Mad Season was an extraordinary group. On paper alone, having Layne Staley, Mike McCready and Barrett Martin in your band was substantial enough. Then when you put it all together, and the end result is the album, Above, you know it was all meant to be. This album is one of my all time favorites. “Wake Up” is one hell of a heart wrenching song. Lyrically it’s beyond dark and deep and the accompanying music really creates the right vibe. Then when Mike McCready’s guitar solo kicks in, it’s on a whole other level. Mad Season as much as it was a side project, really was able to showcase how truly underrated Mike is as a player but, more specifically as a writer. The music for “Wake Up” was actually written before Layne joined Mike, Barrett and the late John Baker Saunders. The solo though, is on a whole other level. And when you hear live versions of the song, it’s even more euphoric.
In 2015, the surviving members of Mad Season, Mike McCready and Barrett Martin reconvened for an evening to celebrate the band and it’s album, Above. This special concert titled “Sonic Evolution. At this show they were accompanied by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. The late Chris Cornell filled in on vocals for the dearly departed Layne Staley and Duff McKagan filled in on bass for the late John Baker Saunders. This concert is quite poignant and emotional. The songs picked for this show were quite interesting and the performances by each person really stand out. It just goes to show how great these songs are and how much of a lasting effect they still have. Enjoy this show!
In celebration of what would have been Layne Staley’s 51st birthday, let’s take a closer look at the side project Mad Season. I’m sure most of you out there know about this band by now, but for those that don’t here’s a quick history lesson. Mad Season was formed originally by Pearl Jam guitarist, Mike McCready and bassist, John Baker Saunders. The two had met in a rehab facility and returned to Seattle after their stint there. Not long after the move back, Mike and John recruited Screaming Trees drummer, Barrett Martin, to join them. After only a couple of jams together, they had written the instrumentals for what would become “Wake Up,” and “River of Deceit.” Needing a singer, Mike sought out Layne Staley to front the group. It was Mike’s hope that surrounding himself with sober musicians might also help Layne to get sober as well.
The album they made together, Above, is one of the most haunting, beautiful pieces of work to come out from that era. It’s right up there with how sentimental and profound as Temple of the Dog’s album is. The band originally called themselves The Gacy Bunch, but later changed the name to Mad Season, which is an English term for the time of year that psilocybin mushrooms are in full bloom. The albums music was recorded in about seven days, while the vocals took only a few more days to complete. Before the band went into record the album, while they were still writing, Mike McCready had told Layne that he could do what he wanted with this and write all the lyrics. And so, he did, and it marked a profound moment for Layne, not just as a writer but set him on a spiritual path through music.
The ten songs on the album stretch across genres, such as rock, blues, jazz, and some tribal elements. Some critics thought that Mad Season was just as though Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam had a baby, but the fans, the people that really mattered, saw this album as a gem. Every song on the album had a deep meaning and musically pushed those feeling and emotions. When you have an album with songs like “Wake Up,” “River of Deceit,” “I’m Above,” “Lifeless Dead,” “X-Ray Mind,” “November Hotel” “All Alone,” and “Long Gone Day,” it’s pretty hard to not be astonished by the magnitude Layne, Mike, John and Barrett created. Something else that is worth noting is the inclusion of Screaming Trees singer, Mark Lanegan, on the songs “I’m Above” and “Long Gone Day.” His contributions on those two songs add an extra level of chills to the already spine-tingling album.
In 2012, there was a re-release of the album which featured four unreleased songs. These songs were from the bands unfinished second album. The songs were musically done, so Mike and Barrett asked Mark Lanegan to write lyrics and sing on these tracks. Also included in the re-release was a DVD of the bands show at The Moore theater as well as the bands 1994 New Year’s Eve show at the now defunct club RKCNDY. These performances of Mad Season will leave you with the hairs on your arms and back standing up.
Mad Season was a band that was meant to be. Their album, Above, is beyond tremendous. Mad Season wasn’t just a side project, it was a band that really allowed Mike McCready and Layne Staley to show what they could really do. Not to take away from their contributions to Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains, this band just really allowed these two to be free to fully express themselves in a different capacity. Mike McCready is seriously one of the most underrated guitar players ever. His playing and songwriting on Above proves that beyond a shadow of a doubt. Layne’s vocals and lyrics are absolutely on another level. The lyrics go deeper than his previous work in Alice In Chains. Here he gets a bit more introspective and finds a balance of what he dreams of and what is reality. Barrett Martin continued to prove how talented of a player he is on this album. And John Baker Saunders added a level of subtle cool to these songs, that only he could.
Mad Season still lives on just as the memories of Layne Staley and John Baker Saunders. I like to think of Mad Season as more than just a side project, but more of a band that gave new life to everyone involved in this. All you have to do is listen and let it all sink in and you’ll fall in love with this masterpiece.