Jo Baker - vocals, percussion; Annie Sampson - vocals, percussion; Tim Barnes - guitar, vocals; Terry Davis - bass; Fred Webb - piano, organ, vocals; Sammy Piazza - drums
Beginning as a trio from Walnut Creek in the mid-1960s and developing into an elaborate 11-piece traveling communal festival favorite by 1969, Stoneground boasted many great musicians as well as several of the most talented singers of the era, each with a distinctive voice and style. One of the hardest working bands, they took their soulful San Francisco groove around the world, packing countless nightclubs and becoming a ubiquitous presence at rock festivals the world over. They continued releasing respected albums into the early 1970s, but like so many of their Bay Area contemporaries, Stoneground was a band best experienced live.
In 1974, when this performance occurred, Stoneground had regrouped in more compact form. Guitarist Tim Barnes assumed the male lead vocal duties and soulful vocalist Annie Sampson remained as one of the female lead singers. To double up on the female vocals, Barnes and Sampson recruited Jo Baker, another powerful singer well known for her vocal work in the Elvin Bishop Group. They also brought in Terry Davis on bass and Fred Webb, formerly of It's A Beautiful Day, to help write and play keyboards. In the drum chair sat Sammy Piazza, fresh off a several year stint with Hot Tuna. This new stripped-down lineup had a rejuvenated sound, not quite as festive as the big band, but tighter and punchier. With Baker and Sampson belting out the majority of the lead vocals, Stoneground became a much more cohesive unit, equally comfortable with rock, soul, gospel, blues, and rhythm and blues.
This performance, the second of two recorded on a rainy Tuesday night in December 1974 before a hometown crowd in San Francisco, proves just how much the group had to offer. For people looking to party and dance, this lineup of Stoneground packed a serious punch. Although a founder of the band, Tim Barnes was often obscured in the previous formations, but here he comes across as a fluid and engaging guitar player. His lead vocals are more an acquired taste, but needless to say, Jo Baker and Annie Sampson pack a serious vocal wallop, trading off and often sharing lead vocals on many of the best songs.
Following Jerry Pompilli's introduction, Stoneground immediately engage the audience with the high-energy rocker "Top Secret," with the sparkling chemistry between these singers and musicians readily apparent. The next number, "Do You Hear Me," is written by drummer Sammy Piazza, with both Baker and Sampson trading vocals and harmonizing on a rockin' gospel number. The group next tackle the strident blues rocker "Rock Bottom," containing Webb wailing on organ and one of Barnes' best solos of the set. This is the kind of high-energy blues that Jo Baker excelled at during her tenure in Elvin Bishop's band and she delivers the goods here.
"Make Up Your Mind" is another engaging rocker that displays this lineup of the band in a most positive light. Usually reserved for the encore slot, Sammy Piazza next propels the group into a hot little jam on "Bo Diddley," which no doubt had all the dancers in the audience up on their feet. A truly powerful performance from Sampson follows on "The Jesus I Know." This begins as a pure gospel number featuring only Webb's church-like organ and Sampson's penetrating vocal. Following the first two verses, the band launches in creating a gradual build up that is engaging and dramatic. With lyrics that question Christian religious rhetoric, Sampson concludes "The Jesus I know lives in my soul."
The recording concludes with Jo Baker fronting the group on "Let's Leave This Town," a song of escape that also showcases some more of Webb's impressive organ work and then "Walking Blues," another soulful rocker co-written by Samson and Webb.
Stoneground was always a band best experienced live and this set is another fine example. For a group that experienced more personnel changes than most, this relatively undocumented phase of the group may be the tightest, most cohesive lineup ever. Fans of the larger previous lineups are in for a pleasant surprise and for those unfamiliar with the band, this is a more accessible place to start.