The standard narrative of the rock star frontman is so much a part of our culture at this point, it can become hard to understand the stories of those who don’t follow suit. The familiar tale of the young, handsome, talented narcissist who bursts on to the scene, inspires with his charisma, becomes lost in the excesses of fame, and then either crumbles into oblivion or fades into obscurity, can be comforting and expected. What do we make of those band leaders whose stories don’t fit the pattern? How do we understand and appreciate them?
Steve Wynn and Richard Barone are two cases in point. Wynn, who rose to critical acclaim with The Dream Syndicate in the Eighties, has weathered the ups and downs of almost-fame, fronted multiple bands, and has been producing quality music for thirty-plus years. Barone glimpsed pop stardom in the early MTV era with The Bongos, endured their breakup, and then journeyed through myriad collaborations and solo projects while never losing his enthusiasm or creative spark. When the two accomplished craftsmen teamed up for a show in Albany last Saturday night, they did so at a small bar called The Low Beat, with an audience of maybe twenty watching from folding chairs near the back stage.
Wynn and Barone came across less as underappreciated icons and more as genuinely good guys who just love making and playing music. During and after the performance, they openly and genuinely conversed with fans, taking requests and spinning yarns about their decades in the music business (Barone is well regarded as a storyteller, he published an autobiography in 2009, Frontman). But this wasn’t just two guys with acoustic guitars sitting on stools talking about the good old days. Both men brought their axes and amps, turned up the volume, and showed they still know how to rock.
Barone showed off his youthful, frenetic stage presence and a social conscience while playing songs from recent solo projects, including a Phil Ochs cover (“When I’m Gone”) and a song he wrote about the Occupy movement while collaborating with Pete Seeger a few years ago (“Hey, Can I Sleep On Your Futon?”). He gave a glimpse into the mind of a man who has successfully blazed his own trail as a solo musician, producer, and frequent collaborator with his song “I Belong to Me.” He called Wynn onstage to accompany him for a version of The Bongos’ hit “Numbers With Wings,” in which his jangling fills and solos played well against Wynn’s feedback-heavy licks.
Wynn’s solo performance started off with several songs from his more recent bands, such as Gutterballs, The Miracle 3, and The Baseball Project. Wynn remembered listening to his car radio in in 1984 and enjoying the new single “Hero Takes a Fall,” by his former Paisley Underground friend Suzanna Hoffs of The Bangles. Years later, he found out that Hoffs had been quoted as saying she wrote the song about Wynn himself. His response was “Baby, We All Gotta Go Down”:
“They say there’s gonna be hell to pay
Well, let me settle this bill right away
Because as low as I can go
I been lower, child, before
I say, baby, we all gotta go down.”
He immediately responded to crowd requests for his old songs from The Dream Syndicate, resurrecting their expansive yet gritty guitar sound on “Merritville,” and “Still Holding On To You.” His guitar growled wide and dirty (“I was in a band that didn’t do much tuning,” and “I never met a drone I didn’t like,” he joked), and sounded stylistically like the bridge between Neil Young and Opal/Mazzy Star that it truly was.
For a finale, the two men teamed up and traded leads on The Bongos’ “Bulrushes,” with Barone sliding easily back into the on stage persona of his post-punk heyday. Their guitars contrasted powerfully, with Barone’s bouncy, clean, ringing notes dancing over Wynn’s atmospheric, resonating tones. The crowd was energized and clapped the duo back on stage. They rewarded us by performing several Velvet Underground songs they had done as part of a memorial concert for Lou Reed (curated by Barone) at last year’s South By Southwest festival. Wynn brought out the raw emotion of “Coney Island Baby,” and Barone brought us home with a version of “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”
I came away impressed by two men who seemed to be playing music because it’s an essential part of their identities; because they still love and enjoy it.
Richard Barone is currently completing an album of covers of songs from the early Greenwich Village folk scene, you can get more information on his website: http://www.richardbarone.com/Home.html. After the dress rehearsal in Albany, Steve Wynn is embarking on a solo electric tour of Europe, find out more here: http://www.stevewynn.net.