The Lifelong Labor of a Working Musician
For every post-Nirvana success story, there are cemeteries choked with the tombstones of failed major label alternative and grunge bands. Raw locals with no idea what they were getting into, storied punk bands “selling out” an impossible-to-please fanbase, club acts catching the wave, etc. Many bands were inspired by Nirvana, as that band also cribbed from the Beatles and the Melvins and Sonic Youth and so much more, but the majority of them combusted and fell back to earth before even approaching the star of Kurt Cobain and company, let alone shooting past.
Local H fired their own rocket towards Nirvana two years after the death of Cobain, when “Bound for the Floor,” the lead single from their second album As Good as Dead, caterwauled a copacetic ride to number five on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart. By this metric, it’s the biggest the guitar and drums duo ever got, with an anti-complacency screed that earned them a modest but lifelong fanbase and a regular entry on 90’s rock playlists.
Twenty-two years later they’re still burdened with this albatross, despite the many fantastic and superior songs and albums they’ve done since. The price to pay I suppose, the mark they bear, the brand that curses yet sustains them. The song is great, with some clean/crunch guitar umami and repetitively infectious lyrics, but it’s not their best. For me, that’s entirety of Pack Up the Cats, which the band with a couple friends have taken on the road for its twentieth anniversary.
Pack Up the Cats is many things: Local H’s last major label album in an era when grunge is getting sloughed off like old skin for a resurgence of pop, the birth of nu-metal, and a renaissance for hip-hop. Cobain’s ghost lingers but it had been four years and the cycle ground on relentlessly. Those to Cobain were eager to move on, and with world views formed by Nevermind were still percolating in their own creativity. But with their third album Local H delivered a alt-rock opera that summoned the spirit of Cobain, channeled the idea of what he might have accomplished had he lived, and then put his soul to rest. Their performance of it in its entirety for this tour only solidified my opinion on this matter.
On this tour Local H opens for themselves again, as in the As Good as Dead anniversary and reunion with original drummer Joe. They hammered out a lot of stone cold jams that deserve and will likely receive their own tours coming up, from “Half-Life” through “John the Baptist Blues” and much more. Fans hollered along with each, and the band mostly stuck to their duo formation throughout with no sign of fatigue, boredom, or disinterest. Scott’s a lifer at this point and while he did tell the same jokes as two years ago (“We’d like to thank Local H for taking us on this tour…”) it was a sprinkling of parmesan rather than rote banter. They thrive on that Chicago work ethic—tour hard, earn fans, sell shirts, wayward sons grinding on. They’ve earned their big banner, having filled out a respectable club on a Wednesday night, with the stage swarmed by stuffed cats and strings of lights.
After a break with cat-themed songs punctuating anticipation (peaking with Bob Seger’s “Katmandu”) they brought out a couple friends to better fill out the sound as they prepared to play Pack Up the Cats in full. It’s a loosely linear album about a rock star just cutting jams, getting big, facing fame and dissolving relationships with fans and family alike. The correlation to Cobain isn’t exactly a leap, but what this album does better than others might is imagining what might have happened if Cobain had lived.
Nirvana’s discography wasn’t much grander than Local H’s at this point, who’d had their own dollop and dip of success, and the pop song structure influences and fuzzed out tones all mingle together. Pushing past Cobain’s “teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old” and his combative relationship with the audience, Local H delivers their second major hit with “All the Kids are Right,” played pretty much every time they play “Bound for the Floor” live. “You hoped that we would rock / Knock it up a notch / Rockin’ was nowhere in sight.” Their own worst critics, preempting the sellout stance and writing their own epitaph, Local H were the kids once and they’ve seen the price of fame from both sides.
Pack Up the Cats stomps from the start, gain scooped from the back and drums smashed to splinters on each track, but it’s also a lush and layered record. It’s operatic impulses include bleeding track transitions, acoustic guitars and pianos and slides, and a willingness to really pick the scab that is making a life as a musician, through success and failure as a rockstar and as a creative, flawed human being. I don’t know that it’s the kind of album Cobain might have made if he’d lived but I think it’s the closest we’ll come. Scott Lucas is a songwriter on the front lines who understood how pop and angst and guitars could blend so empathetically, with such raucous but focused energy. It’s a shame the world never really caught up, but at least there’s this tour, a near-perfect presentation of an album integral to my understanding of this cracked and mewling world.