What happens when you put three, four or 12 famous-in-their-own-right musicians together and tell them to write an album or go on tour? Decidedly mixed results.
Sometimes you can catch lightning in a bottle. Other times, you get a proverbial “Dealin’ With Idiots,” a movie written, directed by and starring Jeff Garlin, who called all his famous friends to make arguably the worst movie ever made.
One of my favorite examples of a supergroup working is when Dave Grohl of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin and Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age came together to cut one of the best albums of 2009 as Them Crooked Vultures and went on an international tour that received the highest of praises. If you haven’t checked out the album, it is an absolute must-listen for fans of any of the projects listed above.
Two other notable supergroups are Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and the Traveling Wilburys. The former brought together Buffalo Springfield bandmates Stephen Stills and Neil Young with David Crosby of The Byrds and Graham Nash of The Hollies. Crosby, Stills & Nash would stay together longer, but the album produced with Neil Young in the fold, 1970’s Déjà Vu, is by far their best work.
The latter of the two groups included Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty. Though I have never really been enamored with their two albums, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 and Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3, the talent in this group is unparalleled.
Festivals like Jazzfest and Bonnaroo have embraced the idea of supergroups and super jams, and have made those terms a part of the popular music lexicon.
Though I have never myself made it down to the Bonnaroo farm in Manchester, Tenn., through the power of live recordings, I have listened to some of the super jams, many of which were phenomenal.
Bringing together Jim James and Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, John Oates and Zigaboo Modeliste of The Meters together and throwing in guest spots from R. Kelly, Billy Idol and Larry Graham had potential written all over it, and certainly did not disappoint.
On the same token, bringing together D’Angelo with ?uestlove and some other handpicked musicians took about three songs for D’Angelo to get warmed up before coming out swinging for the final hour of the performance including a phenomenal cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Power of Soul” and a take on The Beatles’ classic “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.”
Unfortunately, sometimes putting a bunch of talented musicians together doesn’t live up to the lofty expectations placed upon the group. Other times, it just sounds plain horrible.
In 2006, Joe Russo and Marco Benevento of the Benevento/Russo Duo—a group familiar to few outside of the “jam” scene—came together with Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon of Phish for the super jam that year. As much as the fan-boy in me wants to say that this was the greatest super jam of all time, even a guest spot by Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead couldn’t save this performance from being dull and lifeless.
This group, touring under the moniker of G.R.A.B.—their last initials—ended up creating some listenable moments on the tour that ensued from this performance. However, this was a textbook example of throwing musicians together who should sound good but decidedly don’t.
In 2009, Chickenfoot formed, which featured Sammy Hagar, a.k.a. the lesser of the two Van Halen singers, Michael Anthony of kicked-out-of-Van Halen fame, Chad Smith of The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Joe Satriani of… Joe Satriani. Aside from featuring arguably the worst name of all time, Chickenfoot also featured some of the worst lyrics of all time. Also, Satriani’s guitar theatrics don’t really work within the context of a band, no matter how often in interviews he said it would.
Last but not least, as much as I love The Smashing Pumpkins, Zwan may be the worst supergroup ever put together. With Billy Corgan and Pumpkins bandmate Jimmy Chamberlin coming back together post-breakup number who knows what, you know you’re probably off to a bad start. Throw in Matt Sweeney of Chavez and Skunk and David Pajo of a number of different bands, you think, “This could be really good.”
It wasn’t. In fact, it should serve as a cautionary tale to all supergroups that sometimes these just don’t work. The moral of the story is that as with all bands, sometimes as much as the pieces may fit together on paper, when they all get on stage together, everything needs to work properly for it to sound good.
So as far as replacing Jon Fishman and Page McConnell with the Benevento/Russo Duo sounds like a perfect fit, and having Mike Gordon on his own perform with the Duo sounds fantastic, you may also end up with Zwan.
Think every supergroup is a Zwan waiting to happen? Tell Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org