It’s hard to believe that 35 years have passed since Jamestown, New York’s 10,000 Maniacs exploded onto the music scene. The first time I heard Natalie Merchant’s vocals paired with the band’s music, I was hooked. In My Tribe is still one of my all-time favorites, in fact, it is one of those rare records that I can listen to all the way through and love every cut. After many tumultuous years of personnel switch-ups, founding members Dennis Drew (Hammond B3, piano and keyboards) and Steven Gustafson (bass) still remain with the group along with Jerome Augustyniak (drums/percussion), Jeff Erickson (lead guitar), John Lombardo (acoustic and electric guitar/vocals) and Mary Ramsey (lead vocals, viola and violin). Joined by additional strings and a horn section, The Maniacs returned to perform in Jamestown, the place it all began for them, and recorded the 14-song release, Playing Favorites, at the Reg Lenna Center for the Arts on September 13, 2014. Culling from Secrets of the I Ching (1983), The Wishing Chair (1985), In My Tribe (1987), Blind Man’s Zoo (1989), Our Time in Eden (1992), MTV Unplugged (1993) and Love Among the Ruins (1997), there is a varietal offering from different eras to whet every appetite.
Fan favs “What’s the Matter Here,” “Like the Weather,” “Trouble Me,” “Candy Everybody Wants” and “These are Days” are mingled with covers including Bryan Ferry’s “More Than This” (popularized by Ferry’s band, Roxy Music) and “Because the Night” (famously recorded by Patti Smith and written by Smith and Bruce Springsteen). Noticeably absent, for me, is “To Sir With Love,” which 10,000 Maniacs performed along with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. at the 1993 Rock and Roll Inaugural Ball. It was never included on an official Maniacs release, so all the more reason to include it here. Of these three covers, it remains my top pick.
Also included are a handful of slightly deeper nuggets, ones that the casual fan might not recognize but that the diehard would know immediately, such as “My Sister Rose” and “Hey Jack Kerouac,” as well as “Love Among the Ruins,” “Can’t Ignore the Train,” “Stockton Gala Days” and “Rainy Day.” Rounding it out with the very early “My Mother the War,” which screams Joy Division’s influence and is the only track that doesn’t feature Ramsey on vocals, there is a fine representation of tunes spanning the years.
While Ramsey’s vocals are close enough to Merchant’s to be plausible, there are moments where she doesn’t quite hit the note, and in fact, there are times when she tries a little too hard to sound like the original lead singer. But in fairness to Ramsey, she ISN’T Merchant, she has her own style and she has taken over vocals basically without skipping a beat. The strings are a refreshing addition but at times are a bit too much, the horns are appropriately understated, and the Hammond B3 accents along with the guitar work are brilliant.
Overall, this is an enjoyable reinterpretation of classic Maniacs material, and for those who can’t get out to see them during their tour, it is the next best thing.