Golden Smog – The Vic (Chicago, IL)
Like certain standup comics, side groups don’t get no respect. Even stellar ones like the Traveling Wilburys, Latin Playboys and Wings (just kidding) tend to be treated lightly, as footnotes to the main text. It’s assumed the artists are not as serious or committed in this part-time guise as they are in their full-time one. While that’s certainly true of some of these assemblages, which can sound better on paper than on record or onstage, others not only rise to the heights of the mothership from whence they came, they soar beyond it.
For Jayhawks and Wilco die-hards, and those Soul Asylum heads still in the game, it may be heresy to suggest Golden Smog, performing the under-attended finale of their brief late-summer tour, transcended the respective franchises of Gary Louris, Jeff Tweedy and Dan Murphy. And maybe in terms of ambition or artistic focus, it didn’t. But in terms of its song-by-song delights, its exuberant blend of power and popcraft, and the easy assurance with which the members shared the stage, the Vic show — the only one on the tour that featured Tweedy — was an unbeatable blast of pleasure.
Pity those who still stick this infrequently convened ensemble with the alt-country tag, or hear it as an extension of the Jayhawks owing to the presence of three of that lamented band’s former members: Louris, Marc Perlman and Kraig Johnson. (When Tim O’Reagan sat in, fresh from his fine opening set, there were four ex-Jayhawks onstage.) Louris will be Louris, singing those unbeatably, heartachingly pure melodies, and punching up those crisp arrangements on guitar. But in projecting its love of rock history, Golden Smog had its own distinctive identity.
“These cats have forgotten more records than the rest of us have sold to the used record store,” boasts their website, but it was the act of remembering those records that lifted the show. One moment, the Smoggers were recalling the Amboy Dukes with their Midwestern psychedelia; the next, the great Moby Grape with their charged three-guitar format. The Beatles were in the mix, of course, as was Neil Young, and not only when his “Hurricane Blues” got covered.
But never mind the Neil cover (and the jokey snippets of Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally”). What about Roger Miller’s “Dang Me”, on which Johnson rendered his best doot-doot-doot? What about “Easy To Be Hard”, the Hair extract made into a big hit by Three Dog Night, which Louris, far from keeping his ironic distance, sang as if every word mattered?
The crowd may have wanted more from hometowner Tweedy, a minor contributor to the Smog’s terrific new album, Another Fine Day, who spent much of the show in standby mode. But he made his presence felt with a gorgeous Spanish-style acoustic guitar solo on “Listen Joe”, a duet with Louris, and his soulful falsetto swoops on “Can’t Keep From Talking”. His presence seemed to lift the band, as did being in one of most receptive cities to this brand of music.