The Phantom Tollbooth
February 1999 Pick of the Month
 

Live at the 40 Watt
Artist: Vigilantes of Love
Label:   Pastemusic
URL: http://www.coaster.com/VOL
Length: 62:37 / 14 songs

Vigitarians (the name bestowed on fervent fans of the band) everywhere have long hailed the Vigilantes of Love a band that can only be fully appreciated when they are seen live. Given the mercurial turnovers in the line-up over the years, that was sometimes more true than not. The esteemed 1998 line-up that played one sweaty summer night at the 40 Watt club in Athens, Georgia, was the best live incarnation of the Vigilantes to date (even by front man Bill Mallonee's admission). And, lucky us, they have released a live album to give neophytes the opportunity to hear what they've been missing, not to mention a chance for fans to bolster their bragging rights that they know something of quality when they hear it.
 
Bill Mallonee, the real embodiment of the band that might otherwise bear his name, has been releasing albums since 1990's folk-fest Jugular, and has pretty much released an album in one form or another and in varying styles every year since. Never one to sit on his laurels, Mallonee is a songwriting machine, having released two decades worth of worthy material in only eight years. He has maintained this impressive songwriting pace largely without sacrificing song quality, and that is only counting the songs he has actually shared with audiences. Consequently, many fan favorites from early albums are sacrificed on this disc in favor of cuts culled primarily from their last two albums, 1997's Slow Dark Train and 1998's independently released To the Roof of the Sky. Many highlights, particulary those from that most recent album like "But Not For Long" and "The Opposite's True," are treated to frank, visceral treatments here--strong examples of the Vigilantes's signature sound. This single disc serves as a fine snapshot of last year's successful tour, despite the omission of gems like "Welcome to Struggleville," "When I'm Broken," "Starry-eyed," and particularly an electric version of the folk-blues on speed VOL classic, "Undertow," which wowed those at the live shows. You would need an entire box set of live cuts to appease all the fans.
 
Instead, two new cuts make their first CD appearance here. "It Could Be a Whole Lot Worse" opens the album with trademark Mallonee introspection translated into universal metaphor:

         This is dangerous terrain
         We're attempting to traverse
         It's a crying shame
         But it could be a lot worse.

The other new cut and only studio track,  "The Ballad of Russell Perry," finishes the album off with a homey story of a fastball pitcher fighting depression; it is also a thinly-veiled allegory for Mallonee's own bouts with melancholy, and as such serves as a perfectly realized epitome for everything the Vigilantes of Love stand for. These two new songs taken together are not only worth checking out, they're almost worth the price of the album on their own.
 
The really big question anyone asks before running out to buy a live album is how well does it sound? Live at the 40 Watt manages to capture the raw, untarnished quality true of the Vigilantes's live sets, while also steering clear of excessive crowd noise and clutter. The majority of songs are generally well-rendered and the band sounds strikingly tight, lending credibility to Mallonee's claims that this was, indeed, the best line-up yet. One notable exception is "Taking on Water," which does not quite live up to the tautly played energy of the studio version. In actuality, the songs that sound best on this disc aren't the full-throttle rockers like "Locust Years," but the mid-tempo ballads like "Avalanche," "To the Roof of the Sky," and "Doin' Time," which employ multi-instrumentalist Kenny Hutson on pedal steel and mandolin to full effect. As an added concert bonus, special guest Randall Bramlett offers Hammond B-3 on three tracks, including a charged dose of "Double Cure."
 
Mallonee would write and perform songs regardless of exposure. He has never targeted a specific audience, market, or niche, but actually writes songs for himself as a form of personal therapy. As such, we the audience to an extent can tap in and intuitively share Mallonee's frustrations and joys. He paints humanity's depraved condition with both stark honesty and heap loads of hope. When our inherent sinfulness is exposed, as it is in many of Mallonee's songs ("Blister Soul" being a prime example) we are able to lament our broken, helpless state. Then along comes a song like "Double Cure" which resoundingly provides a way out from our present sorrow into unsurpassed joy. Mallonee's songs expose our floundering hearts, but the path from perpetual pain is then electrifyingly illuminated. Truly, Bill Mallonee is one of the most gifted singer-songwriters alive today, and Live at the 40 Watt provides an open window for viewing his talent and our own souls up close and personal.

Steven Stuart Baldwin (1/22/99)

To order Vigilantes of Love's Live at the 40 Watt, go to http://www.pastemusic.com or mail a check for $14.00 plus $2.95 S&H to PasteMusic, 1489 Pine Street NW,Atlanta, GA 30309.  Email: Office@pastemusic.com

VOL Records:
90      Jugular (Re-issued in  1993)
91      Driving the Nails
92      Killing Floor
94      Welcome to Struggleville
95      Blister Soul
95      My Year in Review (Fan-club tape)
96      V.o.L (Greatest Hits)
97      Slow Dark Train
98      To the Roof of the Sky
98      Live at the 40 Watt
 

Following seven studio albums (including 1998's brilliant To the Roof of the Sky) and countless miles, Live at the 40 Watt is the album that finally captures VoL in its natural environment. The Athens, Georgia group's fanatic following overflows with once-casual listeners who were floored by unfettered live shows.

Fortunately, the band's volatile roster has held mostly steady for a few years (though as of this writing, the band is sporting a new drummer).VoL's crack trio provides the grit in these rocked-out folk tunes, imbuing songwriter Bill Mallonee's tales of desperation and faith with an earnest, restless air.  Particularly inspiring is Kenny Hutson, who juggles guitar, pedal steel, and the meanest mandolin solos ever (especially on live barnstormers like "Undertow," which is unfortunately not included in this set). "Taking on Water" recovers the visceral edge missing from the Slow Dark Train version.  Organist Randall Bramlett (Steve Winwood band) guests
on "Offer.

Jeff Elbel (8/20/99)