As I write this post, I'm sitting in The Wishing Chair. That's the name of a 10,000 Maniacs album from 1985, and also reflects my wish that the band be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It would be a much-deserved honor.
I've felt this way for years, but the feeling grew more intense when I saw the 1981-launched group perform on July 9. More on that concert in a few minutes -- after I list 10,000 reasons (give or take 9,994) why 10,000 Maniacs should be enshrined with rock's royalty.
1. The group from Jamestown, N.Y., has pioneering credentials. 10,000 Maniacs was among the first indie bands (self-producing/manufacturing/marketing its early records) and also among the first alternative-rock bands (along with groups such as R.E.M., which ... ahem ... is in the aforementioned hall of fame).
2. 10,000 has expertly handled various musical genres. These include post-punk (as exemplified by "My Mother the War"), hard rock, soft rock, folk rock, message rock, etc. No matter what the genre, 10,000 Maniacs always manages to sound melodic. Heck, tunes such as 1992's "These Are Days" are so catchy you might dance on top of a skyscraper.
3. "My Mother the War" has to be one of the most exciting songs by any band during the 1980s. That electronic drone of a masterpiece -- which would have done the Clash proud -- is one example of how 10,000 Maniacs has the "cool" factor the rock hall often seems to want. Plus, there aren't many band names cooler than "10,000 Maniacs"!
4. 10,000 Maniacs has resolutely kept on going despite losing several members. Superb singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant left the band in 1993 for a successful solo career, but she was replaced by the also superb singer/viola player Mary Ramsey. John Lombardo -- the guitarist who co-wrote early 10,000 Maniacs hits such as "My Mother the War" and "Can't Ignore the Train" with Merchant -- left the group, returned, and left again. (He and the silvery voiced Ramsey have also made music as the John and Mary duo.) 10,000 Maniacs lead guitarist Robert Buck -- who co-wrote tunes such as "These Are Days" and "Hey Jack Kerouac" with Merchant -- died in 2000, and was succeeded by Jeff Erickson. Through all this soldiering on, the band continued to sound as good as ever. That's a compelling story of perseverance.
5. Members of the 10,000 Maniacs know how to play. Buck was one of the most underrated guitarists in rock history, while Erickson is also a master at that instrument. Ramsey is so good at the viola that any symphony orchestra would be thrilled to have her. Jerry Augustyniak, Dennis Drew, and Steve Gustafson are wonderful on the drums, keyboards, and bass, respectively, and "guest Maniac" Maria Sebastian provides able support on backing guitar along with her backing vocals.
6. While the bulk of what 10,000 Maniacs members play is their own material, they have an amazing knack for taking other bands' songs and making them sound better than the originals. Two examples include their 1997 cover of Roxy Music's "More Than This" and their 2010 take on Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart." 10,000 Maniacs is also known for its knockout version of the Bruce Springsteen/Patti Smith classic "Because the Night."
As 10,000 Maniacs nears its 30th anniversary this September, the band has been working on a new album and continuing to tour -- nearly two decades after playing at Bill Clinton's inauguration ball as well as at Madison Square Garden. Now the group is making the rounds of smaller venues such as Manhattan's City Winery, where the July 9 concert took place.
Only a group as great as 10,000 Maniacs could have drawn a teetotaler like me to a club with "Winery" in its name, and the experience was well worth it. Band members gave it all they got -- playing energetically for nearly two hours, joking with each other, and engaging the audience. Heck, 10,000 Maniacs members were so engaging that they mingled with attendees after the New York show, when I got the chance to speak briefly with the personable Gustafson. And the band has none of the macho posturing of some rock groups.
A few concert highlights: stately renditions of "Eden" and "Rainy Day," heartfelt takes on "What's the Matter Here?" (about child abuse) and "Cherry Tree" (about illiteracy), and scorching versions of "Stockton Gala Days" and The Cure's "Just Like Heaven." The band also performed three new or fairly new tunes -- including "Gold," a moving tribute to Robert Buck that featured lead vocals by Erickson. I wish 10,000 Maniacs had also played the just-released "Triangles," a beautiful mid-tempo song that's among the group's best ever, but you can't have everything!
I'd love to see 10,000 Maniacs again soon -- in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.