Cosmic Country Folk Rock Psychedelic Folk

Record of the Week – Hoyt Axton – My Griffin is Gone (CBS, 1969)

There should be a name for the genre of records made in the late 60s and early 70s by musical legends of a previous generation struggling, with varying degrees of success, to adapt to the sounds and themes of the nascent counterculture. For many of these fading icons, embracing this radical new paradigm of peace, love, and fuzz must have been a great challenge. That’s not to say many didn’t try.

For every conservative crooner or leery bluesman who refused to play ball—Marty Robbins reputedly loathed the fuzz guitar on “Don’t Worry,” and Howlin’ Wolf disliked his psych album so much that Chess cheekily exploited his disgust on the album cover (what Wolf actually said was that the record was “dog shit”)—there were a dozen who embraced the spirit and sounds of the burgeoning love generation with something resembling zeal. Indeed, the list of stars of the fifties and early sixties who made—or were coerced into making—such a transition is as long as it is improbable: Ricky Nelson, the Four Seasons, Bobby Darin, Chubby Checker, Johnny Rivers, Gene Vincent, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Del Shannon, Dale Hawkins, Link Wray, even Roy Orbison all could be said to have had their “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” moment, each varying, widely and wildly, in both conviction and quality.

One of my favorite albums from this period is My Griffin Is Gone by Hoyt Axton. The 1969 album is by no means the strangest or most conspicuous of stylistic left-turns; the album’s rootsy, orchestral instrumentation was fairly standard for the time. Axton is also distinguished by having begun his career a little later than most of the others on this list: he was still just shy of 31 years old, and still in the first decade of his career when he recorded My Griffin Is Gone; not exactly a has-been. But what the record lacks in the spunk and general what-the-fuckness of, say, David Allan Coe’s psychedelic rock opera or Chubby Checkers’ reinvention as a Hendrix clone, it makes up for in its heady, adventurous arrangements and stone-serious subject matter, namely Vietnam, death, and drugs, drugs, drugs. 

By 1969, Axton was already a veteran of the coffee house folk scene, having previously released seven albums of fairly standard roadhouse-lite folk and blues, building a career on having penned the 1962 Kingston Trio hit “Greenback Dollar.” Songwriting was in Axton’s blood: his mother, Mae Boren Axton, was known as the “Queen Mother of Nashville,” and co-wrote Elvis Presley’s first hit, “Heartbreak Hotel.” The charming and avuncular Axton also had a sideline as an actor, appearing first as a roguish guitar-playing thief in a 1965 episode of Bonanza, introducing his easy-going baritone to millions of tv viewers.

Shortly after releasing 1963’s Thunder ‘N Lightnin,’ one of Axton’s close friends suffered a fatal drug overdose. In response, Axton wrote one of his most well-known songs, “The Pusher,” which would become a hit for Steppenwolf when that band’s version was later included on the soundtrack to the film Easy Rider. Somewhere along the way, Axton experienced some personal tragedies and began experimenting with LSD. Enter My Griffin Is Gone (which, sadly, features no song about the fabled Biblical monster mysteriously referenced in its title).

Produced by the Limeliters’ Alex Hassilev, the album features a murderer’s row of players including guitarist David Cohen (Country Joe & The Fish), James Burton (who plays dobro here instead of his customary guitar), keyboardist Larry Knechtel (Bread), and the Wrecking Crew rhythm section of Chuck Berghofer and Gary Coleman. Elsewhere, Jimmie Fadden of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Ben Benay of Delaney & Bonnie appear.

“Vietnam, death, and drugs, drugs, drugs.” Hoyt Axton’s countercultural crossover, My Griffin is Gone.

The album begins with “On the Natural,” a billet doux to the state of Colorado, a place, according to Axton, so idyllic you “don’t need your little blue pills.” The song seems to consist entirely of choruses, as if Axton couldn’t decide which one was best and just decided to use them all. I count at least five distinct sections occurring over the song’s four minutes. How the Centennial State has not yet adopted “On The Natural” as it’s official theme is beyond me:

Everybody talks about the place of their dreams

Where they can find peace of mind
I’m not sure but I think it seems

I’ve finally found mine

In the mountains
Rocky Mountains

“Way Before The Time Of Towns” is a dazed-sounding meditation that introduces the thick, wending orchestration that would appear throughout the record. With its insistent tom-heavy percussion and droney atmosphere, it sounds a bit like a baroque Velvet Underground. “Beelzebub’s Laughter,” rendered in martial waltz time, is a count-the-key-changes paean to the “children of China” who follow the “lies of a false unicorn.”

