It was a Big Deal time slot: Lollapalooza co-headliners Wilco and Rage Against the Machine were scheduled to go on at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 2, only about an hour after The Toadies were scheduled to perform their own gig at the three-day Chicago festival.
And, in a sense, it was like a perfect storm—which is to say that most roads led fans to The Toadies' set. During the revered Fort Worth post-grunge band's time slot, there were only two options for festival-goers: seeing retro soul act Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings—definitely a worthy choice for some fans—or taking a chance on a set from a band most attendees hadn't thought about in, oh, 10 years or so. As a result, there The Toadies were—frontman Vaden Todd Lewis, guitarist Clark Vogeler, drummer Mark Reznicek and new bass player Doni Blair (formerly of Hagfish)—about to play a show in Chicago's Grant Park to a massive crowd of curious listeners.
"It scared the fuck out of me," Lewis admits over lunch at Matt's in the Lakewood neighborhood, still reeling from the Lollapalooza experience. "It was scary. We were in front of 40 or 50 thousand people. And I knew that, for a majority of them, 'Possum Kingdom' would be the one thing that they knew of ours—if that. But they were into it. Into it! And it felt great."
The Toadies perform Friday, August 22, at the Palladium Ballroom. On Sunday, August 31, at Possum Kingdom Lake, The Toadies will perform alongside Lions, Dove Hunter, THe BAcksliders and The Tejas Brothers as part of the First Annual Dia de Los Toadies.
Looking back on the event, Lewis calls the whole experience "exhilarating." More than that, though, it also offered him a great sense of relief. It's been 14 years since he and his band mates in The Toadies rose to national prominence. With the release of their debut full-length release, Rubberneck, in 1994, and, subsequently, the release of that album's immensely popular hit single, "Possum Kingdom," that same year, The Toadies rose from its status as a popular Dallas-Fort Worth act to become a staple—if only because of "Possum Kingdom" and a few other tracks from Rubberneck—on alternative rock-formatted radio stations across the country.
The band survived seven years (including a failed follow-up attempt that was never pressed) on Rubberneck's success alone before releasing the follow-up record, 2001's Hell Below/Stars Above, for which keys, backup vocals and a more evident production process were added to the band's minimalist two guitars, one bass and one drum set-up.
But just five months after that disc's release, The Toadies announced that they would be breaking up; original bass player Lisa Umbarger wanted out, and without her, Lewis and the other members decided there was no point in continuing to create new Toadies songs.
The direction of Hell Below/Stars Above loaned itself to Lewis' next project, though, the bombastic modern rock act Burden Brothers. And as he toured with that moderately successful project, his band mates found new ventures of their own: Reznicek joined local country music favorite Eleven Hundred Springs; Vogeler became an editor for the cable reality TV series Project Runway. While each of the three remaining Toadies found success in their new paths, The Toadies, it seemed, were done for.
That is, until 2006, when, after the release of the Burden Brothers' second disc and after that band took a still-ongoing hiatus, The Toadies found themselves reuniting to play both the Dallas Observer's Greenville Avenue St. Patrick's Day Parade Party and KDGE-102.1 FM The Edge's annual How the Edge Stole Christmas bash. While those shows proved that there was still a demand for Toadies performances, nothing really came from that revelation. Well, not immediately.
Last year, Lewis found himself writing new riffs and lyrics at his home in Fort Worth. For what, he couldn't say. Maybe another Burden Brothers record. Maybe for a solo record. Maybe—just maybe—for another Toadies disc. When he sat down and thought about it, the last option made the most sense.
"The songs all had that weird, something-wrong-with-them thing that Toadies songs do," Lewis says. "I put all the Toadies-sounding ones on hold, and I called the other guys."
When Reznicek got the call, he balked.
"I kinda thought, when he was first talking about it, that he was gonna do a solo record and that he wanted me to play a couple songs on the solo record," the drummer says, sitting across the table from Lewis. "When he hit me with the full-on Toadies record, I thought, 'Ooh...lemme think about it.'"
The Toadies, as far as everyone was concerned—band members and fans alike—were a thing of the past. Everyone had moved on. But with a little convincing from Lewis, Reznicek and Vogeler eventually signed on.
Thanks to the time apart, Lewis found a renewed impetus. As a result, Toadies fans found a surprise CD release date on August 19: the band's first in seven years, No Deliverance.
"For me personally, the time apart has been helpful," Lewis says. "I used it to my advantage because it really helped me understand what makes the band click.
"This is the most confident thing that I've written. I know how to make a sure-footed record; we all do. We know how to do what we do and make it pop. I don't think that's missing from any previous Toadies records, but it's definitely the theme with this one."
Another prevalent theme to No Deliverance is familiarity. Compared with the two previous full-lengths from The Toadies, No Deliverance has a distinct lean toward the more-popular sound of Rubberneck. Lewis understands this—and to an extent, he planned it.
"It's hard to say that it plays on our strength without it sounding like we're trying to make Rubberneck 2 or 'Possum Kingdom 2' because by no means was I doing that," he says. "But while playing to my strengths in that well-defined area of two guitars, drums, bass and vocals, with minimal overdubs, it's back to a bare-bones Toadies sound."
That much is undeniable. The title track (which is also the lead single) apes the ZZ Top-esque, Texas-swing style of Rubberneck's "I Come From the Water." "Song I Hate" finds The Toadies in their Pixies-influenced pigeonhole, a la Rubberneck's "Tyler." There are other strong efforts too: opener "So Long Lovely Eyes" has the band coyly injecting poppy, cooing backing vocals into an otherwise heavy effort. "I Am a Man of Stone" manages both a flirtatious and vindictive vibe.
But Lewis is right; there is no "Possum Kingdom 2" to be found on the album—"Don't Go My Way" may structurally be the closest, thanks to its similar loud-quiet-loud arrangement—and that means there's no standout, immediate smash hit to be found on the album.
That's not to say the album fails. For the die-hard fan searching for a continued give-and-take with his or her favorite band, No Deliverance makes a fantastic offering. For the casual listener, it's a fun record, an exciting diversion and an enjoyable reminder of the band's entertaining past. It's every bit as gritty, heavy and loud—if not more so—than any of the band's previous efforts. But, ultimately, it's no career-definer.
Lewis and Reznicek seem to understand that. They know that, when they tour, as they will extensively this fall, their fans will want to hear their old songs. Even at Lollapalooza, before launching into "Possum Kingdom," Lewis reportedly announced to the crowd, "Hey, we're that band that played that one song!"
He explains how that applies to No Deliverance: "I didn't care if people bought it or dug it or not—and that sounds like bullshit—but I wanted to make a record that sounded like and really represented the band and what we were good at and where we are now. That was my objective," he says.
Consider that objective complete. Whether that means the completion of the band's cycle, too, Lewis won't say.
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"I'm not gonna rule out more Toadies records," he says, before Reznicek cuts him off.
"Let's see how this one works out first," the drummer offers.
"Well," The Toadies frontman says with a sigh. "I've learned to never say never. Clearly."