Chagall Guevara: Halcyon Days [Album Review]

Chagall Guevara
Halcyon Days
Splint Entertainment [2022]

No doubt every serious music listener has got a few pet bands that have been relegated to the world of “shoulda, coulda, woulda,” an act you encountered in their early days that impressed you that they had the songs, the sound, the talent, the smarts to go the distance and break into the big time but things never quite connected and they either broke up or labored on in obscurity. And like most rock critics who’ve been around the block a time or two, that keep a list of the “one’s that got away,” I’ve got a dozen of ‘em. Often these bands are the thing of late-night conversations when you’re telling stories about the unsigned band you saw play a perfect set, the debut album that blew you away and convinced you they had sure-fire hits, the one that won you over before fading into oblivion. Of those bands that break up after failing to grab the brass ring, rarely do they regroup to produce new music even if they routinely do a holiday reunion show for the hometown fans. Nashville band, Chagall Guevara has proven to be an exception to that rule.

The band’s 1991 self-titled debut on MCA Records earned them a Rolling Stone Magazine review that declared that “Not since the Clash has a group so effectively turned militant discontent into passionate rock & roll.” A year earlier, they had a song, “Tale O’ the Twister,” included on the soundtrack of the major film, “Pump Up the Volume,” and there was lots of talk about the band’s rapturous live shows around the Nashville region, and I finally got to see the band live at the Cornerstone Festival near Chicago on the July 4th weekend of ’91. Of course, that year the breakout album was Nirvana’s Nevermind, followed by the Seattle grunge scene successes for Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and the rest. There was talk of a European tour for Chagall G, opening for Squeeze or the like, then rumors surfaced about a live album recorded in a Nashville club, and new songs tracked in the studio while they worked to escape their deal with MCA… and then radio silence.

In the 30-year interim, Dave Perkins – the blues-y lead half of Chagall’s two guitar attack – went to grad school, earned a PhD and taught at Vanderbilt for a dozen years, finding time to record a blazing indie blues/rock album in ’09, Pistol City Holiness, and a pop/rock release, 2017’s Fugitive Colors. And of course, the band’s front man & lead singer Steve Taylor, who’d had a successful recording career in the Christian rock genre and directed a few films, returned to his familiar audience and recorded his best solo album to date, Squint (’93, Warner Alliance), a smartly written collection of witty, satirical songs, recorded with the Chagall Guevara rhythm section of Wade Jaynes on bass and Mike Mead on drums. In 2014, Taylor put together another band, The Perfect Foil,” with bassist John Mark Painter, Jimmy Abegg on guitars, and Peter Furler on drums, recording one album, Goliath, for his own label Splint Entertainment via a kickstarter campaign.

In 2020, signs of a return of Chagall Guevara began to surface when Splint launched a kickstarter for that long lost live album; then as if by magic a professionally filmed video of the band’s C’stone Fest performance I attended back in ’91 showed up on youtube, with crisp, high-end audio and the band’s full set, including encores. Fan response was strong and the 30-year-old live album arrived last year, “The Last Amen,” catching the band in their prime. It’s a killer concert set. The talk of the band finishing up that lost second album following the same fan-funding route found early supporters receiving an album with 8 un-released tracks and a long available cover of a Mark Heard song, “Treasure of a Broken Land.” Now, at long last, Halcyon Days is released for commercial access through bandcamp on July 1, 2022, just in time for their hometown Ryman Auditorium show on Saturday night.

Three decades later, this album comes out swinging. Still intact is the band’s 1-2 guitar punch of Lynn Nichols bright, ringing sound going head-to-head with Perkins’ bluesy overdriven classic rock riffing. Their chosen instruments (as seen on the video) describe the tension: Nichols on a Rickenbacker (see Beatles and Byrds); while Perkins’ overdriven gold-top Les Paul. Mead and Jaynes create the strong rhythmic foundation required to raise the lofty melodic rants of Taylor, and the sound is given a crisp, punchy, driving rock mix by Matt Wallace (Replacements, Faith No More), who also produced the MCA debut. While the new tracks connect smartly with the band’s early work, it sounds as fresh, relevant and actually more intense than most rock albums I’ve heard this year.

The opening track, “Resurrection #9” takes on a world in thrall of a cult of personality: “the idol has a human face/his prophet hides a can of mace/and the dogma has a dollar sign, sign, sign.” It’s all about power and everyone is strapped: “all these self-evident truths are evidently useless/when ultimate use is personal gain, personal power/and once I’ve got my piece/to keep the peace/I’m going to need my own personal police.” It’s a world where “every good endeavor needs a medal and a selfie.” It’s a world where politicians and materialism have failed us (“Got Any Change?” and “Goldfingers”), and all that’s left for us is to “Surrender” because “us pirates, punks, priests: we’re all kind of bored/of trying to hoard our attitudes and monetize them.” We’re all too jaded to believe in the return to the hazy glaze of those good, old, promised “Halcyon Days,” we know that “A Bullet’s Worth a Thousand Words,” and it leaves us wondering if “I, Madness” is our only recourse. It’s not a pretty picture, but the music’s too good, so don’t look away.

One more track goes all the way back to the band’s early days, “Still Know Your Number By Heart,” a comical take on their hometown’s musical heritage, a blazing, fast country rout describing a convicts romance with his parole officer. The Heard cover feels like a bonus track, with Perkins singing lead, a smoking harmonica solo and the intertwining guitars… it’s a killer rendition of a great old song that deserves a second life.

When I hear this band’s big crunchy rock riffs, the solid musical interplay of these fine musicians, and Taylor’s charismatic vocal delivery, this smart, cutting social commentary and catchy pop melodic hooks, I’m utterly flummoxed as to why this band didn’t make a much bigger splash the first time around. Here’s hoping they’ll hang in there for another decade or so and give us more albums like this in the days to come. We’re going to need all the help we can get.

“Resurrection #9” / “Surrender” / “Got Any Change?”

Spoon / Interpol / Stone Temple Pilots

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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