Axton excels at ballads, and the slower the better. The threadbare “Sunshine Fields of Love,” like “Way Before The Time of Towns” is moody, bordering on bleak, though it features a sing-song-y melody that reminds me a bit of the Pentangle’s attempts at the blues. This is followed by the hard-charging waltz “It’s Alright Now,” a feature for Axton’s expressive and versatile vocals. As a singer, Axton possesses an enviable range, and the way he switches on a dime here from a raw and tremulous ache to a powerhouse rock and roll howl is proof. The side ends with “Gypsy Will,” on which Axton, sounding a bit like Fred Neil, bids farewell to the cryptic character of its title. This hardly prepares us for the tour-de-force of “Revelations,” which opens side 2. The arrangement here is colorful and adventurous—think latter-day Phil Ochs—and buoys Axton’s wizened-but-weary vocal, which is suspended gracefully above the lush instrumentation like a thick cloud of Winston smoke, Axton’s voice pleading convincingly, “Please, God, don’t let me live my life in vain.” 

“Snowblind Friend,” is the album’s finest distillation of Axton’s singular warmth, and also the record’s highlight. A masterclass in dynamics and vibe, the sophisticated arrangement darts in unexpected directions, like a roller coaster in the dark where you can’t see far enough in advance to anticipate the various turns and loop-de-loops. The lyrics are dungeon-dark, a kind of preemptive eulogy for a slow-dying friend:

Stoned on some new potion

He found upon the wall

In some unholy bathroom 

In some ungodly hall

“Snowblind Friend” would later become a hit for Steppenwolf, their second Axton-penned chart-topper after “The Pusher.” 

“Childhood’s End” begins like a throwaway folk tune, complete with a corny lyric about froggies and puppies and swings, before a bluesy harmonica and fancy electric guitar licks introduce the (now expected?) unexpected drop-out and a spacy orchestral section that distinguishes the majority of songs on this record. Interesting to note James Burton here, in probably the least-flashy performance of his storied career. “Sunrise” is a caffeinated, Beau Brummels-sounding romp, and another tune that puts Axton tremendous vocal range on full display: listen from 1:25 on, and hear how the man who was cooing sweet la-la-las in the previous tune now sounds like he’s hopped up on goofballs and auditioning for the Dwarves.

The Lee Hazlewood-sounding “Kingswood Manor” is another deceptively dark slice of bittersweet realism, riding on an easy-going arrangement complete with soaring choral harmony vocals, about a narrator going insane “in the maddening, saddening gloom” of his “paisley rubber room,” despite the pills prescribed by his doctor (maybe dude just needs to visit Colorado?). “Chase Down the Sun” concludes the record with what sounds, initially, like a standard, Hank Williams-y country waltz, but even here Axton can’t resist the now-familiar curveball of a time signature shift in the middle of the tune, radically changing the feel of the song just when you’re getting comfortable.

Axton’s best days, at least professionally speaking, were still ahead of him. A year after the release of My Griffin Is Gone, Axton would pen “Joy To The World” for Three Dog Night, which was named the following year by Billboard as the #1 pop single of 1971; the single would go on to sell 5 million copies. Axton would continue to write for others and produce solid albums at a steady clip, but was never again as weird, adventurous, or existential as he was on My Griffin Is Gone. Axton’s acting gigs continued, too, in parallel with his music career, with notable roles in The Big Chill and Forrest Gump, among many other film and television credits. To me, though, he’ll probably always be Billy’s hapless inventor father in Gremlins, the man who warned us, gravely, to not feed mogwais after midnight.

Jazz Psychedelia Rural rock

Record of the Week – Joe Bauer – Moonset (Raccoon Records, 1971)

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.

Nick with Joe Bauer’s understated rural jazz-folk-rock masterpiece, Moonset.

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.

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

Nick Mitchell Maiato on Joe Bauer’s Moonset

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.

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.

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.

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…

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.


