Graded on a Curve:
Black Oak Arkansas, Raunch ‘N’ Roll Live

Black Oak Arkansas’ Jim “Dandy” Mangrum is the Ryne Duren of rock. Duren was the journeyman pitcher who could throw the ball like 167 mph. His only problem? He was legally blind. Not even Coke-bottle-thick glasses helped. From 1954-65 batters suffered nervous breakdowns at his appearance, because as famed Yankee manager Casey Stengel noted, “If he hit you in the head you might be in the past tense.” It didn’t improve batters’ nerves that Duren’s first pitch generally zoomed 20 feet over the catcher’s head. You never knew if Duren was going to hit the strike zone, the third base coach, or some poor kid in the bleacher seats.

Jim Dandy’s voice, same deal. I’d call it a wild pitch, but Mangrum has no pitch, and no control of his amazing instrument whatsoever. He might hit a note, or he might hit some stoned head in the 43rd row. But that’s what I like about Black Oak Arkansas; it managed to become one of the premier live acts of the seventies with a tone-deaf singer with mighty pipes, while playing a lascivious acid-fried hillbilly boogie you have to hear to believe.

Unlike its Southern Rock brethren, BOA was a band of bona fide freaks, LSD-soaked long-hair rednecks who lived off the land commune style (to avoid a felony warrant, basically) in the hills of rural north-central Arkansas. Black Oak played a whoop-ass psycho-boogie that might include Mangrum soloing on the washboard and drummer Tommy Aldridge playing the drums with his hands on such cosmic cornpone as “Mutants of the Monster” or “Lord Have Mercy on My Soul,” with its monologue by Jim “Aldous Huxley in bib overalls” Dandy about the Halls of Karma and how we can all be as one if we only do enough bong hits, like the one the boys do at the beginning of unreleased 1972 studio cut “UP, UP, UP.”

It’s hard to believe Black Oak Arkansas was one of the biggest live draws of the seventies, but that just goes to show you that the U.S.A. was filled with long-hairs who could appreciate a southern band with three guitarists that got really freaky live, with Mangrum—who looked like a proto-David Lee Roth with his long blond hair, perfect physique, and perpetually shirtless stage presence—delivering stoned “may we all escape space and time NOW!” monologues before the band launched into you never knew what. An a cappella rendition of “Dixie,” maybe, or the country-flavored “Uncle Lijiah,” or the full-tilt southern-fried boogie of “Hot Rod” or “Fever in My Mind.” Or, best of all, the libidinous rut’n’raunch of “Hot and Nasty,” a song so great Killdozer covered it.

If it’s the definitive retrospective treatment you want, I suggest shelling out for Rhino Records’ 1992 Hot and Nasty: The Best of Black Oak Arkansas. But if it’s a taste of the beast that was BOA live you seek, you cannot beat 1973’s Raunch ‘N’ Roll Live. BOA went through members the way Lindsay Lohan goes through rehabs, but Raunch ‘N’ Roll Live features one of the band’s strongest line-ups, with Mangrum on vocals and washboard; Harvey Jett on vocals, guitar, and electric guitar; Ricky “Ricochet” Reynolds on vocals, guitar, and 12-string guitar; Stan “Goober Grin” Knight on guitar; Pat Daugherty on bass and vocals; and Tommy Aldridge on drums.

Raunch ‘N’ Roll Live has received the retrospective two-LP treatment, but only hardcore fans will want 24 tracks of live BOA, with lots of doubles thrown in. I love BOA, but I need two versions of “Mutants of the Monster” like I need Jim Dandy to scrape his trusty washboard across my skull. No, the original 7-track LP is jim dandy with me, although I wish the original had substituted “Gigolo”—which has a fine melody but is every bit as dumb as David Lee Roth’s “Just a Gigolo,” even if it does rock much harder—with another tune, say the great “Fever in My Mind” or “Revolutionary All American Bands.”

Black Oak Arkansas weren’t musical simpletons. Long hours spent practicing (when they were still The Knowbody Else) in an old galvanized grain bin at the edge of their hometown with an amp stolen from the local high school, honing a sound that included rock, country, blues, and gospel, paid off. It shows in the assured handling of the wheel of “Hot Rod,” a supercharged .389 of a song. Mangrum is at his Duren wildest, his voice zooming off in all directions; the drumming is fantastic; and there’s lots of hellbilly guitar wank, including a solo hot enough to melt rubber.

