While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Monster Magnet w/ Pilgrim Fathers and Nebula

Sapnu Fabrika, Riga, 13 November 2008

From the outside, it was hard to gauge the size of the Sapņu Fabrika (Dream Factory). I had a moment of trepidation before stepping through the doors (Please let there be more than fifteen people at this show) but once inside I felt better. There were two bars, a decent stage with crowd control corridor, and standing room for several hundred. Just how many were in attendance, I can’t say, but it was certainly a good crowd.

[Aside: Coat check was free. Which in a coldish country like Latvia is very fair. I wish there were opportunities to make an extra buck left unexploited in the U.K. – it’s just so tiring sometimes.]

The first band on were Pilgrim Fathers from Nottingham. They were clearly influenced by the kind of effects-heavy Hawkwind-y space rock that early Monster Magnet channelled before releasing their debut L.P. (see half hour jam on Tab E.P.), but something was amiss. Marisa didn’t like them from the get go: loud and indecipherable were her main complaints. She has since adopted “Pilgrim Fathers” as a short hand for “irredeemably bad”. My reaction wasn’t quite so negative, perhaps because I knew a bit more about where they were coming from, but still: the lead singer spent so much time hunch over his effects module that it the thought of throwing a shoe at him did cross my mind.

After the sacrificial lambs, we were treated to the best supporting set I’ve seen in a long while by Nebula. I actually own To The Center and may have a few other tracks from these Californians on some of my “stoner rock” compilation CDs back home, so the band were not exactly an unknown entity. But then if you asked me for another album title, I’d be struggling.

The band are actually doubling back after doing their own headline tour of Europe earlier in the year, and managed to lure the building crowd into a bopping mood. As with Pilgrim Fathers, however, their kind of music – in this case: tight, riff-driven, sludgy rock’n’roll – sounds dated now. The lyrics lack any sort of punch, and the band are a couple notches down on the charisma stakes to suggest they will ever find their way out of their Eastern European Tour purgatory and into the American alternative mainstream.

Still, there’s plenty worse things than being a great supporting act (I’m sure for a few audience members they outshone the headliners…).

But I was only in Riga for one band.

Before, during and after Monster Magnet’s performance, I thought a lot about one thing. And no, it was not Dave Wyndorf’s weight (I forgot about that halfway through the first song… though not permanently).

It was the set list.

I own all of Monster Magnet’s albums, but wouldn’t call myself a diehard fan anymore. When I heard that the band were playing ‘Best Of’ shows this time around and ignoring their newer material, my first reaction was: cool. I would get to see the songs that made me a diehard fan.

But just what would a best of set list be like? Monster Magnet have released two greatest hits collections: both were misnomers (only ‘Space Lord’ could be called a hit); both were money-making ventures by record labels and opposed by the band in some way; neither really captured the best of Monster Magnet.

Then there was the difference between what the band would consider a best of and an Eastern European audience would expect.

All I knew was that there were certain songs, if I cast my mind back five or six years to when Monster Magnet loomed large on my musical tastes, that I would go ga-ga to see live. Such a list began with ‘Spine of God’ and ‘Cage Around The Sun’, followed by a trio of album starters from the mid-late 90s: ‘Dopes To Infinity’ (from the album of the same name), ‘Crop Circle’ (from Powertrip) and ‘Melt’ (from God Says No).

I was earworming ‘Dopes’ for three days as I walked around Riga (and Sigulda, which was lovely, by-the-by) before catching the concert on our last night in the Baltics. I even said to Marisa before the show: they’re gonna play ‘Dopes To Infinity’ tonight and they’ll play it first.

And so they did.

In fact, the set of fourteen songs (ten plus a four song encore that stretched for 25+ minutes), included every one of the five songs I listed above in my best of / must see live list.

I was so fixated with what songs MM would play / were playing, I tried to take a snippet of video of each song as an aide memoir for when I got back to the hostel to ensure I got the set list straight for this review.

[It turns out this wasn’t necessary as I got one of the set lists used by the band after the show, which Jim Baglino (Bass) kindly signed... and most of my video snippets are pretty much indecipherable.]

The only time I felt the set list left something to be desired was when they followed up the epic ‘Third Alternative’ with ‘Zodiac Lung’. Dave sat on a speaker and almost crooned the lyrics, while Ed Mundell stood in the background providing the only instrumentation. It was clearly an attempt to provide light and shade, this being a quieter, more introspective interlude, but it wasn’t necessary: ‘Third Alternative’ had already light-and-shaded our socks off, and later on ‘Cage Around The Sun’ and ‘Spine of God’ did the same thing. In comparison, ‘Zodiac’ was a one trick pony. It was also the only time I wondered (worried) about what the locals thought of this song choice.

If mellowness and introspection were in order, why not ‘Ozium’, a song from the same record as ‘Zodiac Lung’ but with that space rock vibe that the Pilgrim Fathers tried (and failed) to hook into. For a best of show, that would have been the icing on my cake.

The other thing to note, and this isn’t really a complaint, is that there was nothing from 2007’s 4-Way Diablo. Which, in one respect, you can understand if the band is out to play a We May Never Tour Again So Here’s The Best In Our Bag of Tricks type of show, but then again, what’s up with the t-shirts on sale with the cover art of 4-Way Diablo on the front and on the back: “4-Way Diablo Winter 2008 European Tour”?

‘Little Bag of Gloom’ could have ably filled the role of ‘Zodiac Lung’, and surely one of ‘Slap In The Face’, ‘Solid Gold’ or ‘4-Way Diablo’ would stand up just as well as lesser known songs like ‘Twin Earth’ or ‘Radiation Day’?

See, I told you I’d thought a lot about the set list.

Still, I can conclusively say that this was the concert where I have sung along the most (yes, even more than the Tragically Hip). I was enjoying it so much I never got the chance to properly look around and see how many other people were singing along (though I got the impression that Powertrip-era songs were the ones that went down the best).

The band were tight and looked into it. The absolute highlight was the way Caivano, Baglino and Mundell hung back during the quiet parts of ‘Third Alternative’ and then came to the front of the stage in a wave and blew the speakers for the chorus (sounds gimmicky put into words, but it wasn’t).

Up until seeing MM live, I was never really sure about Ed Mundell, the lead guitarist. He always seemed a bit aloof in videos and photos, somehow at odds with the band’s image, though I could never fault his solos. But seeing him out watching the warm up acts (he actually ran off to find the sound engineer when Pilgrim Fathers were on stage waiting to start) and his demeanour on stage, it’s clear that Ed is a great guy who just isn’t that outgoing. His personality is refreshing to find in a band of this sort, and provides an indispensable foil to the excesses of Dave Wyndorf (hold that thought). And following my brief conversations with Jim Baglino and Phil Caivano after the show (basically: “Great show. I’m from New Zealand. Please like me”) I feel safe in saying they are genuinely nice people.

As for Dave, he didn’t emerge from backstage before or after the show, and I couldn’t help imagine him in some Jabba The Hutt repose. He still played the role of showman and Prophet of Teenage Fears and Desire well during the show, but he also spent a lot of non-singing time with his back to the audience, recovering.

Because the guy is out of shape.

And his dress sense (unzipped back hoodie, baggy cargoes) doesn’t help appearances… or the sweat situation.

And when he stands with his back to the crowd, you can see his bald spot.

And I have nothing but admiration for the show he put on.

Regardless of the fact he’s 52 years old and only two years removed from a near fatal drug overdose. Compare him to the noodler from Pilgrim Fathers, and you begin to understand why some people are made to be fallen stars and others can only dream of it.


Rating: 9 guitars out of 10.

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