Record of the Week – Dr John – Babylon (Atco, 1969)

When working together in our band One Eleven Heavy, my bandmate Nick and I tend to speak in three distinct but overlapping vocabularies.

The first of these is the fraternal vocabulary, which is the result of our close personal friendship; often we know who or what our respective songs are about without having to discuss them.

The second category is the musical vocabulary, common to all bands: “Maybe sing a third here”; “can we duck the Nord during the bridge?” Here, too, we can often anticipate each other’s wishes and instincts. 

The third category is the language of records. Sometimes I think that this is the most important of the three lexicons. When Nick and I met many years ago, we discovered that we had a surprising number of “favorite artists” in common, and so it was only natural that we’d eventually start a band. Separated by thousands of miles, we still often share music with each other via email, as much to provide grist for the One Eleven Heavy mill as to turn one another on to cool shit, as friends often do. He’s introduced me to tons of Latin psych, various Funkadelic side projects, and several private press jammers I somehow missed. I think I got him into Los Lobos.

I have always played in bands with a seemingly disproportionate number of people who are passionate about the music of Dr. John.

James Toth

Nick is also the latest in an unbroken string of people with whom I have performed music who really, really likes Dr. John.     

I think amenability is one of my greatest assets as a listener. Over the years I have on many occasions been coaxed, goaded, prodded, bribed, and even threatened into listening to particular music that I initially thought I didn’t like, only to find, once given the proper context, that I liked it a lot. See, I’ll give almost anything a chance. And—if I trust you—a second chance, and a third chance, and probably a few more beyond that.

Like I said, I have always played in bands with a seemingly disproportionate number of people who are passionate about the music of Dr. John. Me? I’ve never been a fan. I always found him a little corny. I enter into evidence: his hammy performance in The Last Waltz; his only Top 10 hit, “Right Place, Wrong Time,” which is the only record I know that makes the fabulous Meters sound a little dull; and his theme song for the 90s sitcom Blossom, a jingle sung (though not written) by Dr. John that remains flame-grilled into my brain all these years later despite not having heard it in over twenty years. “In my opinionation…?” Hard, hard pass, Mister Rebbenack.  

James Toth giving Dr John a third chance.

In 2003, a member of my then-current band insisted I listen to Dr. John’s good stuff: the “dark and eerie” early stuff, the tripped-out voodoo jams. This person could not understand how I—a lover of all things spooky and psychedelic and funky—could reject the body of work of a man who embodies all of those things.

And so, despite my negative associations, I purchased the first Dr. John album, Gris Gris—reputedly and tantalizingly recorded at LA’s Gold Star studios between sessions for a Sonny & Cher album—which was pitched to me as a life-changing, brain chemistry-altering experience. I bought it despite feeling that Dr. John is a textbook example of what results when an adopted stage persona—a character—becomes indistinguishable from caricature.

Please note that I do not reflexively reject the notion of a musical persona, per se. I love Sun Ra, Tom Waits, and MF DOOM. It’s just that Dr. John’s particular persona was one that didn’t appeal to me. The irony is not lost on me: Dr. John grew up in New Orleans’ third ward and led the life of a brothel-operating, drug-running convicted felon. As such he was more authentically a damaged mystical medicine show Grand Zombie badass than DOOM was a comic book supervillain, Tom Waits was a besotted Beatnik, or Sun Ra was from Saturn (though the jury’s still out on that last one). His bonafides notwithstanding, I still found Dr. John’s schtick more a tourist trap Hurricane on Bourbon Street than a dive bar Sazerac in the Marigny. I mean, come on: the line between the man himself and his Muppet counterpart is pretty thin, no?

I’m a hard guy to freak out. I spent my teen years dropping acid and listening to Mercyful Fate records, trying to give myself nightmares.

I also love a great deal of music that originated in Louisiana, much of it in New Orleans, specifically: the Neville Brothers, Doug and Rusty Kershaw, Wynton and Branford Marsalsis, Allan Touissant, Blind Uncle Gaspard, Delma Lachney, Louie Armstrong, Irma Thomas, Clifton Chenier, Bobby Charles, and, err, Eyehategod. And I have occasionally enjoyed the music of Professor Longhair, whose merging of fellow Louisianan Jelly Roll Morton’s rolling boogie woogie piano style with West African rhythms is where his protégé Dr. John copped a lot of his style—or so I am told by Nick. But the small sample size of “creepy psychedelic Cajun” LPs on the market never much appealed to me. I don’t really love the Exuma albums, either. I’m a hard guy to freak out. I spent my teen years dropping acid and listening to Mercyful Fate records, trying to give myself nightmares. White guys in headdresses singing about potions and graveyards just look silly and ridiculous to me.

