Monday, October 31, 2011

Frost 1970 - Country Joe and Quicksilver

Greg Dewey and Country Joe
Frost 4/26/70
Photo: M. Parrish
By 1970, the first generation of San Francisco bands had begun to experience significant changes in personnel and style. Janis Joplin had left Big Brother and the Holding Company by late 1968, and both the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead had shifted personnel (and directions) on more than one occasion. However, two of the groups that saw the most drastic makeovers were Country Joe and the Fish and the Quicksilver Messenger Service, both of whom headlined concerts at Frost Amphitheater during 1970.

On April 25, 1970, Country Joe and the Fish headlined a show that also featured the Joy of Cooking and Eric Burdon and War. Another warm, sunny Sunday afternoon of music in the bucolic, tree-lined bowl, with a trio of top-flight acts.

Joy of Cooking 4/26/70 Ron Wilson and Toni Brown
Photo: M. Parrish
The Joy of Cooking comprised guitarist Terry Garthwaite, keyboardist Toni Brown, drummer Fritz Kasten, bassist David Garthwaite, and conga player Ron Wilson. Terry Garthwaite and Toni Brown were both doing the singer-songwriter circuit in Berkeley when their paths crossed and decided to put together a band. Their styles contrasted starkly. Garthwaite’s style was rooted firmly in the blues and she had the gravely voice to carry it off convincingly. Brown had come out of the New England folk scene and was more of a classic singer-songwriter. The two harmonized beautifully and they decided to round out a performing unit with Kasten, Garthwaite’s brother David (who preceded Neighbor on bass), and Wilson. A very popular live act, particularly in the greater Berkeley area, the band was still many months away from releasing the first of their three albums on Capitol records when they played the Frost show. Their set featured a variety of tunes by each of the vocalists, and closed with the dynamic medley of “Brownsville” and “Mockingbird” that was the centerpiece of their first, eponymous album that came out in 1971.

Eric Burdon 4/26/70 Photo: M. Parrish
Lee Oskar (War) 4/26/70 Photo: M. Parrish
Howard E. Scott (War) 4/26/70
Photo: M. Parrish
British rocker Eric Burdon relocated to California in the late 1960s and, after making a couple of psychedelically tinged albums with a new lineup of Animals, gave up the group name entirely to front a multicultural band of Southern California musicians that called themselves Eric Burdon and War. I believe that the band’s set at Frost was their first northern California gig, and it was a loose, open ended affair with lots of extended instrumental jamming. The centerpiece of the set was a fully formed version of “Spill the Wine,” which went on to be the group’s biggest hit. They also played a highly stylized interpretation of the Stones tune “Paint it Black,” and wound things up with a bluesy version of “Mystery Train.” Onstage, Burdon epitomized the ‘long haired leaping gnome’ image with which he self-identified in “Spill the Wine” while his bandmates showed the formidable instrumental chops that served them well for decades after parting company with Burdon in 1972.

Country Joe McDonald 4/26/70
Photo: M. Parrish
Barry Melton and Doug Metzner
4/26/70 Photo: M. Parrish
After completing two classic albums (Electric Music for the Mind and Body and Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die) and one pretty good record (Together), Country Joe and the Fish splintered in early 1969, leaving just Country Joe McDonald and lead guitarist Barry “the Fish” Melton from the classic lineup. After a few months of touring with Big Brother’s rhythm section (bassist Peter Albin and drummer David Getz), the Fish reconfigured with bassist Doug Metzner, keyboardist Mark Kappner (a holdover from the Getz-Albin lineup), and former Mad River drummer Greg Dewey. This lineup was the one that played Woodstock, and was also the one present at the Frost show. The Fish were to break up for good a few weeks later, but they certainly put on an energetic performance that afternoon. The set list was kind of disappointing to me, as it mostly comprised material from the group’s forthcoming album CJ Fish and their most recent (and weakest) effort, Here We Are Again. With his hair cut short, aviator shades, and a trim moustache, McDonald looked quite a bit different than he had at Woodstock the previous summer.  Melton, Brillo head of hair fully intact, sung a good number of the tunes, including the stinging set opener, “Babylon” and a hard rocking version of “Love Machine.” The set’s strongest performance was on a relatively innocuous tune from CJ Fish, “Rockin’ All Around the World,” on which McDonald pushed the tempo and inserted one of his blues raps in the middle. Inevitably, the set (and the show) closed with a somewhat desultory run through “Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die” and a long tepid encore of “Motherless Children/Mr. Big Pig/Return of Sweet Lorraine.”  The Fish splintered for good a few weeks later, with McDonald reverting to a solo acoustic performance format.

