Music News

Seems Like Old Times

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Babb is more succinct in his assessment. "It did not work. I loved those guys, but we just didn't have the same chemistry."

With the group mired in a state of creative limbo, guitarist Whitehouse quit, moving back to his native Colorado. The band, which had maintained a solid lineup for nearly a decade, had suffered its third loss in less than three years. Dead Hot Workshop, once again, was in shambles.

There is a moment near the end of the 1999 Clash documentary Westway to the World where singer Joe Strummer is lamenting the group's breakup. As he relates the "bitter lessons" he learned from the experience, an amazing thing happens: Strummer begins crying.

The crusty old punk, who once sang with such vitriol of "Hate and War," was reduced to tears at the memory of what had been lost. The peculiar human alchemy that occurs among rock 'n' roll bands -- especially the great ones -- is a thing of such moving power. As Strummer came to recognize 15 years after the fact, it's also a delicate balance, not to be trifled with or betrayed. A few months ago, Curtis Grippe came to the same realization.

"I've always had a reverence for Dead Hot Workshop and always felt it should be Brent, Brian, Curtis and Steve," says Grippe. "I always wanted it to be that, but things happened that caused that idea to fall apart."

"When a chemistry between four people takes a life of its own, it's a special thing -- people notice it, they become drawn to it, drawn to the power of that," he says, echoing Strummer's words. "We had that, but by the same token, that kind of power can get out of your control."

That raging chemistry led Steve Larson to Seattle after his departure from DHW in 1997. Upon returning to the Valley after nine months, he briefly hooked up with underrated roots combo the Dialectrics. Larson was busy piecing together material for a solo project early last year when the call came to join former Refreshment Roger Clyne's new combo, the Peacemakers.

Since signing on with the popular Valley outfit, Larson has attained the kind of commercial success and mainstream adulation that had eluded him before.

Buoyed by the experience and freedom of his new band, Larson finally felt comfortable enough to forget, or at least set aside, his lingering reservations and consider a reunion with Dead Hot Workshop.

In the interim, much had changed for the other members as well. Babb, for one, found that his overwhelming desire to perform -- something that had nearly cost the band its hard-earned reputation -- had subsided. "After we stopped playing with Whitey and Steve, I thought I'd miss [playing out]. And, to tell you the truth, I really don't," he says.

Part of this newfound view is born of his increasing involvement in the world of desktop recording. Babb's unbridled creativity has found a fresh outlet in composing hard-drive symphonies and blending his traditional songwriting with the flourishes of electronic music.

Meanwhile, Grippe sought out Scott to reestablish their once-solid bond. Jamming together, hanging out, the drummer helped his crestfallen friend emerge from the ghetto of addiction and back into the world of music.

And so, when an offer came in earnest to stage a one-off reunion, the four men accepted. Quietly, a November 4 date was announced for Nita's Hideaway, with a secret warm-up gig planned for Long Wong's a few weeks earlier.

Personally and professionally, the decks had been cleared. The members agreed that there would be no conditions to this reunion, no game plan to adhere to. The only goal would be to erase the lingering memory of the group's long fall. And to give it, as Babb might say, "the old college try."

It's early Monday evening and Nita's Hideaway is freezing cold. Outside, a light drizzle is softly pelting the roof of the club. Weeknight business is usually slow. The regular happy-hour clientele -- a smattering of carnies and construction workers -- has been chased out and the doors locked. All that remain are a couple of curious onlookers flashing broad smiles at what they hear.

Onstage, Dead Hot Workshop is in the midst of a final rehearsal before its official reunion date.

For the next three hours, they will run through a catalogue of 40 songs, honing individual parts and solidifying their sound, occasionally collapsing in fits of laughter or debate.

They end with "257," one of their earliest numbers. Amid the wall of cascading guitars, the piece shows what daring mélangists they are, combining dystopian country with oracular rock. The spiraling architecture of the songs, the dissident themes, the acid whir of wit remain intact. Watching it unfold is enough to make even the most sour-faced skeptic feel alive with the power of the music.

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Bob Mehr
Contact: Bob Mehr