there's nowhere to go after the show...but that's alright.

this past thursday night, i had the chance to do something i had never done before: see The Verve Pipe in concert. they were my favourite band through high school, and they were the band who got me into music back in the summer of 1997. i still listen to them a lot, and count two of their albums [The Verve Pipe and Pop Smear] among my all-time favourites. but, even though i've been a fan of the band for over a decade, i had never been able to see them live.

i finally saw them, and it got my mind racing.

the scene

usually "bar with a stage" is my way of describing the best concert venues ever: the most intimate places. a "bar with a stage" is a cramped little bar with a tiny stage in the corner around which the band's faithful must crowd. everyone is close together, and everyone feeds off of the energy of everyone else.

the Voodoo Lounge in Maryland Heights is a bar with a stage, alright. but the Voodoo Lounge is not a concert venue. instead, it takes the concept to its opposite, most impersonal extreme. it's a bar with a stage situated about twelve feet in the air: over the bar and up a wall.

the seating area is expansive. most of the people are sitting at tables; the place is more often used as a restaurant than as a concert venue. what would be the standing area, the floor between the bar and the booths, was full of chairs, the same kinds of chairs a convention centre drags out to seat large crowds at faceless business conferences.

the place was empty. as the concert started very few of the pit seats were taken, and less than half of the tables were occupied. the room abounded with a feeling emptiness: most of the space that could hold people was empty, and even if the crowd area were full there would have been all that empty open air overhead, between the fans and the band.

at least the Voodoo Lounge had the pre-show music down pat. the pre-show music over the PA system was mostly 1990s music: Stone Temple Pilots, mid-career 311, old Audioslave.

the band

The Verve Pipe is a quintessentially 1990s band. to me, they represent the decade. their song "The Freshmen" was my gateway into nineties rock, their rove of little-known music is the kaleidoscope of what great and diverse rock music was made to be, and the too-brief trajectory of their fame is a testament to the narrow scope and the attention deficit disorder of nineties radio, music television, and tastemakers.

i have never shaken the feeling that if people gave the songs that didn't sound like "the freshmen" a chance that The Verve Pipe could have been one of the best-loved band in america. they went in many musical directions on their first four albums [especially on their second and fourth], and did it all well. from fast and bitter ["Bullies on Vacation," "Television," "I've Suffered a Head Injury"] to deep and introspective ["She Has Faces," "The River," "Acting as Your Slave"] to downright youthful ["Generations," "Real," "Even the Score"]--the band never got hopelessly tied to any mood or style, and could do all of them well. the lyrics, as well, were masterful: they were intelligent, and they painted honest emotional pictures.

a lingering disappointment

i'm still very bitter about their fifth album, Underneath, and have been since it came out in 2001. that was the last real studio album the band put out--and it was terrible. it symbolized capitulation. it was pop of the worst kind. instead of testing the stylistic and emotional expanses of the form as the band did in Pop Smear and The Verve Pipe, it contained an attempt to release an album full of radio-friendly "adult alternative" hits. just as any attempt to crank out an album full of palatable music fails...this album failed. sure, the band chanced upon a huge adult radio hit with "The Freshmen," but it was just that: chance. the song was a heart-wrenching portrait of something very painful. it had genuine emotion. it wasn't written way back in 1992 to please millions of listeners: it was the product of some inspiration. it just happened to strike a chord with a lot of people a few years later.

Underneath abandoned the interest, the excitement, and the sense of genre-busting adventure that made the self-titled album so brilliant. on the other hand, it also failed to produce the radio hit that the entire album was so clearly a plea for. "Never Let You Down" got a few spins and "Colorful" was in the movie Rock Star, but nothing ever even skirted the commercial success of "The Freshmen." the songs didn't contain the emotional power of the band's previous work. many of the songs dripped with sap. they felt like love songs for the sake of love songs, as opposed to love songs because the person who wrote it was really that moved by love. and...the album disappeared. as dumb as a lot of the music-consuming public may be, people instinctively know the difference between a truly sentimental song and a song that is sappy only because someone behind it thought it would play well in the top 40.

maybe that album just took me by surprise. i thought that if they were ever going to release That Pandering Album, it would come out right after Villains. it didn't. after Villains came The Verve Pipe--an album just as varied, edgy, and devil-may-care as Pop Smear, the genre-spanning indie release from 1993. the self-titled album was a masterpiece, a collection that, if i didn't know better, i could have sworn had been made by several bands that specified in several kinds of music. i thought the band didn't care about convention. i thought they'd keep ignoring the whims of the music brass and keep making the diverse music they had been making for nigh on ten years by then.

i don't know what happened, or why. maybe i neglected to take into account the feelings of immortality that fame brings and the feelings of desperation that can set in as fame fades. The Verve Pipe didn't produce any real radio hits. "Hero" got played a few times because it was the first single, but it never really caught on. the album wasn't very accessible to radio. maybe someone thought that they needed to recapture that radio success, and do everything that was within their power to try. i don't know...this is all conjecture from a fan who holds the bands she loves to a far higher standard than the bands she does not love, because she knows what they can do.

