Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum may howl like a wounded beast, but on the Minneapolis band's albums, at least, his raucous wailing is supported by coherent ideas. Often, Pirner's thinking concerns the psychic toll an individualist must pay when the prevailing attitude is go along to get along.
Playing to a small audience Wednesday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, Pirner and his three band-mates had no problem venting the root feelings behind their fear and loathing of the conformist demands of a workaday world. Operating at two levels of intensity--booming and blasting--Soul Asylum yowled and bashed for 90 minutes at sense-damaging volume. All four members wound up drenched with sweat and probably feeling as if they had exorcised some of those post-adolescent blahs.
But Soul Asylum's sonic storm obscured almost all of the ideas and many of the interesting musical touches that make its current album, "Hang Time," a good example of how effective the coupling of punk-derived power and catchy song craft can be. While the show's raw force was impressive, there is a lot to be said for holding back the throttle a bit for the sake of clarity and balance.
Guitarists Pirner and Dan Murphy did give the music enough shape to keep it interesting. They spun out compelling riffs that drew upon folk and country-rock, and maintained a semblance of harmony in their tandem melodic hollering. But with one full-bore pounding following another, the show offered too much of one good thing.
Soul Asylum's penchant for having a go at a quirky assortment of oldies allowed some respite from the blitz. A rag-tag version of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" turned into an affecting moment, as Pirner's sheer enthusiasm for the song enabled him to pull it off with a shimmying, joyful (if scratchy-voiced) performance. Ending the show with a gutsy rendition of Neil Young's "Barstool Blues" may have been Soul Asylum's way of reciting the garage-band pledge of allegiance.
Soul Asylum's show also pledged allegiance to what seems to be a dubious tradition of Minneapolis rock: the Twin Cities' best alternative bands display sharp pop craft on albums but neglect to show it in concert. Husker Du's live shows tended to bury the now-defunct band's mighty melodic hooks in a blizzard of noise. The Replacements can be a good live band, but they often go on stage with a drunken "who cares?" attitude.
Soul Asylum carried on that recalcitrant tradition by calling attention to its disdain for finesse. From time to time during the show, Pirner or Murphy would utter self-mocking asides or overtly ironic apologies for the band's tough-but-sloppy approach. No excuses offered: Their message was "take us as we are." Soul Asylum may play songs about disdaining social conventions, but it could play them better by tempering its live sound to account for the musical conventions of clarity, variety and control.
The opening band, One Day, showed promise with a sometimes powerful set of folk-based rock that included hard-edged versions of "Mrs. Robinson" and Cat Stevens' "Father And Son." Like many developing guitar bands, though, the Los Angeles quartet will have to find a way to move out of the shadow of R.E.M. and find a voice of its own.