Grandaddy sounds anything but retired at Fonda


More than five years after their uneasy parting of the ways, Grandaddy has returned to the stage, and on Monday night at the Fonda Theatre it felt like a triumph – even if the man who closed up shop, songwriter Jason Lytle, sounded a bit tentative about the whole process.

“So this getting back together and playing again thingie …” Lytle said good-naturedly four songs into the Modesto-bred quintet’s 75-minute performance. “I don’t know … I had my reservations, but it’s been fun.”

It certainly sounded that way. Lytle guided bandmates Jim Fairchild, Kevin Garcia, Tim Dryden and Aaron Burtch through a tour de catalog that had longtime fans at the nearly full Hollywood venue murmuring that the fivesome was better than they ever had been. In that there was much joy, but also a certain irony; when Grandaddy was retired after four albums (two of which won wide critical acclaim), the band was neither a money-maker nor was it known as a particularly explosive live act.

Grandaddy’s lack of dynamism always had a lot to do with the personality of Lytle, a reluctant frontman if ever there was one. A bedroom auteur who for years dreaded the rigors of the road (and was prone to anesthetizing its pains in various ways), Lytle juggles vocals, guitar and an array of well-worn keyboards, and it’s all he can do to reproduce his songs live, let alone muster any kind of stage presence. Not that a guy who habitually dresses down and wears a trucker’s cap would want to anyway. Of his bandmates, only drummer Burtch, always in the moment but stuck at the back of the stage, and guitarist Fairchild, a frontman himself as All Smiles and a touring guitarist for Modest Mouse, project the music’s energy.

And it does have that, even in its neuroses over oppressive technology, dying nature, suffocating isolation and middle-class impotence. In Grandaddy’s tender melodies, childlike vocals and whimsical textures lay a refuge from all those phobias, a way to chase them all away, for a time. Some of Grandaddy’s work, especially 2000’s “The Sophtware Slump,” was compared to Radiohead, but I always thought of them as the psychedelic obverse of the Flaming Lips – as cloistered as Wayne Coyne and his kaleidoscopic crew were extroverted. Listen to “Sophtware” and “The Soft Bulletin” back to back sometime.

On Monday at the Fonda, though, Grandaddy were as welcoming as fans had ever seen them – and, owing to the kitschy projections (including videos and old movies mixed with live snippets of the band), as visual as ever. The songs have held up well, and Lytle’s dim worldview and everyman sense of humor resonate as much now as they did at the turn of the millenium.

They covered Pavement’s “Here” in the encore, hushed the room with chilling rendition of the B-side “Fare Thee Well Not Mutineer” and blasted through “El Caminos in the West” and “Now It’s On” (early), “The Crystal Lake” and “A.M. 180” (middle) and “Summer Here Kids” (late) before sending everybody home with “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot.” To the band’s credit, the songs never felt as if they were merely given readings, although in a broad sense that might be the case. Lytle has admitted this reunion tour, which will make hay in Europe, had its financial incentives.

Lytle lives in Montana now; he has his second solo album “Dept. of Disappearance” en route Oct. 16. In 2010, he and Burtch teamed up with Earlimart’s Aaron Espinoza and Ariana Murray to make one album as Admiral Radley. In all that music are echoes of Lytle’s idiosyncratic marriage of sadness and beauty – a union that the record-buying public did not embrace enough to keep Grandaddy in business, but one that lives on in other ways.

During Earlimart’s opening set Monday – the band’s first live show in four years and one that saw Espinoza and Murray joined by drummer Denny Weston and multi-instrumentalist Seb Bailey – Espinoza even choked up a bit trying to describe what the night meant to him, having shared the same Central Valley roots as Grandaddy and toured, written and partied with them. “We probably wouldn’t be a band if it wasn’t for Grandaddy,” he said.

“Maybe,” Espinoza smiled, “it a good time to play this one.”

With that, they broke into their 2002 rocker “We Drink on the Job.”