There came a point in the late 1960s when the general presumption that everyone with long hair was cool, liked the same kind of music and probably shared leftist political views was revealed to be utterly baseless. The same sort of disillusionment occurred in the next decade, when stupid punks stopped pogoing and panhandling and began acting like thugs. For those who lived through both sobering eras, nothing is as hard to fathom as the rise of jam bands, groups that — against all previous versions of acceptable youth behavior (which, in itself, supplies all the sociological explanation needed) — consciously emulate the glory days of ’70s rock festivals where good vibes counted more than good music and bigger was always better. Whether specifically updating the Grateful Dead (Phish), switching instruments (Blues Traveler’s John Popper blows scales on the harmonica with roughly the same impressive and pointless velocity that Alvin Lee of Ten Years After brought to the guitar; Primus leads with Les Claypool’s hyperkinetic bass), looking past Santana and John McLaughlin for fusion-happy world-music visions (the Dave Matthews Band, Rusted Root) or sucking too bad to count at all (Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Spin Doctors), a new generation has provided college-aged concert-goers — especially those plugged into the Internet, where buzzes are passed along at the speed of light — with an alternative to tie-dye’s never-say-die (until the main one actually did) god-daddys.
Crawling into the ditch left by the Allman Brothers’ endless tour bus with organ (Jon Bevo), twin guitarists (Lo Faber and Aaron Maxwell) and an adenoidal vocal resemblance to whichever one of the Doobie Brothers it was who sang, God Street Wine periodically left its home base in upstate Ossining, New York, to thrill audiences at perennially sold-out gigs all over Universityville, America. Wisely, the quintet first went the live route in committing its music to tape; the sold-at-gigs debut was a double-cassette recorded onstage in New York City, where the group started in 1988.
Getting a studio record together presented a more complicated challenge. Attempting to give fair play to their genial R&B, pop and funk songs and showcase their instrumental proficiency, bag. splits the difference and winds up shortchanging both. At its best (the Allmanesque “Goodnight Gretchen,” the New Riders-like “Borderline,” the Steely Dannish “Waiting for the Tide”), bag. is the modern equivalent of that mildew-stained obscurity you took a chance on for a buck at the Salvation Army-and didn’t care for enough to keep.
Who’s Driving? culls shows from ’92 and ’93 for a jam-packed jam that shows what good memories (of Elizabeth Reed) Faber and Maxwell have. Using funky beats to start a little War (23 total minutes of “Feel the Pressure” and “Hellfire,” twice their combined length on bag.), jazzy chord patterns (“Imogene”) and what sounds an awful lot like a Glen Campbell impersonation (“Stranger”), the album is well-played, unfailingly good-natured, absurdly dated and boring beyond belief.
God Street Wine’s first major-label album, $1.99 Romances (produced in a Memphis studio by Jim Dickinson), is necessarily more concise than its live recordings. The fourteen songs average a hair less than five minutes each, which is the blink of a tune-up for this band. If that discourages long-spool solos (“Crazy Head” winds up for what promises to be an extended digression, but quickly cuts it off), the pressure of a ticking clock doesn’t compromise the band’s spirited cohesion, or force significantly more enthralling songcraft. Without the crutch of instrumental exposition, Faber’s compositions are functionally tuneful and not-quite-clever (the unctuous “Wendy” is fandom reduced to mawkish witlessness) in various dated idioms. “Mile by Mile” manages a convincing Steely Dan impression; “The Ballroom” does a brisk reggae shuffle; the studio version of “Imogene” could be a Doobie Brothers or Boz Scaggs cover. Adding little to the good-time memories on which its muse guzzles, God Street Wine is like a top-drawer wedding band taking the liberty of showcasing some songs of its own devising while the chopped liver is being served.
After being dropped by Geffen, God Street Wine retreated to its home studio, stuck in a thumb and pulled out a new and improved album. Red was initially sold only via neo-grassroots channels (telephone sales and the World Wide Web) to fans before being licensed to a major label for retail distribution. Diehard Winos expecting another sprawling skein of old-timey funk-rock improv are likely to be shocked by the band’s sudden axis shift. Disconnecting from the usual vintage allusions (specifically blotting out all the Allman comparisons), Red warms the plate with a couple inna old style (“Get on the Train,” the soulful falsetto of “RU4 Real?”) but spends more time indulging different conceits: atmospheric pop (the Beatlesque “Girl on Fire,” the piano-based “Maybe,” which slides amusingly from Carole King reserve to fevered symphonic gimmickry), chorus/organ gospel (“Untitled Take Two”), Dylan-imagining acoustic rusticity (“Red & Milky White”), bouncy barrelhouse blues (“Chop!”), tropical reggae (“When the White Sun Turns to Red”) and measured, skeletal rock (“Which Way Will She Go?,” easily the strangest thing these guys have ever done). Whether the group was finally ready to move itself forward or the corporate divorce sparked a leap of creative development, Red is the first God Street Wine record worth owning. They have since broken up.