Gently Smiling Jaws: Gene Ween at the Crocodile [Seattle]

Gener-ShadowOn the 19th, I was fortunate enough to catch a rare solo acoustic performances by AaronGene WeenFreeman.  Over the last week or so, I’ve simply been going through the photographs that I took and digesting the whole experience.  The Seattle show was the last of only 4 that Gener was doing for his June, mini-tour down the West CoastFreeman is, of course, one of two founding members of the group WEEN; the other being MickeyDean WeenMelchiondo.  I’m not going to waste too much of my time by going into their extensive background all over again.  If you’re not hip to WEEN yet, then your ass needs to get hip.  We here at MonsterFresh love the WEEN, as evidenced by the multiple posts that we’ve all ready written about them, and we’re always eager to cover any new project that the guys are working on.

Melchiondo is well known for his side-work with the group Moistboyz and, bassist, Dave Dreiwitz is involved with multiple other projects.  Freeman, on the other hand, has often seemed less eager to venture out beyond his work with the band.  Toward the end of last year, however, Gener began to do just that, by playing various shows with his recently formed Gene Ween Band {You may have read the review by our writer A.Misalatti, who we sent to cover the new 4-piece‘s performance in Brooklyn back in February}.  Since the group didn’t come out West for any of the dates, and since I haven’t been to a WEEN show since their last Seattle show in 2007, I was pretty psyched when the West Coast dates were announced.

After I had already set up the passes, I went to the official Gene Ween Band site and noticed that The Crocodile Cafe show was one of the few that had the word “SOLO” posted next to it.  I sent an email out to WEEN‘s management to verify that it wasn’t a band performance and received the following message, Yes, this is a Gene Ween solo show, just Gene Ween. He will play about 2 hours of Ween songs.”  I had been interested to hear Freeman play the new tracks that he has working on with GWB but, in all honesty, I was really excited to find out that I was going to be present for something completely different.  In many ways, by Gene performing all by himself, it is is much more of a venture beyond his comfort zone than even presenting all new material.  Over the years, WEEN shows have gained notoriety as smoke-filled, sonically intense spectacles, and Deaner‘s guitar work has always played a vital and irreplaceable role in them.  Although Melchiondo and Freeman both write, sing, and play guitar, Dean is known as the primary guitarist, while Gene Ween is generally regarded as the main vocalist.  Even on last years At the Cat’s Cradle CD/DVD release, featuring early footage of the duo performing to sparse crowds and accompanied only by a DAT machine, Freeman never played guitar throughout an entire show.  This would definitely be an exciting and rare opportunity to watch and see if Gener could prove that he was able to hold his own all by himself.

Gener-mic-head

Gene Ween (solo)

June 19, 2009

The Crocodile Cafe

Seattle

By the night of the show, it had already been sold out for quite a while.  Onsen didn’t have a ticket, but I tried to talk him into heading down there with me and my girlfriend anyway.  We met up at the Upper Playground a few hours before the show started.  There was a really cool exhibit by artist Stacey Rozich and it gave us an opportunity to get our free gallery drink on before heading downtown.  On the way to the bus, I got a phone call from my friend, and fellow WEEN enthusiaist, KB Smooth.  He happened to be in town and asked me what I was up to.  I let him know about the show and he said that he would meet us down there.  Now we had a crew.

We walked up to the venue at the same time as KB and ran into him immediately.  Within about 30 seconds of us standing out front, a man interrupted our conversation to ask us if we were going to the show.  He then handed us two free tickets and left saying, “Just buy me a beer inside.”  As far I know, we never saw him again and nobody bought him a beer.  Now that everyone was set for as admission, we headed the few blocks to KB‘s ride so that we could drop off some shit and get our fade rolling before the show.  On the way there, we saw Gene talking on his cell in an alley and, after we made it to the car, some nosy wingnut was poking his head in to find out what we were up to.  There was a very high probability that he had been puffing the hubba rock and, pointing to a restaurant a few buildings down, he “warned” us that, “Some cops are in there eating spaghetti!”  He then rambled on with some overly-complicated story that was solely constructed as a segue into, “I’m not gonna lie.  I’m just tryin’ ta git me some chicken and beer.”  We gave him a portion of the little change that we had, just so that he would beat it, and he went off to harass a young, white, and frightened upper middle-class couple.  I heard him yelling, “It’s because I’m black!” at them, right before we headed back to the show.

The Crocodile Cafe is a local staple that just reopened after the previous management let it go under.  I haven’t been there since I saw Doug Martsch on his solo tour, but I could still remember that the venue looked strikingly different.  The main floor was now much larger and the entrance was even located on a different side of the building.  I heard that the “new” door was found when they were renovating, but I’ve also heard that that is a common excuse used to avoid dealing with building permits.  I ran into my friend Amanda, who I first heard WEEN with when I was in high school, and then made my way up to the balcony over looking the stage.  The balcony is fairly small, but there was a little bar up there and we got some drinks.  I was already pretty fucked up when I got there, but I had a few beers and we stayed up there for the majority of the opening set.  The opener was WEEN drummer, Claude Coleman Jr., and he was working an solo-acoustic/singer-songwriter angle of his own.  I knew Claude had a band, but I’ve never heard them and, in my opinion, I don’t think that his material went over that great.  The songs that I heard were tinged with WEEN songs like “Freedom of ’76” and had elements of Elvis Costello swirled in.  There was a crowd of hungry Gener-singing-pinkWEEN fans listening to tracks that they’ve never heard before and that I’m not so sure were created to be played in that format.  The songs sounded like they were missing something to fill the sound and the set felt a little like someone was playing their acoustic guitar on a couch in an apartment during a small gathering.  It was one situation where the lack of familiarity really seemed to play a role in the effectiveness of a concert, especially when you have a crowd full of fiending drunks.

