It is safe to say that we are now in the midst of a full-fledged 90’s revival. This is more than just Buzzfeed parlaying 90s kitsch into valuations approaching a billion dollars. In politics, the optimism and idealism of 2008 have given way to Clinton era pragmatism. Hell, I have even taken to wearing unbuttoned, flannel shirts as jackets like Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites.
Music has followed suit as many of today’s “buzz bands” are analogous prototypical 90s acts.
Wavves : early Green Day
Parquet Courts : Pavement
HAIM : Lilith Fair
Hitmakers of the 90s have taken note—settling old scores and going back on tour. In the past two years, Coachella, the center of the musical zeitgeist, booked blur and Outkast as headliners — artists that released three or more platinum albums each in the 1990s. This trend has extended beyond the Pitchfork-approved; as evidenced by the fact I saw Spacehog and Sponge in concert just last month.
Before I describe the show, I hope to make something clear: I did not attend this show ironically and my intention was never to mock the bands. These bands, while never being personal favorites, wrote songs that were on mainstream rock radio at a point in my life when mainstream rock radio really meant something to me. Having said that, there were times in the night when the temptation to be an elitist prick was too strong and I could not help myself. So, if you are A) a member of either band or B) a ride or die fan, please forgive me in advance.
Despite being billed as something approximating a co-headliner, Sponge took the stage to a thin crowd. My expectations sunk lower when I was informed that the band’s 2013 incarnation included only one original member (singer Vinnie Dombroski). The non-original members came out first and jammed for a few minutes, waiting for Dombromski to take the stage. I noticed the bassist’s Joy Division t-shirt sticking out from under his blazer. I desperately hoped that he wasn’t trying to establish his indie bona fides and appeal to any hipsters in the crowd. Among artists that can be considered washed up, I find that too much self-awareness can be depressing. Case in point, members of the band Everything (famous for their song “Hooch”) played at my fraternity a couple of times in college and they made a point to truly give the people whatever they wanted – basically anytime a drunk yahoo yelled “Hooch” they would break into it. This once happened four times in a single set.
Vinnie Dombroski paraded onto the stage and assuaged all fears. Wearing a huge leather hat that must have come from a very expensive witch costume, Dombroski strutted and writhed around like a man who really could never be anything other than a rock singer. If the Joy Division-loving bassist seemed embarrassed at how “uncool” his band is, Dombroski completely embraced his station. Sponge gave very spirited renditions of their hits “Molly (16 Candles)” and “Plowed” and for a moment you could easily picture Dombroski having the career of Scott Weiland.
Granted, there were also moments that reminded you this is a nostalgia act that wasn’t even really popular in the first place – namely when they tried and failed to get the crowd to sing the chorus of “Molly” and when the guitarist threw picks into the crowd (at first, people scrambled for them, but after the sixth time, the picks just fell to the floor). If anything, however, these moments humanized the band. Dombroski was clearly doing what he loved – ignoring the proverbial scoreboard for an hour and simply kicking ass like the completely out of vogue encyclopedia-definition-of-rockstar that he is. As an exclamation point to the set, while the band chugged through the end of “Plowed,” Dombroski unscrewed the bottom of a cymbal and proceeded to impale it through a drum. Rock and f’ing roll.
After their set, the members of Sponge held court in the lobby’s venue. I suppose that this is now standard operating procedure for nostalgia acts – you buy a ticket and get both a show and a chance to chat with people that have been on MTV. While Dombroski drew the heaviest crowds, I decided to talk to the Joy Division-loving bassist. I asked what was probably a snarky question about his shirt. His response shouldn’t have been a surprise – he saw them as integral in the development of metal and grunge and a huge influence on him. I immediately became embarrassed to have even harbored the thought that this guy was using Joy Division as a hip signifier (as if it were an Animal Collective shirt or something). To my relief, instead of taking offence, he was genuinely pleased to hang out, drink whisky and talk music with the people.
One thing that sets Spacehog apart from its 90’s one-hit wonder peers (other than the fact that their one hit, “In the Meantime,” is freaking awesome) is that they actually rub shoulders with rock elites. A look at the band’s Wikipedia page uncovers relationships to Michael Stipe (contributed vocals on the song “Almond Kisses”), Black Crowes and Oasis (all three bands have sets of brothers in them and as such played 19 dates in 2001 on the aptly-named “Tour of Brotherly Love”), Joaquin Phoenix (Spacehogger Anthony Langdon was both the lead singer in Phoenix’s band ‘The Lady Is A Tramp’ and a star in I’m Still Here — where he “is shown defecating on the troubled actor in retaliation for an earlier argument”) and Liv Tyler (ex-wife of lead singer Royston Langdon). Oh, and the band was formed when “Anthony Langdon met [drummer Johnny] Cragg by chance in a café where Cragg had a job killing rats.”
The word that comes to mind when seeing Spacehog live is “professional.” Spacehog are glam-rockers much closer to Queen and T.Rex than more ubiquitous touch-points like the Pixies or the Replacements. Their sound also has aged remarkably well and while I recognize very few songs, both the sharpness of the band’s musicianship and relative freshness of its style are clear. My friend and I stood off the side of the stage with the members of Sponge (my friend was wearing a tuxedo which apparently was enough to get an invite to hang) for most of Spacehog’s set and I couldn’t help but see contrasts in the two bands. Both in image and sound, Sponge embodied straightforward rock and roll. They seemed almost proudly oblivious to the fact that they were the sort of band that went out of style ages ago – even while playing a near-flawless show they remained Mesozoic.
Spacehog, while no closer actual relevance (though their newest album was reviewed in Rolling Stone), at least seemed like a band that could play Terminal 5. They maintained the slickness and air of pretension embraced by today’s top-selling rock acts (during a song where Royston Langdon sat at a piano, I got a laugh from Sponge’s Dombroski by noting that Royston “thinks he’s Chris Martin or something”). This is not a bad thing, however. This pretentiousness, like Dombroski’s onstage portrayal of a Jagger-esque pan-sexual demon, proved that Spacehog were not embarrassed by their situation in the slightest. Both bands refused to wink at the audience, resisting the comfort of detachment. If their goal is to match their former fame, they’ll surely fail – but they’d be damned if they aren’t going to give it a hell of a try.