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LP Tour finds Matthew Sweet, Soul Asylum, and more living in the past 

'90s rockers relive past glories on the LP Tour

RUNAWAY TRAIN: Soul Asylum, walking the line between the past and the future.

Michael J. Smith

RUNAWAY TRAIN: Soul Asylum, walking the line between the past and the future.

We're living in a golden age of nostalgia-fueled rock tours. Classic rock and prog-rock titans like Rush, Yes, and the Who are performing or have recently performed landmark albums live, and Steely Dan will be trotting out some of its most popular works beginning later this month. The trend isn't limited to acts whose members qualify for AARP membership: Package tours like Summerland and Under the Sun offer a passport to the heyday of such '90s alternative-rock stalwarts as Everclear, the Gin Blossoms, and Sugar Ray.

The inaugural LP Tour takes that trend a step further. Three acts of '90s vintage, Matthew Sweet, Soul Asylum, and Big Head Todd & the Monsters, are performing their best-known albums — Girlfriend, Grave Dancers Union, and Sister Sweetly, respectively — in their entirety. The tour also features the Wailers performing the 1984 greatest-hits package Legend, without benefit of the late Bob Marley.

Those '90s artists aren't the first to revisit seminal albums: In recent history, the Pixies, Lemonheads, Dinosaur Jr., and Bob Mould have staged similar outings. But while we expect rockers from the 1960s, '70s, and '80s to trade on past glories — a tacit acknowledgment that their best days may be behind them — it's unsettling to watch artists from the last 20 years treading the same path, especially when most of them are still recording new music.

It's a familiar dilemma for rock artists of a certain age. We don't want them to age, but we don't want them to stay the same, either. We want them to remain vital, to not just regurgitate the same old hits, but we beeline for the bathroom the minute they drag out their new material. We want to remember them when they were at their best. When they (and we, and the world we inhabited at the time) were full of promise. And we, perhaps unreasonably, want that perfect moment, that sense of future potential, to be preserved forever.

Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner has lived firsthand the tension between fan expectation and an artist's need to follow his muse. His band's output following 1992's Grave Dancers Union has met with mixed critical and commercial reaction. But he maintains an even-keeled outlook on the vagaries of the music business. "If you stop and say, 'Why are we doing this, and why aren't we making more money?' — you're fucked," he says. "You kinda gotta dive in. That's what keeps it interesting."

Pirner admits that being an artist who still has something to say initially collided with the idea of performing Union from start to finish. But ultimately, "the trial and error of [rock 'n' roll] is what keeps you guessing. You just can't expect anything from it, so you have to keep injecting your own new attitude into it."

Soul Asylum's three-decade career certainly seems at odds with its beginnings in the fertile Minneapolis punk scene of the 1980s, which also spawned Hüsker Dü and the Replacements (whose bassist Tommy Stinson recently left Soul Asylum to devote more time to Guns N' Roses). The ragged, D.I.Y. exuberance of its early albums hint at a typical live-fast-die-hard trajectory. Union famously changed all that, marking a transition to broader, rootsier musical influences and more introspective lyrics, and resulting in a handful of hits (including the ubiquitous "Runaway Train").

The LP Tour finds Soul Asylum negotiating the tightrope walk between nodding to the past and creating new music more than the other acts on the bill: The band is also promoting last year's studio album Delayed Reaction, and the new No Fun Intended, a digital EP featuring covers of the Suicide Commandos, MC5, and Joy Division. Pirner chalks it all up to the same goal he's had from the beginning: to continue playing music, and to keep it interesting. "It's never been a question for me, but apparently it is a mindset [for some artists] to go in and pillage and make a lot of money and get out," he says. "Which is smart. I understand when people think I'm nuts to keep at it."

As for the LP Tour and Union? "There's a timeless element to that record," he says. "It never feels dated to me. For all practical purposes, that's the goal of making a good album."

Still, after playing it night after night, "I'm looking forward to playing anything that's not on Grave Dancers Union," he adds, laughing.

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