10,000 Maniacs is a band that is older than I am and in a way, they have served as one of those groups whose music has always been around, the melodies and lyrics floating like bits of corn and carrot below the chowder film of the surface of my consciousness. The band performed at City Winery in Atlanta on October 15th and took a tour through their catalog playing many fan favorites from the 80’s through their recent releases.
The band’s 2016 live album, titled Playing Favorites, is a collection of some of the key songs embedded in my memory, played in Jamestown, New York just before the band’s 35th anniversary. To hear the songs reinterpreted after stewing in the musicians’ psyches in the slow heat of time is comforting and familiar and new and surprising at once.
“What’s The Matter Here?” is the first song on Playing Favorites. The song is warm and welcoming, with viola drifting above the kind of jam that goes well with bare feet and soft ground. Mary Ramsey’s vocals are warm and smooth, with the kindness of a geriatric person in a sweater sitting at a foldable table with a metal cash box. Then, like a thunderstorm on a hot night rolling in, “Like The Weather” continues the album. The mercurial guitar on the track steals the show, with notes plucked, slid, and strummed, coquettish with the cochlea in a tantalizing way. Then, in “Love Among The Ruins” Mary’s voice wends its way on air currents of guitar and gusts of drum to soar above the clouds, singing with a fatalistic certainty that there is good in the world. There is a note of contemplation as she sings the chorus in a velvety timbre.
“Trouble Me” begins with a certain acceptance of the status quo in all its glory: the delightful, the sorrowful, and the remarkably mundane. Mary’s voice reaches out, with direct, second person lyrics, to a loved one who has escaped to the mundane in order to avoid the extremes of delight and sorrow. Troubling indeed. The guitar speaks in its vibrating vocabulary and six-string syntax throughout, at the key moment breaking away from the reins of the vocals and keys to make its point, euphonic and concise.
For a live album from 10,000 Maniacs, “More Than This” has got to be good. And the band did not disappoint. The song is light like a pavlova produced with exceptional skill and agreeable albumen. Every instrument, vocals included, explodes in vibrant brilliance, and the song is just as fresh as when the band first covered it twenty years ago. The viola appears again in the opening to “Can’t Ignore The Train,” and serves to set a fatalistic mood. It is the violin of my youth, that conglomeration of notes, rising and falling in steps and hops, that could incite the grange hall groove and elicit yips and yawps from Friday night dancers.
The intro to “Stockton Gala Days” opens the curtain on a prodding, psychedelic guitar, a pounding primitive percussive beat, and a viola witnessing it all, bemusedly then brashly drawing horsehair across strings. Slowly at first, until letting loose for its own knitting together of melody as Mary takes the stage and delivers the dregs of introspection. Her voice is larger than life, like a regular-sized person in elevator shoes, or a headshot shot low with little negative space. The song is a journey paralleling the one described in the lyrics, with the keys ushering in every new set of kaleidoscopic notes from the guitar as the viola corrals them both with reticulated articulated arpeggios. This track is the longest on the album at just over seen and a half minutes, but it could go on forever.
The strings that open “Because The Night” are hypnotizing, showcasing the depth of the instrument’s resonant capacity in a way that grabs the attention just as the recognizable keys commence their winding journey. Here Mary’s vocals have a measure less of the wonder in the recorded version irreversibly imprinted in my memory. However, where they lack the robust wonder of youth, the band expresses the gravity of something bigger. After delving into this song for over twenty years, they have interpreted it in a unique way, in a way that only comes from experience and some serious musical contemplation. The drums are the pillars that hold up “Rainy Day,” a Pachelbel-influenced song where the guitar shifts between floating and funky, matching the surges in Mary’s lyrical delivery. The track is a tissue when you have a runny nose or a Tic-Tac when you had fish before a meeting; it is an organized hullaballoo of sound.
Mary’s vocals in “Candy Everybody Wants” are so similar to Natalie Merchant’s, I did a double take. However, there is a more solid body to the vocals, subtle but undeniably present, which sounds like a smile. In the next instant, reeking of anticipation and glee, “My Sister Rose” saunters in with drums and guitar that are light and sunny, and bass like the ropes holding down a rented party tent. The song grows from its pulsating beginning, climbing entwined toward the gods of music and light, a topiary of ballad around a beat that will make you pull up your dress so you can move your feet.
“Hey Jack Kerouac” bounces to the beat of the beat poet’s legacy. The song is jeans and a black tee shirt, the sting of carbonation and the comfort of a good leather chair. The beat in “These Are Days” is comforting, just fast enough to nudge the listener along to a future that is determinedly fantastic. The strings are modest like a throat clear from across the room when you are completely absorbed in the task that is right in front of you. The drums are finite, like the clatter of silverware on a dish empty but for a smear of sauce and a miniscule minced piece of garlic. The final song on the album, “My Mother The War,” begins like an evening of expectation, from the crowd noise in the very beginning through the growing current of sound – strong bass (played by Steve Gustafson) reminds you that having something hung around your neck can be a blessing to those around you. John Lombardo’s vocals have that simmering stolid delivery that serves to draw out the electrifying guitar and that luscious bassline. His voice is the maple syrup on the French toast.
With Playing Favorites, 10,000 Maniacs has demonstrated the worth of reinvention. Each track of the live album brings something new to the listening experience, proving that when you have a group of musicians that just works, it can last a lifetime, gleaning, creating, and burnishing nuggets of sagacity with each passing year.