It was the birthday present everybody wanted from the start. Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam and Mother Love Bone. Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Steve Turner. Mother Love Bone/Love Battery guitarist Bruce Fairweather. Drummer Alex Shumway. Every member of original grunge band Green River, joined together for the first time in two decades.
Heard through a port-a-potty, moments after “This Town” ended on day 2 of Sub Pop Records’ 20th anniversary fest at Seattle’s Marymoor Park: “If they were that good back then, they never would have broken up.”
This seemed to be a firm consensus. Some rock’n’roll reunions fall flat when musicians can’t regain the spark of youthful energy and DIY not-quite-incompetence. But Green River’s anthems sounded better with a touch of polish and precision. The 1985 classic “Swallow My Pride” (re-cut by the band in 1988, and also covered by Soundgarden, Fastbacks and Pearl Jam) sounded almost pop.
Freed from the guitar he plays in Mudhoney, Arm could indulge his outer Iggy, stalking the stage in a white ringer t-shirt from something called “Green River Summer Camp.” Turner and Gossard were almost twins — similarly cool glasses, shaggy hair and groomed full beards — and faced each other the entire set, bonding a la Bruce Springsteen and Little Steven Van Zandt, while Ament grinned ear-to-ear each time he joined Fairweather on backing vocals.
Other highlights of the set included “P.C.C.,” the Dead Boys cover “Ain’t Nothin’ To Do” and “Leech” an unreleased track that was later borrowed by the Melvins (as “Leeech”). Or was it? “We wrote this song in 1984,” Arm said from the stage. “It was just a demo tape we passed along. The Melvins later, in Led Zeppelin-like fashion, recorded the song and credited it to themselves — making us the Willie Dixon of grunge.” As if they weren’t already.
Beyond the closing set from adored indie rockers Wolf Parade, Sunday was a day for cultists and the cognoscenti, with a roster made up of another band from Sub Pop’s infancy (Les Thugs), a pair of mid-to-late ’90s favorites (Red Red Meat, Beachwood Sparks) and eight current artists.
Originally known as the fourth band in the Sub Pop singles club (after the somewhat more heralded Nirvana, Mudhoney/Sonic Youth and Flaming Lips), Les Thugs went on to make four records for the label. The French quartet’s set of ferocious, catchy songs — punk-garage in the same vein as Aussie greats Radio Birdman, another group that ended up in Sub Pop’s orbit — was sparsely watched but fiercely loved by all who did so, including label co-founder Jonathan Poneman, head-bobbing happily in the fifth row.
The “band’s band” of the day was Comets On Fire, the regressive and relentless San Francisco avant-rockers fronted by Ethan Miller. As with the Vaselines on Saturday, the wings filled up with other bands, among them every member of Green River. Arm’s slowly bobbing head suggested he had given himself over fully to Comets On Fire’s relentless noise-trance, while Gossard and Ament seemed to grin in wonder at the band’s complete commitment to its sound.
Also on the bill Sunday were Kiwis the Ruby Suns; space-rock heavies Kinski and pop classicists Grand Archives (both from Seattle); freaky Portland roots-diggers Blitzen Trapper, hyperactive U.K. quintet Foals and L.A. duo No Age. “This next song’s a Nirvana cover,” joked the latter combo’s drummer/vocalist Dean Spunt before one song. No one bought it for a minute.