The Youngbloods’ Warner Bros. subsidiary label, Raccoon Records—gifted to them in 1970 as an outlet for their own material, as well as that of their friends, collaborators and inspirations—brings out the nostalgist in me. Much in the way that major labels of the 1990s were doling out subsidiary labels to hip-hop artists, partly because they were ignorant to what constituted good music and partly out of sheer bloody greed, back in the ‘70s, they were doing the same thing with mildly psychedelic, rural jazz-folk-rock bands. As it turns out, in the case of mildly psychedelic, rural jazz-folk-rock bands, the majors fucked-up on the greed front, because Youngbloods’ drummer Joe Bauer’s one and only solo LP, Moonset—the third Raccoon Records release—along with every other Raccoon release, really did not sell well… at all. These were records that, with the exception of perennial collectors’ item Hi Fi Snock Uptown by Michael Hurley, were quickly relegated to the dollar bins of the mind, as well as their literal equivalents. Where Warner Bros. did succeed, however, in the case of Moonset, was in bestowing the world with a truly singular set of ragged improvisations, enabled by a comfortable pay check, relaxed rural Marin County surroundings, and the time to develop as players in ways that would allow Bauer’s band to explore their own musical chops in pursuit of deep, joyous vibes—tossed off like they were second nature.
The band was really just an augmented line-up of The Youngbloods, albeit with Jesse Colin Young notably absent from the proceedings (as he also was on fellow Youngblood Lowell “Banana” Levinger’s Mid-Mountain Ranch LP project put out under the name Banana & The Bunch, Michael Hurley’s aforementioned Hi Fi Snock Uptown, and the truly bizarre set of outtakes and aborted attempts that was the eponymous Crab Tunes, Noggins LP—all of which featured the rest of the Youngbloods band and all of which came out on Raccoon). Alongside the core unit of Bauer, Banana, and bass player Michael Kane, the Moonset line-up also includes frequent collaborators Steve Swallow—one of the first jazz bassists known to switch from acoustic to electric, and a regular in Paul and Carla Bley’s bands amongst others—and harmonica player Richard “Earthquake” Anderson, as well as yet another bass player, Jack Gregg, who plays a wicked upright on the tentative mid-jam four-chord edit that is the title track. You might go as far to say it’s the very absence of Jesse Colin Young from the proceedings that helps to define vibe of the record and allow it to bloom into weirder, more exciting territories for both listener and—I assume—players. The sweetness of that man’s effortless MOR vocals has no place in these dank humid jams. So dead is the room in which they were recorded and so acute is the mixing and mastering of the LP that it really feels like they could be playing right in front of you. And the fact that the record includes an ambient recording of the local California tree frogs chirruping at the end of the first side seems wholly uncoincidental and, rather, designed to acknowledge the listener’s sense of immersion into the hot, humid, rural, jazzy night.
Bauer reportedly hated rock music when he first joined The Youngbloods in 1965 and, whilst I doubt the absolute veracity of such a brush-off, his education in jazz is obvious from the moment the record opens with the suitably titled, “Explosion,” which announces in a cacophonous manner that this is not your average rural, folks-y psychedelic album. After a short bit of anticipative dithering, we settle into a swing improvisation titled “Five Ten” with Bauer leading the jam, Michael Kane locking in tight and Banana running a series of moment-by-moment licks, ninth chords, diminished chords and a general fooling around with the idea of evading repetition at all costs. The next track, “Old Shoe,” sits in more familiar jazz-blues territory and Banana owns this one with some casual, unadorned lead-and-rhythm guitar that meanders in all the right directions. “Cat Gone” is up next and it wanders into great modal jazz oddness for a minute or so before leading into the album’s title track and, by no small measure, its highlight. “Moonset” doesn’t do a great deal more than any of the other improvisations on the record, in the sense that it finds a rhythm (in this case, a beautifully casual swing that recalls Elvin Jones at his most laid back), a vague harmonic guitar arrangement to drop atop it and some cool, weird soloing to take it into new directions, but it’s the combination of recording quality, aversion to studio effects, intuitiveness of the players, and feeling of being carried along with them on a journey of vibe discovery that really sets “Moonset” apart on the record. It’s spooky in a way that nature makes things spooky—you feel like this jam could only have happened under the conditions of rural, autumnal nightfall—and it leaves the listener with the same sense of coziness one gets under those conditions.