But as I said, my friend, bandmate, and constant collaborator Nick loves Dr. John, particularly his early work. He insisted I listen to 1969’s Babylon, Dr. John’s second album, written in the midst of the Vietnam war and full of odd time signatures and trippy incantations.

So, on a whim, I loaded Babylon onto my iPod and took a walk along the Fox River, near where I live, and listened closely. The album, I was relieved to discover, mercifully contains a minimum of the good doctor’s yabba-zabba-deux tomfoolery, and is far more indebted to West Coast psychedelia and jazz than the witchy bayou funk that comprises Gris Gris.

What I also heard in Babylon, though, was Nick. I’m a big Nick fan, and I always marvel at his compositional acumen and guitar prowess, and I can usually spot when he’s musically referencing one of our mutual favorites—Funkadelic or the Stones or the Dead or Neil—but listening to Babylon felt like discovering a previously missing piece of Nick’s inspiration jigsaw puzzle.

Dr. John does some dead-on guitar impersonations of Wes Montgomery, Eric Clapton, and Gabor Szabo, among others (the Ravi Shankar impression is less convincing)…

I also immediately liked the way the album was recorded: it’s spacious and direct, lacking the murk of Gris Gris. The record, on the whole, sounds ‘mixed for the hallucinations.’ The guitar tones are searing, and the background vocals, presented very high in the mix, are riveting, but also fun.

On the title track that opens the album, the ol’ Night Tripper, sounding passably like Beefheart with a narrower range, intones over a jazzy cauldron of LSD murk in 10/4 time, complete with stereo-panned vocals riding atop a thick broth of electric piano, horns and heavy percussion. It’s alright.

“Glowin,” though, which follows, is extremely my shit: like a funhouse mirror David Axelrod, or the kind of psilocybin R&B the GOAT George Clinton could have recorded before his morning coffee. The tune bounces back and forth between zero gravity second line psych and the sort of Tin Pan Alley-meets-School House Rocks vibe of certain Leon Russell jams I like. Good stuff. But it is the background vocals that really bring it home for me. Jessie Hill, Shirley Goodman, and Tami Lynn, all of whom went on to have their own careers in funk and R&B (and, in the case of Goodman, disco) are the MVPs on this tune, and on the album in general. Sure, it occasionally sounds like Little Shop of Horrors—but I like Little Shop of Horrors.

“Black Widow Spider” is also really good: an insistent, pumping vamp in 5/4 time in which the listener get the sense the Gris-Gris Man isn’t sure what notes he’s gonna sing before they escape his gold teeth. There’s no way to imagine a song like this being written at a piano stool. Which is cool.

Things take a turn for the worse with “Barefoot Lady” and the obnoxious “Patriotic Flag Waver” (moratorium on tuneless children’s choirs, please), which both feel like inconsequential filler. Sandwiched between these, though, is the foggy and excellent “Twilight Zone,” the album’s longest cut at over eight minutes, which is like the Stooges’ “We Will Fall” reimagined as a dubwise Mardi Gras doo-wop ritual sacrifice.

Closing track “Lonesome Guitar Strangler” is, like “Patriotic Flag Waver,” something of a novelty song, but I actually dig this one, on which Dr. John does some dead-on guitar impersonations of Wes Montgomery, Eric Clapton, and Gabor Szabo, among others (the Ravi Shankar impression is less convincing).  

I’m coming around. I don’t think I’ll ever be at the ‘bootlegs and rarities’ level of Dr. John fandom, but I can at least appreciate him more than I had previously. I really do like Babylon, and I’m just getting around to 1971’s The Sun, Moon, & Herbs, and I think I might end up liking this one, too.

