Graded on a Curve:
Mike Watt,
“Ring Spiel” Tour ’95

As 2016 nears conclusion, Mike Watt’s rank as one of rock’s finest bass players remains secure. ‘twas the same two decades back, though at that point many ears were just getting introduced to the man by his debut solo effort. Loaded with contributors, Ball-Hog or Tugboat? helped to document the era’s alt/ indie surge while raising Watt’s profile, and to promote it he hit the road econo-style with Eddie Vedder, Dave Grohl, Pat Smear, and William Goldsmith. Ring Spiel” Tour ’95 captures the Chicago stop on the tour; on November 11, it’s being released on 2LP, CD, and digital by Columbia/Legacy.

Biographical synopses of Mike Watt still regularly detail his role in the Minutemen, which is unsurprising as they endure as one of rock music’s greatest trios. Upon reflection, what he’s achieved since the tragic demise of that singular unit (due to the death by van accident of his friend and bandmate D. Boon) is nearly as impressive, with the artist’s creative energies remaining forward-focused as he’s maintained healthy ties to the past in a wide variety of situations.

Amongst Watt’s best known work post-Minutemen is fIREHOSE, a unit consisting of the bassist, Minutemen drummer George Hurley and Ohio guitarist-singer Ed Crawford that existed from 1986 to ’94 with reunion shows in 2012. More recently, his role in the Stooges’ extended return to activity and membership in Il Sogno del Marinaio put him on the radar of a younger generation; in between, his solo records and by extension, a run of material and shows with the Black Gang, the Pair of Pliers, Secondmen, and Missingmen comprise some of the more prominent entries in his discography.

Released in early ’95, Ball-Hog or Tugboat? was Watt’s first solo LP after the breakup of fIREHOSE, and today it stands as the most well-known of his solo efforts, in no small part due to its long list of guests. A sampling; Bernie Worrell, Flea, Ad-Rock, Mike D, Henry Rollins, Krist Novoselic, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley, Dave Pirner, Evan Dando, Frank Black, J Mascis, Kathleen Hanna, Mark Lanegan, Cris and Curt Kirkwood, Epic Soundtracks, Petra Haden, Bob Lee, Joe Baiza, Carla Bozulich, and Nels Cline.

Placing a copy of the record in a box with some Lollapalooza ticket stubs, a copy of Grand Royal magazine and a VHS copy of the Larry Clark/ Harmony Korine indie-flick exploito-exposé Kids would serve as a pretty solid mid-’90s Alt-culture starter kit. It was a crazy, some would say upside-down time, and the list of names in the preceding paragraph encompasses Watt’s influences, contemporaries, and friends as it spans from legit musical celebs to those gifted with momentary star-status to key underground names.

In short, it was a disc that could be appreciated by a substantial cross-section of ’90s listeners: Funkadelic fans, adventurous punk heads, folks shook-up by the emergence of Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and Pearl Jam, and those in tune with the proliferation of indie that was in full swing. Excluded from the party were observers hung-up on notions of purity and/ or the sacrosanct nature of rock’s yesteryears.

The concept found long-time tugboat Watt toying with the ball-hog role by inviting participants to step into the musical “ring” with him; the album has a pro wrestling theme enhanced by the Raymond Pettibon cover art and extended in the title of Ring Spiel. Working very nicely in terms of a home listening experience, Ball-Hog didn’t easily extend to promoting the album via performance.

As illuminated in Michael Azzerad’s liner notes for this set, the tour that ensued required extensive cooperation as Vedder and Grohl willingly accepted support roles in a stripped-down Minutemen-style storming of smaller and if possible all-ages venues as they traveled by van and loaded their own gear. Hovercraft, the group of Vedder’s then wife Beth Liebling with her husband behind the drums, and the initial pre-breakout touring version of Foo Fighters, opened.

Furthermore, promoters weren’t allowed to use Vedder or Grohl’s names to sell tickets; doing so would result in a cancellation. This was essentially pre-explosion of the World Wide Web, but word of their involvement surely spread, and on May 6, 1995 at Chicago’s Metro the crowd is large and boisterous for show 19 of 31.

If touring Ball-Hog, the set list unsurprisingly spanned far beyond the album, beginning with “Walking the Cow,” the Daniel Johnston number previously covered by fIREHOSE on ’91’s underrated Flyin’ the Flannel. Heard here, it lacks the intimate depth of the studio version but instead offers crispness befitting the live scenario and particularly the opening song of the night.

It’s the following number that really gets things cooking, namely “Big Train,” Ball-Hog’s first single and another cover, this one sourced from Chip and Tony Kinman, not from the brothers’ lauded Cali punk band the Dils but their largely slept on subsequent outfit Blackbird. One of two songs sung by Watt on Ball-Hog, he’s in strong voice here, as his consistently expressive bass playing is even sturdier throughout.

It’s a band scenario however, and Smear’s slashing slide guitar in “Big Train” is a treat. “Formal Introduction,” nabbed from fIREHOSE’s final record Mr. Machinery Operator follows, Grohl hitting hard from behind the kit; he intermittently adds second guitar to the set. And just as he did on its studio version, Grohl delivers the massive kick-start to Ball-Hog highlight “Against the ‘70s.”

While “Against the ‘70s” is often assessed as a mere exercise in anti-nostalgia, it’s far from that simple as a significant portion of Watt’s musical trajectory is about remembrance. There’s the torrid set-closing grappling of Blue Öyster Cult’s “The Red and the Black,” an indispensable part of Watt-lore covered earlier by the Minutemen on 3-Way Tie (For Last) and fIREHOSE on “Live Totem Pole,” that EP’s succinct dose of energy combining quite well with Ring Spiel’s full set.

There’s also a spirited take of “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing” and “Forever…One Reporter’s Opinion,” both of which originate from the Minutemen’s creative apex Double Nickels on the Dime. “Drove Up from Pedro” and “Piss-Bottle Man” are more personally autobiographical, the former almost Proustian (though Watt’s a Joyce man) as the latter recollects a habit of his father and helps to clarify that the bassist encourages looking back on one’s own history (and using it as creative fuel moving forward) but discourages just burrowing into another generation’s glory.

This makes the appearance of “Habit,” a song soon to surface on Pearl Jam’s No Code, here in a burning reading that temporarily reenergizes the ailing body of grunge, an applicable generosity on Watt’s part, allowing Vedder a moment to be something more than a sideman for Watt’s gig. But sideman isn’t the right word; if Ball-Hog is a studio project, its impulse still derives from rock, and even more so on Ring Spiel as the band is reliably engaged.

Hardcore Watt fans will likely notice that “Makin’ the Freeway” isn’t as hot as the take on “Live Totem Pole.” Also, hearing voices yelling for “Slack Motherfucker,” a Superchunk song covered on the same EP, during Watt’s solo closing encore “Powerful Hankerin’,” could trigger flashbacks of ‘90s gig obnoxiousness. Likewise, the bassist’s admonishment of crowd surfers from earlier in the set.

But “Chinese Firedrill” emerges in an excellent version, “E-Ticket Ride” and “Coincidence is Either Hit or Miss” aren’t far behind, and it’s a cinch a sizable portion of Watt’s base of support will dig the eccentric first encore of Madonna’s “Secret Garden” featuring Pat Smear on vocals. For a percentage of listeners Ring Spiel ’95 will be a souvenir, but for many others it sheds light on what Watt pegged as a scary time. He and his bandmates navigated the wild uncertainty very well.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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