Side two opens with a Dave Brubeck-inspired two-chord jam called “Swallows”, presumably because it’s a vehicle for B-side bass player Steve Swallow to really show us what he’s made of and, indeed he packs a lot into the one-and-a-half minutes needed to allow the jam to find its natural conclusion—running the neck and dropping bombshell low notes in hither and thither for emphasis. The album’s longest track, “Pelicans,” starts out as a showcase for Banana’s exploratory Wurlitzer electric piano playing, which will be familiar to anyone who’s heard the late-period Youngbloods records Rock Festival and Ride the Wind, both of which also came out on Raccoon. The jam starts to really pick up when Bauer finds his way in with a ride cymbal swing with some cool rim shot accents and Swallow dicks about in the most gloriously unfathomable way—it’s at moments like this that I realize just what an alien instrument the bass guitar is to me and to just what degree it can carry a piece of music without you ever knowing it, if you choose only to focus on the melodic top layer. The album’s closing track, “Earthquake Blues,” is—as established on the preceding track—named after its lead instrumentalist—in this case, harmonica player Richard “Earthquake” Anderson and, yes, it’s a blues. I heard, in the One Eleven Heavy van on our last tour, a little bit of murmuring around the idea that there’s not really any sociopolitical or aural justification in the contemporary rock landscape to root a song in a 12-bar blues framework—I think it was raised in criticism of Grateful Dead member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s contributions to his band. I have to say, hearing “Earthquake Blues,” it makes me realize how much I disagree with that idea. Sure, we’re listening to hand-me-down music, created by people who had the luxury of time to develop a dexterity that others in less fortunate circumstances might never have the opportunity to achieve. But there’s innovation occurring, here, at every nanosecond, and—more importantly—there’s joy. You can hear it. This is not a put-on. This is four people who’ve locked themselves in a room to do what they love doing best and navigating their way through the musical unknown, using the sparsely drawn roadmap of 12-bar blues as their guide, but without the mental baggage of whether, or not, it is cultural appropriation. Listen to Swallow’s bizarre notation choices. Listen to Bauer’s accenting and rhythmic shifts. Listen to Banana’s languid-yet-slick, neck-pick-up humbucker runs. Every player is only focused on where they are and what they’re doing, and this is what I think a lot of critics of people who engage in such musical activity may miss when they brush it off as inappropriate. Heck, it makes me want to jam on a 12-bar blues.
Had Bauer lived longer (he died tragically of a brain tumor at the age of 40 in 1982, two years prior to the short-lived Youngbloods reunion tour, which featured ex-Pablo Cruise drummer David Perper as his replacement), you get the impression he could have stretched out into some fairly heady zones as a player. Having said that, the one thing that stands out about the future career of Bauer’s closest collaborator in The Youngbloods, Banana, is that it unfurled at the pace of a truly carefree “Hippie from Olema,” so maybe he’d have been just as happy jamming unto himself and a small global audience of Youngbloods/Raccoon Records nerds for the rest of his days, and maybe he achieved all he ever wanted to achieve by the time of his demise. We’ll never know.
Anyhoo, I digressed to the point a while back. Let me get back to the side notes. Why does Raccoon Records and the existence of Joe Bauer’s one and only solo record, which came out on it, bring out the sentimental nostalgist in me and have me wishing I’d been born in the ’40s instead of the ’70s? Because try shopping a record that sounds anything like a Youngbloods side project to labels in 2022 and see who bites. I guarantee you it won’t be any kind of major label. In all honestly, if Tompkins Square, Feeding Tube and Worried Songs all say no, I don’t really know anyone I could direct you to that might want to do it. It’s not just the fragility of the infrastructure that holds up mildly psychedelic, rural jazz-folk artists and those of their ilk that makes me yearn for the past’s richer landscape—it’s the idea that simple musicians, focused more on the idea of having fun and jamming homey, chops-y, weird shit than on finding celebrity, were the ones who benefited from that infrastructure. That a band like The Youngbloods could be handed their very own record label by one of the world’s biggest entertainment companies seems almost laughable, now—cry-laughable, of course, but laughable all the same. And I bet they did laugh when Warner Bros. handed over the check—all the way to their cozy, log cabin, home studio hideaway. What a beautiful time that must have been.