We were on the main floor when Gener came out wearing a pink button-up dress shirt and holding his acoustic guitar.  The show all ready felt incredibly surreal and I hadn’t been that close to the stage since I saw WEEN for the first time.  The venue was very intimate and people were resting their water bottles and jackets on the stage, which had absolutely no sort of fencing or security in front of it.  Freeman has gained some weight over the last couple of years and his hair is graying, but he still has that same baby face and enthusiastic energy in his eyes.  He looked genuinely happy to be there and, from the moment he struck the first chord, the entire environment changed.

The set started out with “What Deaner Was Talkin’ About” and it sounded amazing.  His voice was really on point and it was easy to feel the unanimous mixture of enthusiasm and fascination emanating from everyone in the crowd.  Plus, I’ve had that song randomly popping in my head for the last two weeks, so I felt like I was already getting exactly what I wanted.  It was a good choice for an opener and it is a song that transfers smoothly into the one-man format.  The next song, “Don’t Get 2 Close (2 My Fantasy)”, was a slightly more unorthodox move, but it was one that I’m glad he made.  It was one of the first WEEN songs that I ever really fell in love with and, by working it into his repertoire, it showed that Gene had no intention of sticking strictly to the expected ballads.  He employed his effect pedals heavily and I was surprised that, with the lack of the bass-line and drums, it still sounded complete.  As for the single vocals during the chant-like chorus, it wasn’t an issue.  The audience was more than happy to fill in as backup singers.

I worked my way a little closer and recognized the tattoos on the woman standing dead center at the front of the stage.  It was artist, Thea Wolfe, who created The WEEN Coloring Book and who I first met when I did an interview with her for the site.  She was swaying around and looked so happy that I wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that there was free morphine up front.  Her husband Lars Peterson, was right next her with his camera.  I had my Nikon and, since Thea isn’t very tall, I still had a great view standing right behind her.  The club wasn’t well lit and Onsen, who was standing by the light board, later told me that the girl running it would only twist one knob back and forth occasionally.  It was dark as fuck and I was trying to make at least one photo work with my sketchy lens that’s terrible in those conditions.  While I was focusing on my camera and listening to the show, a couple of girls, with more energy than I had, started talking to me.  They asked questions about me taking photos and asked me if I was “gonna dance“.  I was super faded and, when I get fucked up, I don’t get very hyper; I slow down.  “Great!  I’m in another conversation where enthusiastic strangers are trying analyze my body language and teach me to loosen up and how I should be enjoying myself.”  This is always the point where I think about how I know that I’m way crazier than the people approaching me and my mind starts devising crazy solutions as to how I could sedate the situation like a monkey tranq.  “Maybe if I set this cat next to me on fire or shit on the floor, I could make my point and go back to what I was doing.”  I wished that my lady would have decided to move closer to the stage, because girlfriends are like guard dogs.  I was also hoping that she wasn’t watching the conversation and misinterpreting my brief and distant engagements as me trying to lay my mack down.

Gener-Smirk-Red

The third song that Gener busted out was the sultry “Your Party“, about a high-class social gathering.  Next on the set list was “Stay Forever” and “She’s Your Baby“, both from the White Pepper album.  Everything sounded tranquil and whimsical like magical unicorns and methadone.  Then came another unexpected twist when the singer performed “Friends“.  There are all ready two recorded versions of this gay discotheque-style dance number, and this third, stripped-down version was equally solid.  Gene Ween stalled on the lyrics mid-way through and the crowd helped sing along and move the track forward.  The assistance and enthusiasm was appreciated.  He was smiling throughout the entire set and constantly thanked everyone for coming out.  The crowd continued to sing along when he maintained the White Pepper theme by playing “The Grobe” next.  The regular version is really grimy and heavy, but everything he played continued to work.  I think it was around this part of the show that I truly realized that any slight questioning that I may have had, before hand, was completely unnecessary.  He could have taken on just about any song from the WEEN catalog, by himself, and still make it gleam like shinola.  What wasn’t entirely working for me was the vocal arrangements of the audience.  Everyone was trashed and a lot of fools were stumbling over and spilling their beers on to everyone else.  In a way, the audience participation really helped make the show but, by the same note, I don’t need to listen to a bunch of assholes next to my ear who want to scream louder than the actually performer.  At one point, Thea‘s friend was ready to punch one wasted goon that kept plowing into her, so I agreed to operate as a human barricade between them.  The pros and cons balanced each other out and it was hard not to enjoy myself.  The show was amazing and, for the most part, it was a positive aggression being displayed by the majority.

