In the spring of 1996, Fort Worth's alt-rock heroes the Toadies were performing a triumphant homecoming show for several thousand inside the cavernous Will Rogers Coliseum. Even in their hometown, the young guns' stature had somehow grown even larger than it had already been, thanks to the smashing success of "Possum Kingdom," the group's hit song that couldn't be escaped if you were to turn on your radio or click over to MTV back then. Just a few months before, they had filled the smaller Will Rogers Auditorium next door, so this arena-sized show was nothing if not a giant, well-deserved victory lap.
Although my memory is a touch foggy all these years later, I don't remember the exact words he used to introduce the ubiquitous song so many in attendance were waiting to hear. It is easily recalled, however, that Vaden Todd Lewis wasn't super thrilled about playing it. He sarcastically said something to the effect of "OK, you can all go get a beer or go to the bathroom now," as the outfit launched into the instantly recognizable intro of "Possum Kingdom," which for better or worse, easily remains the band's biggest song to date.
"Going back to those days, I know that we just played too much," Lewis says over the phone as the Toadies ready the release of their latest album, The Lower Side of Uptown, and prep for a lengthy national tour that kicks off this week in Denton. "There were a couple of years in that time where we would tour with the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers or someone like that, play four shows a week with them, but then play our own shows on our off nights from whichever tour we were on. We'd go 10 to 14 days without a night off, and after a couple years of that I just had a really bad attitude a lot of the time."
The passing of time and the shifting music industry landscape have given Lewis a great deal of perspective when it comes to those platinum-selling days. And since he regrouped the Toadies in 2007 (after recording two albums with all-star rock band the Burden Brothers) that famous song, as well as other fan favorites "Tyler," "Away" and "I Come From the Water," aren't weighty albatrosses but three-minute bursts of joy for all involved.
"Our crowd has stayed with us," he says. "So coming back from the break and seeing how happy people would get when we would play 'Possum Kingdom' and the other staples of our live show was great then and it's still great now. That's the kind of thing that can't get old."
Perhaps aging has mellowed the self-described "bad attitude" Lewis once had, but as evidenced on the new record, the band's sinister, riff-heavy amp-blasting hasn't calmed in the least. Whether it's partnering with a local brewery to develop several killer brews, hosting the decade-old annual Dia De Los Toadies festival, or opening The Loop, a new band rehearsal studio in Fort Worth that Lewis and his wife opened in July, mature and professional ambitions have become a part of the Toadies universe as much as the songs are. Settling down and having families isn't enough to make the Toadies go quietly into the night, even if they did record an acoustic album a couple of years ago.
"If nothing else, that record showed our audacity," Lewis laughs as he discusses Heretics, the record that threw many for a loop thanks to the mandolins and rootsy arrangements of some of their loudest songs. "Over the past few years I've made myself learn how to just forget everything about the last record and make songs for people to enjoy and to not worry about what is supposed to make sense or what's supposed to be cool."
Some things are simply built into an artist's musical DNA and can't be warded off. Many will fairly view the new record as a sonic return to the group's earliest days in some ways, but it isn't a retro-styled copycat. Lewis' signature, soaring howl remains arguably the band's best instrument as it pierces blues-inflected arena-rock licks in a way that's at once familiar and invigorating. And the frightening way in which he sings to the object of his less-than-honorable desire in both "Polly Jean" and "You Know the Words," will remind listeners of the insidious tales told in "Possum Kingdom" and "Tyler" from the old days.
"I'm always learning and trying to one-up myself," he says. "A big part of that process is to understand what I'm good at and what I want to do while finding ways to experiment and make it weird and fun."
At this point in his career, Lewis knows he has it pretty good and his band mates have come to trust their collective instincts when looking for the next stop on the unwritten Toadies career map. Surely there's more to it, but when it comes to deciding what's best for the band, it's a simple philosophy that keeps them running.
"When we were recording Heretics in Los Angeles with all these acoustic instruments," Lewis says, "I asked the guys, 'What in the hell are we doing?' and Clark [Vogeler, guitar player] said 'whatever the hell we want to do.' And I said, 'Yeah, cool. Let's keep doing that.'"
The Lower Side of Uptown comes out on Friday via Kirtland Records, and the Toadies perform with Local H on Wednesday at 8 p.m. at Rockin' Rodeo in Denton. $20-$25. rockinrodeodenton.com.