Tag Archives: Dying Days

Never Any Clapton, Part 1 – Dying Days by the Screaming Trees

Hi there. I haven’t done a series on guitar solos for a long old while, so here it is, back for 2019.

Let’s start with a big one.

Four years had passed since their last album by the time the Screaming Trees released Dust in 1996, and much had happened in that time, little of it beneficial. The group, intending to follow up Sweet Oblivion quickly, recorded an album’s worth of material with Don Fleming, but the music wasn’t strong enough, so they junked the lot and started again with George Drakoulias. Not only that, they were sick of each other (a perennial Screaming Trees problem – they’d been going since 1985, so they’d put in some years already) and relations were often fractious. Even more troublingly, singer Mark Lanegan had seen several close friends die, including Kurt Cobain, and come close to dying himself. Crack, heroin and alcohol were merely the symptoms of an illness that had dogged him long before Dust and would continue to long after it.

But Dust was written and recorded in the middle of a sober period for Lanegan, and it shows. At times, as on opener Halo of Ashes, he sounds uncharacteristically thrilled to be alive (“I’ve been a long, long time away, one foot in the grave”). At others, as on the grandiose Dying Days, he takes stock of what he’s experienced, what he and his community has lost (“I walk the ghost town that used to be my city”), and vows to celebrate it and carry on, to celebrate it by carrying on. Containing an acoustic intro, gospel-style choir vocals on the choruses, Benmont Tench’s churchy organ and electric piano and loads of fat distorted guitars, Dying Days was a stadium-sized farewell to a whole era.

To play a guitar solo suitable for such an anthemic musical setting and such conflicting emotions – and to hit the right notes about loss and brotherhood – the band called in fellow Seattle musician Mike McCready from Pearl Jam.

A devotee of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Hendrix, McCready has a style that relies heavily on bluesy pentatonic licks, played in this case on a Stratocaster with a big tone (moderate gain, tube amp turned up loud and, I’d guess, Vaughan-style heavy strings). When you break down his Dying Days solo, it’s pretty standard blues-rock stuff: an ear-grabbing bent double stop to start things off (played with a noticeably strong vibrato, and picked and repicked six times over the course of two whole bars), a few pentatonic licks up and down across the neck, and finally a big squealing bend on the high E string to finish off as drummer Barrett Martin plays a triplet fill to send the song back into the chorus. It’s not rocket science, but McCready plays it with absolute conviction and commitment.

Dying Days, like Dust generally, got great reviews from the critics, but pretty much went nowhere commercially. Seattle’s moment has passed even as the Trees were recording its epitaph. Guitar-heavy neo-classic rock with psych, blues, gospel and country influences was not what the kids wanted in 1996. Yet Dying Days makes little sense as a song known only to a handful of devotees; it’s too big for it, too widescreen. It’s Let It Be crossed with Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower – something at once apocalyptic and comforting, highly personal yet universal and elemental.

It’s to Screaming Trees guitarist Gary Lee Connor’s credit that he handed this one over to McCready. Connor definitely had his moments as a lead player (he liked his wah-wah pedal, and used it well), but really he was a songwriter, and he couldn’t have brought to it what McCready could. A special song deserves a special solo. Through some kind of alchemy that happens only rarely, when simple phrases and melodies achieve an emotional potency that’s out of reach to most musicians most of the time, Mike McCready pulled that solo out of himself.

Dust

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Mark Lanegan at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 28/01/15

Mark Lanegan – his music, his voice, the whole bit – is one of my favourites. Dying Days is my Freebird, only better and shorter. I’ve written about him a couple of times before here, but I saw him live at Shepherd’s Bush last night, so you’re going to hear about him again, I’m afraid.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve seen him headlining before (at the Astoria, in maybe 2001) and he was in spectacularly grumpy form that night. His set was barely an hour long, there was no encore. He sang well, but seemed bored. Last night, arriving late with Mel and finding the place rammed, I was worried that maybe the lack of attention being paid to his chosen support act – his friend and collaborator Duke Garwood – would set him off, and it’d be the Astoria show again.

Instead Lanegan played an extensive, expansive, generously proportioned set that ranged widely through his solo career. It leaned heavily on his two most recent albums of original material – 2012’s Blues Funeral and 2014’s Phantom Radio – but contained highlights from as far back as Whiskey for the Holy Ghost (1994) and three killer tracks from his 2001 mid-career highpoint Field Songs.

I’ve said before that Lanegan’s acoustic records are my favourites, as they are the ones that give his voice most space to shine, showing off the rough grain of his knotted baritone and the ease with which he can still move up into his tenor range. So Dead on You, Low, One Way Street and Resurrection Song were probably my favourites from last night (Mel liked One Way Street the most). But there were other highlights: a clattering Gravedigger’s Song, startling in its volume and punch after an opening run where Lanegan sang with just one clean electric guitar for accompaniment; Hit the City, which I never liked much in its recorded form, but which Lanegan tore to shreds last night; Harvest Home and Torn Red Heart from the new album. His band acquitted themselves well on every song, the drummer especially across a set that require everything from jazzy brushed snare to sample-augmented disco, and the sound was adequate, with the vocal plainly audible throughout.

I’d love to see him play with an acoustic band at a small sit-down gig (the gothic-revival Union Chapel would seem an appropriate venue), and if he could find it within himself to do something from The Winding Sheet (Mockingbirds, please!), that would probably be my ideal Lanegan gig at this point. But in terms of playing a career-spanning set with an electric band in a biggish theatre show, with all the possible acoustical gremlins that entails, last night’s show was just about perfect.

MarkLaneganBandSiamak_Amini
Photo by Siamik Amini

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