On Stage, Soul Asylum Shines

Author Matthew McAllester
Publication Newsday
Date September 4th, 1995

SOUL ASYLUM. Seen Wednesday at Jones Beach. With Matthew Sweet, The Jayhawks and Victoria Williams.

WHEN DAVE PIRNER, the lead singer of Soul Asylum, accompanied the ravishing Winona Ryder to last year's Oscar ceremony, the couple looked like a porcelain screen goddess and a Mr. Plain, uncomfortable in clothes that weren't ripped or from a thrift store.

At Jones Beach on Wednesday, it became clear why Pirner gets dates with movie stars: In his own onstage world, he is sexy, charismatic and talented. Girls in the audience screamed as he led his band through 90 minutes of strong songs that gained an edge largely missing from Soul Asylum's new album, "Let Your Dim Light Shine." Too often on the record, Butch Vig's production caramelizes the band's rough-cut guitar sound. It takes a stage to let Soul Asylum's light shine.

After sets from Matthew Sweet and the harmonizing hillbilly-tinged Jayhawks, who featured singer Victoria Williams (she's married to Mark Olson of the Jayhawks) on several songs, Soul Asylum opened with "Hopes Up" from the new album. A song of emotional timidity encased in self-confident bubble grunge, it set the tone for the rest of the concert. The band sings about the harder parts of life, but it sure has fun doing it.

A case in point was the recent hit "Misery." Powered by the chords of Pirner and guitarist Dan Murphy, Pirner's lyrics about manufacturing gloom in a factory called "Frustrated Incorporated" offered up a satire of the mopey image of the generation that makes up Soul Asylum's fan base. This was a band smart enough not to spend an hour and a half getting heavy without also getting cheeky.

On other songs, notably "String of Pearls," also from the new record, the band did take the world a bit more seriously. But it didn't take its foot off the irony pedal.

Telling a circular tale reminiscent of some of Bob Dylan's cleverest streams of linked images, Pirner sang about "the Siamese twins who grow up to be the first president with two heads." He "puts his heads in his hands [and] says I gotta put my heads together [so that] I can become the best president ever," he sang. President Bill Clinton should think twice before messing with the MTV generation again.

Pirner's political balladry signaled the start of a more thoughtful section of the show as Pirner plucked his black acoustic guitar and let his bittersweet voice weave oftensly, sometimes heartfelt, stories of thwarted intentions and relationships that just aren't going right.

During this part of the show, Pirner's skills as a troubadour became apparent. He sang detailed yarns of young prostitutes and loners but retained a distance from his subject that helped him bypass sentiment.

For the last three songs of the night, the band was joined onstage by Williams, Sweet and the Jayhawks. With up to six guitarists on stage at one time, the sound of songs such as "To My Own Devices" was rich and multilayered. With the masses on stage, the show ended in a festive jam session as Pirner forsook his guitar for the first time, let his friends do the playing and squirmed around the stage singing one final, happy ode to irony: a campy version of Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy."