BY BARRY GUTMAN Let me be the first to wish you a very merry Record Store Day! For those not in the know, it’s happening this Saturday, so get in front of it before it gets behind you. Now that we’ve sorted that out, the question is where should you go after scoring all of that sweet, sweet limited edition vinyl booty? Take a tip from Little Steven Van Zandt, and head over to World Café Live Upstairs for a 10:30 p.m. set by Highland Park, NJ’s finest, The Grip Weeds. “We like to mix it up in Jersey, and The Grip Weeds are a great example,” Van Zandt enthuses. “A touch of John Lennon (and an appropriation of his character’s name in How I Won The War), a bit of The Byrds, a dash of The Kinks, pinch of The Who, and a dollop of more muscular Zombies, and you get something quite original, actually. And quite cool.”
Little Steven’s been a supporter of the Grip Weeds for a long time, features them often on his Underground Garage satellite channel and weekly terrestrial radio show, has spotlighted them in the show’s “Coolest Song in the World” segment, and, in 2008, even personally compiled and released a collection, Infinite Soul: The Best of the Grip Weeds [pictured, above], drawn primarily from the band’s first four albums, on his own Wicked Cool label.
“We consider ourselves very lucky to count Steven Van Zandt among our fans and supporters,” says Grip Weeds drummer/singer Kurt Reil. “He has single-handedly widened the scope and definition of garage rock music to include more of the type of music we make, which is very melodic and psychedelic.” Stevie’s got lots of company. Audiences around the world have enjoyed a rave up with the Grip Weeds at Rainbow Quartz label showcases held at CMJ Marathons, SXSW and International Pop Overthrow for the label’s international roster of guitar bands, on which The Grip Weeds rank at the top. They’ve been praised to the skies in genre fanzines such as England’s Bucketfull of Brains. Their fanbase also includes Jersey power-pop titans The Smithereens, frequent clients of their state-of-the-art studio, House of Vibes.
“The Smithereens have helped us in more ways than I can count – they were mentors to us when we were coming up in the scene and definitely showed us the way things can be done; they’ve added us to some live bills here and there which helped to broaden our audience; they are great people and true friends of ours. I have also developed a deep musical relationship with them over the years, whether playing in side bands with (guitarist) Jim (Babjak) and (drummer) Dennis (Diken) or engineering and co-producing their records (e.g., Beatles tribute, Meet The Smitheens). The Smithereens enabled me to bring my studio game to another level because I just couldn’t let them down.”
Kurt and his brother, guitarist/singer Rick Reil, are not only terrific producers and engineers but also impressive multi-instrumentalists. (Rick, in fact, played perfect drums in a stellar Left Banke tribute show featuring original members Tom Finn and George Cameron last month at Joe’s Pub in NYC). Their songwriting has always been topnotch, but never more impressive – or eclectic – than on their fifth and latest album, Strange Change Machine, which is that rarest of rarities – a double album that holds up all the way through. Released last year on vinyl, CD and mp3, it will debut this Saturday in HD 24-bit/96kHz digital audio, available directly from their website via download.
“While we were very happy with the sound of the finished CD master, the high-resolution vinyl master was basically what we heard in the studio at mixdown,” explains Kurt. “We used this master to produce Strange Change Machine HD. For those out there without turntables, this is as close to analog as it gets!”
As for the music itself, Strange Change Machine is great (my favorite album of the past year, in fact) in any format. It’s not only the band’s biggest but easily their best record yet, incorporating the patented Who/Byrds amalgam of garage, rock and power pop at which they’ve excelled for over 15 years as well as a host of other influences, ranging from Traffic’s acoustic-based/pastoral psych to Yes’ daring dynamics (but, thankfully, without the prog-rock excesses) and Fleet Foxes’ Gregorian vocal harmonies. It’s a masterpiece of multi-tracking and multiple levels of meaning, of diversity and texture, guitar effects and supporting keyboard sounds, exotic percussion, swooping bass and sweet flute, that’ll keep you engaged from beginning to end and listening over and over again, with new for new details leaping out at you with each play. At its core, Kurt drums in perfect Keith Moon maniac style, Rick’s guitar jangles, while the heavy guitar leads are perfectly executed by Kristin Pinell (Kurt’s missus). And bassist Michael Kelly (“MK”) pins it all down, bringing a wide tonal range to the bottom.
“Be Here Now,” to name just one of 24 highlights, is perfect power-pop. And here’s a tip for The Hooter’s David Uosikkinen, creator of the great, ongoing new series, In The Pocket: Essential Songs of Philadelphia: check out The Grip Weeds’ cover of “Hello, It’s Me”, a perfect fusion of Nazz’s dreamy take and Todd Rundgren’s solo interpretation. “I like the Todd version, the beat of it, but there are things that I do not like about it; I don’t like the saxophone or the chick singers in the background,” explains Kurt. “I wanted a more Grip Weeds/Nazz approach to the song, something that wouldn’t be a complete parody or just an imitation of the Todd version. And we achieved it.”
The Grip Weeds have yet to receive any love from Philly, though. They’ve visited far too infrequently over the past 20 years, which they chalk up to indifference on those occasions when they have ventured down here. But their time down here may have finally come. Kurt Reil is cautiously optimistic: “It’s always been a bit frustrating that we haven’t made more inroads in the Philly music scene, given that we live so close by – in fact, our bassist, MK is a Philly resident! I think it’s been more a game of keeping our eyes open for the right opportunities to come our way. Let’s hope with the World Cafe Live show this will change!”