BY DANIEL GLUSKOTER
It has been a long strange trip for the 10,000 Maniacs that began in southwest New York 35 years ago. Since becoming one of the most popular alternative rock bands of their era and recording multiple platinum selling albums before breaking up at the height of popularity, the Maniacs have survived numerous personnel changes while continuing to offer their unique signature sound.
Performing at Yoshi’s in Oakland on Saturday in support of their newly released stellar live album “Playing Favorites”, the Maniacs are now fronted by classically trained violinist Mary Ramsey, who began on the violin at the age of five. Ramsey, who first sang backing vocals for the Maniacs behind Natalie Merchant on 1993’s “MTV Unplugged”, ascended to lead singer following Merchant’s departure. Replaced on lead by Oskar Saville during a five year stretch beginning in 2002, Ramsey returned as the bands backing vocalist in 2006 and resumed singing lead the following year.
While it might be news to some to learn that 10,000 Maniacs did not disappear with the first Clinton administration, the current line-up, also featuring founding member John Lombardo on guitar and bass, continues to produce a sound that any uninformed fan would have difficulty distinguishing from that of the original line-up. The mixture of Ramsey’s virtuoso violin and vocals and the same folksy sound that helped elevate the band to the top of the charts a generation ago is still very sweet sounding music to ones ears.
As the title of the new album implies, “Playing Favorites” is exactly that. Playing a career spanning selection of cuts stretching back to “Can’t Ignore the Train” from 1985’s “The Wishing Chair”, the crowd was treated to a set of the Maniacs best known hits. While those listening solely on radio are bound to continue associating the band with Merchant 23 years after she left the band, Ramsey’s talent and delivery is nearly identical, but it can be argued that her violin chops actually elevate the band to an even higher level of quality.
With a mixture of tunes ranging from “These Are Days”, “Candy Everybody Wants”, “Hey Jack Kerouac” and “What’s the Matter Here?” to popular covers of Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith’s “Because The Night” and Roxy Music’s “More Than This”, the bands repertoire is deep. While the handful of albums that have been released since Ramsey joined the band might not have had the commercial success of Merchant’s reign, she has done an outstanding job of carrying the torch for what continues to be a fine band very much worth the price of admission.