listening to this collection of previously unreleased live performances by Moby
Grape, one can feel tempted to backhand Clive Davis, president of Columbia
Records during the band’s initial run. The band’s spotless debut was sabotaged
in part because the label released 10 of the album’s 13 tracks on five singles,
creating multiple flops. Long a cult favorite along the lines of Love or
perhaps the Velvet Underground, they should have achieved popularity that would
place them in the same context as the Byrds or Buffalo Springfield.
Francisco band’s sad luck story has been retold numerous times, but just for
clarity: Five guys who all wrote and sang beautifully got together and recorded
a debut album that captured all hybrids of rock that were converging in 1967. The
album tanked, in part for reasons stated above. Their sophomore release sounded
as disjointed as the first was precise. Guitarist Skip Spence became the
American version of Syd Barrett (with more talent), flipping out on acid and
leaving the band. They regained their footing and more albums followed, though
success never came through.
band’s self-titled debut didn’t present enough solid evidence about the band’s
power, Live adds one tidbit the album
skimmed over. In person, these guys were a force of nature, fine tuned through
months of eight-hour practices. Seven songs from San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom capture the
band right as they were releasing their album, in June 1967, and it brings out
all the aggressive interplay that was buffed and shined up a bit in the studio.
Just check out the instrumental break in Spence’s “Rounder,” where drummer Don
Stevenson and bassist Bob Mosley evoke the Who’s rhythm section. On top of that
fire power, they sing like choir boys. While other bands were honing specific
styles with their songs, Grape changed with each song from country (“Ain’t No
Use”) to garage (“Rounder”) to troubadour folk (“Looper,” where Peter Lewis’
overly sincere articulation almost sounds too close to a New Christy Minstrel,
but still works) while maintaining a strong band focus. The arrangements of
“Changes” and “Indifference” vary slightly from the recorded version, again
playing up the way three guitars and all the voices could sound heavy but never
than month, the Grape had the unfortunate luck of playing the opening slot in
day two of the Monterey International Pop Festival, again being overlooked by
masses. If they were discouraged, it doesn’t come across in a four-song set
(another insult, in its brevity). In fact the count-off to Spence’s
“Indifference” sounds energized by the act of beginning the day of music. “Mr.
Blues” find Mosley pouring on the soul, somewhat thickly, and Lewis’s sad
“Sitting By the Window” slows it down dramatically. But when the band rips
the energy they create rivaled what Otis Redding did when he played “Shake”
that weekend. As great as Moby Grape was in the songwriting department, this
portion of the album indicates that they were probably one of the best live
acts in the country during the Summer of Love.
Spence left the band, he didn’t exactly take the band’s mojo with him. Moby Grape ’69 is very strong album. But
the first few numbers from a 1969 set in Amsterdam
finds the band plodding a little. Still, a tired day for Moby Grape still beats
some band’s best days. By “Omaha”
they managed to channel the fury that Spence brought to his song.
with a rare cover (B.B. King’s “Sweet Little Angel”) the disc includes a Holy
Grail for Grape fanatics in a 17-minute version of Spence’s tripped out “Dark
Magic,” recorded the New Year’s Eve prior to their recorded debut. For a band
that rarely dabbled in lengthy material on record, they had a pretty good
handle on how to sustain a one-chord drone, beginning with an “I Feel Fine”
imitation and adding both jazz licks and feedback that sounds like shortwave
radio (the latter most likely from Spence). Excessive as it sounds, they still
beat the pants off practically anyone else who played this way.
Live boasts pretty remarkable
sound quality throughout. The Amsterdam
set has the distant feel of a soundboard mix, but everything can be heard. Even
when all five voices don’t come across clearly, at the Avalon particularly,
they can still be felt, another testament to the band’s ingenuity.
Standout Tracks: “Omaha” (Monterey
Version), “Changes.” MIKE SHANLEY