Mutiny Up North! The Return of The Ominous Seapods
It's about ten to eight at night, it's five degrees outside, and I am standing in line ankle deep in snow, surrounded by several hundred costumed freaks, who have been drinking steadily since ten in the morning. What would make a person drive almost three hours through the snow to end up at this surreal moment? The return of the Ominous Seapods, who were playing the second night of their reunion weekend at the annual winter carnival in Saranac Lake, New York. The Seapods' song Blackberry Brandy fondly refers to "more north country freaks than I can shake a stick at", and I never had any idea what they were talking about till this moment. It was also at that moment that I realized why this "north country freak out", was the only suitable place to host the reunion of one of the quirkiest and most dynamic bands to emerge from the early second-wave jamband scene.
Guitarists and songwriters Dana Monteith and Max Verna founded the Seapods in 1989. In 1993 drummer Ted Moratta joined Montieth and Verna along with bassist Tom Pirozzi, and keyboardist Brian Mangini, thus solidifying the Seapods' line up. The Band developed a strong cult following by creating a unique brand of musical lunacy, blending progressive musical visions with a bizarre sense of humor and a devil may care attitude. Their live shows became renowned for their unpredictability. In the middle of a song, the band would break into skits that lampooned, anything from the Pope, and the war in Iraq, to Pop-Rock candy. Despite their theatrics, the Seapods were never considered a "gimmick band" as their backbone always remained a broad musical scope that often radiated from that same sprit of mutiny.
By 1998 the band had released five albums, and were playing in theaters and large clubs throughout the United States. Right as it looked as the band might explode onto the upper echelon of the jamband scene, Verna decided to leave the band to pursue a more domestic life. After Verna's departure the Seapods forged ahead adding guitarist Todd Pasternack. The band continued their relentless touring, but their musical spectrum was changing radically. The band's focus became more song oriented, and their songs became more rooted in straight-ahead rock. Many of their fans refused to accept their new direction, and their fan base slowly began to dwindle. After releasing the 2000 album Superman Curse, on Rykodisc, the band decided, "to go on hiatus" in the summer 2001. Ironically the band's last show was in Baja Mexico, which seems about as far away from the spot of this current reunion show as possible.
2003 marks the ten-year anniversary of the Seapods' debut at the Winter Carnival. The owner of the Watering Hole #3 (which over the years had become a favorite haunt for the band), suggested they come on up and play to mark the occasion. The remaining Pods all thought it was a good idea. Mangini then called Verna to see if he wanted to join in. Verna thought it would be fun and agreed to make his first official appearance with the band in over four years. Pirozzi then suggested that if the Seapods were playing in Saranac Lake, then they might as well play a show at Valentines in their hometown of Albany, thus the reunion weekend was born.
I really did not know what to expect from the reunion. I kind of expected it to be a bittersweet affair. One that glorified a cult band that almost made it big, but in the end fell just a little short. There were also many question marks musically about the event. Verna and Pasternack are on opposite ends of the musical gamut, and I doubted whether they could coexist. Verna who does occasional gigs in the New York City playing acoustic guitar and fiddle in various bluegrass projects, seemed to share some of this concern. "I had a bit of anxiety about my playing, because not only had I not played with these guys in four years, but I haven't really played the electric guitar in four years". However as I arrived at Valentines Friday night as they were winding down their daylong rehearsal session, the band seemed surprisingly tight and everyone seemed in really good spirits. As they were leaving the stage I heard Pasternack and Verna talking about how there would be no pressure this weekend and that it would all be about fun. Pasternack explained to me that, "There's no more trying to get ahead, no more trying to sell out a room. It's like, lets just play these songs and have a great time doing it".
Fun was definitely the key word for the weekend. However the two shows had completely different feels from one another. Friday's show was more like a family reunion. As I got there it was interesting to see not only the band getting to know each other again, but seeing the same thing with their wives and girlfriends, and also watching their kids playing together for the first time. There was of course the type of reminiscing that comes from people who share a common experience and have not seen each other in quite some time. Throughout the night I heard many sorted tales about the Seapods' road odyssey, most of which falling way short of being suitable for publication. The family reunion vibe extended into the crowd as well. I spoke to people who had flown in from Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, and Oregon to be a part of the reunion.
