Back in 1989, a time when both Screaming Trees leader Mark Lanegan and Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain were ploughing away in their own bands, building the foundations for careers like no other, they found time to slip away to form ‘The Jury’, a tribute band like no other.
Lanegan and Cobain, who joined forces years before they secured major national prominence with their own bands, decided it was their destiny to honour the great blues artist Leadbelly. The group, which they named ‘The Jury’, became the side project of both musicians but sadly only lasted a handful of songs.
As pointed out by Northwest Passage, following the first Nirvana US tour, Cobain and Lanegan began work on The Jury in a bid to fill spare time and, with the wheels very much in motion, scheduled a session at Reciprocal Recording with Skin Yard guitarist Jack Endino to record a handful of potential new songs. It is believed that the subsequent recording would coincide with a special release via Sub Pop. “Mark and Kurt got together,” Endino once said of the project. “I think they got drunk together, or really stoned, and wrote a bunch of songs, and got all excited and told Jonathan [Poneman, co-founder of Sub Pop Records], ‘Hey we want to do an album together!’”.
Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and Screaming Trees drummer Mark Pickerel completed the band lineup to make a formidable four-piece. However, during the recording sessions in August 1989, the new project was struggling to forge a unique path and, somewhat bizarrely, the Leadbelly tribute band was formed as an alternative: “When they showed up, they said, ‘Well, we tried writing some songs, but we didn’t record them and we forgot ‘em all. So we’re going to do some Leadbelly songs instead,” Endino explained further.
Reflecting on the band and their decision to cover Leadbelly material, Lanegan said: “He was someone that Kurt and I both enjoyed listening to, and we’d listen together”.
The duo first recorded ‘Where Did you Sleep Last Night’ which saw Lanegan take on the lead vocals. ‘Grey Goose’ followed but as an instrumental, something that only materialised as Lanegan decided he didn’t want to sing during the recording. Rounding off the demos, Cobain took control of the vocals on two more tracks: ‘Ain’t It a Shame’ and ‘They Hung Him On A Cross’.
By this point, the side project collaboration was beginning to fizzle out to what seems now like a wasted opportunity: “At the end of it, we started to lose interest in it quickly, realising it wasn’t as cool as the originals that we liked listening to,” Lanegan said. “We told Sub Pop that it probably wasn’t going to happen, and that’s when they suggested to me that I make a solo record”.
Drummer Pickerel, who was desperate to make a go of the band, remembered how both Lanegan and Cobain couldn’t comfortably take lead vocals: “They looked like junior high kids at a dance, a couple of wallflowers,” Pickerel said. “It was really frustrating. Neither one would take the initiative to make statements like, ‘I want to sing this song’ or ‘I think you’d be great for the first verse, why don’t I come in for the chorus, and I’ll take the second verse’”.
After just two sessions in the studio, The Jury was finished. “We certainly didn’t make a decision not to pursue it again, but everybody got really busy,” Pickerel later explained. “I really had high hopes for it; I wanted it to be a working band. But it just wasn’t meant to be, I guess.”
Below, enjoy some bootleg demo recordings from 1989.
(Via: Northwest Passage)