For anyone with a serious interest in the history of Midwest rock and certainly Cleveland, a lesson in Sixties American electric blues and garage rock not to be skipped on a remarkable new archival unveiling. Above: Jim Fox (left) and Glenn Schwartz (center) during the latter’s James Gang tenure.
BY FRED MILLS
Unlike with contemporary irony-slinging hipsters, back in the day, bands who dubbed themselves a “blues crusade” not only meant what they said, they backed up those utterances with the tunes, along with the chops to deliver ‘em. Such was the case with this short-lived Cleveland combo, a powerhouse outfit featuring members of the James Gang (pre-Joe Walsh hitmaking period) and cult heroes the Mr. Stress Blues Band. The Smog Veil label has now unearthed recordings the group cut in the spring of ’67 as part of its ongoing archival series, Platters du Cuyahoga. Although in one sense the Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade represents a footnote of sorts to the James Gang files (drummer Jim Fox would be the constant in the band, including during both the pre- and post-Walsh eras) and those of Pacific Gas & Electric (the group guitarist Glenn Schwartz formed after leaving the Gang, ultimately landing a major label deal and almost grabbing the brass ring with PG&E), no serious Cleveland scene watcher would deny the visceral power contained in these grooves.
The exhaustive liner notes penned by archivist Nick Blakey for the album’s thick, rare photos-adorned booklet (16 pages for the CD version; 12 LP-sized pages for the vinyl—which, collectors should note, comes pressed on limited-edition yellow wax, but only if you move fast enough) tell the tale so thoroughly that I’d be foolish to try to encapsulate them in a mere review.
In a nutshell, though, it was the mid ‘60s and young American musicians were forming bands, many of them taking inspiration from the likes of the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones, who were utilizing classic blues as jumping-off points for their nascent garage rock and psychedelia. Among the groups on the Cleveland club scene were the James Gang and the Mr. Stress Blues Band, which Smog Veil has also documented as part of that Cuyahoga series. At some point there was a meeting of the minds between members of them and a handful of other local luminaries in order to lay down some straight-up electric blues during a “hungover Sunday morning” 1967 recording session comprising covers of such blues icons as Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, etc. Fox and Schwartz presumably were the best-known players, hence the resulting band name here, although the album also prominently lists “Featuring Mr. Stress” on the cover to give the Mr. Stress’ Bill Miller, his proper due, as he’s the lead vocalist and harmonica player on two of the best tracks here. (Below: the Mr. Stress Blues Band.)
Indeed: “Checkin’ On My Baby” (which was premiered recently right here at BLURT) in particular is a blistering number, one in which the band shifts brilliantly between shuffle and boogie modes as Miller spits out indignant lines; while the slower, slinkier “Long Distance Call” showcases his innate ability to convey nuance and emotion. Elsewhere, there’s Dixon’s timeless “Evil,” on which Schwartz shines on both guitar and vocals, the band itself conjuring images of their beloved Yardbirds; and James’ eternal “Dust My Broom,” that reveals the ensemble’s instinctive elasticity—check, in particular, how Fox steers the arrangement through the stylistic changes. There’s also the title track, a composition credited to all of the assembled musicians, although it’s more of a goofball, 50-second noise jam than an actual song. But it fits the loose vibe of the session.
One can only speculate what would have ultimately transpired had this essentially impromptu outfit decided to operate on a full-time level, as all of the players were accomplished enough musicians to take their love of the blues to the next, commercial, level separate from their own individual groups’ aspirations. ‘twas not to be, however, as Schwartz soon set out for California, where he’d form PG&E, essentially opening the door for Walsh’s entrance—and with the James Gang, at least, the rest is history. (Below: Schwartz)
History, though, comprises a series of vignettes and interludes, and once in a while we are privy to those moments in after-the-fact fashion thanks to the diligence and research on the part of labels like Smog Veil and writers like Blakey. For anyone with a serious interest in the history of Midwest rock and certainly Cleveland, Sunday Morning Revival is a lesson not to be skipped. (Below: vinyl eye candy. You can read more about the band at the Smog Veil site’s page for the Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade,)