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Published: 2013/12/20
by Brian Robbins

Quicksilver Messenger Service
Live At The Winterland Ballroom - December 1, 1973

Cleopatra Records

Those with a basic grasp of Quicksilver Messenger Service history might hesitate to put an ear to this album if they’re fans of the late, great six-string John Cipollina – the master of tasteful-yet-untamed psychedelic guitar. But if they do, they’re missing out – big time.

For although it’s true that the amazing Cipollina (along with bassist/band co-founder David Freiberg) were missing from the Quicksilver lineup from 1970 to 1975, something magical took place inside the Winterland Ballroom on 12/1/73 … and lucky for us all, tape was rolling.

It just so happened that one of the opening acts for Quicksilver that night was Copperhead – Cipollina’s new band at the time. And it just so happened that Freiberg was in the house, as well. They all might have been skypilots on different flight paths during that period, but when Cipollina and Freiberg (on keys for the night) joined the ‘73 QSM lineup of Dino Valenti (vocals); Mark Ryan (bass); percussionists Greg Elmore and Harold Aceves; and Cipollina’s old wingman Gary Duncan on guitar, they were brothers. When Quicksilver hit the Winterland stage on December 1, 1973 they were a seven-headed psychedelicized monster.

This latest release from the Cleopatra Records vault launches hard and strong with “Losing Hand”: the twin drummers push the old Ray Charles blues number like Butch Trucks and Jaimoe in the old days – a mix of Latin groove, jazz flourishes, and rocking wallop. Ryan matches the duo’s powerful womp with his rumbling bass; Freiberg proves he ain’t no slouch on keys with some tasty fills on the keyboards; and Dino Valenti lays it out there in that showman-as-bluesman way that he was a master of. The song, however, belongs to Duncan and Cipollina. They take things over the first time at the 2:55 mark, trading off verses with each other – a couple full go-rounds apiece. Cipollina was a legend, no doubt – but on this night, Gary Duncan was playing his guts out: melodic and powerful and spot-on and out there as anyone could be. Valenti comes back in on vocals for one more verse – and then the real fun begins. As the rhythm monsters crank it on, Cipollina and Duncan each take a couple more verses swapping it back and forth. They’re still working off the blues structure, but they’re making statements from a place far away. Just shy of the seven-minute mark, they’re faced off and slinging it back and forth at each other with licks that keep ratcheting the energy higher and higher. The phrases get shorter and more urgent until both guitars are wound tight in a wild-assed upward spiral. They finally break for air – when they do, the crowd roars; Valenti might take the song home with a final verse, but Cipollina and Duncan have already said it all.

“Play My Guitar” is raucous and churning; “Mojo” is funky and freaky and fun – “The Hat” is even more so; and “What About Me” is Valenti’s chance to act the role of a soulman in a tie-dyed lounge. (He asks the soundman to “turn the vocal up a little bit – please sir? ‘Cause I want to penetrate.”) It’s all good stuff – great stuff, actually – but then things turn another corner … and you realize that for all the personnel shifts Quicksilver went through over the years and for all the talented players who came and went, Gary Duncan might just have been the band’s true soul.

It’s Duncan who takes the wheel with a nasty guitar lick that hangs in the smoky air forever and ever and ever and ever until it finally snaps into the chugging rhythm for “Who Do You Love”. Ryan, Elmore, and Aceves come slamming in right behind and they’re off – Freiberg firing off fat slathers of keys and Cipollina’s guitar barking, snarling, and growling around Duncan’s vocal and guitar. About four-and-a-half minutes in, Duncan steps back from the mic and all funky-butted hell breaks loose. Jamming? I guess to hell, boys and girls – this was prime and wonderful Quicksilver: and if that’s not enough for you, when “Who Do You Love” finally winds down to a spacey conclusion, there’s still over ten minutes’ worth of explorations to come, split into two Duncan-led jams.

It may have been no more than the stars lining up right on the spur of the moment that brought all these players together on that December night in ‘73, but, oh – what a night it was.

*****

Brian Robbins walks 47 miles of barbed wire and wears a cobra snake for a necktie (well … not really) at www.brian-robbins.com

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