Caught in the Act
Kaleidoscope/Youngbloods/Steve Miller Band - Carousel Ballroom 5/10-12 1968
|This piece is excerpted from a review by Pete Welding that originally appeared in Down Beat magazine, 9/19/68. Note: this was retyped from a xerox - the center crease obscured some of the words & PD was forced to make an educated guess here & there.
Carousel Ballroom, San Francisco, California
In operation only about a year, the Carousel is one of the newer of the large psychedelic total-environment dance halls the San Francisco scene has spawned. It also is one of the handsomer, boasting a number of comforts that the large, better-known rock halls do not possess: a decent, well-appointed restaurant adjoins the hall and offers moderately priced meals, a large snack bar dispenses the more usual fare, and there is a seating area where one may take a respite from the hectic dance floor activities. Too, there is the usual top-notch light show that one has almost come to take for granted, this one by the North American Ibis Alchemical Co.
And the hall books top groups, as this recent billing of three popular bands demonstrated. A mixed grill, this. The Miller band is a San Francisco-based quintet that dispenses a heavy, blues-based, very electric brand of rock. The Youngbloods, a trio from the New York City area, pursue a type of rock that is genteel and somewhat cool. The Los Angeles quintet Kaleidoscope hews to an approach that might be described as electric eclectic.
The latter led off the evening's activities with a set that was strong, full of variety, and totally professional, fully eclipsing anything I've heard from them in a long time. During the last year or so, I've caught them a number of times, generally in the L.A. area, but I can honestly say that this was the best music I've ever heard from them. They've gotten so tight in the last few months.
It's a curious, stimulating, unique group. In their choice of material they range all over the place: old-timey hillbilly music, contemporary country-and-western, modern-style blues from Chuck Berry to Howling Wolf, latter-day Cajun-cum-country-and-western, good-time jazz hokum, flamenco, modern Arabic cabaret and their own brand of psychedelia (the least interesting music they perform, unfortunately), and just about everything in between.
The truly surprising thing is not that they do so many different types of music during the course of a brisk set but that they are so comfortable in all of them. They're equally at home, for example, with Charlie Poole's version of Hesitation Blues as with Emin Gunduz' Shish Kebab (which they do as Egyptian Gardens) or with Rusty and Doug's Louisiana Man. And, all things considered, they do them well, with the same kind of joyous expertise. Yet they have an identifiable sound, despite the eclecticism of their approach and the fact that one can pretty much identify the sources of the individual pieces they perform. Much of that identity is probably accidental, the result of the vocal blend of Solomon Feldthouse and David Lindley who handle the bulk of the vocal chores with the group. And naturally, of course, the very breadth of the material imposes its own kind of identity - there's simply no other band around nowadays that does the many so many different kinds of things so superlatively well.
What particularly struck me about the band this particular evening was its new-found strength, assurance, and cohesiveness. It seems to be more than the mere precision that results from playing the same tunes over and over again. No, this is more than that mechanical kind of perfection. It's as though the band has gotten a new intensity of focus. The interaction was absolutely splendid, like a precision watch, delicate and tensile at the same time. Listening to the first set, I was delighted to hear this new strength of purpose, this rapport, this maturity to their music.
Lord knows the raw materials were there; there's never been any shortage of instrumental skills in this group, where everyone seems to play a dozen instruments. In the past, however, the energies seemed too diffuse, needlessly dissipated. Now that virtuosity, it seems, has been harnessed, directed by a common set of goals. Kaleidoscope has become a tight, disciplined band rather than a group of five uncommonly talented individuals.
Its first set demonstrated just how far it has come, for it moved expertly through a demanding, always interesting program, the highlight of which (for me at least) was an extended blues that revealed unsuspected depths of jazz skills, culminating in an unexpected by totally effective - in context - use of Monk's Straight, No Chaser as a climactic riff over two choruses. Good improvising too, primarily by lead guitarist Lindley. Then there was a fairly well-done piece from the repertoire of Howling Wolf; a haunting electronic updating of the old Anglo-American ballad Down by the Greenwood Sidee (Child #20, The Cruel Mother); several attractive, nicely moving samples of contemporary country-and-western music, including a handsomely turned Buck Owens song, with its pleasant semisweet harmonies. All in all, a good set, done with power and taste, and with plenty of inventiveness.
(PD: there follows a review of sets by the Youngbloods and the Steve Miller Band. Welding finds the Youngbloods' set "thoroughly competent... just as thoroughly unmemorable." Of the Miller band, he has some positive things to say, but concludes "The overall impression is still one of excessive busyness and great reliance on effects as ends in themselves rather than as means to a more effective musical expression.)
When the Kaleidoscope returned for its second set, it sounded as though it had been infected with the same curse.
Low point of the set was a lengthy, in the end, tedious exercise in feedback by guitarist Lindley. This occurred in the middle section of an extended performance of Howling Wolf's Killing Floor, which boasted a rather wooden vocal by Feldthouse over a generally idiomatic rendering of the instrumental parts of Wolf's recording of the song. Then for 10 minutes or so, Lindley fiddled with his amplifier, and strings, creating a wild blitz of electronic shrieks, burps, bleats and other assorted noises. One of the episodes in this barrage was a kind of rock version of the Big Noise from Winnetka ploy. Turning his amplifier full up, Lindley strolled across the stage and jammed the neck of his guitar into the top of the top of the hi-hat cymbal rod. Every time drummer John Vidican struck the cymbal a shuddering percussive shock was coaxed from the guitar speakers, Lindley all the while pinching and striking at the guitar strings. It had to be heard to be believed. When this pointless display was ended with a return to Killing Floor, one experienced a tremendous sense of relief (perhaps the very effect Lindley wished?). I then noticed that I had been grinding my teeth. Welding, you old reactionary you!
Two other features of the band's act were unusual enough to warrant a few remarks. Kaleidoscope has in its repertoire a number of samples of what might be called exotic musics, and on this night Feldthouse had decided to provide visual samples as well. Therefore, the band cleared the stage of microphones, etc., and made way for a pair of flamenco dancers who performed while Feldthouse provided suitable musical accompaniment on acoustic guitar, as well as furnishing a curdled vocal.
The dancing was not particularly good, but adequate enough for the by-this-time overstimulated audience, who lapped it up. Unfortunately, the guitarist's time was not what it should have been either.
This same trouble with time marked their second foray into the unusual. The full band returned for one of its Arabic ventures, Taxim, with Feldthouse on oud, Lindley on harp guitar, and Maxwell Buda on violin - all amplified, and later joined by Princess Tehyya (Glyn Deffry). The band's performance was spirited but the time erratic. It did not seem entirely comfortable with the unusual (for Western ears) time signatures, though it does make a manful attempt at recreating them. Despite the rhythmic vagaries Taheyya danced beautifully, with an elegant restraint and graceful sinuosity that contrasted strikingly with the disjunct feeling of the music. Her performance, in fact, was thoroughly professional in every respect and her command of this difficult type of dancing was such that she made one overlook the time problems - no mean feat. She got a huge, well-deserved hand.