A record review by Andy Childs.
Of the close on 400 bands resident in, or hailing from, the Bay Area of San Francisco in the mid-to-late 60s that are listed in the back of Ralph J Gleason’s book The Jefferson Airplane & The San Francisco Sound, only 20 or so to my knowledge ever managed the dubious honour of being signed to a major record label. About half of these are well-known names who, if never perhaps fully appreciated at the time, have since become rock icons, Mojo fodder and relatively famous. Of the other half a familiarly disastrous tale of exploitation, naïve management, drug-fuelled disfunctionality, and general unwillingness to conform can be told – a bright burst of creativity and hope followed by the inexorable decline into hazy obscurity and eventually the pages of Shindig! magazine. One such band is the sublime and impeccably-named Mad River.
Perhaps the ultimate Bay Area cult band from the 60s, Mad River had all the ingredients for a group destined for an enigmatic and doomed career. As people they were intelligent, talented, principled, well-connected, single-minded and hedonistic. Their music was finely crafted, adventurous, complex, and, for most people, difficult. And the two albums they made for Capitol Records, Mad River and Paradise Bar & Grill are both challenging and highly individual works much revered by people who have dedicated half their lives to ensuring that this music is kept alive.
Mad River began life at Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio, blues-biased, playing mostly covers and inspired by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. They were never going to be restricted by rigid musical idioms though; they very soon started to develop a singular vision, rehearsed intensely, and after a tentative stab at recording they headed west to Berkeley in the spring of 1967. There they appeared to slip smoothly into the prevailing cultural ambience, attracted the influential attention and approval of Ralph.J Gleason and legendary DJ Tom Donahue and befriended radical community group The Diggers and cult writer Richard Brautigan who became something of a mentor and guiding spirit for them and even fed them when times were particularly hard.
From their first gig in a lowly pizza parlour they soon graduated to the more prestigious Avalon Ballroom, sharing the bill with more illustrious names, and their reputation grew steadily albeit locally. Their music though was never easy. It was very arranged and orchestral in structure and they were loud, unpredictable, and they “didn’t swing”. It was demanding, intricate and for those who got it, it was beautiful, refined and stimulating, but even for an audience as receptive and accepting as existed there and then they managed to alienate people like Bill Graham, who was reluctant to have them play The Fillmore, and Rolling Stone writer Ed Ward who gave their debut album a thorough and thoroughly undeserved pasting.
In the mad rush to grab as many hip San Franciscan bands as possible Capitol Records, after landing Quicksilver Messenger Service and The Steve Miller Band, signed them, appointed an entirely unsuitable producer in Nik Venet for their first album, messed up the artwork, and when mastering the record catastrophically speeded it up so that neither side of the LP exceeded the designated 18 minutes in length! Not really surprising that the reviews were half-hearted and guarded at best. They recovered though and went on to make a second record, largely produced by the much more sympathetic Jerry Corbitt of The Youngbloods, that was a lot more eclectic and approachable in style and content. However their general lack of success and acceptance, their growing disillusionment with the whole west coast scene and the very real threat of being drafted to serve in Vietnam meant that they were never going to be able to flourish and develop further as a band. They played their last gig even before Paradise Bar & Grill was released and the various members dispersed. Some, like drummer Greg Dewey who subsequently joined Country Joe & The Fish, furthered a career in music; others started a new life. All of them it seems remain in touch, reunite every now and then and are open to the idea of recording together again. We can but hope.
This is the bare bones of a fascinating story told in much more elegant detail, and with significant contributions by band members, by David Biasotti in the 36page 12” x 12” handsome and generously illustrated book that complements this excellent and valuable record. Jersey Sloo is a lovingly-assembled vinyl 12” release that allows us for the first time to hear clearly what Mad River sounded like at the beginning and near-end of their cursed recording career. Side one is taken up by title track Jersey Sloo, a frenetic, sharp, bluesy number recorded during rehearsals for Paradise Bar & Grill that for some reason never made that album, and side two has four numbers that constitute their first demo session in Dayton, Ohio in early 1967 and even then shows the band to be an entity apart from some of their more predictable and shapeless contemporaries. Much of the music on these songs is wilfully erratic, irreverent, blues-influenced, atmospheric and entirely of its time. The prominent guitar work, by David Robinson which often steals the show, is piercing and angular and in Windchimes, the only song here that made the first album, they have perhaps a signature tune to match say Dark Star and The Fish’s Section 43. Avid collectors have, until now, had to live with inferior quality second and third generation tapes of this material but now thanks to the digital remastering wizardry of Tony Poole, these five tracks are restored to a standard that often eclipses the Capitol albums.
For devotees of this period of music I would recommend Jersey Sloo unreservedly; for those curious to know and hear more I suggest the modest investment in this record and book could open up a whole new world. And after all, how can we, of all people, resist investigating a band with a name like Mad River?
Order your copy direct from Starry Eyed and Laughing.
– Andy Childs.