Graded on a Curve: Four from Rockbeat Records

It’s springtime, and live records seem to be budding like tulips; Rockbeat has four in the racks right now on vinyl and compact disc from Paul Butterfield, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, the Flamin’ Groovies, and Emerson, Lake, & Palmer. This writer’s evaluations vary as wildly as the genres assembled, but it suffices to say there’s something here to satisfy nearly any fan of rock’s “classic” era. The number of tracks also differs, in the case of ELP quite substantially, so take time when choosing LP or CD.

Late one night, or more accurately early one morning, while leaning against a wall in a rowdy basement as Cheap Trick at Budokan spun methodically on a cheap turntable, a voice entered my ear via tones simultaneously familiar and enigmatic. Its words: “live records are mere souvenirs, serving as reminders for the few who attended and providing a substitute for the many who didn’t.”

Obviously, that shit was something of a vibe-killer, but when I turned around to bark “bug off, killjoy,” my eyes landed on a tattered poster of Iggy Pop. He was holding court on stage, shirtless and wearing yellow tights as he contorted the skin on his belly into a doughy mass with his hands. It was a powerful, nay a downright fucked-up sight to behold, and in response I promptly fell right over. Just as my body kissed the cement I can remember acknowledging begrudgingly that the voice had a point.

But from an older, wiser place it becomes clear that live recordings also serve to solidify the history we’re ceaselessly hurtling away from. Take these Rockbeat releases as four examples. Paul Butterfield’s set is the oldest in the bunch, and it deepens the stylistic redirection the famed Chicago blues rock harmonica specialist undertook after guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop exited his band.

This shift is more famously documented on the Elektra 2LP Live, which captures a show from March of 1970 at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, but Rockbeat’s 2LP/ 2CD Live in New York 1970 holds a long set from the following December, and if not quite as sharply recorded (broadcast over radio, it still sounds alright), it’s in one respect immediately preferable, as the opening take of Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” reaches 12 minutes; the Troubadour version fades out after five.

Butterfield’s harp sounds unsurprisingly fine throughout New York 1970, but as on Live, a major hindrance is the adjustment to a horn-based R&B and soul inflected sound, which frankly pales in comparison to the advancements of East-West (in my estimation, the tiptop Butterfield live release is East-West Live, which corrals three enlightening versions of the groundbreaking piece). “Play On” even integrates a touch of gospel, but the horns end up vamping too much (a recurring problem), the rhythm section is too busy, Rod Hicks’ bass solo is no great shakes, and the tune teeters on the brink of dud-like.

The general rule here is the more bluesy the tune the better, though this isn’t a purist commentary. “Driftin’ Blues” is solidly uptown stuff, with Trevor Lawrence’s delivering some strong baritone sax; the issue is mainly that akin to a fair amount of the late ‘60s rock scene, the embracement of R&B and soul by Butterfield and his band (particularly Hicks, who also sings) hit a bumpy patch on the path of good intentions. The problem is most apparent in “The Boxer,” the track’s energy beset by that tendency to overplay, undertones of Vegas in the horns and a typically underwhelming drum solo.

Of course, Butterfield’s sheer talent can productively complicate matters. “Everything Going to be Alright” is a likeable Big Walter Horton rip and “Stuck in the Countryside” mingles a funky groove with Jew’s harp. Elsewhere, “Love March” is reminiscent of the Family Stone, “Back Together Again” radiates positivity but sorta stalls out, and closer “So Far So Good” flirts with jazz through Gene Dinwiddie’s soprano sax solo but to no great result. Live in New York 1970 misses more than it hits (lovers of rocking soul will likely feel differently), but when it does connect the bandleader’s appeal is still discernible.

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen’s Live at Ebbett’s Field lacks peaks and valleys, instead staying up high from start to finish, and it’s my pick of Rockbeat’s litter. The venue in question is not the Brooklyn baseball stadium, which was demolished in 1960, but a Denver concert spot with bleacher seats and a ballpark theme. Having hosted a slew of concerts through the ’70s (which were also broadcast on local radio), it was a setup well-suited for keyboardist-vocalist Cody (born George Frayne) and the Airmen’s longform pan-stylistic showcase on this evening in late 1973.

Western swing, rock ‘n’ roll, various strains of country, and jump blues represent the largest hunk of the group’s essence; alongside spiritual brethren Asleep at the Wheel, they provided a cornucopia of American Musical goodness to hippies, cowboys and cowgirls, and seekers of good times overall, and after one listen to Ebbett’s Field it’s obvious that everyone in attendance should’ve went home with gaping smiles on their mugs.

Such a broad range means this set, which is apparently legally released here for the first time, shares nearly nothing with the band’s classic Live from Deep in the Heart of Texas from ’74. Like that one, Ebbett’s Field is a single LP, but it’s expanded to what seems to be the full set on CD; the grade below goes to the longer version, though the level of quality remains high in the truncation.

