My pain is self-chosen

Layne Staley's cover artwork.

Layne Staley’s cover artwork.

The recently released deluxe edition of Mad Season’s classic album, Above, has given us all an excuse to spin the black circle once more – though to be honest it’s never been too far from my stereo.

Mad Season come second only to Temple of the Dog for musical collaborations in the vibrant Seattle scene of the early 1990s, the band comprising AiC‘s Layne Staley, PJ‘s Mike McCready, Screaming Trees‘ Barrett Martin, and Chicago bluesman John Baker Saunders. But this is only really a small part of the story.

Mad Season publicity shot (l-r): McCready, Saunders, Staley, Martin. Great shot of Staley.

Mad Season publicity shot (l-r): McCready, Saunders, Staley, Martin. Great shot of Staley.

Struggling with the rapid and intense exposure that PJ had experienced in the grunge explosion, McCready had sought his escape in drug and alcohol addiction. Having met Saunders in rehab, on coming out of Hazelden in early 1995 he sought a new musical project as part of his own, cathartic, post-rehab process. But he also looked bravely to involve a still heavily addicted Staley in a new project that he hoped would distract the Alice in Chains singer from his own demons. Frustrated with PJ’s musical evolution denying him a channel for his blues influences – his beautifully phrased solos on Ten owe more than a tad to Stevie Ray Vaughan – McCready wanted also to lay down some songs with a looser, bluesier vibe.

If you’re interested in Mad Season, I cannot recommend highly enough this interview: I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier: An Interview with Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, by proper journalist Joshua Kloke. There’s a wealth of information about the band, not least where the name came from, but also sadly that Staley was neither the only nor the first heroin fatality in the band.

Martin has written eloquent, profound, poignant sleeve notes for the deluxe edition, voicing elegiac thoughts about Saunders and Staley and their values as musicians and as people; these snippets of an interview with McCready and Martin are also worth a listen, particularly for Martin’s comment about Staley’s vocals when AiC supported the Screaming Trees back in 1991.

And an (out-of-sync) interview with McCready from 1995 (the first part is footage of Mad Season rehearsing at the Moore Theater in 1995).

So, only a few thoughts on the album and the new deluxe edition. From the first notes of opening track ‘Wake Up’, with its pensive bassline and fragile, aqueous guitar that gradually builds up into a trademark McCready solo, it sounds like nothing else coming out of Seattle at the time. It’s light years from the tense and contrary Vitalogy. Staley’s voice was well-suited to the blues; this had been hinted at on Alice in Chains’ Jar of Flies EP, but Mad Season’s accomplished blues musicians drew a more nuanced, subtle performance out of him.

The original album has always felt a little incomplete. There are some magical moments on it, most obviously in the stomping riff of ‘I Don’t Know Anything’ and the enchanting ‘River of Deceit’, with its famous and, in the circumstances, deeply bathetic Khalil Gibran quote (the title of this post). Staley provided all the lyrics for Mad Season, unlike in AiC, where – perhaps slightly surprisingly considering how many of the lyrics resonated so clearly with Staley’s own circumstances – Jerry Cantrell was the main lyricist. However, the album fades on the second half of side two, perhaps a combination of Staley rushing the band into the recording studio, and then once there absenting himself in the bathroom for long periods of time; Staley wasn’t so much battling his demons as inviting them round for a regular cup of tea and slice of Victoria sponge. The last two tracks feel half-baked, one an instrumental jam, the other the genesis of a song only.

Layne Staley singing about Victoria sponge (possibly).

Layne Staley singing about Victoria sponge (possibly).

The recorded album includes five bonus tracks on the deluxe edition: a delightful, finger-picked guitar piece from McCready, a cover of John Lennon’s ‘I Don’t Wanna be a Soldier’, and three songs originally intended for a second album in 1996 but now completed with Mark Lanegan on vocal duties. These three songs have a rockier vibe than those on the original release, and with Lanegan’s distinctive gravelly vocal performance they don’t sound much like Mad Season, though ‘Black Book of Fear’ probably comes closest. Very welcome additions nonetheless.

The deluxe edition includes the band’s famed Moore Theatre concert on 29 April 1995, both audio and video. McCready, replete with Mudhoney t-shirt when he takes off his bland, shapeless grey top, indulges his inner Jimmy Page with a twin-neck Gibson on several songs. Staley, in a scratty old purple jumper and non-matching fingerless gloves, is thin and wan; when he takes his shades off his eyes seem faraway and distracted, but the voice, with its innate emotional resonance, is still there at full strength.

McCready (r) with twin-neck Gibson. Sweet.

McCready (r) with twin-neck Gibson. Sweet.

A pleasant surprise: the highlight of the gig comes with the two weak tracks on the album, as ‘All Alone’ and ‘November Hotel’ combine into a lengthy blues jam that reveals the quality of musicianship on show: played live the songs are given a depth and texture missing on the record. Martin’s drums build up the tempo, leading into an extended McCready solo, with squalls of feedback, strongly redolent of his solo on Temple of the Dog’s ‘Reach Down’. There are some manic, awkward sax phrases courtesy of additional musician Skerik. Staley on rhythm guitar directs the tempo and structure of the song for a while, before a final climax that sees McCready destroying one Marshall cab with his guitar whilst his resigned roadie looks on.

Mad Season, Moore Theater, 29.04.1995 (McCready out of shot).

Mad Season, Moore Theater, 29.04.1995 (McCready out of shot).

Also on the DVD of the special edition are tracks from the New Year’s Eve 1994 RKCNDY show, two songs from Self-Pollution Radio (Vedder’s radio project) in early January 1995, and the music video for ‘River of Deceit’.

Looking back at the chronology of Mad Season, it was a painfully brief, yet perfectly captured, moment; that its reputation has only burnished in our memories over time reflects on the qualities of those involved, both as musicians and also as human beings, in their frailties as well as their strengths. Mad Season was a fine work of art, an unvarnished reflection of so many of the myriad constituent elements that made that Seattle scene so special.

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About Mark Anstee

guitarist, Radio Seattle View all posts by Mark Anstee

Share, if it makes you sleep, if it sets you free, if it helps you breathe…

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