Ry Cooder - vocals, lead guitar; Taj Mahal - vocals, harmonica, guitar, piano, tambourine; Jesse Lee Kincaid - vocals, rhythm guitar; Gary 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. 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 both 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.) Then going by the stage name, Cass StrangeDrums, Cassidy would leave the group following a hand injury, being replaced by future drummer for The Byrds, Kevin Kelly. By the time the group recorded their 1966 sessions for Columbia Records, Kelly had already replaced Cassidy, so the original Rising Sons were thought to have never been recorded - that is, until now!
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 clearly anticipated the development of psychedelic rock music. Soon after, 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.
To say The Rising Sons were ahead of their time is a major understatement, as few knew what to make of the band in 1965. Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder were young scholars of traditional blues and folk music, but they were already embracing electric guitars. This recording was made two months prior to Bob Dylan's electric debut at Newport and The Rising Sons were heading in a similar direction. This, along with the fact that the Sons were an integrated group, pretty much sealed their fate. Racial prejudice was undoubtedly a factor that prevented the group from becoming more successful. Fearing trouble, few booking agents or club owners would hire bands of mixed ethnicity in the mid-1960s. So, The Rising Sons never strayed far from home and became what could be considered the "house band" at The Ash Grove.
This very primitive, yet remarkable, live recording now stands as one of the earliest examples of the original lineup in action. 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 far from perfectly balanced. Despite this, everyone can be heard on the recording as the drums and electric instruments are captured by the vocal microphones.
This performance kicks off with the group tearing through Howlin' Wolf's "Down In The Bottom." Essentially a variation on the traditional "Rollin' & Tumblin'," this number finds Taj Mahal belting out both the familiar lyrics often credited to Willie Dixon, as well as liberally borrowing from other blues songs. With its unconventional structure and Ry Cooder on electric guitar, this sounds much like a precursor to Cooder's subsequent work with Captain Beefheart, but what is most immediately apparent is Taj Mahal's terrific stage presence. Through much of this set, he clearly comes across as the charismatic front man, exuding charm and relaxed ease with the audience. A prime example of this follows with the Jimmy Reed styled blues, "Who Do You Think You Is."
For the next number, Taj Mahal and Jesse Lee Kincaid sing two-part harmony on a nice relaxed grooving version of "Corrine, Corrina." Various permutations of this song would remain in Taj Mahal's stage repertoire in the years to come, but this arrangement is unique to The Rising Sons and features some tasteful lead guitar work from Cooder. Following this, Taj proudly announces that this audience will be among the first to hear a new original song written by Jesse Lee Kincaid. This previously undocumented song, "I'll Always Be There," features Kincaid on lead vocals and is clearly influenced by modern pop/rock music of the era like The Beatles and The Byrds.
The next song, an instrumental, is introduced as "Blues in 3/4 Time," which is exactly what it is. The rhythm section of Cassidy and Marker essentially set up a groove, which many will immediately recognize as Miles Davis' "All Blues," while Cooder and Mahal explore some primitive modal jamming on top.
Switching to piano next, Taj leads the group through the 1959 hit by The Fiestas, "So Fine," before winding up this set with Blind Willie McTell's classic "Statesboro Blues," which The Allman Brothers would learn from Taj Mahal and take soaring to another level years later.
The set wraps up with "Hambone," which is essentially an outro vamp on the classic Bo Diddley beat. One by one, each of the band members is introduced and exits the stage until only Cassidy remains, who then exits himself to conclude the set.
In terms of young, up and coming musicians that got their start on the Ash Grove stage, this is an astonishing find.
Written by Alan Bershaw