that's enough about that album: in short, Underneath disappointed me, and i am still bitter. i'd be less bitter if they had just charged on and continued to make studio albums after Underneath. it would have softened the sting, or made me forget it altogether, if they had released another rich, interesting studio album at some point between 2001 and now. but, they haven't. they haven't released any true new album since then.

the show

i finally have something to salve my frustrations of the last six years. The Verve Pipe is mostly broken up: they get together every december and play some shows around the midwest, and that's it. this year i finally managed to make a show on that tour: my first Verve Pipe concert ever. and...it was wonderful. the band sounded great, at least as good as on any studio track they ever put out. the songs had more than enough energy to reach from their unfortunate perch above the bar all the way out to every member of the crowd. Brian Vander Ark's voice had not aged a bit. Doug Corella, the keyboard player, had a rig perfectly suited to the brilliant jack-of-all-trades that he is: a keyboard, a large cymbal on each side of the keyboard, and a drumset off to the side of the keyboard.

they played these songs:

  • Photograph
  • Cup of Tea
  • Hero
  • Spoonful of Sugar
    • at first i wasn't sure about having a harmonica solo in this song, but strangely enough...it worked.
  • I Want All of You
  • Gotta Move On
  • Villains
  • Drive You Mild
  • Colorful
  • a sarcastic medley of covers
    • most of the snippets i didn't recognize. there was a snippet of "Hotel California" in the middle. also...the final snippet was hilarious: Brian Vander Ark as Carol Channing trying to sing John Mayer's "Your Body Is A Wonderland." i wish i had gotten a video or audio clip of that, because only in hearing it can you really appreciate how funny that was.
  • Never Let You Down
  • The Freshmen
    • after "Never Let You Down" i jotted down in my notebook that i would give the band a cookie if they played any songs from I've Suffered a Head Injury. they then played "The Freshmen": a song which was retooled and put on Villains--but was originally on Suffered. i remarked that they could have a cookie on a technicality--but gratefully, they played the song Villains-style, with electric guitars and a rich full-band arrangement.
  • Happiness Is
  • Take the Long Way Home
    • in the middle of this song, Brian turned his back to the crowd and stood in front of Doug's rig. he had a tambourine in one hand and a drumstick in the other. with the drumstick, he was whaling on Doug's cymbals. it was fabulous.
  • encore: Local Boys
i had a few little complaints. the setlist was very heavy on songs from Villains and Underneath. i was hoping for more songs from the other three albums, but the only songs from other albums were "spoonful of sugar" and "hero." on some of the songs, especially the stuff from Villains, Brian was taking some weird liberties with the rhythms. some of them worked, but most of them didn't. [then again, i'm a traditionalist: i'm almost never a fan of singers adding weird melismas and syncopation to their songs, even if the songs are their own.]

the show did teach me a valuable lesson: not every song from Underneath was a clunker. two of the songs on there can, at least live, hold their own with anything else The Verve Pipe has ever performed. "Gotta Move On" was haunting; the lead guitar alone was enough to rip my heart right out of my chest. i could just feel the heartbreak, and there was nothing boring or merely palatable about that song. it was real. the encore, "Local Boys," just rocked. it had a great beat and energy to it...and the lyrics made the song feel like a less-jaded, more mature sequel to "Supergig" from the self-titled album. i'm still no fan of Underneath, but the concert did make me appreciate those two songs a lot.

i got some pictures of the set...although most of them are not very good. the stage lighting was terrible for anyone who wanted to get pictures of anyone who wasn't right up front, since there was almost no light anywhere else. i couldn't get near enough to the stage for the flash to make much of a difference, since the stage was twelve feet in the air. so, i got some almost-clear pictures of Brian and of Griff the Harmonica Solo Guy, but no one else came out very clear in any of them. this made me sad: i wanted good stage pictures of Brian Vander Ark, Donny Brown, and Doug Corella, the three band members remaining from when i was in high school. Brian was right up front, but Donny was back on drums and Doug was back on percussion. they never looked like anything but shadows in any of my shots.

the people

the band was mostly, although not completely, intact from the old days. as i said, three members remained from the early nineties: Brian, Donny, and Doug. Brian and Donny have been in the band since its inception in 1992 and have co-written and played songs on every album. they have been the driving creative forces behind the band, and it would just not be The Verve Pipe anymore if either of them left the band. Doug was not in the band for I've Suffered a Head Injury, but joined for Pop Smear in 1993 and has been in the band ever since. he has played keyboard, percussion, drums...he's the bands brilliant multi-instrumentalist jack of all trades.

