"Rise" and the Beginnings of Watershed - by Ricki C.

By now many Pencilstorm readers have received their copies of the new Watershed Single Series Volume 4 CD containing – among 8 other tracks – the early Watershed tune “Rise.”  I consider “Rise” the first truly great Watershed song (and in fact, sometimes consider it the very first WATERSHED – as opposed to The Wires – song).  Following is a reworking of an e-mail I posted to somebody in 2014 about the first time I heard “Rise.”  

In 1990 I was a roadie for Willie Phoenix & The True Soul Rockers.  Willie had a once-a-month Saturday night residency at a really popular local club called Ruby Tuesday's (no relation AT ALL to the lame family-restaurant chain of the same name).  One month this kid band called The Wires started opening the shows.  They were nice kids, exceptionally friendly but basically hopelessly clueless.  They played originals, but it seemed like they could never quite decide who or what they wanted to be: it was like a weird mash-up of U2, The Police, The Alarm and – problematically – Rush.  (Oddly, knowing what I know now, there was not one glimmer of KISS or Cheap Trick in The Wires' sound.)  All the songs were too long, they never really went anywhere and The Wires wouldn't have known a hook if it fucked them in a closet.  But they were cute, they were compliant and they had a lot of energy, so they kept opening.

The second or third month they became Watershed.  (I remember saying to Colin one time when they were setting up: "You know there's an English post-punk band called Wire, right?"  "Yeah, that's what people have been telling us," he mumbled back.  Colin was so shy back then I don't think we made eye contact the first three or four months we knew each other.)

So one Saturday night about three or four months into the residency I'm upstairs at Ruby's tuning guitars for Willie's set.  (Willie & Mike Parks, the 2nd lead guitarist, brought 10 or 11 guitars to every show and Mike had some weird open tunings on his, so it generally took me most of Watershed's set to get everything ready.) 

Watershed took the stage, blasted into a brand-new tune – “Rise” – and Jesus Christ, they were fucking PHENOMENAL!   They had almost an entire new set, two or three other new songs, a couple of the old ones had been pared-down and rearranged/tightened, Colin had started employing his now-patented Angus Young/Pete Townshend hybrid stage presence when Joe sang lead and I really couldn't believe my eyes or ears.  I had never – and now have never, 26 years later – seen a growth spurt like that in a band from one month to the next.  It was like seeing an entirely different group.

I knew Willie had been producing an e.p. for the guys.  I figured that had to have a positive effect, Willie had been a rocker of the first order for over a decade even back then, but NOTHING Willie could have taught them in a month could have prepared me for how good Watershed were that night.  

They blasted through a 60-minute set, never let up, and left me speechless, gaping with my mouth open.  It really was quite mesmerizing.  I entirely forgot to tune the True Soul Rocker's guitars; I couldn't take my eyes off the stage. 

The Ruby's dressing rooms were down in the basement of the club, hell & gone from the main room, you couldn't really hear the onstage band clearly down there and I started to wonder if Willie knew about the transformation that had taken place in Watershed since the month before. 

I was scrambling to get the guitars tuned and put in order as Biggie and the guys broke down their gear, all I got to say to them was, "Jesus, that was INCREDIBLE!"  They just looked at me all embarrassed and mumbled, "Yeah, thanks, I guess it was okay," in their little self-deprecating Watershed manner (that continues to this day). 

Of course – almost inevitably – Willie & the True Soul Rockers (who were a truly fearsome live unit in their own right when they put their minds to it) picked that night to come out and just saunter through their first set.  I got a queasy feeling in my stomach the first two or three songs: Willie & the guys weren't even trying and they looked and sounded old & tired next to the rock & roll tour de force Watershed had just deployed.  (We were all in our late 30's then, Watershed were 19 & 20.) 

It was a bloodbath.  By the fifth song, people in the audience were starting to yell for Willie to get off the stage and put Watershed back on.  I saw it coming but I still didn't quite believe it.  Willie was REALLY BIG in Columbus back then, his audiences rarely less than enthusiastic, bordering on worshipful.  At a guitar change, Willie whispered to me, "What's going on?"  I said, "Watershed KILLED tonight, you better step it up, maybe go to third-set mode."

The True Soul Rockers never really got back on track that night and I wondered if Willie realized just how completely he had gotten blown off the stage.  The next month at Ruby's, Watershed was gone and we had a new – and decidedly WEAK – opening band.  Never let it be said that Willie Phoenix does not recognize when he’s been bested, even if only for one night.  Willie did not just fall off a turnip truck into this rock & roll game.  From that night in 1990 to this day in 2016 Watershed has never opened for Willie again.  That guy is a rock & roll genius. - Ricki C. / 2014 (updated July, 2016)

ps. I have long lobbied (in vain) for “Rise” to be reintroduced to the Watershed live set - even if only ONCE in a great while - just for old time’s sake, to acknowledge/honor their first GREAT tune, but definitely MINUS that wankified wah-wah pedal figure in the intro and during the choruses (which was NEVER a part of the tune when Watershed played it live, anyway).  I suspect that was one of Willie’s production touches which be believed would add sparkle to the tune.  Willie and I both did the better part of our useful rock & roll growing-up in the 1960’s, the heyday of the wah-wah pedal.  They were not a good idea in 1968 and they were even less of a good idea in 1990.