In the lead up to the gig, we'll have a look at the bands who'll be playing. Today it's Free Dirt.
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By the mid-1990s, I was sort of burned out on what had come to be known as "alternative country."
I know, I know. It's a contested term. You could argue that everything from George Jones to Gram Parsons to the Blasters was "alternative country." Hell, I saw Mary-Louise Parker interview Elvis Costello the other night and she argued that Almost Blue was the beginning of alt-country. I almost fell out of my chair.
What I mean here is the particular wave that started with Uncle Tupelo and blossomed into the No Depression movement, named after the Tupes' first record. My burnout on it shouldn't really shouldn't come as a surprise. As one of the critics who helped boost the first wave of No Depression bands, I had done a lot of heavy lifting. And I was getting less and less enamored with the bands that followed that first wave. The edge was being lost. Plus, I felt like I was getting pigeonholed. I wanted to write about the other stuff I loved: trip hop, French pop, art rock, the Mekons.
The successes of Uncle Tupelo and the Bottle Rockets (who both signed with major labels) did prompt a lot of Midwestern bands to try and duplicate what they had done. The ones I gravitated towards -- despite my burnout -- were the ones that attacked the music with ferocity. Omaha's Frontier Trust are just the sort of band I loved at that point: furious tractor punk. The Waco Brothers, too.
In St. Louis, the bands who cut through the droning alt-noise for me in that era were Stillwater (more on them in a future post) and Free Dirt (Dan Niewoehner, guitar; Tom Buescher, guitar; Greg Vernon, drums; Dave Harris, bass). Their recorded output is a couple songs on justly-celebrated compilation, The Way Out Club, (which also feature the Highway Matrons, Johnny Magnet and the Trip Daddys among others) and an eponymous record -- both on the Rooster Lollipop label.
I had gotten a demo tape from an earlier incarnation of Free Dirt called The Maurys, but it didn't really penetrate my consciousness. The first time that Free Dirt really made me sit up and pay attention was a night at the old Way Out Club in St. Louis in the mid-90s. (I think it was Halloween, but I won't swear to it.)
They were pretty wonderful that night -- the band's songwriting chops survived and even shone through a sloppy but incredibly powerful set. And they sealed the deal with a simply devastating cover of Devo's "Uncontrollable Urge." I still prefer Free Dirt's version of this song to the original, and it was their version that stripped the uptight neurosis from the Devo version and revealed the spinal column of Led Zeppelin's "Misty Mountain Hop" at the core of the song.
That night turned me into a believer. The songs were edgy scenester odes -- slightly seedy, slightly sozzled and yet knowing and reaching for something higher. (That pretty much summed up my existence at that particular late 1990s moment.)
And as I dug deeper into their songs, I discovered a lot of gems that are still on my iPod to this day. Niewoehner's "Rude Pets" is a jaunty ode to his past bands that had ill-fated dreams of getting past the classic rock that dominated the radio of that era. Buescher's "Slippin'" starts with chiming chords that his voice grinds down as the lyrics pursue their dismal and fatalistic race to the bottom. And when Buescher and Niewohner's sensibilities collide on "Settin' Myself Up/Medicine," it's one-two punch of undeniable power: Buescher's world-weary ode to decline is carried on waves of chords and then surges into Niewoehner's deftly-painted journey through a drugged -out landscape and its insufficiency to cope with life's enduring pain. It's just terrific.
I've always regretted that I wasn't able to single-handledly drag Free Dirt into a bigger spotlight. They really had that mojo that gets you signed... especially in that era. Check out "Untie My Head," which is up on their MySpace page. This song came late in the band's heyday and while this studio version is terrific, it doesn't quite capture the transcendent version that they'd crank up live. I remember seeing them do it live in Belleville one night and it nearly took my head off.
No Depression magazine eventually took notice of them but my recollection is that Free Dirt sort of imploded eventually and everyone went on the pastures and projects new. So I am delighted that they are getting back together for Return of the Byrne. I saw them play tight, blistering sets and I saw them veer toward shambles on occasion, but I never saw them play without passion.
Can't wait to see that again on March 11.
Free Dirt (from left): Dan Niewoehner, Tom Buescher, Dave Harris, Greg Vernon