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Artist: Bill Mallonee & Vigilantes of Love
Label: Fundamental Records / A Startled Chameleon
“It’s good to be here. Thanks for being in this hot, sweaty, little club. Lot’s of great things happen in such environments” the voice of Bill Mallonee states as the concert DVD Fade to Black: Live at the Axiom Arts Center, Cheltenham, UK 1999 opens. Indeed something great does happen which is what makes this DVD concert experience both tragic and transcendent.
Some of the best music being played and performed in the world today is held captive to the types of venues Mallonee highlights in his opening words, and thus, never heard or seen by many. The poster child for this musical injustice is Vigilantes of Love. Able to obtain the adoration of critics and some decent radio success in the mid-1990’s, but never able to rise to notoriety beyond a feverishly devoted fan base and occasional glimpses of success they found themselves without a record label in 1998. After recording the independently released To the Roof of the Sky the band was booked by fans onto a national tour in response to an e-mail request. Soon after an offer to make a new CD, this time with Buddy Miller, resulted in Mallonee’s ill fated masterwork Audible Sigh. Originally slated for release on Pioneer which went belly up before its official release, it was then released by True Tunes, before the band landed on Compass Records and it was re-released though that imprint. Fittingly, yet, another version of that album, originally intend for UK release, is contained as a bonus with this DVD. During this period the band recorded Free for Good (UK)/ ‘cross the big pond (US) for the UK imprint A Startled Chameleon and Live at the 40 watt for Paste all while continuing to tour 180 dates a year. One bright spot was the support of the BBC’s Bob Harris which made VOL minor stars in the UK due to the popularity of the song “Resplendent.” It’s in the middle of all this turmoil that the concert which makes up Fade to Black was filmed.
As a document of Vigilantes of Love performing at the top of their game Fade to Black (and its companion CD Resplendent (Audibly Live) released in 2002) is unmatched, but it is as a document of what was, and was ignored, that a real bittersweet beauty comes though.
VOL delivers an airtight live show of 17 songs with the passion and swagger that only a band finely tuned and firing on all cylinders can produce. Often seen as the forgotten heroes of the alt.country era VOL proves it with the performances captured here. Mallonee’s delivery is as earnest as ever enthusing each line with its correct intesity and rife with all the mannerisms (head slaps, hand motions, and jumps) that long time fans will remember. Kenny Hutson turns in a virtuoso performance on lead guitar and mandolin that begs the question of whether or not he might me the most talented player of both instruments that no ones ever heard of. The only sad spot for a fan of Hutson's playing is that he does not pick up a dobro, lap steel, or pedal steel during the show but the lead lines he plays while wailing on the Bigsby arm of his Gibson make up for it all. Kevin Heuer is a rock solid ball of energy on drums. Never stationary or sullen for a second, I dare anyone to watch him play and not smile. Bass player Jake Bradley is the least animated of the band, al la John Entwistle, but none the less delivers a solid bass performance. As Mallonee’s longest running musical collaborator, no document of the band would be the same without him. The many close up shots of Mallonee and Co. in mid-stream with spit flying and sweat pouring is alone reason enough for this DVD to take its place with the best concert DVDs. It’s absolutely scandalous that a band this good is so underappreciated and unheard of.
The more than half of the seventeen songs in the show (fifteen on disc one and two bonus tracks on disc two) are pulled from Audible Sigh with the rest (aside from the cover of Dylan’s “My Back Pages”) coming off of free for good/’cross the big pond and _To the roof of the Sky_. Only the tracks “Blister Soul” (my favorite of the show) and “Welcome to Struggleville” reach out of the period described above and back to other eras of the band. In this sense, Fade to Black is not a history of the band, but rather a document of its best era and its most powerful period.
The extras on the DVD are a fans dream come true. One last song, “Jaws of Life” from Mallonee’s solo effort Locket Full of Moonlight, is captured solo in FFG studios where free for good/’cross the big pond was recorded and provides the rest of the story as he reflects “loved all my simple chords…and I loved your def low end / loved you big-bang-boom…and the piece of crap we traveled in / made us some records…that really weren’t so bad / made us some real good friends…doin’ that six string drag.”
Another extra highlight is a brief interview from Bob Harris (BBC2) and the video for “Resplendent.” Often rumored, but rarely seen, it’s great to see this video finally see the light of day. The fact that it’s a great video just adds to the bonus.
Also included are the lyrics to the songs performed and a discography which is informational, but no overly complete – however provides a wonderful start for those newly introduced to the band.
The slide show is my favorite extra and biggest surprise. Featuring photos of the band as Mallonee reads his prose poem Perishable Goods while the show rolls. Perishable Goods was originally released as an art book in extremely limited amounts in 1997 and then revised and re-released in 2000. While a wonderful written work I was not prepared for the power it has a spoken word piece. It’s simply stunning.
During the slide show there are a series of photos of the band taken near the “Angel of the North” in England. The image of a looming angel over the shoulder of this band seems so fitting. Always turning out top notch music, but never being rewarded for doing so they soldered on and continued to play their collective hearts out night after night – nights like this DVD captured. While all around them was trial and tribulation hope always shown through in lines like “faith she's a whistling train running hard in the dark - and hope is like a thing untamed going to lay to waste your heart - love's a little bit of God there for all to know - love's the everlasting arms that never do let go” from “Could be a lot worse.” A photo of VoL firmly planted on the ground with an image of the divine looming in the background seems to say it so well, its nearly prophetic.
Mallonee is so very right when he opens the show by saying “Thanks for being in this hot, sweaty, little club. Lot’s of great things happen in such environments.” Yes they do Bill, yes they do, and I’m so glad someone captured one such night back in 1999 in Cheltenham. I hope many people who have never seen Vigilantes of Love get to see this “great thing” that happened in a “hot, sweaty, little club” and see what they missed.
Joel Kiekintveld, 2/7/2005