Ry Cooder - vocals, lead guitar; Taj Mahal - vocals, harmonica; 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, then 18 years old, 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, who had just turned 23, 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.) 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. The following year, 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.
To say the Rising Sons were ahead of their time is a major understatement, as few knew what to make of the band at this time. Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder were young scholars of traditional blues and folk music, but now they were embracing electric guitars. This recording was still two months prior to Bob Dylan's electric debut at Newport, and the Rising Sons were already 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 1965. So, the Rising Sons never strayed far from home and became what could be considered the "house band" at the Ash Grove.
Recorded on May 29, 1965 at the tail-end of a run opening for Lightnin' Hopkins, this primitive, yet remarkable live recording captures the original lineup of the legendary Rising Sons 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 set is of particular interest as it contains three songs that were not included on the posthumously released Rising Sons studio recordings made for Columbia. It kicks off with a very unique arrangement of "Got My Mojo Working." Here Cooder's jagged guitar lines clearly anticipate the guitar stylings he would soon pursue with Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. Also immediately apparent is Taj Mahal's terrific stage presence. Through much of this set, Taj Mahal clearly comes across as the charismatic front man, exuding charm and relaxed ease with the audience.
An unreleased Jesse Lee Kincaid number follows with "Too High To Fall." Musically similar to "Corrina, Corrina" and with a distinct Bob Dylan lyrical influence, this features Kincaid fronting the group to better effect than most of the songs he contributed to their studio sessions. Never a strong vocalist, Kincaid holds his own here, complemented by Mahal on supporting vocals and the group providing lovely understated accompaniment. The set continues with an impressively forceful read on Jimmy Reed's "Hush, Hush," with Cooder playing tasteful lead and Mahal blowing mouth harp to good effect. Here, vocal duties are shared by Cooder, Kincaid, and Mahal, and while vocal harmony was well beyond their abilities, the loose raw approach works exceedingly well here. They are obviously having a lot of fun and thoroughly enjoying themselves, and the audience responds in kind. The recording ends with a delightful interpretation of Elmore James' "Dust My Broom." A classic Delta blues which the Rising Sons freely adapt, this features fine early examples of Ry Cooder's trademark slide work and a loose, somewhat improvised vocal from Taj Mahal that veers from the familiar lyrics, while paying homage to both Elmore James and Robert Johnson.
Both Cooder and Mahal are just beginning to develop a sound here, and while neither is all that distinct at this early stage, their youthful energy and enthusiasm is undeniable. In terms of young, up-and-coming musicians getting their start on the Ash Grove stage, this recording is certainly one of the more astonishing examples.
Written by Alan Bershaw