Jo Baker - vocals, percussion; Tim Barnes - guitar, vocals; Terry Davis - bass, vocals; Sammy Piazza - drums; Annie Sampson - vocals, percussion; Fred Webb - piano, organ, vocals
In 1976, Stoneground was at a crossroads. Still quite popular as a live band, their albums experienced moderate sales at best and they were no longer signed to a major label. Still they soldiered on, again revamping the band by bringing back a horn section and an additional percussionist when they entered the studio to record their fourth studio album. Flat Out would be released on their own label, with very limited distribution, but would prove the band still packed a punch. The frontline vocals of Annie Sampson and Jo Baker were just as captivating as ever and in some ways more integrated into the sound of the band, having had two years of experience working together. The newer material often featured them singing together, as opposed to featuring one or the other as lead vocalist. While the new material still featured a diverse blend of soul, rhythm and blues and rock elements, they were clearly heading in a more straightforward rock and roll direction. The band would carry on into the disco and punk age, with very little success, but Flat Out and the 1976 era performances that brought this material to the stage, proved the band still had plenty of fire. In retrospect, Flat Out would be perceived by many as the last great Stoneground album or at least, the last album where their musical identity was still firmly intact.
Stoneground had done a remarkable "Live From The Record Plant" appearance two years prior, which introduced their new more compact sound and former Elvin Bishop Group vocalist, Jo Baker, into the overall mix. This new stripped down lineup had a rejuvenated sound, not as festive as the former big band lineup, but tighter and punchier. It unveiled the band's new material, which as always, was more impressive in a live context. This 1976 Record Plant performance, in many ways, serves the exact same purpose of introducing the Flat Out material. For the album sessions, the band tried to capture their original dynamic by bringing a strong horn section and additional percussive elements back into the band, but for this live performance, the more compact core unit delivers the material. With the exception of two songs, Stoneground performs the entire Flat Out album, sans the horn section and added percussion.
The first two songs of this set, "Daddy Look My Way" and "Mojo Hannah" immediately shows one of the changes in the band's vocal approach. On both of these numbers, Sampson and Baker sing the majority of the songs in unison, rather than featuring one or the other as lead vocalist. This works quite well, with Samson's soulful voice and Baker's more blues inflected voice blending together in fine form. The "Make Your Own Sweet Music" that follows heads in a more soulful direction, with Webb's gospel flavored organ providing a bed for the engaging vocal arrangement.
A rarity follows with one of the two non-album tracks, "Maybe I'm Dreaming." This number features Sampson's soulful voice front and center, with the rest of the group providing strong support. Much the same can be said about "A Good Sign," the other non-album track featured later in the set, which is just as engaging and features the band playing in a funkier manner.
The remainder of the set is comprised of additional Flat Out material. The vocals are still as soulful as ever, but the musicians get opportunities to solo and are clearly heading in a more rock oriented direction. All of these songs have their moments, but the final song, "If You Can Beat Me Rockin," captures this lineup at their best. Here the band gets a serious groove on and Sampson and Baker's vocals grab the listener and don't let go.
Stoneground will be best remembered for their live performances, and this one is literally the best of both worlds - a studio quality recording of the band playing as a live unit. To some, the absence of the more elaborate horn arrangements will be missed, but most will find these versions of the songs have a more direct and uncluttered sound. Stoneground was always a band best experienced live and much like the band's 1974 Record Plant set, this recording is probably the best surviving document of the band during this era. These live performances take the strong material from the Flat Out album and boil it down to the essential elements, which are more engaging and ultimately more satisfying.