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Columns > Dan Alford - Audio Files

Published: 2002/06/28
by Dan Alford

Psychedelic Sixties

Summers here and Ive found myself cruising the dial for some good old classic rock lately. With that in mind, this month Id like to suggest a pair of outrageous recordings from the hotbed of the psychedelic sixties: the Bay Area. Both are official live releases, although the Country Joe and the Fish album is no longer in print. Keep an eye out for it in used record shops and tag sales though. While we can certainly trace the roots of jamming back through jazz and back porch pickin, there can be little doubt that the spirit of improvisation and musical risk taking that keeps jam fans coming back was born in late 60s. Its worth it to take a step back from all the music being produced and give a listen to some of the many live releases from that seminal period.

On another note, while Im still planning a DVD month, Julys Audio Files will suggest a few All Star jams worth checking out. Until then, keep in touch with comments or contributions, be they full reviews or some Quick Picks.

Also, keep an eye open for Audio Files B&P offers on the Tape Trade Board. Over the past month both Ratdog 2-23-02 (Wow! What a response!) and Miles Davis 11-5-71 were offered. The next offer will be up soon after this months issue is published.

Quick Picks From the Disc Changer:
1) Legion of Mary, 5-21-75, Disc 1- THE classic, nuff said.
2) Legion of Mary, 5-21-75, Disc 2- Ditto
3) Berkfest All Star Jam, 8-14-99- Two jams: the first centered around Cissy Strut, the second around Chameleon. More on this one later.
4) GD, Dicks Picks 15 (9-3-77), Disc 2- A Bertha > Good Lovin thatll force you to dance.
5) Trey Anastasio, Trey Anastasio- People may bicker, but this sounds better than any studio Phish release.
Discman: SKB, 5-29-02, Disc 2- This band becomes exponentially more sophisticated with each mini-tour. And theyre moving to the east coast!

Donovans Reef Jam
from Country Joe and the Fish, Live! Filmore West 1969, Vanguard 139/40-2

This recording comes from the last great psychedelic Country Joe and the Fish concerts at the Fillmore West in January of 1969. The whole disc is a priceless snapshot- a real gem in any collection. The captured performances are greatly enhanced by the presence of Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane, the yet-to-be-formed Hot Tuna) on bass. The unquestionable highpoint of the disc, however, is a wild All Star jam version of Donovans Reef (38 minutes!) featuring not only Joe MacDonald, Barry Melton on guitar, David Cohen on organ, Chicken Hirsh on drums and the aforementioned Casady, but Mickey Hart, Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen and Steve Miller.

The music is immediately passionate and ethereal, someone playing a subtle brush across the skins as organ swirls coil up and vibrate with tension. Guitar licks courtesy of Barry Melton cut through like an energetic but macabre cemetery dance. Beneath it all you can find quick rhythm strokes from Garcia and the odd flash of picking from Jorma. Joes vocal waver with precision and intent to create a sublime rendering of the haunting, psychedelic lyrics, Open your mind and show me a sign to prove youre insane. The lavish, humid vocal beds swell before your ears, intricately threaded with the instrumental movement. The first solo comes from Melton, at first creating splashes of color with the Wa, and then easing into a bit of picking. Whats most impressive is that the solo quickly devolves into a great little section where all the guitarists toss around the note; that level of interplay in an All Star jam is just about unheard of. Almost all of the All Star jams we see, even the really great ones, become simple solo vehicles. The ability to quickly drop the ego and really listen to the others speaks volumes not only of the musicians, but also of their true spirit of exploration.

Jack rumbles up, spurred by more explosive licks from Melton. The bassist pauses for just a second before dropping the reins and spinning out on his own solo. But the band follows effortlessly, reforming around the new, aggressively groovtacious idea. Jerry, always eager to give it a whirl, jumps in with a short, tight solo that serves as Jacks shadow. The rhythm guitars become desperate, but end up grounding the movement as Jack just keeps stomping onward. The peak eases down and the drummers are now guiding the course with loads of rim shots and that military roll that Mickey so favored in the sixties. Steve Miller appears on harp, given just a moments leeway before the ensemble swells up again, and he is forced to pick his spots among all the machinations of the jam. Jerry and David and Jorma and Barry are all engaged in a deeply heated musical debate. The pinnacle is surpassed, and the groove drops away to Steves harp and a new set of lyrics. Joe starts singing a bluesy line in the vein and rhythm of a Pigpen rap, or the middle of a Quicksilver Who Do You Love? The rhythm section is now in a loose-limbed jiggle that cradles the vocals.

With a count down, a new blues jam erupts, leads coming from all directions but one rarely overpowering another; Jorma leads the fifteenth minute, Steve, the sixteenth and seventeenth, Barry the eighteenth and nineteenth. Again the solos are thoroughly enhanced by the fantastically creative supporting playing. Squirrelly guitar licks take the music down a side street lit by yellow lamps. Mickey goes for some percussion that simply doesnt work, and when he finally gives up, theres a fine strut going down. At twenty-four minutes, Jorma spontaneously combusts. This time its Barry whose complements help color the sketch.

Next its another run to the top that plateaus at a creepy jungle hallucination- broad vistas and hidden spiders all at once. But like dawn, a sweet groove makes it all better. Steve Miller is now on guitar and playing specific lines interspersed with Cohens ministerial organ. Its a beautiful, confident moment. The other guitarists begin to chime in, David Cohen making the strongest statements, while Barry maintains the idea for as long as he can (which is longer than you think). Eventually Jorma and Jack help send to band toward a Southern Gospel shimmy shake, but the vibe takes over and everyone is washed away with it.

This jam is one of those things that you always new happened but never actually heard. Listening to it with fill a void in your mental/musical archives.

Bear Melt
from Jefferson Airplane, Bless Its Pointed Little Head RCA66801-2

This final track from Jefferson Airplanes 1968 live album Bless Its Pointed Little Head is a classic of the psychedelic movement. In fact, it may be the definition of psychedelic music. At eleven minutes, it may not be as long as many standard tunes in the repertoires of Airplanes contemporaries, but the ground covered is strange and unsteady- an altered state in and of itself.

The composition (if it can be called that) opens with creepy, widely spaced bass notes and quiet keys and guitars. Spenser Dryden taps the high hat here and there, accentuating Graces long moaning vocals. The plot of the song has something to do with a woman in the woods who is nipped by an animal and considers running away, but a man with a sledgehammer comes along and decides all he needs is just one hit and them little animals is dead. Yet Grace (or the woman) questions, in a pinnacle of all that is acid drenched, sixties madness, Why not keep all the little animals alive? An allegory for the youth of a nation in a time of strife and turmoil? Possibly. An homage to the famed chemist and master soundman Owsley, also known as Bear? Possibly. A hallucination involving a Honey Bear bottle? Possibly. Something that must be heard to be believed? Definitely.

Graces vocals are absolutely phenomenal, fitting the strange subject matter to perfection. As she wails and howls, the band leans in from all sides, lending weight and immediacy to the impending insanity. The movement eases to Dryden, Casady and the guitarists playing brief interlocking notes, but only for a moment. Suddenly Kantner swings out a rhythm lick that triggers Jorma and Jack, who race and then eye each other down. Put on headphones and watch it happen before your very eyes and ears! They swipe at each other, and drag the rest of the instrumentalists into a scuffle that doesnt quite reach the cacophonous peak that is part of so many Airplane songs, and that made Airplane so very popular. Graces final lines are ethereal and strange- a precursor to the quiet warbling that later became so identified with Robert Plant.

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