We had all assumed that we would hear “Baby Bitch” and we were right.  It was thrown into the mix next, before going into “Chocolate Town“.  After that, one of the stumbling drunks next to me screamed out the song title, “Freedom of ’76“.  This is a track that Gener tends to only contribute vocals for live, but he obliged the fan by performing it A capella without hesitation.  Next was “Object“, complete with guitar solo, and then the swampy aquatic space track, “Mutilated Lips“, which always makes me feel like I’m in the middle of a Nyquil high.  The Roland keyboard, which was off to the side, finally got some use for the next 3 songs, “Even if You Don’t“, “Lullaby“, and “Happy Colored Marbles“.

As he casually transitioned back and strapped on his guitar, there was a huge uproar of screams and people chanting, “Gener!“.  He played the song “Laura” and this acoustic version easily calmed down the crowd again.  His ability to reign in the cattle was impressive.  Gener played the role of a puppeteer/clown, using audio balloon animals to focus the attention of a kids party riled up on too much pinata sugar.  With the command that he was able to wield over the mob, I have the feeling that he could have easily incited a riot or witch burning if he chose to.   The set continued to get mixed  up with a nice variety of songs like “Right to the Ways and the Rules of the World“, “I’ll Miss You“, and “The Mollusk“.  He left the stage with an enthusiastic smile and with his thin dress shirt completely drenched with sweat.

Claude-and-Gene

Encore

When Freeman came back, he still had a massive grin pulled across his mug.  I could feel that he was appreciative and authentically moved by the amount of love he was receiving.  The encore started with “The Argus” and I was really happy to hear hear him do it.  He brought out Claude Coleman Jr. on a second guitar to help out the with the final 3 songs of the show.  The two of them performed “Flutes of the Chi” and then “Polka Dot Tail“.  For the closer, “Big Jilm“,  they used a drum machine to knock out the beat.  It was a perfect way to close the night.  There was more crowd vocal accompaniment, but there was a strangely cohesive harmony and everybody seemed to know their parts, instead of just drunkenly mumbling over each other.  The show was over and the lights were kicked back on, but nobody wanted to leave.  It was more quiet than it had been all night.  People stared at the the stage and/or each other with blank looks of awe freezing their expressions.

A friend of mine once opened up for Claude Coleman‘s band.  He told me that Coleman mentioned to him that it was necessary to play outside shows to supplement his income, due to WEEN‘s random and infrequent touring schedules.  As of now, WEEN have a little more than a dozen tour dates coming up, including 2 festival stops.  Freeman has expressed his intention to record a Gene Ween Band album, at which point they will probably come up with a more creative name.  Otherwise, these side projects tend to be used to fill in time between the major WEEN projects and tours.  I love WEEN and wish that they had a stop closer to Seattle on this tour, but I can’t help but welcome these side projects as well.  Another friend was telling me about how he saw WEEN play at The Crocodile back in 1994.  These days, the demand is too high and they could never pull such a small show off, unless it was a “secret” or unnanounced performance.  In the liner notes for the At The Cat’s Cradle release, Dean goes into extensive detail about his feelings regarding the growth of the band, audience, and venue sizes.  The added members provided more flexibility to their shows but, over time, much of the intimacy was lost as the band evolved.  Seeing Gene alone was amazing and I hope that he finds time to do another tour like this again.  It was a great opportunity to witness that intimacy that has been lost.  I think that Gener felt that way too, and I can only hope that it was enough to encourage him to come back and do it again.

Dead C

Located in Seattle, Dead C is the founder/editor, as well as the principal writer and photographer, of Monster Fresh. Creating the site in 2007, he did so with a specific dream in mind. Unfortunately, being a muscle relaxer-fueled fever dream, it's hard to recall all of the details. "I remember that my mom was there, but it wasn't actually her in the dream, it was actually 70s heart throb, Jan Michael Vincent. And everything took place here, in this room... but it wasn't actually here... it was different. The colors were washed out and, for some reason, there was a raccoon kicking it with us and it was wearing a holographic monocle."

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  • Minty

    I have a picture of the wing nut if you need it…
    I really liked the singing from the audience. Sometimes you could see this sort of pleased and surprised look when we’d harmonize. The whole thing seemed really magical to me. Everyone there REALLY loved Ween and it showed. For some reason one of the stalls in the girls bathroom was missing a door. People really had to pee, and I said “Look, you’re at a Ween show… I don’t think anyone is gonna trip if they see you takin’ a piss or droppin’ a duece.”
    It felt a little like camping with a friend who knew every Ween song really Well. It was a totally amazing show. I had expected it to be disappointing for some reason, and instead was recharged somehow… it like a good screw after years not getting laid.

  • I think the singing worked well too, but it was a trade off. Like I said, I liked it for the most part but I’m never gonna enjoy some toppling drunk fuck up falling on me, spilling beer on my camera, and screaming while he’s trying to use me as a support beam.

    The show was great

  • Minty

    Yeah, someone poured beer all over the back of me, too. I almost … well never mind.