue of Daydream Nation. The organizers of that gig curate a series of similar concerts every year, mostly in London but also here in the States, called Don't Look Back. The results are unashamedly nostalgic but also a little new; few bands ever play a whole album live and in order, after all.

It's also fun to speculate on which albums you would or wouldn't want to be included, which brings me to the subject that inspired this whole post: the fact that just a few days after I left my old home in the U.K. earlier this year, it was announced that this year's Don't Look Back program includes the Cowboy Junkies playing their 1987 album The Trinity Session at London's Royal Albert Hall on October 10, 2007.

This is the one album I have listened to more than any other in my life, and it has become the musical equivalent of comfort food or a favorite sweater for me: soft, warm and inviting. And it's the one album I'd love to see performed live more than any other.

Ah well, maybe they'll get together to do it again in another 20 years' time.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.