The Dream Syndicate gets a second life
Influential rockers get weirder with a new audience
The world was never prepared for the Dream Syndicate. The group broke up in 1989, when the MTV-saturated public hadn't warmed to its unwieldy, freewheeling jams. The Days of Wine and Roses, the group's 1982 debut, was divorced from the sounds of its contemporaries. Its style formed an oasis of psychedelic experimentation in a landscape dominated by punk and synthesizers. Lead guitarist and singer Steve Wynn first formed the Dream Syndicate to create the music he couldn't find in other bands. "We were not En Vogue," Wynn says. "The Dream Syndicate was our own way of wanting to hear music we weren't hearing from artists, except from our record collection."
Wynn realized the world had finally caught up with the group when he revived the Dream Syndicate from an indefinite hiatus in 2012. Its comeback show was a festival in Barcelona. Wynn presided over an audience of almost 10,000 that comprised newcomer fans, old diehards, and curious onlookers. Despite the massive crowd, Wynn brimmed with confidence. "Right from that first show it was very natural and easy," he says. "There were no nerves, no sweating."
The Dream Syndicate's influence disseminated through the years in bands that brought a more radio-friendly take on the group's jazzy jangle rock. Chris Robinson and Steve Gorman decided to form the Black Crowes while the Dream Syndicate were opening for R.E.M. at the Fox Theater. "Atlanta was one the of first cities that got what we were doing," Wynn says. "We were a strange, freaky, weird, psychedelic garage band before any of that was fashionable."
Even though the latest version of the Dream Syndicate still plays the same songs as its original incarnation, the band is a wholly different beast. Outside of Wynn, the only long-standing members are drummer Dennis Duck and bassist Mark Walton. The group's guitarist, Jason Victor, may be a newcomer to the band, but for years he's been covering many of the same songs in Wynn's side project, Miracle 3. "Jason is the X factor in the band right now," Wynn says. "He makes us a different and probably a better thing than we were before."
The key difference in today's Dream Syndicate stems from its newfound audience more than its lineup changes. Wynn admits the group's later albums, Ghost Stories and 50 in a 25 Zone, moved to the "middle of the road" in terms of experimentation. But he relishes the freedom offered to him by a more open-minded audience. In its underground heyday, the band would indulge in extending one song to one or even two hours, "just to piss people off," Wynn says. "It was kind of hostile waters when we were playing at first. Now it's absolutely liberating to go anywhere we want at any moment."
The band's latest shows incorporate a greater emphasis on unpredictable jams with the aim of making each concert a singular experience rather than a faithful adaptation of its songs. Wynn's musical forefathers date back to champions of unfettered improvisation such as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Both jazz visionaries were notorious for extended songs and wild improvisations that abandoned all common notions of melody and rhythm in favor of capturing the emotions of the moment. "We're more excited about bringing something new than nailing the song right every time," Wynn says. "The show is your life. You have to be open to that. If you're not, then nothing comes out."
Wynn is gracing the Dream Syndicate's Atlanta comeback shows with full U.S. performances of the group's first two, and most popular, albums, 1982's The Days of Wine and Roses and 1984's The Medicine Show. Neither one has been performed in its entirety during Dream Syndicate's career. Wynn's current approach to this one-time nostalgia special is simply to not think too much about it until it's show time. Thirty-three years after the Dream Syndicate formed, Wynn still just wants to play for the musical camaraderie. "We go into these show with no intent," he says. "We're just happy to play together as friends and rediscover something we were doing back then."
As for how long this reunion will hold, Wynn says indefinitely. He even mentions an album could be in the works, though he is still somewhat hazy on the details. He's a different person than the 21-year-old who founded the group, but his optimism for the future provides the Dream Syndicate a new life outside its time.