NEW YORK DAILY NEWS RATING: 5 STARS
An unheralded Bay Area band delivers a live recording 40 years late, but it’s worth the wait!
Normally, the Friday Live Music page celebrates the best concerts coming to town. This week, we travel back in time to a performance from the distant past that can finally be heard by everyone.
The just-released “Live at the Winterland Ballroom December 1, 1973” from Quicksilver Messenger Service captures the dark horse of the San Francisco psychedelic scene in full gallop.
The show highlights a band that never got its due, performing in a configuration that allowed it to sound better than it did on any other recording. It’s an air-guitar player’s dream come true, as well as a reminder of what a live band can sound like when everyone’s in ideal sync.
Though Quicksilver came from the same mid-’60s Bay Area scene that gave the world Jefferson Airplane, the Dead, Santana and Janis Joplin, they couldn’t find an equal audience. It didn’t help that QMS never made a great studio album or that its power rested more on guitar brilliance than on pop-song structure or sure vocals.
Quicksilver had just one Top 40 hit, the stoner standby “Fresh Air.” The band’s best album — “Happy Trails,” recorded at the Fillmore West in 1969 — centered on a wildly inventive, 25-minute psychedelic/art-rock/jazz jam on Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love.” It’s as much an acid-rock milestone as the Dead’s “Dark Star,” but few know it.
The live show captured on the “new” CD proved pivotal for the group. Quicksilver’s distinctive guitar player, John Cipollina, had left three years earlier to form Copperhead. But since that band was to open for Quicksilver on this bill, Cipollina agreed to play with the mother group as well. Quicksilver’s original bassist and singer, David Freiberg, also came back for the ride.
The lineup re-created the band’s best, and initial, configuration, with the addition of Dino Valenti. He was supposed to be the band’s singer from the start, but a drug bust put that off for four years. The Winterland show went so well, it led to a formal studio reunion for the band on the 1975 album “Solid Silver.”
The new CD again focuses on instrumental power and musicianly rapport, rather than formal pop songs. Most of the cuts land in the nine-minute range, but rarely do they turn trippy or abstract. The music centers on hard blues-rock in overdrive. By adding a Latin percussionist and a surging organ, the band’s sound nudged closer to that of the Allman Brothers or Santana.
The more feverish, and full, arrangements put a fire behind the group’s main draw — the interplay between its guitar gods, Cipollina and Gary Duncan.
Cipollina has the rarer tone. He tricked his licks out with a unique tremolo, a nervous quaver that gave his solos the specificity and beauty of a human voice. He created a thin, needling sound, but it’s never shrill. Quicksilver, you could call it.
Duncan is the harder rocker. In the swamp funk “Losing Hand,” he’s trenchant and biting, a gritty counterpoint to Cipollina’s erudite cries. The way the two push and pull each other has the intensity of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts in the Allmans, or the tradeoffs between Allman and Clapton in Derek and the Dominos. Drummer Greg Elmore never hit this hard, and even problematic singer Valenti toes the line.
Valenti can chew a note like a jackal with a piece of bloody meat, but here, he lets the blues ground him, paying more attention to the melody of songs like “Mojo,” performed in a fiercer guise than its studio counterpart. Valenti comes off even better in “What About Me?,” his political anthem covered to perfection by Richie
Havens in 1971.
The disc includes a shorter take on Quicksilver’s signature cover, “Who Do You Love,” adding some “Whole Lotta Love” buttressing to toughen the sound. That leads into two jams, the second of which ends like a fireworks display does — with the players blowing up everything they have left.
It’s a perfect evocation of the classic-rock era, an artifact previously lost, thankfully found.