Lester Chambers - lead vocals, harmonica, percussion; Willie Chambers - guitar, vocals; Joe Chambers - guitar, vocals; George Chambers - bass, vocals; Brian Keenan - drums, vocals
Long before the Chambers Brothers forged a fusion of funk, R&B, gospel, blues, soul, and psychedelic music into their 1968 hit, "Time Has Come Today," breaking through racial and musical divides in the process, the brothers were one of the most promising young gospel groups in the country. The four brothers who formed the group (they had four other brothers as well as five sisters) grew up in poverty, children of a Mississippi sharecropper during the 1940s. While earning a meager living picking cotton in Lee County, the most musically inclined brothers—guitarists Willie and Joe, mouth harpist Lester, and bassist George, began developing their vocal harmonies while picking cotton in the fields. They got their first taste of talent recognition while singing a cappella in the choir of the local Mount Calvary Baptist church, where they soon became known as the Little Chambers Brothers. The initial collaboration ended when George was drafted into the army in 1952, followed by the entire family relocating to Los Angeles the following year. Upon George's discharge from the army, he too relocated to Los Angeles, where the foursome began collaborating again, performing gospel and folk music in church and performing around town. Los Angeles had a profound effect on the brothers, who had never attended interracial schools, never held jobs other than picking cotton, and now had far more freedom and cultural stimulation. They were now exposed to an abundance of new music and became enamored by the likes of Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. The predominantly white folk clubs in Los Angeles accepted the brothers form of a cappella gospel music and they performed around Southern California for the next decade in relative obscurity, while learning to play instruments in the process. All four brothers were unable to read music, but they each became self-taught musicians while studying the other great blues and folk musicians who frequented clubs like the Ash Grove on the folk and blues revival circuit.
During the 1960s, the Chambers Brothers continued diversifying their music, incorporating R&B, soul, and pop music elements into the mix, while maintaining the spiritual and gospel origins of their style. The Brothers biggest chart success came in 1967, when their 11-minute opus titled "Time Has Come Today" was edited into a single and became a smash hit. The longer album version, which featured a raga-like psychedelic jam sequence, which became weirder with each progressing minute, included screams, primitive delay effects and fuzz tone guitars all blurring together. Incorporating rock and psychedelic elements, "Time Has Come Today" would become a staple of the emerging underground FM radio stations, eventually becoming one of the defining songs of the era. Including the exclamation, "My soul has been psychedelicized!" this song was an encapsulation of the diverse elements that the Chambers Brothers would continue to explore. Their last album of the 1960s, "Love, Peace And Happiness," and their first of the 1970s, "New Generation," would introduce the funk elements of James Brown into their socially uplifting message songs. This era was arguably the most exciting time to experience the group live and they were popular fixtures on the rock club circuit, which included many performances at Bill Graham's Fillmores.
Recorded in February of 1971, while on the road promoting the just released New Generation album, this recording captures the Chambers Brothers live on stage at Fillmore East, headlining a remarkable triple bill that also presented the duo of Spencer Davis & Peter Jameson, followed by Taj Mahal as openers. Epitomizing the optimism of the 1960s, this set begins like a psychedelic revival meeting, as the brothers launch into the title track off their new album. Clocking in at a solid 13 minutes and containing an impressive extended jam right off the bat, "New Generation" is a song of inclusion that draws the New York City audience in. This segues directly into "Funky," another hot track from the new album that clearly displays the James Brown influence. This nearly 20 minute opening three-song sequence culminates in "Let's Do It," one of the most engaging tracks from the Love, Peace And Happiness album.
By this point, the Chambers Brothers have the Fillmore East audience fully engaged. Mixing things up, they next perform "Pollution," a sort of ecologically conscious public service announcement that is more performance art than song. With its theatrical approach, punctuated with non-musical elements like coughing and wheezing, this piece is interesting not so much for its ecological message, but as a precursor to band's like George Clinton's Funkadelics, which would take a similar approach and develop it into the next decade.
This is followed by the ballad, "When The Evening Comes," one of the loveliest moments on the new album and of this set. Here the brothers' gospel roots shine brightly and the instrumental break features some beautiful guitar work from Willie and Joe. Opening the end of the set up to requests, the brothers next tackle "Can't Turn You Loose" by popular demand, one of their signature cover songs from the early 1960s. More wild and free than the tight three-minute R&B hit it once was, here the song becomes a vehicle for audience interaction, as Lester ecstatically engages them to dance and shout along to end the set.
However, the performance isn't over yet and the brothers pull out all the stops during the encore, concluding with a highly improvised take on "Love, Peace And Happiness." One of their most infectious songs, this features the most outstanding musicianship of the set. Plenty of wah-wah guitar and smoldering rhythms permeate this extended jam. This is space music Chambers Brothers-style, and as someone in the audience exclaims loudly, it is indeed "Far Out!" Eventually, this impressive jam dissolves and Brian Keenan takes a drum solo. Unlike most drummers of the era, Keenan doesn't try to pummel the audience with his technical virtuosity (although he has plenty of it), but instead toys around, detuning the heads while tapping on the tom-toms, to create otherworldly effects of his own. The tape stock runs out just as the group are venturing back into the jam to conclude the set, but the 13 recorded minutes of this piece captures the heart and soul of the group's message and allows listeners to experience the Chambers Brothers at their most adventurous on stage.