SEATTLE -- Before they even took the stage Friday, the Presidents of the United States of America had built their final performance as more of a celebration than an occasion for sadness or any regret.
"There are over 300 people on the guest list," guitbassist Dave Dederer said before the show. "I gave 80 backstage passes just to my family and friends. We've got the kegs lined up in the back of the Paramount ... It's gonna be a party."
By the time the festivities had ended, a crowd of 1,500-plus left the Paramount Theatre with their ears ringing and their minds reeling from a show that was perfectly punctuated by an instrument-smashing frenzy from the local trio who, in a few short years, had offered some much-needed levity to the post-grunge angst of their day.
Columbia Records announced in mid-December the official breakup of Seattle's pop-charters, but it wasn't until this night that the reigning chiefs of staff laid their arms to rest at the crowd's feet in a shower of broken guitars, flying drum kits and smashed monitors.
The fans who overfilled the Paramount were a mix of young kids, seasoned club-goers and a Geritol gentry that must have been the band's grandparents (Dederer's family has lived here for six generations). Appearing onstage to a roaring crowd, singer Chris Ballew lifted his hands in a double-fingered Nixon salute, saying, "All right Seattle!" They kicked off the show with, what else, a cover of the MC5's "Kick Out The Jams" (RealAudio excerpt), and quickly moved into a barrage of hits, including: "Lunatic to Love," "Volcano" and "Feather Pluckn." Catching their breath between songs, Dederer explained, "We're just getting warmed up now. We haven't played together in awhile ... In fact, this is the longest space of time we've ever not played together."
Apologies aside, the band picked up the pace with "Boll Weevil" (RealAudio excerpt), including a funny intro of Ballew singing the first verses to the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour-era "Baby, You're A Rich Man" before segueing back into the song. "Tiki God," "Dune Buggy" and their breakthrough hit, "Lump," rounded out the middle of the show, practically sending 9-year-old Peter Murphy into convulsions. "These guys kick ass!" he shouted as "Lump" wound down, doing his best head-banging, hand-in-the-air-waving mockery of cartoon degenerates Beavis and Butthead.
The Presidents' final show capped off a successful four-year term that included two platinum (more than 1 million sold) albums and a thriving fanbase that stretched across the globe. Frontman Ballew has said that his reason for leaving the band had more to do with the birth of his new son than any problems among his bandmates. Reached before the show, Dederer said he was "a little disappointed that the band is breaking up. We were a really good live band, you know? We weren't cool."
The band donated the sold-out show's entire proceeds to The Chicken Soup Brigade, a charitable organization providing food, work and transportation services to people living with HIV/AIDS in the Seattle area. The show began with a short set by friends of the Presidents, the Young Fresh Fellows. Guitarist Kurt Bloch and singer/guitarist Scott McCaughey livened up the crowd with their quirky pop-driven songs and stage antics. "It's always great playing with these guys," said Bloch, who also plays guitar in the Fastbacks. "We all used to get together and play cards together ... years ago. Who knew we'd be having this much fun now?"
Nearly two hours after the Presidents took the stage and powered through a fun-filled set, the trio began putting their finishing touches on things. First, with a little ditty that Ballew introduced as "This next song is called, 'My Pants Are Falling Off.' " It was a fitting intro for a cover of the Buggles' "Video Killed The Radio Star," a cover tune that has just been released in comedian Adam Sandler's new film, "The Wedding Singer," and that could keep the Presidents in the money for a while. Bloch came back onstage and jammed heavy with the guys on "Twig in the Wind," ending the song with dueling guitar solos between him and Dederer.
After a short encore, the Presidents retook the stage for the last time, dedicating "Spoonman" to their friend, ex-Soundgarden singer/founder Chris Cornell. That song drifted into "Kitty," spiraling into "Mobile Home," before finally pulling out all the stops with "We Are Not Going To Make It."
It was a fitting end for a band who Dederer said "had absolutely no early expectations of hitting it big." As the song reached a crescendo and came to a close, drummer Jason Finn pounded on his cymbals while Ballew eased up to the microphone with his Flying-V basitar above his head, singing out to the crowd '70s bumblegum-pop star Barry Manilow's finest lyric, "Looks like we maaaaade it!!!"
With that, Ballew grabbed the neck of his basitar and, in his finest imitation of the Who guitarist Pete Townshend, began smashing his axe into bits and pieces, sending everyone in the front row home with a souvenir. Not to be outdone, Dederer and Finn then began smashing their instruments all to hell in what has become the epitome of Seattle finales, leaving their fans stunned, if not saddened, at the thought of this being the end.
Looks like they made it all right. [Tues., Feb. 3, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]