Review: Jellyfish, “Live at Bogart’s”
When Jellyfish’s Live at Bogart’s was recorded on February 21, 1991, did anybody realize that neither the band nor the venue were long for this world? On December 2, 1993, The Los Angeles Times lamented the closure of the Long Beach, California club, calling it a “mighty blow” to the local music community. Yet Bogart’s actually outlasted the first iteration of the band that hailed from miles up north in the San Francisco Bay Area. Andy Sturmer (drums/vocals), Roger Joseph Manning Jr. (keyboards/vocals) and Jason Falkner (guitars/vocals) – aided live by Chris Manning (bass/vocals) – called it a day following the tour in support of its 1990 album Bellybutton. Andy and Roger soldiered on as Jellyfish with 1993’s Spilt Milk, but the group that had burned so brightly soon faded away. Jellyfish disbanded just one year later, leaving behind a two-album legacy that was great in influence if small in size. Omnivore Recordings won’t let us forget just how exciting the group could be, though, on the newly-unleashed Live at Bogart’s (OVCD-25). Even if both the band and the venue are now things of the past, the music is as present as today.
1991 was the year of Pearl Jam’s debut and Nirvana’s breakthrough Nevermind, but where songwriters Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning were concerned, it might as well have been the year of Badfinger, Cheap Trick, Big Star and The Beach Boys. Their tight, hour-long set at Bogart’s, leaning heavily on the Bellybutton repertoire, certainly recalled those forebears more so than any of their contemporaries. High-energy, amped-up power pop was the order of the evening, with the songs calling out for handclaps, harmonies alternately recalling The Beach Boys or Queen, and melodies that might have crackled out of an AM radio years earlier, albeit with a post-punk attack. Jellyfish paid tribute to those past pioneers with a twist, and it’s that sense of the unexpected that makes Live at Bogart’s so engaging, even as the sound threatens to jump right out of your speakers!
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And that sound is raw and unvarnished in this setting. The energy of a live performance imbues the tracks here, nine of which originated on Bellybutton. In fact, the band performed every song on that album with the exception of “Bedspring Kiss.” The set is rounded out with one preview of a song that would feature on sophomore album Spilt Milk (“Bye Bye Bye”), one that wouldn’t appear on record until 2002’s Fan Club compilation, and a handful of sometimes-surprising covers. Foremost among those is “Hold Your Head Up,” from seventies hitmakers Argent. Kicking off the gig, it segues into “Hello” (“And welcome to our show…”) which could be a hoary cliché but instead makes for a powerful, utterly delectable opening salvo. All of the elements of the band’s success are in “Hello”: Jason Falkner’s aggressive guitars, Chris Manning’s present bass, Roger Manning’s ethereal keyboards, Andy Sturmer’s propulsive and often furious drums, plus the group’s frequently British Invasion-esque vocals. (Never mind that the band hailed from California.) Sturmer also leans towards Freddie Mercury as a singer, never afraid to emote and bring an air of drama to the pop proceedings.
Though those familiar with Bellybutton will be rewarded with these alternate looks at favorite songs, Live at Bogart’s is completely accessible to those discovering the band for the first time. The pop nuggets here positively sparkle, and the album is easily digestible, though ultimately more rewarding with repeated listens. “Calling Sarah” is a delightfully sweet ode from afar to the titular lady: “She’s delicious beyond compare/I’d love to tell her but instead I stare…” while “The King is Half-Undressed” emphasizes atmosphere over a straightforward lyric. It nicely juxtaposes a catchy melody with its plaintive story, adding to the weirdness with a beautiful, SMiLE-esque vocal interlude which is greeted by the Bogart’s audience (unobtrusive and mixed low throughout) with applause and appreciative screams. Sturmer and Roger Manning even got the chance, later, to work with Brian Wilson on an abortive recording session. The sway of the Beach Boy is again evident on “Baby’s Coming Back,” with its swirling, carnival-esque keyboards that recall the central figure on “The Little Girl I Once Knew.” (In his enjoyable liner notes, Lee Lodyga hears a bit of The Partridge Family in the outro to “Baby’s.” He must be hearing “Come On, Get Happy,” which owes a distinct debt to…”The Little Girl I Once Knew.”) Had Jellyfish lasted longer and attracted a mainstream audience, the band might have been served the perfect “gateway drug” to the ouevre of their influences.
Other styles combine to make the “Jellyfish sound.” You might hear a dash of the Byrds-gone-country here, or Todd Rundgren there, on the jangly “Bye Bye Bye,” and a real sincerity on the ballad “I Wanna Stay Home.” Beatle-esque harmonies take precedence over Beach Boys-styled ones on “She Still Loves Him” and “That is Why,” but the musical flavor constantly shifts. Whenever Falkner sounds as if he might be channeling George Harrison on guitar, he might soon let loose with a blazing solo that owes more to hard-rock heroes than to the Quiet Beatle. The edgy “All I Want is Everything” is a feedback-laden garage explosion. “The Man I Used to Be” is a moody, piano-driven opus about a family torn apart at the seams, with nautical imagery and raw directness: “Medals don’t mean shit when a family is lost at sea” cuts to the bone.
Live at Bogart’s spins gold out of a few choice covers, too. A jokey Three Dog Night reference opens “Now She Knows She’s Wrong” when the band acknowledges the riff’s resemblance to the Harry Nilsson-written “One” (as in “is the loneliest number”). The No. 62 pop hit “Baby’s Coming Back” is prefaced by a sarcastic, punk-ish reference to “the greatest rock and roll group that ever lived,” Player. “Baby Comes Back” then makes an obligatory appearance for a few lines. The band is more reverent on a predictable but incredibly spot-on rendition of Badfinger’s “No Matter What” and a too-brief snippet of Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Let ‘Em In” that opens the appropriately Beatle-esque “That is Why.” (Forget the guitar. The title sounds like something George Harrison might have written.) There isn’t too much between-song chatter on the disc, but the music’s joyful noise speaks for itself.
A fine companion to Omnivore’s recent live releases from disparate acts The Knack and Buck Owens, Live at Bogart’s presents the first complete picture of this exciting concert. Two tracks (the “Hold Your Head Up/Hello” medley and “Will You Marry Me”) were first aired on Fan Club, and six more songs were released on a 1991 EP. The remaining five selections are making their debut here. Producer Cheryl Pawelski has overseen the lovingly-designed package, which sits nicely alongside the bright colors and offbeat artwork of Jellyfish’s two studio albums. Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen have done a fine job remastering the original tracks produced by Jack Joseph Puig and Bee Gees collaborator Albhy Galuten.
The photo on the rear tray card shows the members of Jellyfish embracing, and mugging for the camera. That camaraderie was, of course, short-lived. Following the band’s break-up, Sturmer and Chris Manning both found success as producers, while Roger Manning worked with Beck and recorded a solo album. Falkner joined Jon Brion (one of the contributors to the Falkner-less Spilt Milk) in the band The Grays. Roger Manning and Falkner have reunited in recent years as songwriters, and both played with Cheap Trick in 2009. But for fans of the sound these men made together as Jellyfish, Live at Bogart’s adds one more, very welcome chapter to a book that most thought had already been closed.