“Valley Fever”: Paisley Underground faves Green on Red pay tribute to a fallen comrade with a 2005 concert

By on June 21, 2016

Night Flight Contributor Pat Thomas takes a look at Green on Red – Valley Fever: Live at the Rialto, now streaming on Night Flight Plus, which finds the 80s-era Paisley Underground band reuniting to play a concert on September 4, 2005, at the Rialto Theater in Tucson, their original stomping grounds, in tribute to the band’s one-time drummer, Alex “Big Dog” MacNicol.

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During the 1980s, an organic movement of Los Angeles-based groups — collectively known as the Paisley Underground — became an antidote for the commercial music (Pat Benatar, Mr. Mister, Loverboy, et al) being pumped out of MTV.

These bands — which included Green On Red, Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade, the 3 O’clock and the Long Ryders, among others — all focused on traditional instrumentation of guitar, bass, drums, & keyboards coupled with old-school songwriting inspired by ’60s bands such as the Velvet Underground, the Doors, the Byrds and Neil Young.

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Along with the Long Ryders, Green on Red — originally from Tucson, AZ, later taking up residence in Los Angeles — also infused outlaw country from the likes of Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings into their sound.

Despite the retro influences, none of them were “Beatlemania” recreations — each band performed with the naïve enthusiasm of punk rock, cutting a new path while looking over their shoulder.

Several years ago, I assembled a Paisley Underground Box Set for Rykodisc (which, sadly, never saw the light of day), and as I spoke with various musicians connected to that scene, many of them kept citing Green on Red as their personal favorite.

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Despite his ragged vocals, they loved Dan Stuart’s descriptive, novel-esque songwriting, Chuck Prophet’s searing lead guitar work (sort of a post-punk Richard Thompson), the simple yet reliable rhythm section (not unlike Neil Young’s Crazy Horse) of bassist Jack Waterston and drummer Alex MacNicol and the dazzle of Green on Red’s greatest asset, keyboardist Chris Cacavas, whose dynamic piano and expressive organ playing often defined the band’s sound as Ray Manzarek’s had for the Doors.

By the end of the 80’s, Green On Red splintered, with Cacavas and Waterson exploring solo careers, while Chuck and Dan relied on hired guns and each other to carry it on, mainly through European-only releases and tours. By the early 90’s, they also went their separate ways.

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Drummer Alex MacNicol — who had joined Green on Red after playing in Lydia Lunch’s band 13:13, replacing original drummer Van Christian, who went on to form his Naked Prey, also associated with the Paisley Underground — later disappeared from the music scene completely, and so it came as a shock in early 2004 when word began to spread that he’d passed away in San Francisco on January 3, 2004. Apparently, no one in the band had spoken to him in quite awhile.

Never known for their nostalgia, the remaining members Green On Red were asked to consider a filmed reunion gig to mourn their fallen comrade. It became a matter of “I’ll do it if the other guys do it.”

In this mostly straight-ahead concert film from September 2005, the only cinéma vérité moments occur at the beginning, outside of the venue – located on Congress Street in downtown Tucson — where the cranky, cynical (yet filled with a whole lot of heart) band members briefly reminisce.

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There’s very little 1980s-era film footage of Green On Red in circulation, so this professionally filmed complete concert is really a treat for long-time fans to witness a “best of” set (by a band that had no hits!) as well as serving an introduction to youngsters wondering how the indie-guitar-rock landscape looked before Wilco and the Jayhawks walked the earth.

No longer young bucks, the band takes formerly fast-paced songs such as “Death & Angels” at a more mid-tempo speed, but rockers such as “Hair of the Dog” and “The Drifter” confirm, that they can still do it, filled with piss, vinegar and plenty of fuzzy, distorted guitars. Once prone to youthful over-playing, lead guitarist Chuck Prophet is tastefully restrained throughout much of the set.

Old classics like “Cheap Wine” are beautifully poignant while the title cut to their Gravity Talks album remains as upbeat, cocky and naïve as ever – with Cacavas’ sweet organ tone taking a tasty if too brief solo. “Keep on Moving” is a great Kerouacian “road” song, saluting the bar stools propping up middle-Americans stretched across miles of endless highways and two-lane blacktops.

And the hits just keep on coming, including the title track to their No Free Lunch EP, plus other long time fan favorites: “16 Ways,” “Time Ain’t Nothing,” and a particularly vibrant yet spooky version of “Fading Away.”

If Green On Red had any kind of rallying anthem at all, it must have been “That’s What Dreams Were Made For” – which captures the desperation of American youth in the 1980s, wondering what exactly had happened to give us the empty hope of the Reagan years, filtered through the old-time Americana of Levon, Rick, Richard, Garth and Robbie’s “Band.”

All in all, Valley Fever: Green On Red Live at the Rialto is well worth streaming view if you’re curious about the band that most of the Paisley Underground membership considered their favorite. For those who have never heard Green On Red, but like Neil Young’s Crazy Horse, Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, or Richard Thompson’s first half-dozen solo albums, you’re bound to find something appealing here as well.

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This was the soundtrack to my youth and I’m still enthralled with it, and you will be too, especially if you never got into ’80s hair-bands!

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About Pat Thomas

Esteemed author and reissue producer Pat Thomas spent five years in Oakland, CA, researching Listen, Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 (Fantagraphics, 2012), and his new book, Did It! From Yippie To Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, An American Revolutionary will be published by Fantagraphics in March 2016. As a producer, Pat Thomas has reissued recordings by Allen Ginsberg, Eugene McDaniels, Watts Prophets, and Black Panther Elaine Brown. His music writing has appeared in MOJO, Crawdaddy, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He has lectured at San Francisco State University and Evergreen State College. He lives in Los Angeles.