By Erik Thompson
In 1995, two of the biggest rock stars in the world were completely adrift.
Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder was having a difficult time adjusting to the intense fame and attention of being in one of the most popular bands in the world. While Nirvana’s Dave Grohl was still reeling from the death of his friend and bandmate Kurt Cobain, and was trying to piece his life back together with a new batch of 8-track demos he had privately written and recorded on his own. That’s when Mike Watt stepped in and saved them both.
Watt, the legendary bassist for Minutemen and fIREHOSE, assembled a dream team of ‘90s alt-rock musicians for his 1995 album, Ball-Hog or Tugboat? Flea, Frank Black, J Mascis, Henry Rollins, Kathleen Hanna, Thurston Moore, Ad Rock and Mike D, Dave Pirner, Mark Lanegan, Krist Novoselic, as well as Vedder and Grohl, joined a host of other talented artists who participated in the collaborative fun of Watt’s first ever solo record.
To promote the album, Watt recruited Vedder and Grohl to join him, with the two megastars getting to return to their early rock and roll roots by playing small clubs again and driving tour vans across the country. Vedder (donning a long blond wig) played drums in his then-wife Beth Liebling’s band, Hovercraft, who opened the show.
Anchoring the middle slot on the tour was Grohl’s brand new group, Foo Fighters, featuring Sunny Day Real Estate’s Nate Mendel and William Goldsmith, along with the Germs Pat Smear, who had been Nirvana’s touring guitarist. The Foos were touring the U.S. for the very first time, and debuting an unheard batch of new songs that would eventually appear on their self-titled debut that was released shortly after the tour ended.
It was a chance for both Vedder and Grohl to escape the harsh glare of the music world’s spotlight and avoid constant scrutiny by the press. There was no mention of either artist in the promotion for the tour or each individual show. This was billed strictly as a Mike Watt tour, and the guys barnstormed through 31 shows in 42 days.
But even in an era without social media, by the halfway point of the tour word had spread about the special guests on the bill, and by the time the “Ring Spiel” tour rolled into First Avenue on May 8, 1995, most everyone in the packed club knew that Vedder and Grohl were involved.
Hovercraft’s experimental set was a dizzying multi-media display, with a series of films projected on stage that complimented the band’s provocative art rock sound. But everyone was straining to see Vedder, tucked back in the shadows behind a drum kit sporting a wig that made him look unrecognizable. With Pearl Jam playing larger and larger venues at that point in their career, it was still a thrill to see Vedder back on the First Avenue stage, a club that he and his PJ bandmates played only three years earlier on their way to becoming the biggest band in the world.
No one in the crowd had heard any of the Foo Fighters songs at this point, so none of us knew what to expect from their set. The first thing that immediately caught our attention was Grohl was no longer behind the drums, he would be leading his new band out front on guitar. The second thing that quickly became apparent was that these songs were fucking great. There was an urgency and volatility to the early Foo Fighters songs, with Grohl leading the way as an assured, enthusiastic frontman leading an ace band behind him.
The quick-hitting show was cathartic for everyone in attendance, with Kurt’s death still casting a dark pall over all of alternative nation. There was plenty of anguish and anger in the early Foos songs, but there was also a sense of healing and perseverance that coursed through the tracks, and that courageous spirit provided the crowd -- and the band -- with a much needed emotional release.
Even in their infancy, you could tell that Foo Fighters were going to be another massive success for Grohl and his bandmates. “This Is A Call,” “I’ll Stick Around,” and “For All The Cows” sounded absolutely huge from the very first notes. And even though the songs were all new to us, when Grohl screamed “I don’t owe you anything!” the club erupted in a giant pit, as his fierce statement of defiance resonated deeply with his supportive fans who were still right by his side. It was a triumphant coming out party for the Foo Fighters, a smashing success that they would only build on when they came back to First Ave as headliners three months later.
Vedder and Grohl finished off the evening happily playing a supporting role to Watt, one of their musical heroes. Grohl was back behind the kit playing drums for much of the set (joining the band on guitar for a few songs), while Vedder ditched the wig and came out front to play guitar as Watt led the way on bass and vocals. They were all having so much damn fun on stage, joking around between songs and clearly enjoying playing together.
And the band that Watt assembled was top notch, one of the best to ever grace the hallowed First Ave stage. In addition to Watt, Vedder, and Grohl, Smear joined in on guitar and Goldsmith played drums whenever Grohl came out from behind the kit. And at this point deep in the tour, the group was hitting on all cylinders.
The Ring Spiel 1995 tour remains one of the best shows I’ve ever seen at First Avenue, and I’ve seen hundreds (thousands?) of them in that room. There was such joy and warm camaraderie emanating off the stage that night. Of course it was a thrill to see Vedder and Grohl play a small club again, but the night was about so much more than that.
It was about the healing, uplifting power of music, and a celebration of the friends that we turn to in our times of need. Everyone on stage that night had experienced profound loss in their lives, and all of them turned to music to help them heal and find their way through the darkness and the pain.
I’m so glad I “got in the ring” that night with Watt and his distinguished company, and took a ride with them that I won’t soon forget.