In 1995, Alternative Rock was in disarray. So-called “Grunge Rock” had died alongside Kurt Cobain, and the signing frenzy in the wake of Nevermind’s success was proving disastrous. Labels had invested greatly in bands that would never and could never prove profitable. Businessmen had mistakenly thought that Nirvana’s success proved that the underground was ripe for exploitation, without considering that many of these bands had limited appeal. A niche market is exactly that—limited in scope, it is not something meant for widespread appeal; little wonder, then, that the music industry lost big on the gamble.
Yet one of the more curious cases proved to be that of Mike Watt. The affable bass-man from San Pedro had been one-third of the legendary punk rock band Minutemen and had most recently helmed fIREHOSE. One would suspect that he would have been the last musician to have a solo career on a label like Columbia, but in 1995 he released Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, an album that not only helped cement his legend, but also proved to be a critical success, and is considered to be one of the finest records of the post-Grunge era. It was also an album that featured an amazing lineup of musicians helping him out, a veritable who’s-who of alt-rock and punk rock legends.
When he set out to promote it, he took to the road with bands featuring his friends. Opening were Hovercraft, an experimental band featuring the wife of Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, who anonymously played drums, and the unsigned, unknown band Foo Fighters. Both Vedder and Dave Grohl insisted to promoters that they not be advertised or hyped as performing, to avoid star treatment and to keep the focus on Watt, although the truth would quickly become known and spread via BBS boards on the nascent Internet.
The tour’s Chicago club date, however, would be captured for posterity, and is now seeing its official release on ‘“ring spiel” tour ’95. As live shows go, it is a scorcher; the band—featuring Vedder, Grohl, and Foo Fighters’ William Goldsmith and Pat Smear—is tight, on-point, and understand Watt completely. The setlist is compelling, too; while it largely features songs from Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, it throws in a number of tracks from Watt’s other projects; “Formal Introduction” and “Powerful Hankerin’” hail from fIREHOSE’s final album, Mr. Machinery Operator, while “Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing” hails from Minutemen’s Double Nickels On The Dime, as does “One Reporter’s Opinion,” which is sung by Vedder and is offered in a medley with DOS’ “Forever.” Vedder also offers up an original song, “Habit,” which would appear on Pearl Jam’s album No Code. But the most compelling numbers are the handful of covers; the set opens with a take on Daniel Johnston’s “Walking The Cow,” while Watt shows his fandom with takes on Blue Oyster Cult’s “The Red And The Black” and Madonna’s “Secret Garden,” sung seductively by Pat Smear.
Ball-Hog or Tugboat? was one of the finest albums of the Nineties, and twenty years later, it’s still a fantastic, enjoyable record that holds up quite well. “ring spiel” tour ’95 is the perfect companion to that superb record, and on its own, it’s one helluva fun night out with some of the finest musicians of the decade.