BY FRED MILLS
Back in the early ‘70s one of my favorite so-called “supergroups” was Detroit’s Cactus, formed by the monster rhythm section of Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice following the demise of their avant-psych/soul outfit Vanilla Fudge; originally the pair was slated to hook up with Jeff Beck, but that supergroup was put on hold after Beck had a serious car accident. As it turns out, Cactus, though relatively short-lived, was everything that the eventual Beck, Bogert & Appice would not be: bloozy, brawny, tightly focused power rawk boasting a gritty hell-raiser of a lead vocalist (Rusty Day, late of the Amboy Dukes) and an agile, non-showboating, serve-the-song guitarist in the form of Jim McCarty of Mitch Ryder’s Detroit Wheels. I was not only fortunate enough to see the band during its initial three-album run, I also caught Cactus Mk. II (McCarty and Day left, with three new guys coming in) before they broke up for good in ’72.
Initial rumblings about a Cactus reunion were heard in 2004 following Rhino Handmade’s release of a pair of 2CD collections spotlighting the original quartet, Barely Contained: The Studio Sessions (all of the group’s studio output plus a couple of choice unreleased tracks) and Fully Unleashed: The Live Gigs (1970-71 concert recordings; this release would be followed a few years later by Vol. II featuring more ’71 live shots).Yours truly, reviewing the first two sets for the Detroit Metro Times, cited the group’s “powerhouse” nature, “fluidity” and “demolition” approach to classic blues tunes. “It’s a solid flashback for folks who came of age during the era,” I wrote, “although it’s unlikely that a younger generation weaned on alt-rock and hip-hop will ‘get it.’” One person did, however: drummer Appice himself, who apparently spotted the review and wrote in thusly: “Thanks for Fred Mills’ killer review of our Cactus CDs (Metro Times, Oct. 27). I’m glad you get it.”
Maybe the gears in Appice’s head started turning at that point, because lo and behold, June of ’06 found Appice, Bogert and McCarty hooking up for a Cactus show at B.B. King’s in New York. The Cleopatra label recently released the concert as Live in the U.S.A., and while it’s pretty solid, it can’t hold a candle to the one at hand, An Evening in Tokyo. In 2012 Appice put together a new touring Cactus that, sadly, did not include Bogert (don’t worry, fans, the two still get back together for various projects) but did feature guitarist McCarty; they were joined by Savoy Brown vocalist Jimmy Kunes plus Pete Bremy on bass and Randy Pratt guesting on harp.
The resulting show, here distilled down to 10 solid Cactus classics, absolutely holds up the tradition as laid out above: bluesy, brawny, etc. etc. etc. Looking for some riotous “Parchman Farm” boogie? Check. A sinewy, slithery, harp-powered “One Way… Or Another”? Check. (At the start of the song Kunes dedicates it to Day, who was murdered in 1982.) How about some southside Windy City blues via “Bro. Bill” or some modal Mississippi meditations on “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover”? Check, check. Throughout, the reconstituted Cactus gets to the heart of all matters, unleashing edgy, kinetic riffs underscored by an intuitive in-the-pocket vibe. Kunes in particular holds up his end of the bargain, doing his predecessor Day proud; meanwhile, at times it seems as if McCarty and Appice are engaged in their own personal death-duel to make sure the audience leaves with a clear sense of who was on board with this project from the get-go.
It’ll make you wanna call up all the concert promoters in your area and petition ‘em to bring the band to town. How about it, gents?
DOWNLOAD: “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover,” “Evil,” “Bro. Bill”