Posts Tagged ‘Strangers Almanac’

Whiskeytown Pneumonia

It was 1999 and Ryan Adams, the man who formed alt.country pioneers Whiskeytown and led them for close to five years through series of beloved live shows and three studio albums – the last of which, Pneumonia, was only just in the can – was ready to move on. Having already jettisoned his first musical incarnation, The Patty Duke Syndrome (a short-lived punk outfit formed just outside of his hometown, Jacksonville, North Carolina), it was time for him to go solo and leave another band, another persona behind.

Since their much-lauded second album, Strangers Almanac, Whiskeytown had become the torch-bearers for the new breed of alt.country. It’s not difficult to imagine a young Sturgill Simpson nodding along to the slow rambles and dreaming lyricism of its frontman.
But it would be on their final, “lost” album, Pneumonia, that Adams finally stopped limiting himself to people’s perceptions of what Whiskeytown should be, and followed his own intuitions and influences.

Pneumonia was borne amid of a series of record industry mergers and a tumultuous tour in support of Strangers Almanac, during which the band cycled through line-ups, with just Adams and violinist Caitlin Cary as its constants. With the record being shelved for two years, Adams and company had amassed a great number of tracks to choose from, resulting in a folk- and country-influenced pop/rock creation that refused to be pigeonholed. At the time, fans of Whiskeytown were surprised by this musical departure, but it when it came to their shape-shifting frontman, Pneumonia would serve as a harbinger to Ryan Adams’ future solo efforts.

Adams had always insisted he never wanted to be the “frontman” of Whiskeytown, thinking of it as more of a collective that shared the spotlight and song-writing duties. But on Pneumonia, the prolific songwriter took the lead. When it came to developing the sound, however, it would be producer Ethan Johns (son of legendary producer/engineer Glyn Johns) who would take the reins. Their creative collaboration would continue on Adams’ solo debut, Heartbreaker, and subsequent albums.

Pneumonia is an open and honest album about loss and moving on from what pains you. Adams has described it as “the euphoria you get when you’re sick”, and there’s certainly a bittersweet sense to proceedings. The album opens with a lover’s farewell, ‘The Ballad Of Carol Lynn’, a song of strained appreciation for a troubled soul who’s too much for the singer to deal with any longer. It’s one of seven songs written with multi-instrumentalist Mike Daly and features Adams’ passionate vocals over a simple piano arrangement and harmonic interludes.

The following track, ‘Don’t Wanna Know Why’, is more upbeat rhythmically, but still stuck in the mud of a difficult parting of ways. The lyrics “Breathe in, breathe out” signify an attempt at the patience a lover seeks to find while in the middle of reconciling the end of something.

On ‘Jacksonville Skyline’, Adams goes into storyteller mode, recalling a small-town tale that feels like a homesick ode to his childhood home. At first the song seems like a simple vignette about day-to-day life in the south, but through the lens of Pneumonia as a whole, it takes on another meaning. Is its narrator longing for more simple days before the complications that clearly burden him, overwhelmed him? Over a decade after its recording, the song continued to resonate with Adams, who performed solo versions of it on his stunning solo 2011 acoustic tour, collected on the 15LP box set Live After Deaf.

The next four entries play like stages of a dissolving of a relationship. Even the song titles refer to those tense conversations one must have to explain, comfort, blame and finally accept. ‘Reasons To Lie’, ‘Don’t Be Sad’, ‘Sit And Listen To The Rain’ and ‘Under Your Breath’ are the heavy lifting of the sorrow this album dramatises.

‘Mirror, Mirror’ is the first hopeful song on the album. Almost out of place with its jaunty horn section and cheery backing vocals, it has more in common with a Ben Folds Five cut than anything anyone had heard from Whiskeytown. Nonetheless, upon re-examination, it feels fuelled by the freedom of a recently emancipated person who’s ready for what life has in store. ‘Paper Moon’, meanwhile, evokes a warm evening under the stars. Featuring orchestral arrangements by Glyn Johns, it lifts you up and carries you down cobblestone streets with its lilting melody and mandolins.

By the time the languid and sultry ‘What The Devil Wanted’ hits you, it’s clear we are now in the soft embrace of a new relationship. The past is gone and a new romance has blossomed. “All my time is wasteful now,” is not just a lyric, it’s a belief system for the man singing it. While most of Pneumonia takes on a first-person point of view, it’s not without some wonderful harmonising between Adams and Cary, especially on the penultimate track, ‘Easy Hearts’.

For a band remembered as alt.country pioneers, Pneumonia is full of welcome experimentation, each track bearing its own sonic feeling and diverse vocal delivery while still telling a cohesive story. It comes to a close with ‘Bar Lights’ and the hidden track, ‘To Be Evil’, an imperfect recording that ends with Adams laughing at his own mistakes. It’s as close to Springsteen as there Pneumonia gets, and – whether consciously or unconsciously – if Adams is leaning on The Boss here, it doesn’t matter. The results are a fitting farewell for a band that many would have liked to have seen stick around.

