I was in Federal Way, WA on my way home from work the first time I heard "I Don't Know Anything" by Mad Season and initially believed it to be new music from Alice in Chains what with the unmistakable voice of Layne Staley and a riff and guitar sound that easily could have come from Jerry Cantrell. It was only at the song's completion I learned from the KISW DJ that this was the first single from a collaboration between Staley, Pearl Jam's Mike McCready, Screaming Trees' Barrett Martin, and Baker Saunders.
It's 1995, I'm 22 and on my own -- sort of -- for the first time in my life, back in the Pacific Northwest. I always felt a special connection to the great Seattle music scene of the '90s having lived out there as it began its ascent from a magical local scene to a worldwide phenomenon and returning to the Emerald City as the beginning of the end. Nirvana has played its legendary Unplugged show, soon to be released on CD, and Kurt Cobain has passed away. Soon Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees, (and Soundgarden) will record their last albums before taking long hiatuses. This is the backdrop for a special record from members of some of these extraordinary bands. I was already a full-fledged music geek and made plans to buy Above on its first day of release.
I couldn't possibly count how many times I listened to it then or the extent of my continued obsession with or devotion to it. Two of the premier rock vocalists -- not just of the Seattle era but of all time -- contributed and dueted and music was crafted by McCready and multi-instrumentalist Martin. What's not to love?
It's equally difficult to understand the mixed critical reaction this received upon its release. I wasn't yet writing about music, my treatises and snobbery existing only in impassioned discussions with the likeminded and uninitiated alike. I read those reviews not for validation of my adoration of this record but found myself infuriated and puzzled that published experts heard something so different, so much less than what I took from those 10 songs.
Fast forward nearly 20 years later. I'm about to turn 40 and the release of a deluxe edition of Above both returns me to that time and also stirs in me an examination of the years in between. I remain as confused about that reaction. It was a beautifully elegiac record upon its release and has grown more painfully so in the following years as two members -- Staley and Saunders -- lost their lives, tragic tales of the devastating effects of addiction.
Above is the only record this quartet -- with an assist from Screaming Trees' frontman Mark Lanegan -- released but it's well known this wasn't the intention of the members. Martin's poignant essay in the liner notes takes us through the recording of Above and unsuccessful attempts at recording a second album. He told me about this reissue last year when I interviewed him for his new project, The Walking Papers (with Duff McKagan, Jeff Angel, Ben Anderson, and a cameo from McCready) and he debunked a rumor that the never-to-surface second album would be a 2-CD set with Staley singing lead on one disc, Lanegan the other (while also saying it would have been an intriguing idea).
We do have "new" songs appended to the original album, though, as sessions took place and music was written and recorded by McCready, Martin, and Saunders (and in one case with assistance from Seattle transplant Peter Buck of R.E.M., a close friend of Martin). Staley was never in the right physical or mental state to contribute lyrics and vocals and the schedules of the other members prevented them from returning to finish what they started and so the music languished, unfinished. Three of those pieces of were selected by Lanegan, who crafted lyrics and added his vocals, bringing what must serve as the final word from this special band.
The new songs -- "Locomotive," "Black Book Of Fear," and "Slip Away" -- are hints at what might have come next but the substitution of Lanegan for Staley and the passage of time limits our ability to imagine what that next record might have been. It's nearly impossible not to read these emotions into Lanegan's lyrics although unfair to assume he is directly addressing them but they're great songs and we are fortunate to have them; they belong even if they can never fully fit.
This package assembles nearly every available recorded scrap from Mad Season: we get what appears to be the complete concert from the group's Moore Theater show in Seattle on Disc 2 of this set. A truncated version was released on VHS and now makes its first appearance on DVD. Songs filmed but not included on the VHS now appear as bonus footage and a New Year's Eve show in Seattle is also included.
The live portion -- both the audio and visual -- is special because Staley was not often able to tour and perform at a level on par with his magical, mystical ability whether with Alice or Mad Season. This Moore Theater concert is a strong example of what he was capable of on a given night and the rest of the band is in excellent playing shape.
This package was assembled and brought to fruition by Martin, McCready, Lanegan, and album producer Brett Eliason (who remastered the original disc). Martin said it means a lot this package remained a "family" affair, with those touched by the experience helping to write the final chapter of a story that ends yet remains incomplete. You can feel the love for the music and hurt from the loss of fallen friends as well as the frustration and disappointment for what never came to fruition and sadly never will.
Two things stand out for me as I transition from the ancient, well-traveled, worn copy of the album I carried so long to this superior, wonderful deluxe edition. The first is Staley's lyric in "Long Gone Day" about those who "remember that summer." I don't know what made that season important to him but this package will be most special to those who remember this band and their music from its inception, who have grown and changed but remain connected to its unique power and will also serve a powerful introduction for those discovering this for the first time.
The second comes from Martin's touching essay where he references eulogies he never wished to write but did and a quote he took from Chief Seattle: "there is no death, only a change of worlds." It's true of Staley and Saunders, it's true of Mad Season. Hardship and loss are part of the story but there is no death because there was and is magic in this music and in the chemistry and camaraderie of the men who made it.