After turning down a lucrative opportunity to interview Dave Matthews, I found myself regularly awake at night pondering why anyone would like someone so extraordinarily boring. So I consulted esteemed colleagues who argued that much of Matthews’s appeal lies in his sidemen’s instrumental ability: The jam bands fill a void left by punk, teen pop, hip-hop, etc. for listeners who want to hear skilled musicians play . . . real music.
I countered that the average ’60s soul or ’70s disco session player could groove circles around those Phish guys, but conceded that those generations of studio cats haven’t been properly replenished. Realizing this forced me to face something even scarier: All the punk and rap and indie and electronica that saved our souls and democratized popular culture has also rendered the popular virtuoso nearly extinct.
Of course there’s that multi-instrumentalist Dungen dude who overdubs himself into early-’70s psych-prog-folk-rock perfection, but he’s referencing a time when conservatory-trained chops routinely filled stadiums, a feat his undeniable Swedish brilliance will never achieve. And I’m not forgetting Coheed & Cambria, Mars Volta, and Opeth, who bring the bombast but too often forget the tunes. Even Porcupine Tree, once the purest nonderivative prog act since Yes sold their souls to Trevor Horn, now favor metal over mettle. Despite the nu-prog hype, truly progressive rock is deader than disco ever was. Or so it seems. The quintessential chops-worshipping rock genre, classic prog remains the ultimate guilty pleasure, which of course makes it ripe for an under-the-radar comeback in this iPod-fueled era, when an unhip indulgence is just a secret playlist away.
Of all the prog behemoths punk beheaded, Gentle Giant fell with the quietest, most undeserved thud. Despite 1972’s Octopus crossing over to the Jethro Tull crowd, this deeply British cult band found themselves without an American record deal when Columbia vetoed their “uncommercial” fifth LP, 1973’s beloved import-only In a Glass House, during prog’s biggest year. Changing labels for 1974’s The Power and the Glory, which presaged both the Sex Pistols’ anti-royalty wrath and Gang of Four’s extreme angularity, the quintet mustered a brief plateau of modest popularity that’s particularly impressive when considering the medieval weirdness of 1975’s Free Hand and 1976’s Interview.
Their live double album Playing the Fool should’ve made them huge in ’77, but punk changed everything. Whereas Genesis scored their radio breakthrough that year by going soft, Gentle Giant bravely punked out: The Missing Piece mixed streamlined prog with hyper rock rave-ups a year before the Police started mainstreaming that formula into the stratosphere. Old fans vanished, new listeners didn’t materialize, and subsequent bombs, 1978’s halfhearted Giant for a Day and 1980’s bland Civilian, destroyed the band. Bassist Ray Shulman eventually produced the Sundays and the Sugarcubes, while singer Derek Shulman took an A&R job at Polygram, where he helped define the ’80s by signing Men Without Hats, Tears for Fears, Cinderella, and good grief, Bon Jovi. This year, his DRT label reissued all of his old band’s albums circa 1973–78. Everything up to and including the live set should make Dungen fans cream.
What set Gentle Giant apart from platinum proggies was their striking absence of ego. Lacking a Peter Gabriel, Roger Waters, or Rick Wakeman, they instead plied ferocious ensemble dexterity. With his introduction on Octopus, drummer John Weathers unveiled a jazz-funk tightness that invigorated fellow members to disciplined extremes. Their brief solos blister, but their impossibly interlocked intricacies burn even hotter. Even their lyrics avoid indulgences like introspection or romance. Instead, they elaborate cohering album-long concepts that define the band’s best discs not as musically illustrated literary works but as explorations of mood and physical energy. Lyrics matter less than the voices of Shulman, tense and typically enraged, and keyboardist Kerry Minnear, who illuminated the quieter tracks with a detached tenor that accentuated the surrounding symbiosis.
Nowhere is this interactivity more startling than on Giant on the Box, a just- released live DVD capturing the band at their mid-’70s peak. Whether they’re laying down funky xylophone jams or swapping guitars and keys for recorders, violins, cellos, and saxes, or singing madrigals in pitch-perfect five-part harmony, or simply, complicatedly rocking out, Gentle Giant interact with possessed precision, and their renaissance-faire-ready outfits and equally ridiculous hairdos add another level of
filigree-crazed fun. Their excess is exacting.