Most groups were one-offs; but Mad Season could have been more than that
They were members of the biggest bands in the world at the time. But in Seattle, people didn’t stand on ceremony when it came to fame.
So in the early 1990s, it was no big deal to head down to your local club and find members of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, or Soundgarden playing a previously unannounced show.
Most groups were one-offs. But Mad Season could have been more than that. Though a side project for everyone involved, the original lineup — Layne Staley (Alice in Chains), Mike McCready (Pearl Jam), John Baker Saunders, Jr. (a Chicago-based blues musician), and Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees) — didn’t just play the occasional surprise Seattle-area shows, they released both an album and a concert video. The musicians enjoyed themselves so much that work began on a second album. But recording was curtailed due to Staley’s ongoing struggles with his addictions, and the band’s first phase was over.
Mad Season was started in the hopes of providing something positive to focus on while dealing with recovery. McCready had met Saunders while both were going through rehab at a clinic in Minnesota in 1994. When Saunders relocated to Seattle after treatment, McCready suggested the two start a band, playing guitar and bass, respectively. He also reached out to Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees) to play drums, as well as Layne Staley from Alice in Chains, then undergoing treatment himself. The group played their first unannounced show under the name the Gacy Bunch. But when they began work on their album, they chose the name Mad Season.
The name was a reference to the darkness in their mutual past; “mad season” referred to the time of year when psilocybin mushrooms were harvested. And it’s hard not to read references to the price substance abuse extracts in the lyrics — “Slow suicide’s no way to go” (“Wake Up”), “My pain is self-chosen” (“River of Deceit”), “Is this the way I spend my days/In recovery of a fatal disease” (“Artificial Red”). But that overlooks the broader scope of the project, which addresses the kind of deep-rooted spiritual pain anyone can relate to, hard rock marinated in the blues.
Yet there’s a delicate beauty about it too. Consider the opening track, “Wake Up,” which opens with the subdued notes of Saunders’ bass, followed by the mellow tones of a vibraphone, conjuring up the haunting Northwest noir soundtrack of Twin Peaks. McCready’s guitar lets rip later in the song, as does Staley’s vocal, but for the most part it’s restrained, contemplative (and at over seven and a half minutes, it’s also the album’s longest track). The mood is downbeat, but not without glimmers of hope, as Staley sings of pleading “for a little peace.”
VIDEO: Mad Season “River of Deceit”
There’s a similar feeling on some of the other tracks, like wistful “River of Deceit” (the album’s highest charting single), with Staley sounding plaintive as he sings of being pulled “down, oh down.” Or “Long Gone Days,” which opens with the distinctive baritone of Mark Lanegan (who provides additional vocals on half of the album’s tracks). Lanegan’s and Staley’s voices mesh wonderfully together, with a saxophone line (courtesy of Eric Walton, aka Sherik) providing additional covering, as it snakes through the song.
The quieter numbers highlight Staley’s expressive voice. But there are moments of roiling intensity as well. “X-Ray Mind” features the insinuating harmonies that stamped such a distinctive character on Alice in Chains’ music. “I Don’t Know Anything” opens with in disorienting fashion, the music seesawing back and forth, Staley chanting the song’s title like a mantra, finally building to the speculative question, “Why we have to live in so much hate every day.” “Lifeless Dead” is a brooding stomper, Staley sounding almost joyful when he screams out “Yeah! Lifeless dead!” in the chorus.
“Artificial Red” is the album’s halfway point, a slow, simmering blues, with Staley and McCready trading licks, Staley singing a line, and McCready batting it back. The final track sounds like it could be a prayer, with its gentle musical backing and thick harmonies — until you notice the title, “All Alone.” But the music is soothing, even dreamy; you can shut your eyes and imagine floating away. This is what keeps the album from sinking into despair; the music is just too beguiling.
But there would be a sad coda to the story. Baker died of a heroin overdose in 1999; Staley would follow in 2002. Ten years after Staley’s death, McCready and Martin revisited the band’s work, preparing a deluxe edition of the album that was released in 2013. They brought in Lanegan to record vocals for the three of the backing tracks that had been laid down during the 1996 sessions, and also included much live material in the two CD/one DVD package. The live tracks are a revelation; as powerful as the songs are in their studio renditions, the group was absolutely incendiary in concert (indeed, the live version of John Lennon’s “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier” is superior to the studio version, which was recorded for a tribute album).
A quarter century on, Mad Season’s music continues to reverberate. In the liner notes for the deluxe edition, Martin attributes this to Staley’s ability to exist “in a realm between darkness and light, a place where he could see both … Listen to his words, because he was singing a particular kind of truth that anyone who has lived under difficult circumstances can understand.”