Robert Savage 8/9 /70 Photo: M. Parrish

David Freiberg, Gary Duncan, and Dino Valenti
Frost 8/9/70 Photo: M. Parrish

John Cipollina and his legendary hot-rodded Amp
Frost 8/9/70 Photo: M. Parrish

David Frieberg, Dino Valenti, Gary Duncan
Frost 8/9/70 Photo: M. Parrish

Dino Valenti Frost 8/9/70 Photo: M. Parrish
On August 9, 1970, a seriously retooled Quicksilver Messenger Service returned to Frost after a two year absence. The group’s ‘classic’ quartet lineup splintered at the end of 1968, when guitarist Gary Duncan took off to form a group with QMS svengali Dino Valenti. In the meantime, the remaining three members of Quicksilver jammed with first album producer Nick Gravenites, played on his solo album My Labors, and ultimately convinced master session pianist Nicky Hopkins to join the group. This version of Quicksilver cut a lovely, if overly mellow, LP entitled Shady Grove, but only played a few low profile gigs during the year of its existence. In the meantime, Duncan and Valenti’s group never flourished, and both of them rejoined Quicksilver in time for the band’s 1969-70 New Year’s gig. The early 1970 QMS gigs were spectacular, with a few new Valenti songs and some memorably extended version of tunes like “Who Do You Love” informed by the instrumental textures afforded by John Cipollina’s and Duncan’s twin guitars and Hopkins’ rippling piano fills.  The group decamped to Hawaii in the spring and cut two albums dominated by new Valenti tunes as he steadily asserted his dominance as principal singer-songwriter and front man for the band. By mid-summer, Hopkins departed leaving the six-man Quicksilver that played on a blazing hot Sunday afternoon on the Stanford Campus. Opening for Quicksilver was the Robert Savage Group, a heavy blues-rock trio that cut one album before disappearing from sight. At the time, they shared a number of bills with Quicksilver. Their set at Frost featured some powerful lead guitar, but no particularly memorable songs or moments.

The first Valenti-led Quicksilver album Just for Love had come out earlier in the summer, and was eagerly anticipated. Up to then, Valenti, whose roots went back to the Greenwich Village folk scene and had cut a fine, atmospheric solo album for Epic in 1968, was highly regarded by the rock intelligentsia. However, his macho posturing, the deference he showed to his bandmates, and the subjugation of the once free-jamming band into a vehicle for Valenti’s treacly love ballads was painful to see and hear. Echoes of the Quicksilver of old emerged in Cipollina’s “Cobra,” bassist David Freiberg’s lovely take on “Pride of Man,” and an abbreviated run through the Duncan-sung “Who Do You Love,” but the majority of the set was given over to Valenti pieces like “Fresh Air” and “What About Me,” which were the titles of the two albums that came from the Hawaii sessions that had included the seven piece Quicksilver before things started to fall apart. The photos show just how hot it must have been onstage and, Valenti’s presence aside, the band turned in a very energetic, and well received, performance. Sadly, Valenti and Duncan’s further tinkering with the group would lead to its further disintegration with Cipollina’s departure later in the year, followed by Freiberg the next year. I remember really enjoying the set at the time, and my perceptions of the gig are certainly colored by the way the band’s subsequent history unfolded in the months to come.