Jess Williamson on Living Grateful – Peace Mob
Its always when coming to something late that the feeling of being left out seems to burn like a secret shame in the cheeks. As much music as passes through the pages here, I somehow missed Jess Williamson’s first LP for Mexican Summer until about a year after it was out, but once it graced the speakers I was drawn in tight. With a second LP for the label (fourth overall) on the horizon, I’ve keep a much more perked ear in the direction of Mexican Summer these days. Her latest album is everything that the last promised — lush, honest, swooning, and surreal. Its the album of a songwriter comfortable in her discomfort and able to translate it into the kind of Laurel Canyon-dappled folk that seems instantly timeless. There seemed no way that Jess doesn’t have quite a few gems tucked away in her collection that may have proven influential, but rather than dig deep into the past she lands a band that was almost gone before they began, highlighting that feeling of seeing something great as it’s just being formed. Check out her recollection and ode to the sole LP from Living Grateful below.
I remember in 2013, there were murmurings around Austin, where I lived at the time, that Ryan Sambol of the Strange Boys was starting a new band called Living Grateful. Everyone in our extended music scene was excited, myself included. The Strange Boys were our hometown heroes, and suddenly Ryan had a new project.
Living Grateful played four shows ever. I was at two of them. It felt like being at the beginning of something huge, like being the first to see a legendary group before they blew up. The songs and the energy of the band were a force far bigger than the small, sweaty East Austin venues where I saw them play. I felt lucky to be there – we all did. The band had everything in place to succeed – solid tunes, strong players, a good label, a built-in fan base, and a charismatic, enigmatic front man in Ryan.
The music felt like a continuation of the best parts of the Strange Boys’ sound into more mature, classic territory. Ryan enlisted Strange Boys lead guitarist Greg Enlow to join the band on guitar, along with a few of Austin’s finest players of that particular era – Geena Spigarelli on bass, Chris Catalena on keys, and Casey Seymour on the drums.
They made one record, Peace Mob, and it’s incredible.
One of the things that makes this record so special to me is the strange poetry of Ryan’s lyrics combined with his signature vocal delivery – somewhere between a whine and howl, but more soulful and assured here than on the Strange Boys records. Musically, with Greg Enlow on guitar, Living Grateful had that same quality of hooky, groovy guitar moments that we loved about the Strange Boys. Greg’s playing here is perfect. His East Texas roots shine through as he toes the line of country, blues, and classic rock but makes it feel new and cool as hell, which is no small feat.
Peace Mob and Living Grateful benefited from the years-long musical partnership between Ryan and Greg, being filtered now through a fresh, seemingly wiser lens. As an outsider, it felt like the lessons learned from years of making records and touring the world throughout their twenties together could be applied here, that this band could pick up where The Strange Boys left off but go far beyond it.
Living Grateful recorded Peace Mob during three sessions in Austin and New York. It was finished and scheduled to come out in 2014. Then, inexplicably, Ryan asked the label not to release it, and the album was shelved.
I remember hearing Peace Mob played at certain coffee shops around East Austin, depending on who was working (a few people had downloads of the songs from before Ryan scrapped the project). A friend told me that if Ryan walked in and heard it, he’d make them turn it off. No one really understood what happened, including the other members of the band – the album was amazing.
The following year, Ryan did a vinyl only release of Peace Mob, at the same time as his debut solo album Now Ritual. He self-released both albums concurrently via his own imprint Forever Wet Paint in conjunction with the now defunct Punctum Records. There was no distribution or PR campaign for the albums, an adamant choice on Ryan and Punctum’s part. This call, made in the name of artistic purity and bucking the system, didn’t work. The music industry gatekeepers didn’t hear about Peace Mob and the blogs weren’t writing about it. Plus, the dual release was a little confusing. It was widely known that Living Grateful had disbanded at that point and that Ryan was focusing on his solo project. It had been two years since those Living Grateful shows, and the momentum had stalled significantly. Beyond that, the release was truly vinyl only – Peace Mob wasn’t on any streaming sites. It was hard to find and the album got lost. The only way to listen to it now is through a Soundcloud link, although Ryan tells me that In The Red Records, the original label home for Peace Mob, is planning to release it digitally this year.
Friend of the band and Austin filmmaker Andy Campbell made a documentary about Living Grateful and the making of Peace Mob, and I highly recommend watching it. It’s on YouTube, and it’s a time capsule of a different Austin that exists now only in my memory: the home I long for that is no longer there, thanks to gentrification and a wave of newcomers who radically changed the town I loved. The film captures many moments of Ryan dispensing life lessons and universal wisdom, driving around Austin or smoking cigs outside the studio, and talking enthusiastically about the new project and his hopes that the mistakes from the Strange Boys won’t be repeated. There’s lots of jamming at Ryan’s house, friends hanging out in East Austin backyards, Ryan’s Super 8 footage from a solo trip to Morocco, and Living Grateful’s first show at Hotel Vegas. There are long scenes from the recording sessions in Austin and New York, and a very subtly funny moment when Ryan and Chris Catalena go shopping and look at hats in a trendy Manhattan boutique. If you know that Chris Catalena comes from a family of high-end custom hat makers in Texas, you get the joke.
But by far, my favorite moments are seeing Greg and Ryan together in the studio. Greg’s quiet, calm demeanor and his effortless playing are a marked contrast to Ryan’s constant musings and, at times, visible self doubt during the sessions. I love the way he listens to and responds to Ryan tactfully, but also ignores him when it’s better to, and just laughs. Their dynamic is perfectly complementary. You really see how Greg’s spirit and raw talent were integral to the project, and how someone as electric as Ryan needed a steady partner like Greg. The trust between them is palpable, and the quality of the album, in particular Greg’s playing on it, is proof of the strength of their musical bond. The tragedy that Greg is no longer with us makes these moments in the film that much more powerful: we get to see a legend at work on a legendary record.
Toward the end of the film, on a break during the New York sessions, Ryan reads an explanation he wrote of how to live gratefully. I’d like to include it here, in full.
He says, “This is how you do it, or, how it was done:
Ryan Sambol and Living Grateful
Have something perceivably bad happen to you. See the worst in life, revel in sadness,
wallow in despair. All lost.
Realize the false – the falsicity? Is that a word?
Zoom out from the pit you’re in and crawl out.
Do not cut your hair.
Begin again noticing beauty.
Do not hold back tears at any time but always wipe your eyes.
Start painting again.
Travel to a few places and stay a while.
Begin to notice people attracted and drawn to you again.
Filter through the crowd alone and choose your mates or allow yourself to be chosen.
Receive or be able to receive any song at any time.
Carry a tape recorder.
Catch the magic one turn at a time.
Be awake and around at different times of the day on earth.
Show the songs collected to like-minded and chill people.
Add electricity and magnets.
Send it to Larry.
Call Michelle. Phillip already knows.”
I know that Peace Mob will join the ranks of great work that was underappreciated in its time. An album this good won’t fly under the radar forever, and I hope I’m still around when it gets a solid reissue and the attention it deserves.
For now, the remaining copies from the first pressing of Peace Mob can be purchased directly from Ryan Sambol by messaging him via his Instagram, @forever_wet_paint, and you’d be wise to get one.
Couldn’t agree more with Jess after taking a few listens through this album. Even as someone who covered The Strange Boys at the time and had a constant influx of music, this has escaped my grasp and its great to go back now and see it tie in the next chapter in what Ryan and Greg were doing. Jess’ excellent new album Sorceress is out this Friday through Mexican Summer. Highly recommended for sure.