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Terry Reid / The Holy Modal Rounders - Silver White Light - Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 / Bird Song Live 1971

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Artist: Terry Reid / The Holy Modal Rounders

Album: Silver White Light - Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 / Bird Song Live 1971

Label: Water

Review date: Jul. 15, 2004

Terry Reid may not quite be hidden knowledge, but ask 10 vague rock scholars about the man’s importance to English blues rock and most of them will only reply that he turned down a gig as vocalist for Led Zeppelin. The folks at the Water label are a little wiser: they’ve already reissued Reid’s misunderstood third album masterpiece River, and have bled to compact disc this live set from the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, previously only circulating in shoddy bootleg form.

The set draws mostly from Reid’s second, self-titled album, released in 1969, and his takes on the songs are incredibly elastic. “Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace,” which was later covered by Cheap Trick on their 1977 debut album (this writer’s personal port of entry to Reid’s work), takes more liberties than the version on Terry Reid, which one would assume has a lot to do with Reid’s 1970 touring band of David Lindley on guitar, slide, banjo and violin, Lee Miles ( US soul/R&B veteran) on bass, and King Crimson member Michael Giles on drums (who acted as replacement for a previously committed Alan White.) Their approach to the songs was syncretic, breeding hybrid visions with loose-limbed, on-the-fly playing, Lindley’s country-rock interjections on slide and violin lending the music a hallucinatory air, suggesting some bastard cross between the Flying Burrito Bros and the Faces. Reid’s line-up from this era (with White on drums) went on to record River and several songs from that album appear here in embryonic forms; you can hear the band teasing myriad inflections out of “Things to Try,” letting stray notes and phrases loose while drawing on Lee Miles’ inveterate R&B scholarship for the song’s backbone.

The highlight of the set, though, is a take on “Without Expression,” originally from Reid’s Mickie Most-produced debut Bang Bang You’re Terry Reid. By this stage, the tensions between Reid’s freedom flights and Most’s anal pop production have been left far behind, and the song, underscored by waterlogged slide guitar from Lindley, is allowed to take its place in the stratosphere. (CSNY’s Deja Vu would have been immeasurably improved by its inclusion on the album... One can only wish Stills had not culled their version from the final track listing.) IF Reid’s career has been one of continual bad luck, squandered chances, and extended absences from the recording/performing world, Silver White Light – patchy sound quality and all – offers a chance to reassess one of England’s finest vocalists and songwriters of the last thirtysomething years. And as a live document, it’s completely illuminating, capturing Reid about to soar, accompanied by his best band, some of his most lasting songs waiting in the wings.

The Holy Modal Rounders are similarly syncretic, although by the time of their best records – Indian War Whoop for ESP, and The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders (recently reissued by Water) – they were syncretizing more than just different musical genres. Indeed, if there was any ‘birth’ of acid folk, the Holy Modal Rounders were the mid-wife, feeding traditional American folk and blues through the distorting lens of lysergic energy. By 1971, the year from which Bird Song, a document of a live-to-air radio session for WLIR-FM, the Rounders had been extant for a good decade, helmed by Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber. 1971 also saw the appearance of their fifth album, Good Taste is Timeless, one of the band’s weaker records. But Bird Song reinstates the Rounders’ timeless panache: it’s simply a great joy to hear the band, now stretched to seven members, taking on folk, blues and rock music and dousing it with their free-loading, irreverent spirit.

By 1971 The Rounders seemed intent on moving beyond their mantle as ‘wayward folk revivalists on acid’, and the music captured on Bird Song shows them on a more directive tip than previous outings. In the liner notes Stampfel, talking about the inter-personal tensions that habitually threatened to topple or destroy the band, observes that his “paramount ideal... was to do a greater variety of songs and styles than any band had ever done.” So on Robin Remailly’s “Give Me Your Money,” the Rounders stretch a vaguely ‘Latino’ (as Stampfel would have it) song into extemporized territory, hovering close to the elastic song forms the Grateful Dead would explore in live shows loosely contemporaneous with their American Beauty/Workingman’s Dead era. That it’s not entirely successful displays that the Rounders were at their best when working on a short burst of song, and the finest moments on Bird Song revisit classic Rounder tunes and inject them with furious improvised spirit. “Low Down Dog,” “Boobs A Lot” and the legendary title track (which most know from the Easy Rider soundtrack) are all shot through with a nervous spirit, all seven members trying to cram their singular presence into the performance. It could have resulted in a messy every-man-for-himself jam, but the playing leaks the celebratory fortitude that is the core quality of Rounder music.

Bird Song is classic 70s radio session archival material – you get to hear the band goofing around between songs, elaborating extended jokey introductions to tracks, throwing hilarious asides into the performances, adopting antic personae. It’s not as lasting a document as their best albums – there’s nothing that quite matches the blasted terrain of their first four records, or the consummate Have Moicy! album recorded with Michael Hurley, the Unholy Modal Rounders and the Clamtones. So Bird Song may not be the Holy Modal Rounders’ finest moment, but experience suggests that one would never want to not-recommend any recorded moment of history that involves the Rounders’, and Peter Stampfel’s, peculiar genius. Alongside peers like Michael Hurley, Jeffrey Fredericks, and Colorblind James, the Rounders truly were/are the real deal – Americana in all its myriad humorous, sly, and strangely affecting colors.

By Jon Dale

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