the rest of the band is new. it was very weird seeing someone other than Brad Vander Ark playing bass and someone other than A.J. Dunning playing lead guitar. they were played instead by two guys i did not recognize. i didn't know their names. they were never introduced during the show, and i can't even seem to find them on the band's website or in the message boards. i couldn't complain at all about their instrumental proficiency--the songs sounded just like the songs i knew and loved. i was just a little unsettled by not recognizing all of the faces on stage, the same way i always am when a band i have loved for a very long time has a personnel change.

and then, there was Griff, the harmonica guy. that was weird. i was a little confused seeing a harmonica player up there because The Verve Pipe never had harmonicas in any of their songs on the studio albums. even though some of the solos dragged on far longer than they needed to, they were well-done...there were harmonica parts in four or five of the songs, and each worked nicely with the original idea of the song and what the rest of the band was playing.

concert as context for self-overanalysis

the harmonica player brought me my first realisation of the stark difference between my outlook in seeing The Verve Pipe at age twenty-five compared to what it would have been when i was in high school. during one of the songs about midway through the show, i got up for a drink. i picked it up from the bar, turned back toward my seat, and then saw him near the door talking to someone. i strolled over there and told him he did a good job with the "Spoonful of Sugar" solo.

he cut me off as i was finishing, and asked me what my shirt said. i told him--i was wearing my "feelings are boring. kissing is awesome." shirt. he then leaned in to give me a kiss. i guess i was asking for it by wearing that shirt, so i let him give me a chaste peck, and then i quickly shuffled back to my table to take in the rest of the concert in peace.

i then got to thinking: in itself, the event was totally forgettable. i wore a snarky shirt, someone reacted to it in the expected way, and then i went along with my life. but, my high school self would not have reacted that way. if some guy who had been on stage with the verve pipe had tried to kiss me when i was in high school, even if he had not been a full-fledged or original band member, i would have been over the moon. it would have been a defining moment for me. i would have written endlessly about it in my notebooks. there would have been copious amounts of bad teenage poetry about the event. i would have written excitedly about the event to my pen pal and to all the TVP-loving teenagers i talked to online every night. everyone i knew would have been very sick of my ranting and raving.

but, it happened at age twenty-five and not age fourteen or sixteen. it was only remarkable for pointing out how i have changed over the last ten years. i've become far more jaded and realistic about certain events. if there is no real meaning behind them, i am willing to admit that...whereas, when i was fourteen, the slightest eye contact, hug, or anything else from a person in a band was enough to make me read everything into it.

the aftermath

after the concert came one of the most surreal moments of my entire life. most of the band went over by the merch booth to meet fans and sign autographs. even when i was a teenager, i was never prone to being starstruck in front of rockers. there's a difference between being starstruck and the actual problem of blowing incidents out of proportion that i had when i was a teenager. when i was at the concert venue, i was fine: i could meet musicians i loved, carry on intelligent conversations with them, and only later become too giddy about the event to function. i would later run the encounter through my head so many times that it became an almost fictionalized paragon of the actual event--but during the encounter, i was level-headed. i wasn't a gibbering idiot.

thursday night after the concert, i finally fell victim to being starstruck. i met both Brian and Donny after the show, and all i could think of to say was that i had been a fan for over ten years, that it was my first show, and that their music got me through so much in high school. i was nervous, i was shaking, and i kept repeating myself. i did have the presence of mind to ask if they'd be in pictures with me...but, as you can see from the ear-to-ear grin on my face, i was completely overwhelmed with glee from finally meeting members of The Verve Pipe:

me and Brian:

Brian, me, and Donny:

Brian and Donny were nice...i just wish i could have thought of something intelligent to say to them after the show.

the end

so, i have spent most of this time dwelling upon the negative, the absurd, and my bizarre reactions to finally seeing my favourite band from my teenage years many years later. i didn't mean to do that, because it downplays the overwhelming feeling i had when i left the Voodoo Lounge on thursday night: that the concert was amazing, and something about my life finally felt complete once i got to see them. it made me proud all over again to be a fan of The Verve Pipe. i just don't think i had ever completely hashed out my feelings about them since i left high school, so my last seven years of intermittently thinking about the band never really congealed or came flowing out in any coherent manner until now.

keep reading...


my other blog isn't much of a music blog, and many of my readers there are not particularly interested in my long discussions about concerts, musicians, and my long, strange history as a rock fan.

i'll probably copy some recent music-related entries from there, since i have written a few pieces that already pulled in this direction. for the most part this blog will contain material that the last refuge does not. it will contain concert pictures, discussions of music both live and recorded, and reminiscences of long-forgotten musical epiphanies.

to anyone who finds this? welcome.

me? i've got a supergig, got a brand new rig, and i'll crank it for you all.

[with acknowledgments to The Verve Pipe: for getting me into music in the first place, and whose song i have borrowed as the title and nascent theme of this blog.]

keep reading...