The CD’s strength is in giving ample room for Cody and crew to explore the elements in their sound; two Merles get covered (Travis with “Smoke That Cigarette” and Haggard with “Mama Tried”), truckers get saluted (“Truck Drivin’ Man” and “Mama Hated Diesels,” both well-known from ’72’s Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers Favorites, and “Truckin’ and Fuckin’,” aka “Everybody’s Doin’ It” from ’73’s Country Casanova), and rockin’, ravin’, and boogyin’ is in abundance (e.g. “Good Rockin’,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Rock That Boogie,” and “Rave On”), but the entirety is an absolute gas.

Cody and the Airmen are rightly pegged as a cult band, so it’s likely their base has heard most if not all of Ebbett’s Field, and as a deep pocket of dedicated followers support the Flamin’ Groovies, it seems possible at least some of their base already knows Live in San Francisco 1971. Admittedly, part this reasoning stems from the bootleg sound, which finds the band chosen by Bill Graham to help close his long run of shows at the Carousel Ballroom-Fillmore West.

This was reportedly a somewhat unexpected invitation, as the Groovies had been on the outs with Graham due to problems between the promoter and the band’s manager, who left Graham’s employ to work with the group. By the point of this show the Groovies were hot off releasing Teenage Head, which is represented here by the Randy Newman cover “Have You Seen My Baby?,” the Junior Parker rip “Doctor Boogie,” and the title track.

Anybody with experience with bootlegs knows the feeling of moving from disappointment to acceptance regarding shoddy audio. The set here is inspired enough that my disenchantment flared back up and was followed again with resignation; the drop-outs during “Road House” almost seem strategic. Covers of “Shakin’ All Over,” “Walkin’ the Dog,” and a long “Louie Louie,” all Groovies CD bonus tracks from over the years, increase the worth of San Francisco 1971, as does an early preview of “Slow Death,” which didn’t hit wax until 1972, notably after original member Roy Loney’s departure.

Co-founder Cyril Jordan states it was Loney’s last show with the band, which springs the historical importance meter far to the right. Post-Loney, the Groovies remained a cool outfit, but during his tenure they were something quite special, blending a love for the Brit invasion (they open here with “Can’t Explain”), 50’s rock, Stones-like swipes of blues-R&B deepening a connection to ’60s garage, and early forms of power pop. They weren’t as stylistically wide-ranging as Cody and the Airmen, but as this set underscores they got in the ballpark. Too bad they never played Ebbett’s Field.

This brings us to the most problematic portion in Rockbeat’s slate of releases. By this point critical opprobrium for Emerson, Lake, & Palmer is something of a cliché (and is perhaps largely forgotten), but the situation is such because a whole lot of serious listeners (and not just writers) were put off by what registered as pomposity and excess. Fittingly, Once Upon a Time in South America (sounds like a Robert Rodriguez movie) doesn’t underplay these attributes as it expands to four CDs in its documentation of concerts in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil in ’93 and ’97.

Partly due to time constraints (peace of mind is also a factor), I’m reviewing the 2LP version here. But all this already seems like so much piling on; the fact is that I have no axe to grind against prog rock, and I’ll go so far as to express liking The Nice, which was led by Emerson, and loving King Crimson, which featured Lake. Atomic Rooster always seemed rather silly, but that’s partly because the jacket for Atomic Roooster (the only LP with Carl Palmer) sports a bird with female human breasts in a translucent box. But if I want to hear some organ-driven pomp-rock (which admittedly isn’t often), they fit the bill.

By the sound of the crowd reactions across these pro recorded performances (no audience tape for these guys), ELP was still a major draw in the mid-’90s. To start with the positive, “Lucky Man,” which I’ve always kinda liked due to Lake’s vocals, makes the cut. On the downside, “Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression–Part 2” aka “Welcome Back My Friends” is here in all its overblown zest, but thankfully “Nutrocker” (which I heard too many times on the radio growing up) is not.

But fans need not worry, for Emerson’s swiping of pop-middlebrow classical (and jazz) moves is in full effect in “Pictures at an Exhibition” (of course) and “Medley: Fanfare for the Common Man, America, Rondo.” Two portions of the latter’s 17 minutes harken back to Emerson’s early days, but neither comes close to equaling The Nice’s “America” single or The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack. Instead, it and a whole lot of what’s here sounds like it was intended to accompany a laser light-show in a lame-assed amphitheater during an unfortunate family outing circa 1985. The only hope is to get stoned.

What doesn’t sound like that? Two cuts from ’90s album Black Moon which feel more descended from Asia (or something), plus side four’s closing combo of “21st Century Schizoid Man” and a reprise of “America,” which to wrap this up with a modicum of meanness, bring a tolerable end to a set I’m unlikely to ever listen to again.

Paul Butterfield, Live in New York 1970
C+

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, Live at Ebbett’s Field
A-

Flamin’ Groovies, Live in San Francisco 1971
B+

Emerson, Lake, & Palmer, Once Upon a Time in South America
C-

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