Toad the Wet Sprocket Since ’89

Back on August 21, 1997, I visited Star Lake Ampitheatre in Burgettstown, PA and saw several really good bands put on a show. I had purchased extremely cheap tickets to the show, which featured Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Soul Coughing, Toad the Wet Sprocket and Neil Young with Crazy Horse.

I hadn’t seen Toad the Wet Sprocket since then, but they’ve broken up and gotten back together several times. We saw Glen Phillips solo in Portland and Seattle a few years back when Vienna Teng opened for him and my wife had never seen Toad before.

So we took the opportunity to visit a “newly remodeled” venue in downtown Napa called the Uptown, which is a theater comparable to the Aladdin in Portland and much better than the Mystic in Petaluma.

We also got to spend some time with a friend who shares the lead singer’s name.

We at at this place called Downtown Joe’s which is right next to the river. It is a brewery and they have some amazing beer batter dipped french fries. The harvest platter that my wife got was full of tasty fruit and a small amount of meat, cheese and crackers. I wouldn’t say it was worth the $17.50 price tag but it tasted good. Our friend and I each got the hand-pressed cheeseburger. I got a side of the regular fries and our friend got the garlic fries. The cheeseburgers were decent, with fresh lettuce, tomato and onions, a patty a bit smaller than I desired, a slice of cheese that didn’t really add or detract from the meal and a really soft and tasty ciabatta bun. The highlight of the meal was the fries though. If we should ever go back, I’m just ordering an appetizer portion of the garlic fries and a water and I’m done.

We got to the venue in plenty of time to get to our seats and relax for a little while before the openers came on. Our seats were right over the entryway. Basically “front row of a section of seats that the venue calls a balcony.” Our friend had a “front row balcony” ticket, that was a bit lower than us and in the corner near the soundboard. Our seats were perfectly centered and it was a relaxed atmosphere for the show, despite the overall drunkenness of the crowd.

We were in wine country. You could tell as people stumbled up the entryway and made the way to their seats, or couldn’t find their way and had to be guided, that many were fresh off of the wine tours and already pretty drunk. I thought this may detract from the show, but the crowd, while visibly and audibly drunk, were also polite and very responsive.

Opening act, Hey Marseilles, were a seven-piece outfit from Seattle which reminded me a lot of Death Cab for Cutie. They had me bored a lot of the time but tried hard and the crowd rewarded them with a standing ovation and many CD sales during the set change. I had to use the rest room and thought that the drunk crowd were all headed to the bathrooms but they were really all in one of two lines, the one for the Hey Marseilles merchandise and the one for the bar.

Toad the Wet Sprocket went on around ten after nine and started out with “Something’s Always Wrong”, a song that they had played back in 1997 with a lot more energy and more complete backing vocals. This time around, it was like they were just standing there and going through motions. This was especially true from Dean Dinning, who basically just stood there with a bass, came up to the mic, sang a quarter of a line, backed off from the mic and plodded along for the rest of the show, rinse, repeat. Todd Nichols at least finished his backing vocal parts at the mic and played his lead guitar parts well. Randy Guss and Glen Phillips both seemed genuinely happy to be there and to play for the well-intoxicated crowd. Unfortunately, this was not a Glen Phillips show with Randy Guss guesting on drums, it was a Toad the Wet Sprocket show with at least half of the band only half into it.

The guy they had guesting on lap steel, Johnny Hawthorn is apparently the Josh Freese of lap steel guitar, as he also tours in other dysfunctional bands like Everclear. He was competent and added a bit more to the show than Dean did.

They played a good set of songs, but the energy level was very low. Due to that, the audience was more interesting to watch than the band at times, and I started to watch the security people shut down cameras when they saw flashes go off and make people sit down when they started to get excited and stand up and dance. The rather obese front row was entertaining to watch and the random cowbell from merch guy Joe Lyons near the end of the show had me scratching my head wondering why that just happened.

It was a good Glen Phillips and Randy Guss show. I just wish it had been a good Toad the Wet Sprocket show. At least I have the distant memories of 1997, when they pulled songs from pretty much the same bucket and actually still cared about what they were doing together.

Post-show we wandered the streets of Napa looking for dessert. We started at Downtown Joes which was very busy with a live band playing in the corner and an even drunker crowd. We abandoned hope there and walked past many closed businesses and a couple of other bars that seemed to specialize in desserts with balsamic infusion and other fancy words for $. We eventually ended up walking past Toad the Wet Sprocket chatting with friends behind the venue and their crew loading out. As we reached the street corner, I saw a magnificent glowing sign that read “Nation’s”. Oh yeah, we had some pie. Glen (not Phillips) and I split half of a chocolate cream pie. My wife had a 1/6 pie “small” slice of strawberry cheesecake.

We said our goodbyes after the pie and made our way home. It wasn’t necessarily a disappointing show. It was good to see the venue and see Toad again after many years, but it wasn’t as good as I expected. It may have been better to sit out in the park next to Downtown Joe’s and watch Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs with the locals on a giant blow-up movie screen, but we didn’t take that opportunity.

I did buy a tee shirt though that said Toad The Wet Sprocket with “Since ’89” in the first “o”.

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