Just how weird was Mangrum? Weird enough to stop “Hot Rod” to lead the crowd in a deep breathing exercise, telling the audience, “We’re gonna go in an out. Breathin’ in and out we’re gonna pulsate and clean out our bodies.” And that’s exactly what Mangrum does, breathing deeper and deeper to the point of orgasm to the accompaniment of some far-out washboard scraping and dissonant guitar skronk. How many bands, much less redneck boys, would stop their show in media res to lead the crown in some newfangled therapy? I’m surprised Mangrum didn’t pull some EST on ‘em while he was at it.

But BOA wasn’t just about self-improvement. That “raunch” ain’t there for nothing, and Black Oak was one lewd live act. Horny country boys high on the hog (or more likely on what Mangrum in “Movin’” calls “Afghani primo Afghani stash”), BOA is at its concupiscent best on “Hot and Nasty,” an obscene scratch’n’sniff card of a song with a sustained riff that features Mangrum doing heaps of vocal shape-shifting while the guitars kick ass and the back-up vocalists scream like cats in heat. Mangrum slows things down for a moment to lewdly crow, “Hot… and… nasty!” before singing some nonsense syllables. Lewdness also rules on “Gettin’ Kinda Cocky,” one timeless rock tune featuring Mangrum at his guttural best, singing about how he gets his kicks before groaning and moaning in a fever of lust while a guitar plays a “Kill ‘em all, let karma sort ‘em out” solo. Afterwards Mangrum the Poet says to the crazed audience, “Get just as crazy as you wanna be, we’re used to taking care of your insanity.”

Mangrum, a born showman, plays one crazy washboard in the intro to “When Electricity Came to Arkansas,” before shouting “Everybody sing!” as the band goes, “Yea…. yeah yeah yeah.” Mangrum follows up with an “Oooooh, RIGHT! We’re flying free, but when you’re flying, sometimes you gotta rest your feet on the ground.” A bass enters, Mangrum keeps the beat on washboard, then the guitars come in sounding like The Allman Brothers with a great riff that they play, with variations, until the song’s end. After which the whole band emits a great scream that starts high and goes lower and lower, right into the Pit.

Nowhere does Black Oak’s freak flag fly as high as on the philosophicool “Mutants on the Monster.” It opens with a hippie in the audience shrieking, “Mutants of the Monster!” Then Mangrum, in his deepest croak, sings about living in the wilderness and “seeing through the maze” and how “Man is an animal gone mad” and we’re all his offspring, “mutants of the monster.” The tune starts slowly, turns into a horse race on the turn of a dime, and features heaps of great guitar, especially at the end, when the three guitarists intricately interweave their parts into one great sound.

The boys in BOA may have believed they were mutants, but they were happy mutants and one good time party band. As they prove on LP closer “Up,” one bong-banging boogie with funky guitars that get especially freaky on the choruses, while Mangrum sings about hippie brotherhood and smoking weed and going up, “straight up!” Unfortunately there’s a drum solo, and even a good drum solo reminds me of the old Russian saying: “Your German may be a nice enough fellow. Still, it is better just to shoot him.” The damn thing wastes time Big Jim could have spent mad libbing on death and the void and smoking hash from a rocket-powered hookah on a six-sunned planet at the furthest reaches of the Milky Way. Seriously, who ENDS their set with a drum solo? Not even ELP would be so crass. It’s the only black mark on an otherwise great LP.

Too bad Raunch ‘N’ Roll Live doesn’t include “Jim Dandy,” which came out the next year, or the country honk of “Gravel Roads,” or the philosophicool “Everybody Wants to See Heaven ‘Nobody Wants to Die’.” But you gets what you gets and you leaves the rest in the Halls of Karma, where Jim Dandy once wandered, painting psychedelic words of wisdom on the walls of his mad hillbilly skull.

Black Oak Arkansas went from one of the biggest concert draws around to, I hate to say obscurity, but I don’t know a single human being who listens to them nowadays. And this despite the fact that they produced some immortally raunchy party boogie that I listen to regularly, both because I find it both amusing (hit that catcher’s mitt, Jim Dandy!) and righteous. Check out the frenetic “Fever in My Mind” if you don’t believe me. Or “Plugged in and Wired,” which BOA recorded during a 2013 reunion. It proves the old boys still have some juice in ‘em—have ever since electric kool-aid came to the great state of Arkansas.


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