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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Rowans - Sibling Rivalry / Jubilation (1976-77 us, marvelous country silky rock, 2004 issue)

Jerry Garcia called them the California Beatles. Rock critic Dave Marsh quipped that Garcia must have been tripping at the time. The truth about the Rowans can be found where the truth often resides: somewhere in the middle. Between Garcia's adulation and the critics' damnation with faint praise, the Rowans made an eclectic and uneven body of work for Asylum Records in the mid-'70s—a trio of albums through which disparate styles, from bluegrass and reggae to straightforward pop and rock, intersected and combined. Some of the Rowans' songs from this period continue to be sung today and, thanks to Collectors' Choice, their original albums are back in print nearly thirty years later.

Peter, Chris and Lorin Rowan recorded their self-titled Asylum debut in 1975, and that story can be found in the booklet of The Rowans, reissued on compact disc by Collectors' Choice in 2002. This disc is the second chapter in the Rowans' saga, pairing the group's second and third Asylum albums, Sibling Rivalry Wlb) and Jubilation (1977). Herein is some of the Rowans' best and most commercially successful music.

Many fans consider Sibling Rivalry to be the Rowans' finest moment, and with good reason. For starters, it has the Rowans' sole charting single, "If I Only Could," which peaked at #74 on the Billboard pop chart but fared a little better in Cash Box, where it reached #69. The Rowans were no strangers to the charts, though: Chris and Lorin, as the Rowan Brothers, made a single that "bubbled under" the Billboard Top 100 in 1972, and Peter reached the Top 100 in 1969 with the band Earth Opera. "If I Only Could," written by Chris, features the delicate sound of Peter's mandola and the brothers' three-part harmonies on a gem of California country-rock that bears a passing resemblance to America or Crosby, Stills & Nash.

The Rowans' Asylum debut was filled with sounds of, and allusions to, Eastern spirituality and music. Sibling Rivalry showed their continuing interest in the East with the Chinese dragon on its cover and song titles like "Fire Dragon" and "Mongolian Swamp." But the album veered into other exotic realms with the Spanish story-song "Joaquin Murrieta," the faux reggae of "Love Is," and "Ya Ba Da Ba," which Billboard described as a "'40s-sounding Pointer Sisters type of number," in apparent reference to the Pointer Sisters' nostalgic 1974 album That's a Plenty. Keeping with the countercultural currents that were always on or just below the surface of the Rowans' music, Sibling Rivalry was co-produced by Bill Wolf, one-time member of legendary hippie rock band the Fugs.

The progressive bluegrass group Northern Lights later recorded Sibling Rivalry's closing cut, "Soldier of the Cross," and the song showed up again as the title track of Ricky Skaggs' Grammy award-winning bluegrass gospel album in 1999. In spite of the Rowans' accomplished songwriting and musicianship, Sibling Rivalry M not chart, nor did a follow-up single release of "Ooh My Love." Billboard reviewed the album in their Recommended LPs column, but weakly praised it as "wholly acceptable" and opined that "the boys could use some more bite intheirvocals next time out."

The Rowans released Jubilation late the following year—their final album for Asylum. On the surface it seemed like an attempt to make an overtly commercial pop album, but the music is in some ways a return to the sunny pop sound first heard on Chris and Lorin's 1972 album, Rowan Brothers. When Peter joined the group for the Rowans' Asylum debut, he brought his interests in bluegrass and Eastern mysticism to the table, but on Jubilation those contributions are not in evidence, and Peter's songs are much more pop-oriented than before. In particular, there is nothing that even a charitable critic would identify as progressive bluegrass. If you listen closely, however, there are still a few unusual things happening in the grooves.

The title and cover art of Jubilation convey a youthfulness and energy that is only furthered by the bright harmonies and melodies within. The previous albums' experimentation is all but gone, replaced with a sugary pop glaze and Beatlesque melodies. Even the fiddle on "Don't Say Goodbye" adds no particular country flavor, which should not come as a surprise since the man behind the bow is famous jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli! The album, in fact, is full of jazz players, right down to the steel drummer, Andy Narell. "Best of Friends," another light, harmonydrenched pop song in the direction of Bread, was paired with "Makin' It Easy" for the album's single but didn't register on the charts. "Hoo Doo Love" is only a few steps away from the dance floor with its pulsing rhythm, high harmonies and synthesizer solo (the Sheila Escovedo on the conga drums became better known in the mid-'80s as pop star Sheila E). "Love's Secret Sighs" and "Don't Say Goodbye" are distinctly Beatlesque, and "Lovelight" features more synthesizer sounds by Bernie Krause, George Harrison's collaborator on his 1969 album Electronic Sound. In the end, one minor hit was not enough to placate the bean counters, so the Rowans and Asylum parted company.

