SONGS FOR A PUNK SAGENATIONAL NOISEMAKERS PAY TRIBUTE TO TEMPE'S GREG SAGE

This is the second Sun Tracks feature for 8/19

Toss a rock into any local CD store and you'll likely hit some sort of "tribute" disc featuring various artists paying homage to their musical mentors. For the past few years, established oldsters ranging from Elton John to Syd Barrett have had their collective hits and misses reprised by seemingly endless herds of deferential upstarts.

The results of such projects are often little more than one-off curiosities. It can be fun to hear the Pixies do a dead-on rendition of Neil Young's "Winterlong" on The Bridge, a Young-loving benefit-tribute compilation. And it's a gas to space out to R.E.M.'s evocative version of Roky Erickson's "I Walked With a Zombie," one of many inspired covers off the 1990 Erickson workup, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye.

But try sitting still as Dinosaur Jr. mangles the Byrds' "Feel a Whole Lot Better" on the Time Between Byrds tribute. Or see if you can figure out exactly what Jane's Addiction accomplished by deconstructing the Grateful Dead's "Ripple" on last year's Dead tribute, Deadicated.

More often than not, the uneven batting average on tribute discs relegates them to immediate minor league status. At best the renovated songs add insight to otherwise overly familiar tunes. At worst the nostalgia trips indicate just how desperate current pop bands are for material.

The good and the bad--along with a touch of the ugly--are evident on a new Greg Sage tribute project titled, creatively enough, Eight Songs for Greg Sage and the Wipers.

Sage, a Tempe resident and all-too-infrequent performer on the local scene, is widely considered one of the progenitors of punk rock. The Sage saga began 15 years ago in Portland, Oregon, with the Wipers, a rhino-tough punk trio created and nurtured by Sage's benevolent dictatorship. From the start, Sage devoted himself and his band to punk's do-it-yourself edict. He recorded the Wipers on homemade equipment, released the band's records through independent channels and, it's clear in retrospect, generally kick-started the Northwest's indie-alternative scene that's now crowded with scraggly Sub Pop posers.

Sage moved to the Valley four years ago in part to escape the postmodern monster he helped create. The big blond guy's currently hulking around the Tempe underground directing the doings of G-Whiz and other budding young postpunks. He has also put together a new Wiperlike trio, the Greg Sage Band, which has toured the U.S. and Europe. If you've missed Sage's smattering of local shows, you've missed the best band in town.

They certainly seem to miss Greg Sage back in the Northwest. The eight bands on the Eight Songs compilation (including megagrunges Nirvana) obviously care a great deal about their bandanna-clad elder. Indeed, unlike other tribute projects, the participants on Eight Songs sound as if they really want to celebrate Sage.

A predictably brief telephone call to the reticent Sage finds the man of few words using a lone adjective--awesome--to describe Eight Songs. Beyond that, Sage says he doesn't know too much about the project. He does recognize some of the bands involved and describes them as "old fans and people we've inspired."

The best example of this project's esprit is Nirvana's participation. Nirvana is the current 800-pound gorilla of the pop-rock world. One suspects that these guys have better ways to spend their time than recording a late-Seventies noise blossom titled "Return of the Rat." But Kurdt Kobain and his fellow Nirvanans come out like champs as they rampage through the little-known Sage song from the Wipers' first album, Is This Real?. Let it be noted that the Nirvana entry was not produced by Butch Vig, the mastermind of Nevermind; and yet "Return of the Rat" ranks as some of the best mayhem in Nirvana's considerable recording career.

Nirvana's gender counterparts, the L.A. band Hole, are almost as invigorating on a spirited cover of the title song from the Wipers' third album, Over the Edge. Hole is fronted by Courtney Love, who recently became Mrs. Kurdt Kobain in the alternative wedding for the ages. Ms. Love shares with her hubby a career on the noisy end of the pop spectrum. But much of Hole's music to date has been scrambled to the point of incoherence. Nirvana plays songs; Hole just seems to play. "Over the Edge," though, is over the top in terms of focused energy and abandon. It's the best thing Hole's ever done and it suggests that the band will shake out some good stuff down the road. The other killer cut on the roster is "Up Front," another song from Is This Real? and a real firebomb of pure punk. The rather chubby Portland band Poison Idea performs the anthemic Wipers' tune with an appropriate tonnage of noise. It's such a totally boffo effort that non-Northwesterners may wonder why the venerable Poison Idea never became the first Hsker D.

On the downside, Portland's Dharma Bums just don't seem to get it with their drowsy version of "On the Run," from Sage's first solo record, Straight Ahead. A frenzied Portland assemblage called Napalm Beach isn't much better doing a hyperactive take on Is This Real?'s "Potential Suicide." And M-99 gets no ovation for taking a shot and not quite hitting "Astro Cloud," Sage's atmospheric think-thing off Straight Ahead.

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