 

In 1997, Thomas O’Keefe got a call from the management of a rising alt-country band called Whiskeytown, asking if he’d be interested in taking on the job of the group’s tour manager. He was at something of loose ends professionally at the time. And as the bassist for the punk group Antiseen, he’d practically done the job already. So he said yes. But just like a good country song, his tenure – which lasted until the group broke up after a performance in Austin at SXSW in 2000 – was full of drama, erratic personalities, missed opportunities, and no small share of heartbreak along the way.

There were also plenty of musical triumphs, often emanating from Whiskeytown’s singer/guitarist/main songwriter, the incredibly talented but sometimes difficult and troubled Ryan Adams.

O’Keefe has just put down on paper with co-author Joe Oestreich his experiences on the road with the group and Adams in the book Waiting to Derail: Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown, Alt-Country’s Brilliant Wreck.

“Tour managing Whiskeytown was going to be like chaperoning eighth graders on a class trip to D.C.,” he writes. “Eighth graders who drank and smoked pot.” Whether you called it alt-country, cowpunk, or No Depression, in the ‘90s there was a resurgence of interest in new music with a classic country sound among young listeners. It respected the genre’s traditions, but fused it with a certain youth and contemporary attitude. Bands like Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, the Jayhawks, Old 97’s, Jason and the Scorchers, and Son Volt were leading the charge.

Whiskeytown spring from one of the music’s geographical centers was the Raleigh-Durham-Chappell Hill area in North Carolina. And Ryan Adams only in his early 20’s, was seen as a real talent. But he did have an ego, and was an enthusiastic intaker of drugs and drinking.

“I had heard of them, but I wasn’t into that kind of music, I liked KISS and Cheap Trick and the Ramones,” O’Keefe says today. “But when I started working and handing out with Ryan, I thought ‘good God, he’s a freak of nature!’ The way he churned out great songs like there was no tomorrow. It’s like he has antennae and he’s just catching songs that are landing in his lap one after another.”

There’s dissection of the Ryan Adams that O’Keefe saw and who for a time lived in his apartment. But also how his personality changed when he slipped into the “character” of Ryan Adams, surely fertile ground for any psychiatrist. And the band admittedly lost a lot of mojo in doing what O’Keefe refers to as just a lot of “dicking around.”

But while Adams was clearly the leader, O’Keefe also had to work with other members of the group – some who rotated in and out, but always with violinist/singer Caitlin Cary. Her sizable contributions to the band are sometimes overlooked. O’Keefe’s tenure with the band coincided before, during, and after the release of their amazing second album, Strangers Almanac, which many predicted would shoot them into the big leagues.

Interestingly, O’Keefe makes a lot of comparisons between Whiskeytown and alt rockers the Replacements, and indeed there are plenty of similarities between the groups, none more so than in the tendency to self-sabotage. Adams (like the ‘Mats Paul Westerberg) would routinely show up to concerts drunk, deliver half-assed, short shows, blow important gigs and media interviews, and alienate and criticize their own audiences who had come to see them.

“With both bands, from night to night there was no consistency. One day, the show would be the most half-baked, clock-in and clock-out bullshit. And then the next night the show would be so magical, it would renew your faith in rock and roll and humanity,” O’Keefe says.

“And then there would be a show with a lot of punk rock antics and behavior. I loved it, because that’s where I came from. But then as tour manager, I would have to go and clean up the mess and try and collect money from a club owner who would be really pissed and ready to kill me. But the head of the snake leads the snake around, and the show was whatever Ryan wanted to make of it.”

While O’Keefe was often frustrated with Adams, he has no such ill feelings about the young musician’s inherent, scarily good talent. He describes a dismal show that has him down, but when Adams returns to the stage solo with an acoustic guitar to serenade the remaining crowd with his song “Avenues,” he and the audience are mesmerized by the power of the material and the performer.

Whiskeytown was tapped for a possible career-making slot opening an outdoor shed tour for John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. But it was clear that the classic rock audience had little interest in Whiskeytown’s hopped up tear-in-my-beer music, simply waiting to hear the CCR classics. Instead of being inspired to the challenge, Adams would openly return the disdain during the band’s performances.

Waiting to Derail (its title taken from a Whiskeytown song) also details the many times O’Keefe would be dispatched to locate Adams or another band member who had not shown up for a hotel lobby call or show, negotiate inter-band squabbles and outer-band romantic relationships, and hide the drugs.

In one incident, the only thing that seemingly saved a complete narcotics bust of the tour bus on the U.S./Canadian border was when band members struck up a conversation with a border agent about their mutual love for the novels of John Steinbeck.

In writing and researching the book, O’Keefe had interviews and reminiscing conversations with all of Whiskeytown’s band members (save a reluctant Adams), record company execs, managers, and crew. But what surprised him was just how little all actually remembered about the touring, so the book is about “95%” of what it would be had he just relied on himself.

Despite having Ryan Adams at a groomsman in his own wedding, O’Keefe has had little contact with the musician since Whiskeytown’s demise. Adams himself has gone on to considerable success both as a solo act and with his backing group the Cardinals. Adams declined to speak with O’Keefe for his book, but the musician  who has since cleaned up his act and admitted past transgressions is aware of it.

In the years after his tenure with Whiskeytown, O’Keefe has continued his career as a tour manager with acts like Train (“One of the hardest working band in the music business”), Mandy Moore, and Third Eye Blind. His current job is as the veteran tour manager for Weezer.