The family reunion vibe continued on stage right from the opening band. The opener Jerkwater Ruckus is led by former Seapods' road manager Rich Lemire. The Ruckus got the crowd all riled up with an hour-long hard rocking set, that kept the crowd moving. By the time the Seapods took the stage moving was impossible, as Valentines was packed beyond capacity, as there were literally people out the side doors and on the fire escape. The Seapods opened with one of their classics, Leaving the Monopole. Again the band seemed pretty tight, but I think some of that getting reacquainted feeling carried over on stage, as the band did not seem totally relaxed with each other yet. I could especially see Verna and Pasternack trying to get their communication down. There were times when Verna would not do too much, (most notably in Money to Burn), and would let Pasternack do all the shredding. Highlights of the set included, Waiting for the Bomb to Drop, Josephine's Grand Motion, and Jet Smooth Ride.
The Seapods opened the second set with one of their most beloved classics, "Bong Hits and Porn". They had the energy down, but they still did not seem totally in sync yet. The turning point seemed to come in a Pasternack song "Till Then". During the song I saw the two guitarists hand off solos. Verna ended up leading the band through a spacey jam and for the first time in the evening it seemed as if the band were hitting on all six cylinders. The second set also included appearances from a couple a friends. Lo Faber who produced the band's album Jet Smooth Ride, sat in on The Theme For Another Enlighten Rogue, and Terry Lynch (formerly of Conehead Buddha) added trumpet to The Guide To Roadside Ecology". The band closed the set with a rousing version of Blackberry Brandy. The encore began with just Verna and Moratta on stage for the song Keep In Mind. The rest of the band came in one by one by the end of the song, and finished the night with a funky version of Hey Donny Osmond. The show had definitely exceeded my expectations, but it gave no hint of what was to follow the next night.
Which brings me back to the bizarre scene in the New York's north country. I had heard stories about what goes on up there, but nothing could prepare me for what I found. The only way to describe this Winter Carnival is to picture Mardi gras in the snow and on LSD, and you may start to get an idea. You could easily tell who the locals were by their elaborate costumes, and the plethora of beads. Not to mention they were the ones who could hardly stand, let alone walk. The atmosphere in the room was pure party. Before the band even stepped on stage, items such as beads, streamers, and balloons were constantly raining down from the balcony. It was clear, this was to be no family reunion; this was to be a total freak out, Seapod style.
This atmosphere allowed the band to turn back the clock, and genuinely recreate the old Seapod experience. It all started during Schizophrenic Rain. In the middle of the song Monteith and Verna pulled their shirts over their heads and started jumping around the stage promoting the "Ominous Seapods Belly Bucking Workout Video". The two then squared off in a round of belly bucking. It was clear, then, any barriers that existed the previous night had been obliterated, and the spirit of mutiny was in the air. The crowd was treated to two more skits throughout the night during Holy War, and Bong Hits and Porn. .
Of course the night was not all about comedy, as the band really wailed and seemed a lot tighter as if they had never taken a break. It was like the previous night was a warm up and tonight was the real thing. Musical highlights included First Day In California, Jump for Joy, and Taste Sensation Overload. After two sets that clocked in at about three and a half hours, the Seapods still had more left for an encore. The encore started with Pirozzi on guitar and Monteith on bass, for the Ol' TP love ballad, Ship. Once Monteith and Pirozzi returned to their rightful positions, the band launched into a hard rocking and humorous Bolognious, which featured a full out vocal improvisation between Monteith and Verna. The band had planned to continue with the encore, but the cops came and made the venue shut down because things were getting rowdy outside and a girl had gotten beaten up. It was an unfortunate end to the weekend, though I cannot say I am surprised considering the state amongst some in the audience.
After the show, I spoke with the band, which seemed extremely enthused by it all. "It was totally mutated, great fun," said Monteith. However I think Piorzzi put it best when he said, "It was great, it was like having sex with your old girlfriend." Pasternack quickly added "And then she's like moving to China and you never have to see her again." I asked if tonight was a better representation of the Seapod experience. "Things came out tonight that didn't come out last night, but we used to do a long time ago. Like that Monopole jam," said Pirozzi. Verna added that, "things got pretty surreal, it all kind of came out of nowhere." I asked the two guitarists what the experience of playing with one another." What was interesting for me," Verna said, "is that we did stuff that we started to do before I left the band, and Todd really had some exciting new ideas to my stuff." Pasternack added, "I was just psyched to play these songs, they're great songs." As far as blending the two different versions of the band. "I think the unintentional result was the combo of the two bands into a amalgam", Moratta pointed out, "it never felt like this is Todd's Seapods, or now its Max's Seapods. It was one big show". As we were wrapping up our interview, the artificial fireplace, which had long been a Seapod stage fixture, feel from the stage and the lights went out. "Now we know the weekends officially over," Verna said.