Taj Mahal (vocals, harmonica); Ry Cooder (lead guitar); Jesse Lee Kincaid (vocals, rhythm guitar); Gary "Magic" Marker (bass); Ed Cassidy (drums)
The Ash Grove will long be remembered as the West Coast epicenter of the traditional folk and blues revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. As such, the Los Angeles venue was a critical component, not only in the careers of many important folk and blues artists, but as an educational environment to many younger musicians and songwriters, providing them with first hand exposure to the best of the best in an intimate setting. Also a focal point for progressive thought, The Ash Grove would have an equally strong impact on the cultural and political perspective of these young emerging artists, laying the groundwork for what would become the rock music revolution of the 1960s. The Ash Grove's high musical standards and owner Ed Pearl's vision of facilitating interaction between young and old musicians made the venue a hotbed of creativity. Many important careers were launched on the Ash Grove stage and the recording presented here is one of the many fine examples.
The Rising Sons literally formed within the walls of The Ash Grove. All five of the musicians were young regulars, who had spent countless hours studying the music and performances of the older folk and blues artists. Still a teenager, Ry Cooder had been frequenting the Ash Grove for several years, partnering up with the likes of Jackie DeShannon and Pamela Polland as a frequent opening act at the venue. Taj Mahal had journeyed from Massachusetts with his friend, Jesse Lee Kincaid, a few years prior and had also become Ash Grove regulars. Needing a rhythm section, Cooder and Mahal recruited two additional regulars, bassist Gary Marker and the significantly older jazz drummer, Ed Cassidy, who had worked with Cannonball Adderly, Thelonious Monk and Roland Kirk, among others. (With his stepson, Randy California, Cassidy would later form the band Spirit.) Cassidy would leave the group following a hand injury, being replaced by future Byrds drummer, Kevin Kelly. By the time the group recorded their sessions for Columbia Records, Kelly would replace Cassidy.
Although the group's repertoire primarily consisted of cover material by the older artists they admired, their eclectic mix of blues, folk and anything else that tickled their collective fancy, anticipated the development of psychedelic rock music. Soon new groups like The Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, who were also young folk, blues and traditional music fans, would mine similar territory, creating the so-called "San Francisco Sound" that would fuel dance halls like The Fillmore Auditorium and The Avalon Ballroom.
This live recording, despite being only one song, is a particularly interesting one, as it clearly points in the direction of Cooder's next career move. The song in question is an electrified arrangement of Louisiana bluesman Robert Pete Williams' "Grown So Ugly," which the group introduces only as "our Robert Pete Williams' thing." Williams himself recorded the song twice, in 1960 and again in 1965, which is likely where Cooder picked up on it. The song addresses the changes Williams experienced while being incarcerated at the Angola State Prison Farm. This gritty number went unrecorded during the Rising Sons existence, but would surface on Captain Beefheart's debut LP Safe As Milk in 1967, arranged by none other than Ry Cooder. This live performance clearly foreshadows Beefheart's recording and indeed Cooder is responsible for suggesting the song to Beefheart. Cooder is also said to have joined Beefheart in the vocal booth, whispering the lyrics in his ear during the recording session.
Recorded during a run opening for Lightnin' Hopkins, this primitive, yet remarkable live recording captures The Rising Sons in action near the tail end of their existence. It should be noted that The Ash Grove was not set up to facilitate the recording of electric music. Drums and amplified guitars were easily heard in the club without the need for sound reinforcement. As such, this recording is not perfectly balanced. Despite this, everyone can be heard as the drums and electric instruments are captured by the vocal microphones. Taj Mahal, who also blows plenty of blues harp here, trades verses with Jesse Lee Kincaid. At times, Mahal's vocal growl brings Beefheart to mind and while Cooder's guitar lines may be tame in comparison, this clearly anticipates the music he would soon explore as a member of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. (Bershaw)