My first-ever music festival had one of those absolutely bizarre and random lineups that could’ve only existed at a mid-’90s alt-rock radio-station fest. Better Than Ezra. Primus. Bush. Reunited new wave reggae band General Public, who I remember being awesome. Mike Watt and Tony Bennett, during the extremely brief moment where both of them were alternative rock stars. (That whole Tony Bennett thing still makes no sense, but I bought in completely.) Tripping Daisy and Archers of Loaf and Hum on the outdoor side stage. (Of those three, I only saw Tripping Daisy.) Shudder To Think, playing their ironic meditation on stadium-rock in an actual stadium. PJ Harvey, on her To Bring You My Love tour, giving what’s still probably one of the 20 best performances I’ve ever seen, even though she was dodging crowd-hurled beach balls the whole time. Courtney Love, who wandered out unannounced, played two Hole songs unaccompanied, dove into the crowd, got her dress ripped, kicked some guy in the face, and then called said guy an asshole once the security guards fished her out and placed her back onstage. (When this happened, the entire stadium crowd crushed forward, briefly convincing a 15-year-old me that I was about to suffocate and die, that one of those British soccer-stadium mass deaths was imminent. I saw footage of that particular stage-dive on VH1 ’90s-rock documentaries for years afterward.) The evening’s ostensible headliners were the Ramones, whose all-out pummel made absolutely no sense in an echoing stadium. But a pretty huge chunk of the crowd was already on their way out by the time the Ramones took the stage, since the evening’s big draw had already finished things up. And that big draw, weirdly enough, was Soul Asylum.
This was the 1995 HFStival at RFK Stadium in D.C., and it was a couple of years after Soul Asylum had their big Buzz Bin breakout. The band had already moved on to their pretty-shitty follow-up album, the one with the single where Dave Pirner wails, “Frustraaated Incorporaaaated” like that’s not the dumbest shit ever. And I honestly don’t remember much about their set other than the fact that Pirner played trumpet at one point and the rumor that he’d gotten into a backstage fistfight with Primus’s Les Claypool. (Primus had a single called “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver”; Pirner was dating Winona Ryder.) But Soul Asylum still deserved the headlining spot; they were, in a weird sort of way, one of the bands of the moment, and the singles from Grave Dancer’s Union, the album that turns 20 tomorrow, had never exactly left radio rotation.
Grave Dancer’s Union took almost a year to pick up steam after its release, but it turned into a triple-platinum juggernaut with an absolute death-grip over the HFS playlist. And it’s weird to imagine how Soul Asylum got to that point. In the years before Grave Dancer’s Union, they’d been the great third-wheel also-rans of the Minneapolis punk scene, existing deep in the shadow of the Replacements and Hüsker Dü. (Minneapolis people loved them, which explains how Pirner ended up on the Hold Steady’s Boys & Girls In America, but it was a bit funny, just now, to read in the Spin review of Grave Dancer’s Union that Soul Asylum where one of the most underrated bands of the ’80s.) Both of those bigger bands had fucked up their major-label shots and imploded by 1992, and Soul Asylum, it turned out, would get to be about 10 times more popular than both of them put together. The band had just been dropped from A&M, their own major label, but they somehow ended up on Columbia. And Grave Dancer’s Union sounds like a band giving it their last shot, giving everything they’ve got to the idea that things will all work out if they can just get this one song onto the radio.
Radio, of course, was realigning its whole shit at the moment, reeling in the twin gargantuan successes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and letting all kinds of weird shit onto its playlists. But there was nothing challenging about plenty of the stuff that blew up on modern rock radio in the years immediately after Nevermind: Counting Crows, World Party, Spin Doctors, Cracker, Belly. Soul Asylum had a serious punk-rock pedigree, but Grave Dancer’s Union, while it has a bit of Westerberg in its DNA, was way more Tom Petty or John Mellencamp. The album was pure glossy roots-rock chug, and if it came out today, most of it could probably pass for Nashville pop-country. There are exceptions: The fake Jane’s Addiction of “April Fool,” the starry-eyed hippie psych of “The Sun Maid.” But you can’t tell me that, say, Brad Paisley wouldn’t be completely at home singing “Runaway Train.” You could throw the “Black Gold” video into CMT rotation right now.
And that’s what’s funny about the album’s success, and the success of a whole lot of other albums like it. Pop culture has come to remember grunge as a force that blew the doors open, but that’s not quite what happened. Instead, it made it easier to slip through the door if your rock band’s singer had enough soulful longing in his or her (but mostly his) voice. We didn’t get more Nirvanas; we got more Soul Asylums. And honestly, that was fine. Grave Dancer’s Union is a good album. Those radio singles were pure crack. They had their moment, and it was good.