But it remains my opinionation that Dr. John really should have let someone else sing.

latin rock

Record of the week – Malo – Malo (Warner Bros, 1972)

It’s disconcerting to consider that the eponymous debut by San Franciscan band Malo hit #14 on the Billboard Top LPs chart, and now only a handful of heads even seem to know who the band is, because it seems to speak to the low cultural status of humility—at least in terms of creating a legacy. Unlike his older brother Carlos, guitar player Jorge Santana appeared to slot inconspicuously into his band line-up, stepping up for solos every bit as dexterous, thrilling and transportive as those performed by his showier sibling—but somehow less iconic for their relatively low appearance of egotism. As a result, you can now find him and his incredible band residing in the “where are they now?” section of your local used record store for under a tenner, most of the time.

What does stand out about Malo—at least at first glance to the trained eye in just such a record store—is the Jesús Helguera cover painting depicting an Aztec prince cradling a swooning lover. This quasi-mythological rendering in gouache provides an explosive visual insight into the musical delights contained within, and it’s a safe on-sight purchase if you don’t have time to wait while the store owner throws on a couple of tracks, or even read a review like this. I practically forced my ten English pounds down Les at Kingbee Records’ throat when I first laid eyes on the LP in Manchester, UK, in around 2007, virtually unable to criticize anything that might fall under the category of Latin Rock as I am.

I must confess that I’d actually heard the album’s opening track, “Pana”, previously on the fantastic 1998 Soul Jazz compilation, Chicano Power! (Latin Rock in The USA 1968-1976), which had kicked off my love affair with the whole genre, so I was well aware of the band’s existence. The point is, I was zoned-in enough by the cover to know that it was probably on my wants list. Sure enough, it was, and, when I got it home, it didn’t disappoint.

“It’s everything that music should be—interconnected, social, joyful and an aural near-escape from earthly reality.”

Nick Mitchell Maiato on Malo.

“Pana” is the quintessential Latin rock song, so it’s the perfect opener. Granted, lead singer, Arcelio García, Jr, may well be singing about touching himself while looking at a youthful brunette in the chorus, if my understanding of the colloquial translation of pana (to pal) to be referring to his member is accurate. But, uh… don’t let that put you off(?)—the music’s wonderful and I bet you don’t speak Spanish.

The train-like “one—and—two—and” samba rhythm of congas, maracas, cowbell, timbales, guiro and full drum kit drives “Pana” on a swinging funk, while pianist Richard Kermode (who defected to Carlos Santana’s band soon after Malo’s release) colors the rhythm with descending octave chords and celebrated trumpet player Luis Gasca (Janis Joplin’s Kozmic Blues Band, Woody Herman And His Orchestra, et al.) threads soaring melodic phrases, solos and rhythmic counterpoints throughout. Meanwhile, former Naked Lunch guitar player Abel Zarate chops away at a buzzing, almost garage-rock electric before Jorge Santana cuts in for some understated, but nevertheless sky-scraping lead action.

There’s a rhythm change halfway through the song that sets up a wild Luis Gasca solo, which gives way to a timbale solo, then Kermode—in that Godchaux-esque way best exemplified by Grateful Dead’s famed transition between “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain” from 5/8/77)—pulls the whole band back toward a new (in this case, the original) rhythm concept. It’s everything that music should be—interconnected, social, joyful and an aural near-escape from earthly reality. What an opener.

Nick with cherished copy of debut, self-titled Malo LP.

Jorge Santana gets the chance to shine on the album’s second track, the Rodgers Grant/Luis Gasca-penned “Just Say Goodbye,” which ploughs along on a perfectly dumb funk with crashing cymbals and wordless aahs while Santana wails away, until receding into a beautiful, breathy ballad colored by brushed cymbal bells and reverb-laden lead guitar. The A-side’s closing track, “Café,” then drops us straight back into the familiar tropes established in “Pana”—yet, here, with the guiro really coming to the fore and driving the song on a locomotive powered by frogs—and Santana gets to rip a half-fuzz, half-fuzz-wah solo smack dab in the middle of the jam that, as we’ve already established, never seems to overpower the rest of the band, even while it lifts them to new levels of excited revelry. The song ends on a great dual-lead, harmonized guitar riff with Luis Gasca blasting a further harmony on top of it, powering the conclusion with a showy vibrato.

