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Plain and Fancy

Music gives soul to universe, wings to mind, flight to imagination, charm to sadness, and life to everything.


Friday, May 11, 2018

Brewer And Shipley - Weeds / Tarkio / Shake Off The Demon / Rural Space (1969-72 us, delightful hippie folk rural psych country rock, 2017 double disc remaster)

Inextricably linked with the US counter-culture of the late 1960s and early 70s courtesy of their drug referencing hit single One Toke Over The Line (which incurred the personal wrath of the hippie hating president Richard M Nixon, indeed), folk / rock vocal duo Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley specialized in the kind of thoughtful, melodic and appealing music that proved both a complement and an antidote to the harsher, more electric sound of contemporary hard rock bands of the era. Their close harmony sound had its antecedents in the work of the likes of Simon  and  Garfunkel, of course, or more relevantly, Crosby, Stills and Nash and there were plenty of other similar duos that pursued a broadly similar sound and style - Cashman  and  West, Seals  and  Crofts, Batdorf  and  Rodney, for example, but Brewer  and  Shipley were a marked cut above the smooth strummers and moustachioed harmonists.
Their sound had (and still has, because they're still regularly gigging in the USA) a greater sense of the wide open spaces of their US heartland home base; it's no surprise that one of their albums was called Rural Space, as their music is suffused with that kind of ambience. The underlying lyrical themes of the duo were recurrent motifs of personal freedom and an opportunity to pursue an alternative American Dream to that of the vast majority of the US middle class, as well as orthodox songs of love. Weeds, the first of the four albums featured here, was recorded in 1969, and was the duos' second album. 

Their debut album Down In LA, had been cut for the A and M label in Los Angeles the previous year. They'd been playing the West Coast folk and coffee bar circuit, and the original plan was for them to make a living as writers as well as performers. They had moderate success in this regard; Chicago psychedelic weirdoes HP Lovecraft had cut a version of their Keeper Of The Keys, sung in a bizarre, semi-operatic style, on their HP Lovecraft II album. Down In LA was pleasant enough, cut with a bunch of LA session luminaries such as Leon Russell and Jim Messina, but it didn't make much headway, commercially, and anyway, Brewer  and  Shipley didn't care much for the Los Angeles scene, moving back to Kansas City, and set up their own production company, Good Karma. 

The A ‘n’ M management figured that they'd quit the music business, instead of just quitting La La Land, and so didn't bother to pick up their option. Instead, Brewer  and  Shipley signed to the Kama Sutra / Buddah label helmed by Neil Bogart. Up until then, Bogart had a reputation as being the 'King of Bubblegum' and seemingly specialized in goofy, frothy pop confections. He'd also been at the Cameo-Parkway label, where he'd foisted Chubby Checker onto the world of pop, and had struck chart pay dirt at Buddah with the likes of The Lemon Pipers and 1910 Fruitgum Company, but wanted to show that he could move into the alternative sphere, too, and signed acts to the label as varied as Melanie Safka, The Flamin' Groovies and, of course Brewer  and  Shipley.

Weeds was recorded in San Francisco, and produced by Electric Flag guitarist Nick Gravenites, who assembled a bunch of excellent players in the backing band, including guitarist Mike Bloomfield, keyboard player Mark Naftalin, and even roped Grateful Dead main man Jerry Garcia into the fold to provide a dab of steel guitar.The tight combo backings are superb throughout; there's a nice sense of freshness and space in the sound, and the duo's soaring vocal harmonies, as well as their obvious melodic skills have a refreshing urgency about them that still sounds invigorating and plaintive. As well as their excellent originals, the album's two covers are equally fine; a strident take on Dylan's All Along The Wotchtower, and the delightful Wichf-Tai-To. The latter is a minor underground classic, penned by Jim Pepper, a kind of Native American chanted mantra, with a three chord musical progression somewhat redolent of Sweet Jane by the Velvet Underground. The track had originally been cut by a band called Everything Is Everything, and was covered a little later by Harpers Bizarre, and apparently Brewer  and  Shipley heard it played on various radio stations when they were out touring, and learned it phonetically. Despite its seven minutes of playing time, it insistently builds to a powerful, profoundly lasting effect. It's one of the highlights of a strong and vibrant collection of quality late 60s US Folk Rock.

Tarkio, their next album, was recorded in 1970, and picks up where Weeds left off; more strong harmonising, Gravenites producing, and several of the same players on board for the return match. It also boasted a fluke hit single in OneToke Over The Line, which had started off as a kind of jokey novelty item played as an encore when the duo opened for label mate Melanie in New York, but label MD Bogart thought he heard hit potential in the song, and insisted the duo release it as a single - and it charted, despite the opprobrium of the US establishment. Other songs like Song From The P/otte River mourned the loss of personal freedoms in contemporary America, a theme echoed and embellished on Fifty States of Freedom. There's subversive wit and humour too, in an agreeable tentrack collection that never overstays its welcome, thanks to some fine ensemble playing, excellent songs and wonderful punchy harmony vocal work. I've been lucky enough to contact Brewer  and  Shipley for some comments in the compiling of this note. 

I asked Tom Shipley why they decided to move back home - and whether it was a conscious desire to break free from the music biz: :"l think our music has always been free of the music business. That is probably why I'm working as a television producer today instead of being a music business guy. To be successful in the music business you have to be in the music business. That is not where I was coming from. My influences were Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Michael and I wrote songs, not because we were trying to write hits. It was just music that was in us that we put into songs. I think our music has always reflected the times we were living in and in the late 60's and early 70's that coincided with what was happening in pop music. I don't think it goes any deeper than that. We were bouncing around the country like every other twenty something kid and writing about it and those kids related to it. I used to put up a tent on the Hopi Indian reservation on my trips back and forth from the Midwest to L.A. When we left Hollywood I lived there... wind chimes hanging from the pinion pine like a George Carlin character in an old hippie movie. During the L.A. exodus, Michael and I rendezvoused in Old Orabi on Third Mesa and watched the Hopi Snake Dance together before heading on to Oklahoma and our first post-L.A. gig. Listen to our first Buddah album, Weeds. Look at the cover. I think that says it all!" Yet, ironically, it was via a single  that the duo would make a breakthrough into the broader rock audience. 

When playing a show at New York's prestigious Carnegie Hall as openers for the aforementioned Melanie, they decided to perform a song that they'd been knocking into shape a matter of a few hours before. That song was One Toke Over The Line, and its overt drug-referencing went down a storm with the hippies in the crowd. Bogart took note of the response, and insisted that the duo record and release the track as a single. Ultimately, you've got to admire Bogart's unerring sense of what it takes to make a hit; he knew he could exploit the song's drug theme, crank up the controversy angle and fluke a smash 45 out of it. He wasn't wrong; but the notion of a hit single didn't play well with the duo, who felt that their work couldn't be reduced and simplified in such a way. They were meticulous about the way in which they constructed albums, and arbitrarily pulling a song from amongst the songs that surrounded it just didn't make sense to Brewer  and  Shipley. Unfortunately, it also served to put an unfortunate label on the duo as 'those two who made that drug record', a statement that is undeniably true, but a woeful undervaluing of their considerable talents.

The second brace of albums featured here, 'Shake Off The Demon* and 'Rural Space' come from 1971 and 1972 respectively, and though they yielded no hit  singles, are nonetheless fine collections. The duo's previous Buddah albums had been produced by Nick Gravenites of Electric Flag, but the duo opted to produce themselves from now on - perhaps they thought that by now they were more studio-savvy. Tom Shipley thinks that this might not have been the right idea:"Studio savvy? We thought we were. In retrospect it was probably a mistake. While I think we were good producers at that time, Nick {Gravenites) had incredible access to every good musician in the Bay area. He also had a real talent for putting together bands. I have also come to believe that most artists shouldn't produce themselves. It's an objectivity issue. I think if we had continued on with Nick for another album or two they might have met with more success. I believe it hurt us with our record company, firing our producer after having had two successful albums with him. Weeds, while not a top forty album, did very well on underground radio and helped set the stage for our second Buddah album, Tarkio and the One Toke single. 

They might have done a better job of promoting our next album if we had stayed with Nick. I'm not really sure their hearts were in it when we released Shake Off the Demon because they were starting to view us as temperamental artists. Of course by that time we had been on the road forever and were, how can I put it? Crazy!" Shake Off The Demon opens with the title track, an uplifting mid-pace rocker with the duo's excellent close harmonies being underpinned by rollicking barrelhouse piano played by Mark Naftalin. It's also considerably enhanced by Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist John Cippolina weighing in with some raunchy slide guitar. Merciful Love is a sweet, intricate ballad, again beautifully sung by the duo. Message From The Mission (Hold On) is a message of solidarity from Brewer  and  Shipley to the confused counterculture audience to simply keep on keeping on. Rural Space also features some fine musicians – including drummer Prairie Prince, before he joined The Tubes and latterly Jefferson Starship. Musically it as varied as ever - Have A Good Life comes over as almost a Gregorian chant, and Blue Highway, clocking in at over six minutes, is one of their most developed tracks musically speaking of their recording career thus far. Going from a Blue Highway to a Block Sky - the latter penned by Steve Cash, the song would later feature on the self-titled Ozark Mountain Daredevils debut album. Yankee Lady is from the pen of the-then exiled Jesse Winchester - he had to move to Canada to avoid the Viet Nam draft, and based himself there - and Brewer  and  Shipley weigh in with an excellent version.

Overall, these four albums represent a fine snapshot of where US folk-rock was at on the cusp of the late sixties and into the early seventies. Fine harmonies, strong melodies and excellent musicianship conspire to produce music of a lasting quality. However, things would change at the duo's record label; main man Neil Bogart would soon set up the Casablanca Records label, finding huge success with Kiss and a little later, Donna Summer. Furthermore, the Californian soft-rock sound as represented by The Eagles would soon become a dominant feature of US radio, and the rather more earthier Brewer  and  Shipley were never slick enough to do that.

After being dropped by the label, the duo then recorded for Capitol, but after over ten years of recording and constant touring, the duo amicably parted ways in l980,They have, however, reconvened - the counter-culture audience, now well into its sixties and seventies, still loves its heroes, and the guys are still out there gigging. And they still play 'One Toke'!
by Alan Robinson, September 2016

Disc 1   Weeds 1969
1. Lady Like You - 2:07
2. Rise Up (Easy Rider) - 3:16
3. Boomerang - 2:20
4. Indian Summer - 2:57
5. All Along The Watchtower (Bob Dylan) - 3:18
6. People Love Each Other - 2:52
7. Pigs Head - 2:07
8. Oh, Sweet Lady - 1:58
9. Too Soon Tomorrow - 2:51
10.Witchi-Tai-To (Jim Pepper) - 6:56
Tarkio 1970
11.One Toke Over The Line - 3:22
12.Song From Platte River - 3:19
13.The Light - 3:11
14.Ruby On The Morning - 2:19
15.Oh Mommy - 3:05
16.Don't Want To Die In Georgia - 3:49
17.Can't Go Home - 2:33
18.Tarko Road - 4:34
19.Seems Like A Long Time (Ted Anderson) - 4:16
20.Fifty States Of Freedom - 6:51
All songs by Michael Brewer, Tom Shipley except where stated

Disc 2 Shake Off The Demon 1971
1. Shake Off The Demon - 3:14
2. Merciful Love - 1:55
3. Message From The Mission (Hold On)  - 3:07
4. One By One  - 3:05
5. When Everybody Comes Home  - 2:03
6. Working On The Wall  - 3:18
7. Rock Me On The Water (Jackson Browne) - 4:02
8. Natural Child  - 3:46
9. Back To The Farm  - 3:22
10.Sweet Love  - 3:54
Rural Space 1972
11.Yankee Lady (Jesse Winchester) - 3:38
12.Sleeping On The Way  - 2:19
13.When The Truth Finally Comes  - 2:34
14.Where Do We Go From Here  - 2:18
15.Blue Highway(David Getz, Nick Gravenites) - 6:24
16.Fly Fly Fly (Steve Cash) - 3:08
17.Crested Butte  - 3:24
18.Got To Get Off The Island  - 3:15
19.Black Sky (Steve Cash) - 3:42
20.Have A Good Life  - 2:31
All songs by Michael Brewer, Tom Shipley except where noted

Weeds  1969
*Mike Brewer - Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Shakers, Vibra-Slap
*Tom Shipley - Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Twelve String Guitar
*Mike Bloomfield - Electric Guitar
*Mark Naftalin - Piano, Organ
*Ira Kamin - Organ, Piano
*John Kahn - Bass
*Robert Huberman - Bass
*Bob Jones - Drums
*Fred Olsen - Electric Guitar
*Orville "Red" Rhodes - Pedal Steel Guitar
*Richard Green - Fiddle
*Applejack - Harmonica
*Rienol Andino - Congas
*Nicky Hopkins - Piano
*Phil Ford - Tabla

Tarkio 1970
*Mike Brewer - Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
*Tom Shipley - Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
*Mark Naftalin - Piano, Organ
*John Kahn - Bass, Wah-Wah
*Fred Burton - Electric Guitar
*Bill Vitt - Drums
*Bob Jones - Drums
*Noel Jewkes - Flute
*Jerry Garcia - Pedal Steel Guitar
*Diane Tribuno - Chorus
*Nick Gravenites - Chorus
*Danny Cox - Chorus

Shake Off The Demon 1971
*Michael Brewer - Acoustic, Electric Guitar, Piano, Mouth Harp, Percussion, Vocals
*Tom Shipley - Acoustic, Electric Guitar, Bass, Banjo, Vocals
*John Kahn - Bass
*Mark Naftalin - Piano, Organ, Vibes
*John Cippollina - Electric, Slide Electric Guitars
*On 'Shake Off The Demon'
*Spencer Dryden - Drums
*"Littlejohn" Harteman III - Drums
*Glenn Waters - Drums
*Jose "Chepita" Areas - Congas, Bongos, Timbalas

Rural Space 1972
*Mike Brewer - Guitars, Percussion, Vocals, Foot Tambourine
*Tom Shipley - Bass, 12 String, Electric Guitars, Vocals
*Billy Mundy - Drums, Percussion
*Prairie Prince - Drums
*Fred Burton - Electric Guitars
*John Kahn - Bass
*Turk Murphy - Trombone
*Phil Howe - Clarinet
*Leon Oakley - Coronet
*James Maihack - Tuba
*John Kahn  - Horn Arrangements
*Mike Naftalin - Piano, Accordion
*Bill Vitt - Drums
*Phil Howe - Soprano Saxophone
*Buddy Cage - Pedal Steel Guitar

1967-68  Brewer And Shipley - Down In L.A. 

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