The lifecycle of the band Soul Asylum is a fascinating footnote in the annals
of rock 'n' roll. Beginning as hipsters in a scene-heavy Minneapolis
in the mid-'80s, they wiggled out from under the Replacements-Hüsker
Dü cloud as melodic punk-rockers with a visceral live show and strong
sense of whimsy with plenty of critical acclaim and indie credibility
to boot. When Nirvanaís Nevermind broke
and signaled the end of the indie-rock movement of the '80s, Soul Asylum rode
the alternative-rock wave and reached the big time on the strength of the folk-rock "Runaway
Train." Subsequently, their fan base eroded. Never as weird as Jane's Addiction,
or as heavy as Soundgarden, they were better than both of them. Their unabashed
peppiness and desire to be real rock 'n' rollers I still think that "Misery," their
lead single from Let Your Dim Light Shine, seems a lot like Van Halen's "Jump" in
spirit puttered out by the end of the decade.
The recently released After the Flood: Live From the Grand Forks Prom, June 28, 1997 captures the band at the height of its commercial acclaim, and it's a fitting coda to the Soul Asylum story. The spring of 1997 found massive flooding throughout the upper Midwest on the Red River, and Grand Forks, North Dakota was particularly hard hit. On prom night, the city's promise stopped sandbagging, got all dolled up, and gathered in an airplane hangar to hear the biggest and best rock 'n' roll band of the Midwest provide some space and celebration at this most American of coming-of-age ceremonies.
And while it can only be expected that many of the dancers were thinking more
about their dates and the liquor they drank in the back of Daddy's car than the
guitar chords reverberating throughout the hangar, the band knew its place and
filled it admirably. To get things started with a rowdy and anti-authoritarian
air, they begin with a cover of Alice Cooper's "School's Out," and follow quickly with a series of their hits and almost-hits. The "frustrated, incorporated" chorus of "Misery" isn't
that exactly how senior year feels? makes the crowd boil over, and the pummeling drums that close "Without a Trace" make the desperation of the lyrics palpable.
There are plenty of slow songs for slow dancing, though the ménage-à-trois
of "We 3" might not be precisely the thing to bring adolescents together. And
then plenty of radio-friendly jukebox hits, from Dionne Farris' "I Know" and
their own smash "Runaway Train," to Smokey Robinson's "The Tracks of My Tears" for
the teachers and chaperones. Even years later, it's easy to visualize what certainly
were wide, goofy grins on the band's faces as the tuxedo-clad masses join in
on "I Can See Clearly Now," or the soaring melodies of "Rhinestone Cowboy." Soul
Asylum were called the "best live band in America" by numerous mags and zines
in the early chapters of their career, and a band earns that title when they
their audience and deliver. On After the Flood, they're
right back on it.
So the songs are great even the only lukewarm originals seem charged here, and while I find myself still wincing at the occasionally daft lyric, that pales when compared to the awkwardness of that high school junior in the back, trying to get the nerve up to talk to the cheerleader under the disco ball. Maybe it's the desperation of a town that almost floated away in the spring rains. Maybe it's the absurdity of proms, airplane hangars, or my own high-school memories. Maybe itís
just a Midwestern thing, where ceremony and niceness are something to be valued.
It's probably just a time-tested understanding of all these things, and a band
not taking themselves any more seriously than they deserve. Whatever it is, just
like a high-school yearbook, After the Flood brings back all kinds of great memories.