Music News

Seems Like Old Times

Tonight is a homecoming.

It's been three and a half years since Dead Hot Workshop's classic lineup has played together, more than that since it's taken the stage at Long Wong's, the last remaining vestige of a scene it helped create.

For a decade it was the most respected group in town. Other bands may have enjoyed greater fleeting popularity or fame, but no one earned more enduring affection. The queue of rabid patrons snaking around the corner is testimony of that.

Inside, it's a crackling, noisy atmosphere, as people are already standing, packed 10 deep onto the club's small floor. The blinding light of a TV news camera and the 40-foot antenna hoisted outside speak volumes; this is as close to an event as you're going to find in local music circles.

The faces of the fans tell an equally important tale. Many of those here are onetime scenesters now resigned to the rare night out. A thirtysomething paunch is starting to show on their frames, gray hair creeping in at the temples. But there are the younger ones, too. A few years ago they were the underage kids who stood outside the club, peering in from the window.

On this cool October evening they've gathered for a bit of nostalgia, or maybe to find something of themselves in the music that once meant so much.

Just after 10:30, the band members take the stage. They're showered with the kind of affection reserved for conquering soldiers or long-lost friends, not the low groan that greets most rock reunions.

And then, they play them all -- or at least as many as they can fit in before last call. The surreal poetics of "Jesus Revisited," the strangulated blues of "E Minor," the sullen beauty of "Red Sovine" all blare with a stunning resonance. Steve Larson's febrile guitar bluster and Brent Babb's pastoral wail greet each other like old comrades. Bassist G. Brian Scott and drummer Curtis Grippe propel the rhythm with the kind of understanding only time can bestow.

Two sets and 20-plus songs prove the band's signature twang 'n' bang has lost none of its brilliant luster.

The night ends in a cacophony, as a shambolic rendition of "Ray" brings the proceedings to a close.

As the final barmy notes ring silent, a swell of applause washes over the band. The cheers linger; screams and hollers punctuated by piercing whistles. As the din of affection continues unfettered, you get the feeling that the crowd would throw flowers if they had them. But this is Mill Avenue, not the Met. The band will have to settle for a celebratory round of Budweiser instead.

Behind the club, Grippe is beaming. His face, dripping with sweat, is filled with a strange mix of satisfaction and relief, the look of a man who has seen a decade of toil and torture, of failure and triumph, crystallize before his very eyes.

Dead Hot Workshop has come back to claim what was once theirs, and they have not left empty-handed.

Viewed at a distance, Dead Hot Workshop's career can be seen as a mile-long ribbon of rock clichés. But dig a little deeper and you find that the band's story -- its ascent, triumph, plummet and rebirth -- is one of the more labyrinthine yarns in local music.

In the early '90s, just as Tempe was securing its position as a fertile breeding ground for rock 'n' roll, Dead Hot and the Gin Blossoms were gaining a reputation as the city's two leading lights. Though Phoenix was not quite on the same level as the swinging London of the '60s, the pop-oriented Blossoms were cast as the Beatles to Dead Hot's more edgy Rolling Stones.

By 1991, the Blossoms had already secured a contract with A&M Records and released a debut EP. With a strong regional following, a massive catalogue of original material and an exciting live show, similar success was predicted for Dead Hot Workshop.

When DHW eventually signed in mid-'94, it was by a music industry eagerly searching for the "next big thing" in the wake of grunge. Success had already started to come for a string of melodic, post-punk pop outfits like Soul Asylum and Toad the Wet Sprocket. The latest in this line, surprisingly enough, was the Gin Blossoms. Despite a poor initial showing, the band's 1992 full-length New Miserable Experience had refused to die, becoming a belated hit. The album would eventually spawn a quartet of hit singles, earn the band MTV Buzz Bin status and more than two million in sales. Hoping to find a new Seattle, the A&R contingent set its sights on the rapidly growing college town of Tempe.

"Everyone kind of descended on this place because they thought they could make some money," says Babb, laughing. "But they soon found out that was not the case."