By Wes Eichenwald, special to the American-Statesman
After a three-month, 40-city tour of Europe and the US behind their first new album in nearly three decades — 2017’s “How Did I Find Myself Here?” — past and present alt-rock heroes the Dream Syndicate played their final live date, at least for a while, Saturday night at ACL Live’s smaller showcase, 3TEN, a sleek, 350-capacity black box.
Although the band has been reunited since 2012 (after disbanding in 1989), the past few months have been a time of major reconnection and re-affirmation with their transatlantic fanbase; Austin was just one of many cities where they hadn’t played since the late ‘80s. Anyone at 3TEN would tell you the triumphant 90-minute show was worth the wait, but might also add: What took them so long to return?
The up-close-and-personal venue worked well for the tight, theatrically minded quartet. Four Clark Kent types, they are, really, regular guys who, from the first waves of sonic wash, transform into paisley Supermen. For me, and likely for many old fans in the audience, the highlight was the regular set’s climax, “The Days of Wine and Roses,” from their 1982 debut LP of the same name.
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Guitarist/bandleader Steve Wynn doesn’t sing the lyrics so much as declaim them, like an actor putting over his signature monologue with panache. Guitarist Jason Victor, Wynn’s bandmate and foil from the Miracle 3, kept playing hard, but at some point Wynn stopped, neither singing nor playing, just standing trancelike, eyes closed. The others then also froze in place and just stood (or in drummer Dennis Duck’s case, sat) silently – for 30 seconds? An eternity? – before crashing onward to a shattering conclusion.
In the Dream Syndicate’s early years they were seen as a throwback to ‘60s guitar rock with clear influences from punk, bucking the synthpop era with literate, noirish narratives of desperation and catharsis. There were guitar heroics aplenty, but nothing was self-indulgent; it was all in service of a greater purpose.
“Filter Me Through You,” a standout from the new album, blended seamlessly with older material such as “Armed with an Empty Gun” and “That’s What You Always Say.” 1984’s “The Medicine Show” was another peak, with Wynn and Victor’s guitar dueling augmented by Duck and bassist Mark Walton, working up to a triple-time raveup.
Clearly enjoying themselves, the band treated the crowd to several generous encores, ending with “Boston” (from 1986’s “Out of the Grey”), into which they interspersed several bars of Tom Petty’s “Refugee.” In all, nothing short of spectacular.
Wynn gave props from the stage to Austin for being the first place outside their California home base to embrace the band. (In an email, Wynn mentioned this went back to 1982 when longtime KUTX/KGSR DJ Jody Denberg began playing their songs and the band played here many times at fondly remembered venues like the Soap Creek Saloon and Liberty Lunch.)
That old Paisley Underground label the Dream Syndicate carries only goes so far. You wouldn’t be wrong to call it ‘80s nostalgia you can get behind without guilt – the alt-‘80s, the non-tacky ‘80s – but that doesn’t really do justice to what the band does. As with many artists, going against the trends has proved a winning formula for surviving and transcending them over time. It’s really more of a case of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” or you could just as well go with “timeless classics.” As for Steve Wynn, in my book he’s assumed the long-vacant title of Chairman of the Board, alt-rock division.
Opening act Erika Wennerstrom, a longtime member of Heartless Bastards currently working solo, won over the early crowd with songs and a personal presence connoting honesty, strength with a vulnerable edge, clarity, and a winsome, yearning voice. Major points to her, too, for deciding to stop in the middle of a song to reprimand some people who were talking rather loudly over it: “I’m sorry,” she said, “but if you don’t want to listen you can go outside, it’s warm out.” Which was true enough.