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After touring incessantly from 1996 to 2001, local trio Fred Green had an enviable fan base and horror stories from the road to prove it. Tons of 'em. The time their roadies unwittingly trashed Bruce Willis' guesthouse. The time vocalist/guitarist Todd Minnix got hopelessly lost after a gig until drummer Chris Peeler fetched him, one block from the hotel, heading in the wrong direction. The time roadie Dug tried to pet a bison and almost got the van crushed. The time a one-legged man in Butte, Montana, told them, "You are the reason for all the righteousness in the world." As you can guess, that particular night turned out to be one of those "character-building" gigs that either pull bands together or send them screaming to accounting school.
"We played to six people," Peeler says. "Two of 'em, a punk rock chick with pink hair and her boyfriend, were there on purpose to see us. The other four were regulars and they hated us. Hated us all night."
"That's when I knew we made it," Minnix says with a grin. "Getting shit from a peg-legged guy in Butte, kicking me in the shin."
Only Fred Green's own open-ended story has lacked a wow finish.
Not having released an official album since a self-titled set in 1999, the band seems to have faltered on its mission to "spread the Fred." The departure of original bassist Ben Gilley slowed the momentum while Minnix and Peeler bided their time finding his replacement. Instead, they threw their energies in late 2001 into a local supergroup called GOZ, featuring members of Zig Zag Black and Oil. When GOZ and its heavier fare didn't connect with the industry support its participants had hoped, Fred Green reconvened with GOZ bassist Sam Lersch in the fold.
Lersch provided the necessary family vibe that Fred Green maintains with its fans because he was a fan. ("He first saw us play when he was, what, 9?" quips Minnix.) Last month, the long hiatus was officially over when Fred Green put out its fourth and most seriously realized album to date, Still Burnin'. They celebrated with back-to-back-to-back CD-release parties at Chasers and Hollywood Alley. Every night that weekend, the band was joined onstage by drummer Tim Alexander (Primus, Fata Morgana) who reprised his guest spots on the album ("Habit" and "Overload"), freeing Peeler to stand at the front of the stage and sing sans sticks.
"We wanted to make a loud statement. We wanted to pack it out every night and make sure people knew Fred Green hadn't moved away," says Lance Bendiksen, who recently signed a management deal with Fred Green. Bendiksen whose résumé includes recording Sarah McLachlan and the Cowboy Junkies, producing a live DVD for the Fray, and recording an Emmy-winning PBS documentary soundtrack at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch brings with him his team of award-winning producers, engineers, advisers and marketing specialists, all strategizing to bring Fred Green to the next level. Whatever level Fred Green wants that to be.
So far, it seems to be working. Talking to the band these days means having to deal with Cheshire Cat grins without being told what all the smiling's about. Suffice to say, good things appear to be in motion behind the scenes.
For a band that has been doing everything for itself since Day One, having someone shoulder even just the publicity is a burden relieved, especially in a town where Fred Green is a known entity that's easy to take for granted. Maybe Arizonans, having seen Fred Green for more than a decade, think they know what to expect: smart musicianship, Alice in Chains-style unison singing, a smattering of solid rock-reggae grooves, some light-hearted songs about the Mary Jane that jazz musicians are so fond of, or even the dreaded compound word, "jamband." Fred Green has the chops, but the musicianship is anchored into concise song structure.
"When we have three-hour shows, we're a jam band," Peeler says with a smile. "We can stretch the soup if need be."
"We've played with jambands," Minnix says. "We've played on the sidestage with Phish, and their fans could not get behind us at all. Too heavy."
Yet any repeat customers at those CD-release shows had to admit that this was a Fred Green they'd not witnessed before. Essentially a four-piece live band with the addition of Jason Prichard (drummer and vocalist for Daughters of Fission) providing the missing third harmonies and percussion from the records to the live mix, the band is now able to replicate its studio sheen. After the band's Saturday-night set, one onlooker who obviously knew the band's history said, "The Fred Green who made Dillywagon [its first album, released in 1995] sounded like a bunch of guys who wanted to have fun and smoke some weed. This Fred Green sounds like they want to make it."
And, one imagines, smoke even more weed.
"This is the first time we have an album that all of us are happy with every moment of," Minnix says, "as opposed to feeling, 'I wish we'd done this.' And it's the first album we recorded completely sober."