Miracle Worker

Former Dream Syndicate leader Steve Wynn puts the ghost of his old band to rest with the finest album of his career

Last fall, after urging from old friend and Arizona native Howe Gelb of Giant Sand, Wynn booked himself and his band into Craig Schumacher's Wave Lab studios in Tucson. Located in the city's downtown warehouse district, Wave Lab has served as a haven for all manner of musical oddballs, functioning as the official home base for Giant Sand and Calexico, among others.

An experienced -- perhaps slightly jaded -- record maker, a wary Wynn began the Tucson sessions with decidedly low expectations. "I figured if everything completely got screwed up, at worst I had a 10-day vacation in Tucson, ate some good Mexican food and went home. If I'd gotten a few B-sides I would've been happy."

What Wynn ended up getting was something else entirely: a sprawling, career-defining, double-disc opus that is -- as the press sheet enthuses -- "his Exile on Main Street, his Zen Arcade and yeah, his Physical Graffiti."

Desert dwelling: Wynn's latest includes contributions from members of Green on Red, Calexico and Giant Sand. Howe Gelb's son's tricycle is in the foreground.
Linda Pitmon
Desert dwelling: Wynn's latest includes contributions from members of Green on Red, Calexico and Giant Sand. Howe Gelb's son's tricycle is in the foreground.


Scheduled to perform on Wednesday, September 19, with Clem Snide. Showtime is 9 p.m.
Nita's Hideaway in Tempe

"One thing I really hate about a lot of records now," says Wynn, in between bites of an omelet, "is that people are so hip, they have such a good record collection, they know their favorite bands too well.

"The first thing they do is get the same equipment, the same outboard gear and just duplicate their favorite record. I think there is a real danger in that -- or at least it seems like there's little point in it. And I certainly didn't want to do it."

Last fall, with a clutch of nearly 20 songs written, Wynn holed up in the Sonoran Desert to record. He decided -- almost subconsciously -- that the album would not merely mimic the sounds of his well-worn vinyl, but rather deconstruct what he loved about them in the first place, then rebuild the parts into a new machine. As a result, Miracles plays like one long ride, the soul-bearing sound of a life spent writing, playing and loving music.

Naturally, Miracles boasts all the markers one might expect: the detached cool of the Velvets, the swagger of the Stones, the anthemic dissonance of Crazy Horse and a wealth of pop hooks to rival any bubblegum auteur. Much of those disparate influences crop up, not just on the same album, but often within in the same song. But despite its constantly shifting shape, Miracles is a thoroughly consistent effort -- a record with many faces, but a single soul.

If Wynn's more recent albums have seemed polite, on Miracles, the title and opening track announces his new intent with a slash of guitar, fatback organ and distorted vocals.

"It does start abrasively. In a way that was not typical for me. It's like the secret password at the door. If you can get past that, it's going to be fine," he says with a chuckle.

The album moves into familiar territory with "Shades of Blue" -- the one song that clearly traces its lineage back to the Dream Syndicate catalogue -- before exploding in the sunburst euphony of "Sustain" -- an opening triumvirate that heralds the wonderfully schizophrenic nature of the disc.

From the outset, the record sparkles as a result of Wynn's decision to enlist the help of longtime collaborator Chris Cacavas as a player and co-producer. A legendary Tucson punker, Cacavas gained fame as a member of '80s roots avatars Green on Red, as well as guesting on a handful of Dream Syndicate and Wynn solo albums. (Wynn also produced Cacavas' 1988 self-titled solo debut and '97s Anonymous.)

Cacavas -- arguably the greatest musical talent to emerge from Arizona -- is, for lack of a better comparison, the poor man's Al Kooper: a consummate sideman with a natural instinct for coming up with memorable hooks and the perfect accouterments for any song. And, as Wynn is quick to point out, his presence proved vital in marshaling the small army of sounds and textures that find their way onto Miracles.

"I wanted somebody involved who would shake things up," says Wynn, "who would bring in weird ideas, things I wouldn't do on my own. But if you bring in someone you don't know to do that, you're always a little suspicious. You have that thing in the back of your head of, 'You obviously don't understand what I'm doing.' But with Chris, since we know each other so well, that wasn't a concern."

Wynn's trust in his old mate is rewarded as Cacavas infuses the proceeding with mesmeric organ drones, squiggles of Wurlitzer, atmospheric piano fills and swathes of synth noise -- elements that blithely weave their way into the warm, welcoming fabric of the album.

"He was constantly doing things on the record that were nuts," says Wynn. "Things that were weird, noisy or dissonant or against the character of the song, but I let him run with it."

Another friend who contributes is Giant Sand-man Gelb. The dedicated desert eclectic lends a further left field quality to the proceedings with a corrosive, contortionist guitar solo on "Sustain" and eerie piano/arrangement on the funk brooder "Topanga Canyon Freaks."

"Howe will typically do the exact opposite of what you think anybody would do," says Wynn, laughing. "It's like, it couldn't be more wrong. You can't imagine anybody taking a more contrary approach, but what he does always works out great."

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