ROCK: SAN FRANCISCO, PART II
During the past year the San Francisco renaissance in rock music has been widely publicized and popularized (especially its more sensational aspects) in the national press. The rise of San Francisco rock shifted rock's creative center of influence from England back to America, for good reasons. The San Francisco musicians are really the first self-consciously creative rock musicians.
In this article and the last we've selected three albums by groups which rank with the best San Francisco has produced. Our selections are completely arbitrary. We didn't consider the two Jefferson Airplane albums because while they are good albums, they are not indicative of how the group sounds in live performance. Moby Grape's album is also good but most San Francisco groups have gone beyond them at least instrumentally. Big Brother's album is poor but was released because of avarice. The groups we are considering reflect the current trends in all rock.
The Grateful Dead are technically the only San Francisco rock group discussed in these two articles. Country Joe is from Berkley. If you haven't bought the Dead's album (Warner Brothers W 1689) don't bother wasting your money. The album as a whole is disappointing especially considering that everyone who had heard them before the album was released raved about them.
Jerry Garcia (lead) and Phil Lesh (bass) have both admitted that the album wasn't quite up to their expectations either. It's not really a total loss. There is one excellent cut ("Morning Dew") and two good cuts ("Cream Puff War" and "New, New Minglewood Blues") but it is so far from what the Grateful Dead sound like live that they deserve better treatment.
First the album. "Morning Dew" is deceptively simple. The song is based on only four chords and is arranged around a simple, pretty guitar figure. Garcia's guitar solo is a beautifully original solo for rock and points out the lyrical quality of much of the Dead's music. The other two songs mentioned are more illustrative of the Dead's usual style — hard rock.
"Viola Lee Blues," the last track on the second side, is a good starting point for discussing the Dead's live performances. It illustrates the weakness of their worst performances — dullness. The Dead's music centers around Jerry Garcia's guitar. The other members of the group contribute fantastically, of course, but mostly in terms of interplay with the lead guitar.
Obviously when Garcia is bad, the music is bad. This isn't usually the case, however, in person, since Garcia is one of the top three or four guitar players in rook music. When he is very good, the music is incredible.
Jazz critic Philip Elwod has said that the Grateful Dead are very close to an experimental jazz group and he is right. In person, the Dead feature very improvised instrumentals framed by average vocals and lyrics.
The vocals and lyrics though, become almost superfluous as the instrumental section of each song weaves moods, changing tone, tempo, and style often for thirty minutes or longer.
Garcia's main deficit as a soloist is demonstrated on "Viola Lee Blues." He occasionally gets hung up on a single rhythmic figure which he repeats up and down the fingerboard.
"Viola Lee" never seems to get off the ground because of this. Lesh is an amazingly inventive bassman (he studied under Darius Milhaud) and though he tries his damnedest on "Viola Lee," nothing happens.
The Grateful Dead are one of the most powerful and inventive groups in rock (or any music for that matter); if you've heard their album and disagree then we suggest that you listen to them when they come East again.
A number of people writing about rock in the past year have pointed out rock's eclecticism; one of the most appealing features of rock is its ability to encompass styles as diverse as the Lovin' Spoonful and the Cream's.
A case in point is the recently released album Ara-Be-In (Arhoolie—Changes Records 7001) by the Jerry Hahn Quintet. Jerry Hahn is a guitar player who is best known for his work with jazz musician John Handy. The other members of his group are Mike White, a violinist who was with Hahn in Handy's group of a year and a half ago, Ron McClure and Jack De Johnette, bassman and drummer respectively for Charles Lloyd, and Noel Jewkes, a San Francisco jazz musician (tenor and flute) who sounds very much like Charles Lloyd. In other words, Hahn's group is basically a West Coast jazz group.
Their album, however, contains two tracks ("Ara-Be-In" and "Ragahantar") which are as much like the highly inventive rock of the Grateful Dead and the Cream, for example, as they are like jazz.
"Ragahantar" is Hahn solo. It is formally based on the raga but it is as close to Indian classical music as most Indian derived rock is; i.e., not very close. It is its own thing, just like Country Joe's instrumentals and the Doors' "The End" are unique though influenced by Eastern tonalities.
Hahn's guitar is in an open tuning (reminiscent of Sandy Bull) and several strings act as sympathetic strings, setting up a drone or root note over which Hahn solos.
"Ara-Be-In" is more interesting if only for the fact that the rest of the quintet is included on this track. The same guitar figure opens "Ara-Be-In" and the structure of the piece is the same for each soloist — a rhythm-free improvisation in which the rest of the band establishes and augments the drone followed by a quick tempoed rhythmic improvisation once more over the drone.
White's violin solo is the most effective because his instrument (like the guitar) is most readily adaptable to this style of music. The piece ends with a unison improvisation and finally a return to the theme.
"Ara-Be-In" is impressive from any musical point of view, but it is especially interesting in that Hahn's group is clearly thinking along the same lines as, for example, Jerry Garcia's group.
As the instrumental quality of rock keeps improving, we feel that the music will end up in the area that Jerry Hahn's music encompasses — a musical area that defies labels because it is eclectic and is unashamed of its roots. Some rock groups — the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish — are already there. Whether or not they will be listened to is another question.
THIS IS THE END.
(by Bill Dalton and Tom Law, from The Heights, 17 November 1967)
This piece continued a previous article, "Rock: San Francisco, Part I," reviewing the first Country Joe & the Fish LP, Electric Music for the Mind and Body: