Robbie Stokes - vocals, lead guitar; Brett Champlin - vocals, guitar; Bob Laughton - vocals, bass, slide guitar; Steve Sweigart - drums
Hailing from Carbondale, Illinois, guitarist Robbie Stokes was like many teenagers in the 1960s—obsessed with music and intrigued by the sounds and cultural revolution emanating out of the Bay Area in California. Along with his band mates in Devil's Kitchen, Stokes packed his guitar and belongings and made the pilgrimage, relocating to San Francisco. Thoroughly embracing the ethic of breaking down musical genre barriers, Devil's Kitchen embraced a myriad of musical styles, including rock, blues, country, and jazz, while pioneering their own style of improvisational exploration, which fit comfortably within the San Francisco music scene. Performing live at every opportunity, Devil's Kitchen gained the attention of local promoters Chet Helms and Bill Graham, who offered them opening slots on concerts by the San Francisco musical elite, including Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Although Devil's Kitchen was offered a recording contract with Mercury, these musicians were true idealists, less interested in money than full artistic control of their music and passed on the opportunity.
This live recording of Devil's Kitchen, recorded during a multiple night stand at Chet Helms' Family Dog at the Great Highway, captures the group performing live before a small but appreciative hometown crowd. Although less comprehensive than the recordings from the following night (also available here in the Concert Vault), this shorter recording offers up three more songs unavailable on those recordings, in addition to alternate performances of two of their more intriguing originals.
The recording begins in progress with the laid back groove of "I've Got A Lotta Things On My Mind." The more up-tempo bluesy rocker, "You've Got Your Head On Right," which better displays the cohesive interplay of these four musicians, follows this. While the song itself is enjoyable, it is the instrumental breaks between the verses that display Devil's Kitchen in the most positive light. Here, that occurs twice with the group skillfully increasing the intensity each time and Stokes really cutting loose by his second solo. At this point the group encourages the audience to dance by delivering a frantic take on "Route 66." Peeling off Chuck Berry riffs galore, this must have had the audience moving and the lyrics "California Trip" become a humorous double entendre.
The most intriguing performances of this set are the final two originals on the recording, "Earthfields" and "Farm Bust Blues." "Earthfields" is another grooving rocker, but here the propulsion becomes jazzier. This also contains an impressive jam midway where Stokes really gets cranking, thanks in no small part to the tight propulsion of Laughton and Sweigert and the infectious rhythm guitar playing of Champlin. The recording concludes with an extended take on "Farm Bust Blues," a blues about trying to live a peaceful existence in the country, yet being unable to escape the long arm of the law. While less expansive than the performance on the following night, this relatively straightforward blues once again displays the tight chemistry of this band.
Not unlike many of the best groups of the era, Devil's Kitchen were musicians who truly listened to each other and obviously enjoyed playing together. A truly special chemistry developed between the front line guitarists, Stokes and Champlin. Champlin's sensibilities and innate ability to create beautiful and infectious rhythm content inspired Stokes to soar on lead guitar. Stokes often sounds like a cross between Quicksilver's John Cipollina and Sons of Champlin's Terry Haggerty, two of the most accomplished and original guitarists of the time. High praise indeed and no doubt one of the reasons Stokes became an in-demand session guitarist, recording with the likes of Grateful Dead members Mickey Hart and Robert Hunter (among others) when they began pursuing solo projects into the 1970s.