That time the Screaming Trees played Vancouver with Josh Homme on rhythm guitar

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MARCH 20, 1997

Last Sunday night (March 16) I had three pretty good reasons for not wanting to drag my butt off a comfy couch and head downtown in the rain to review a rock show at the Rage. First off, I was tuckered out after the previous night’s party at some beer-drenched Burnaby rugby club; secondly, King of the Hill was on; and thirdly—it was Sunday night!

But sometimes you’ve just gotta face the rigours of life head-on, and besides, after two previous cancellations, the Screaming Trees had finally made it to town, and I was fairly psyched to experience one of Washington state’s most underrated musical exports. Their latest album, last year’s Dust, had struck me as a veritable postgrunge guitar-rock masterpiece.

The band itself certainly appeared ready to make up for lost time when it took the stage, impatiently testing its instruments while waiting for the go-ahead. “We drove all the way from Camano Island and they say they’re not ready yet,” griped bassist Van Conner, although it wasn’t clear whether the “they” he referred to were his bandmates, the group’s sound techs, or the venue’s staff.

Before long the bongo beats of drummer Barrett Martin led the band into Dust’s opening track, the mystically tinged “Halo of Ashes”, but that Zeppelin-visits-India-through-the-Doors opus failed to get much of a reaction from the half-capacity crowd. It wasn’t until the evening’s third selection, Dust’s single “All I Know”, that the Sunday blahs started to get worked out of the audience.

Lead guitarist Gary Lee Conner managed to transport some much-needed energy to the fans with his windmill chords and head-tossing, but despite his encouragement, there was very little moshing and absolutely no stage-diving going on. Either all the potential rowdies felt as worn out as I did, or the bearded bulkiness of the Conners made them think twice about invading the big brothers’ turf.

“At midnight tonight it’ll be my birthday,” announced Van Conner, the band’s main mouthpiece between songs. “Can you guess my age? Can you guess my weight? I’m feelin’ pretty light, man.” Then the band celebrated the occasion with a version of “Nearly Lost You”, the single from its 1992 Sweet Oblivion disc. That tune—and other standouts, such as Dust’s languidly beautiful “Sworn and Broken” and exhilarating “Witness”—featured grinding overdrive courtesy of former Kyuss member Josh Homme on rhythm guitar.

When the band had finished its 45-minute set, the crowd of 600 went mild, but the Screaming Trees returned for a three-song encore anyway. At 11 p.m., unable to contain himself until midnight to wish his bro well, Gary Lee Conner announced, “To my brother: happy fuckin’ birthday,” and from the other side of the stage Van responded with, “Thanks a lot. Fuck you!” (Evidently, those tales of drunken family fistfights occurring throughout the band’s 10-year career aren’t entirely the work of some overzealous, headline-seeking publicist.)

The tension between the brothers definitely added to the urgency of the show, although the gutsy vibes rolling off the stage were tempered by lead singer Mark Lanegan’s subdued approach. For some reason, his smooth, Morrison-esque vocals were replaced on the night’s final selection by drummer Martin’s substandard and erratic ones. Luckily, Gary Lee Conner saved the day with some superior wah-wah effects that made me want to go home and stand on a Crybaby my own self.

I was just too damn tired to do it.

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