It must be intimidating for a band to put together such a strong A-side to an album. After a format-enforced intermission, reestablishing momentum on side B is hard for any band, but on Malo, the closing hype of “Café” leaves the listener feeling sated and almost worn out. How do you expect anyone to get back in the groove after that? Well, as it turns out, you just have to make that groove a massive, ear-worming bass lick that runs over two bars, repeated, with timbales accenting with ballistic fills, followed by the introduction an electric piano riff, then a series of one-chord funk guitar stabs, and then some lengthy horn counter accents, building toward an introductory crescendo that allows the song to begin in earnest from the highest possible point of excitement.

That’s how Malo side B opener (and the best song on the album), “Nena,” begins, and it’s as good a proof as you could ask for that a certain member of One Eleven Heavy’s argument (not mine) that some songs are “A-side songs” while other songs are “B-side songs” according to how hard they kick out the jams, is dubious at best. Sorry, Toth. Lyrically, it’s not plumbing any depths of the human psyche, other than the will to disconnect from drudgery—“Nena, yo quiero a bailar el bugaloo” (Baby, I want to dance the bugaloo,”) sings García—but isn’t that the point? And isn’t the meta-musical aspect of looking inward at the drive to create music, in itself, dripping in profundity? I think it is and I also think that “Nena” delivers bigtime in terms of giving García what he’s looking for.

“Santana’s guitar drips in reverb, making it feel like it’s drifting up into the stratosphere, while García’s vocal is delivered with all the power of an unknown rocker trying to win over a weary festival crowd.”

Mutli-instrumentalist Roy Murray’s occasional toots of flute balance out the swamp of rhythmic interplay on “Nena” and there’s a real baton-passing approach to taking solos that runs throughout the song’s center. An organ solo will give way to a dual, harmonized guitar run that will then give way to a guitar solo and, finally, a horn solo, before returning back to the verse. The song ends with a scrappy coda that rounds off what could have, otherwise, gone on for another 20 minutes and not bothered me (and I’m sure they must have jammed it hard, live). That this wasn’t the album’s hit speaks volumes about the record buying public of 1972, as does the popularity of the B-side’s second track, “Suavecito,” which is often lovingly referred to as “The Chicano National Anthem.” What it says is that the world, back then, loved a ballad just as much as it does today.

I get it, though, “Suavecito” is everything a ballad should be—a gentle, summery exaltation to love with sweet, falsetto-laden vocals, in this case provided by co-writer Richard Bean—plus Latin rhythm. And, you know what, for a ballad, the fact that it clocks in at over six-and-a-half minutes is impressive—stretching out a sweet ditty for anything more than half that would usually be a challenge, but “Suavecito” was created by jammers for jammers, so they pull it off with ease.

When it was released as a single (with “Nena” on the flip—should have been the other way around), the “Suavecito” single reached #18 on the U.S. Top 20, so its steady descent into relative obscurity seems to suggest something about ethnic cultural ghettoization in rock music over time—namely, there isn’t much room for long-term, sub-genre representation in electric guitar music (I hesitate to say rock and roll). Sure, Jorge Santana may have been less showy than his big brother and that may well have contributed to Malo’s comparative insignificance at the wider cultural level, but you do get the sense that—just as the world put all its reggae eggs in the Bob Marley basket—that it was decided by unspoken committee that there’s quite enough Latino representation in the rock idiom with just one Santana brother, thank you very much. What a pity, as the final song on Malo, “Peace,” reasserts.

According to the liner notes, “Peace” was recorded in the same studio as the rest of the album—Pacific Recording Studios, San Mateo, California—but the live room sound of the track is what differentiates it from everything else on Malo. Santana’s guitar drips in reverb, making it feel like it’s drifting up into the stratosphere, while García’s vocal is delivered with all the power of an unknown rocker trying to win over a weary festival crowd. At the two-and-a-half-minute mark, the song breaks down into a trill of gentle rhythm guitar and some Miles Davis-esque Luis Gasca trumpet, before picking up pace into an unexpected waltz that transports the listener along for a further two minutes before fading away to almost nothing but Santana’s clean, reverb-y guitar and, then, near-silence, before a modal switch from Mixolydian to Dorian paves the way for re-entry into a final wah-heavy psychedelic rock assault.

Only Malo’s second album, Dos, released the same year, comes anywhere close to reaching the overwhelming crescendos of the band’s debut, but all their seventies output is worth your time. Better than running out of decent Santana LPs to buy and forcing yourself to try and get into Supernatural, any day.