The Rowan brothers complained that Asylum didn't know quite what to make of—or how to market— their albums, and failed to give them much of a promotional push. Listening to their music, it isn't hard to understand the label's bafflement—today the Rowans' albums are often filed under progressive bluegrass, but Billboard categorized them as pop, and—with the exception of isolated cuts like Sibling Rivals "Tired Hands"—it would take a broad and permissive definition of bluegrass to accommodate the Rowans' music. The fact is, the Rowans were and are three individuals with distinct styles and interests, and the albums they made for Asylum were melting pots overflowing with their creators' eclecticism and ideas. If their styles didn't always gel, perhaps it was because their interests were so broad. 

The Rowans went on to record other albums for other labels, separately and together, and continue to actively record and perform. The trio released a new album as the Rowan Brothers, Crazy People, on their own Rowantone Records in 2002. Stepping back in time, the two albums reissued here capture the brothers at their major label peak, going for broke in a commercial arena and striving to make, in Lorin's words, "the best successful records possible."
by Greg Adams

Sibling Rivalry 1976
1. Ooh My Love (Chris Rowan) - 4:30
2. Love Is (Lorin Rowan, Dudley Glanz, Mark Stein) - 4:10
3. Tired Hands (Lorin Rowan, Peter Rowan) - 5:07
4. If I Only Could (Chris Rowan) - 3:52
5. No Desanimes Amor (Peter Rowan, Juanita West, Amanda Lynn, Woody West) - 3:55
6. Ya Ba Da Ba (Chris Rowan) - 2:52
7. Fire Dragon (Chris Rowan, Lorin Rowan, Peter Rowan) - 0:58
8. Mongolian Swamp/King's Men (Lorin Rowan, Peter Rowan) - 4:14
9. Joaquin Murrieta (Peter Rowan) - 8:29
10.Sword Of Faith/Soldier Of The Cross (Lorin Rowan) - 4:59
Jubilation 1977
11.Best Of Friends (Lorin Rowan) - 3:06
12.Give Ya Good Lovin' (Peter Rowan) - 3:16
13.Hoo Doo Love (Chris Rowan) - 5:20
14.Love' Secret Sighs (Chris Rowan, Peter Rowan) - 2:35
15.Don't Say Goodbye (Peter Rowan) - 3:40
16.Lovelight (Chris Rowan) - 4:17
17.New Horizons (Lorin Rowan) - 4:42
18.Makin' It Easy (Chris Rowan, Peter Rowan) - 3:41
19.Calle Music (Lorin Rowan) - 5:14

Sibling Rivalry 1976
*Peter Rowan - Guitar, Mandolin, Vocals
*Chris Rowan - Guitar, Piano, Vocals
*Lorin Rowan - Guitar, Vocals
*Joe Carroll - Bass
*Wally Drogas - Drums
*Bill Elliott - Organ, Piano
*K. Dudley Glanz - Drums
*Richard Greene - Violin
*Jim Hodder - Drums
*Mark Stein - Drums
Jubilation 1977
*Peter Rowan - Guitar, Mandolin, Vocals
*Chris Rowan - Guitar, Piano, Vocals
*Lorin Rowan - Guitar, Mandolin, Vocals
*Terry Adams - Cello
*Susan Bates - Viola
*Nancy Ellis - Viola
*Brad Bilhorn - Drums
*Stephne Busfield - Guitar
*Joe Carroll - Basss
*Ralph Carter - Bass
*Peter Barshay - Bass, Drums
*Brian Cooke - Piano
*Glenn Cronkhite - Percussion
*Glen Deardorff - Violin, Guitar
*Keith Glanz - Drums
*Stephane Grappelli - Violin
*Lee Carlton - Drums
*Bob Hogins - Keyboards
*Daniel Kobialka - Violin

1972  Rowan Brothers - Rowan Brothers
1975  Rowans - The Rowans
Related Act
1968  Earth Opera - Earth Opera
1969  Earth Opera - The Great American Eagle Tragedy

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