Let’s go back, way back… It’s the early 1980s: the ’70s punks have achieved what they set out to do – live fast, have fun, shake up the music industry – before largely imploding in a mess of eyeliner and spray-painted slogans. Now the new wave of hopefuls are upon us with stars in their eyes and enough individualistic flair to inspire new fashions and grace the covers of glossy magazines. It’s 1983 and Duran Duran have released their third album, Seven And The Ragged Tiger, which peaks at #1 on the UK album chart. That same year, four young, scruffy guys across the Atlantic in Minneapolis change their band name to Soul Asylum.
If you only know Soul Asylum because of their Grammy Award-winning song, ‘Runaway Train‘, then perhaps you’re wondering why this band are deserving of your time. Make no mistake, that hit was a long time coming. Having cut their teeth playing the same punk clubs as (the now hugely revered) punk/alternative icons and fellow Minneapolitans The Replacements and Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum spent over a decade slogging around the US underground music scene in a van, releasing a slew of garage rock LPs and EPs while building up a grassroots following the hard way. Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould produced their debut album, Say What You Will…, released by indie label Twin/Tone Records in 1984, while The Replacements’ Tommy Stinson would later join the band’s ranks for a number of years following the death of original bassist, Karl Mueller in 2005.
Singer, rhythm guitarist and chief songwriter, Dave Pirner, may be the sole remaining original member but as 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the band’s massive breakthrough album, Grave Dancers Union, what better time for them to finally come back and tour the UK?
The band kick off with the upbeat and anthemic ‘Got It Pretty Good’ from their most recent album, 2020’s Hurry Up And Wait, before the almost squawking guitar intro of ‘Somebody To Shove‘ charges into the room. I imagine back in the day the crowd would have been a blur of unhinged energy during this rocker of a track, but tonight’s audience is a bit older and less prepared to literally shove their fellow gig-goers around, whilst I’m reminded to call my elderly relatives more frequently.
‘Shut Down’ is a sludgy funk masterpiece and one of my favourites from 1995’s Let Your Dim Light Shine, while during ‘Misery’ Dave appears to not quite recall some of the words. Fortunately, lead guitarist, Ryan Smith picks up the slack and also sings lead vocals during one of the verses of ‘Bittersweetheart’. The two have great onstage rapport and during the more upbeat songs run at each other and conduct Status Quo-like guitar duelling.
It’s great to hear some of the band’s older songs live and we’re treated to tracks two and three from Hang Time (1988) as ‘Little Too Clean’ and ‘Sometime To Return’ are performed back to back, the latter of which is surprisingly punky and rockier than one might expect. ‘Can’t Even Tell’, which appeared on the film soundtrack to Clerks, is a joyous addition to a well-crafted set with its celebratory retort: “We lived through another day / It’s a good excuse to celebrate / Take a number, knock on wood / We’ll find a reason to feel good”.
‘Never Really Been’ is the oldest song aired tonight, from the band’s second album, Made To Be Broken (1986). It’s a semi-acoustic slice of Shane MacGowan-esque poetry which leads nicely into that song which shall forever overshadow everything the band does. ‘Runaway Train‘ was quite the, um, runaway success which flung the band into the spotlight and its accompanying video helped to locate 21 missing children, which is a pretty special legacy.
The set is peppered with Dave’s bad dad jokes, such as: “I was out in Camden today and I bought a pair of shoes from a drug dealer. I don’t know what they were laced with but I’ve been tripping all day”. There’s also the one about Bono and The Edge walking into a bar, but I’ll spare you the rather obvious punchline. On a serious and poignant note, a Ukraine flag is draped from an amp throughout the band’s set and Dave dedicates ‘Without A Trace’ to the Ukrainians “fighting the good fight”.
During the encore, a guy in the audience yells, “Where have you been for 27 years?”. A fair question and one which Dave barely has to consider, as he coolly responds: “Waiting patiently for an invitation”. Final song of the night, ‘April Fool’ (my personal favourite of their set) is introduced with Dave’s deadpan humour: “One last chance to fuck it all up”. Needless to say, they don’t fuck it up and it remains a gloriously raucous gem that glistens like a diamond in a cold and hard, dark rock face. As Dave Pirner eloquently concluded in 1995, “We’ve always been not punk rock enough for the punk rockers and too punk rock for the non-punk rockers”.
Set list: Got It Pretty Good / Somebody To Shove / Shut Down / Misery / If I Told You / Close / Black Gold / Little Too Clean / Sometime To Return / Bittersweetheart / Can’t Even Tell / Never Really Been / Runaway Train / Without A Trace / Lately / Veil Of Tears / Just Like Anyone // String Of Pearls / April Fool
The 30th anniversary deluxe edition of Grave Dancers Union is out now on black/gold marbled colour vinyl, other formats include bonus live tracks. Follow Soul Asylum on Instagram / Facebook / Twitter / Bandcamp / YouTube.