At some point, every ‘music person’ hits that developmental phase in taste-building that sent them looking for the ‘before they got big’ early era of every artist they were interested in. Maybe that early starving artist period does offer some glimpses into genius, if not ingenuity and survival. Maybe there’s more in the psychology behind it; a flexing of preference that may align oneself with the rock journalism elitism of yesteryear. Of course, there are exceptional first and second records by an artist, but in a world where hindsight on the latter period of our favorite musicians’ careers is decades past, looking into the actual development from those early years to the latter becomes far more interesting than obsessing on the start. Especially when said artists truly make it huge, then seemingly abandon those early developments that got them there.
Bob Seger is one such artist. An absolute megastar holding court over the heart of the country from the mid-seventies to the turn of the millennium. And before the beer and truck commercials, Seger could shake the rafters with the best of them. Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man brought on the success and after the uneventful Noah, Seger whipped The System back into shape with the goliath heaviness of Mongrel. “Highway Child” kicks in the door where Gambiln’ Man left off, sending a menagerie of soul, heavy blues, and fuzz careening through the speakers. And despite the outpouring of heaviness, Mongrel also provides a glimpse into the future. “Evil Edna” is the first tease. The ballad of a downtrodden townie—looked down upon by church and state. Even in death there seemed to be no redemption, and by the end of the tune, the narrative almost has an unfinished feel to it. The down to earth character sketch, however, would turn into something that Seger mastered- crafting an entire universe of rust-belt folklore as he plodded the next phase of his career.
If “Evil Edna” was a hint, then “Big River” is the full admission. The rollicking, piano-driven song for America’s heartland. The backing chorus is there, the belting is absent, and brief moments of guitar tapestry wrap things up into the package that would make Seger a superstar over the next decade. Of course, the easy-going moments would need to subside to keep Mongrel interesting. Side two kicks off with “Lucifer”—one of the greatest singles to ever flop. Pound for pound, the brief bout of molten groove is Seger’s finest moment. Organ heavy, in a callback to that first Seger System slab, and with the rhythm section quite capable of leveling the average Midwest abode to the foundation, the piece cements Seger as having the capabilities to hang with the best soul pioneers Motor City had to offer. And that’s before Bob even gets on the mic. Once the singer chimes in, the show is a fanfare. Howling, squealing, and crooning. There are few moments of a white dude putting forth so much swagger and actually managing to seem authentic, but here, you can’t help but believe every word Seger spews.
At the end of the journey lies the behemoth. This live take of The System digging into “River Deep, Mountain High” really can’t be put into words, other than it’s an absolute motherfucker of a track. Seger practically foams at the mouth in rabid incantation throughout the homage to (or perhaps desecration of) Ike and Tina’s signature tune. Almost in a dig to Michigan’s other heavy hitters – The Stooges and the MC5 – Seger was proving capable to hang with those proto-hardrock stalwarts while respecting the Motown heritage of his muse, Detroit. The System blasts through the number, with each member pushing the others further out in musicality until it can’t possibly continue with any sense of harmony. And yet, just before the piece flies into aural anarchy, the band revisits the primary theme just in time to keep the procession moving along. The number is a masterclass in group dynamics and shows exactly how capable four dudes can be while trying to be as loud and soulful as possible.
Much like the album that preceded it and the solo Brand New Morning that would follow the dissolution of the Seger System, Mongrel remains a record in exile. Reissued on CD in the nineties, it hasn’t seen the light of day since (even on streaming services). As the most pivotal moment in Seger’s transition to Midwest balladeer, one would think this record would mean something to the artist looking back over his development. In times since, it is only in moments when the Silver Bullet Band and its iterations would really let loose, that you can almost remember the howler Bob once was. No matter how much he seems to want to mask it. | j rooney