Elvin Bishop - guitar, vocals; Johnny Vernazza - guitar, vocals; Bill Slais - piano, vocals; Michael Brooks - bass; Donny Baldwin - drums, vocals
In 1973, prior to recording the fourth album under his own name, Elvin Bishop relocated from California to Georgia. Signing up with Phil Walden's Capricorn Records label, then the epicenter of Southern Rock, Bishop assembled a new band and got to work on an album that would reflect a new sound. Let It Flow, released the following year, heralded a more commercial and soulful sound, but still contained blues, country flavored rock, and the R&B stylings that made Bishop so popular on the ballroom and nightclub circuit. Not surprisingly, his live performances took a decidedly Southern Rock turn during this time, often with the trademark twin guitar leads (courtesy of Bishop and Johnny Vernazza) and his album would featured guest appearances from label mates like Charlie Daniels, Dickey Betts, and Toy Caldwell.
This particular set was captured on one of Bishop's frequent visits back to the Bay Area, headlining a Winterland bill that also featured the James Cotton Band and Roy Buchanan. Although the recording has technical issues near the beginning, it is an enlightening glimpse at Bishop and his new band just as the Capricorn sessions had begun. The group has a distinctly different sound than Bishop's previous group, which was dominated by guitar, organ and strong vocal arrangements. Here the front line is dominated by the outstanding acoustic piano playing of Bill Slais, with guitarists Bishop and Vernazza often playing in unison (a la Duane Allman & Dickey Betts) and Bishop himself as the primary lead vocalist. It's a stripped down sound that would soon be augmented with additional musicians and vocalist Mickey Thomas, again changing the sound of the band significantly. This set illuminates on this transition period and serves as a link between the two popular band lineups.
Following Bill Graham's introduction, the set begins with two tracks destined for the Let It Flow album. In fact, most of this set features material yet to be recorded or released, so it serves as a preview for his hometown audience. "Ground Hog" kicks things off, with Bishop on vocals and slide guitar as the band warms up. After chatting up the girls in the audience, Bishop continues the flirtation with Hank Williams classic "Hey, Good Lookin'," with the band providing plenty of swing. Ready to stretch out a bit, they do just that by tackling two songs that Bishop admits, "We barely know." This two-song jam is even more surprising, as it contains the two lead-off tracks that would eventually open Bishop's 1975 album, Juke Joint Jump nearly two years later. On "Wide River," a good-timey reggae-flavored number, Bishop lets loose on slide, but it is Slais' highly inventive piano playing which is most impressive here. As the band continues jamming, the classic Bo-Diddley beat gets stronger and stronger until it fully takes over and Bishop begins singing "Calling All Cows." Essentially the song "Bo Diddley" with new lyrics from Bishop, this is raw body moving music made for dancing. These songs were obviously well under way at this point, and it is possible that studio versions were recorded during the Let It Flow sessions.
The "Fannie Mae" that follows impressively harkens back to the Chicago-style blues that Bishop built his career on, but the highlight of this recording follows with the title track of Bishop's 1972 album, Rock My Soul. This is the group at their best, full of energy and creative interplay. A celebration of music itself, this is one of Bishop's finest compositions from his pre-Capricorn solo era and the group plays it with passion. Following the initial verses, the piece transforms into a great jam, first propelled by piano and then soaring with the guitars of Bishop and Vernazza, before Bishop concludes with the final verse. The recording ends with another preview from the recording sessions, "Stealin' Watermelons," a joyous funky romp that would become a staple of Bishop's repertoire for years to come. Although incomplete, this is a new Elvin Bishop Group having plenty of fun on stage and letting the good times roll.