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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Quicksilver Messenger Service, "Happy Trails"

Quicksilver Messenger Service
"Happy Trails"
Capitol (1969)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Some have described 1968 as "the summer of hate" to indicate the emotions sweeping the nation like a hangover following 1967's "Summer of Love." San Francisco, the flower children's capitol, didn't feel the effects, based on Quicksilver Messenger Service's album "Happy Trails." Quicksilver came from the same formula that produced the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane: a jam band dosed with psychedelia. The group's ability to jam at the Dead's legendary level is debatable.

It's not for lack of trying however. Side A features a clever concept for a package of songs. The live performance begins with a rendition of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love," and continues into a 25-plus minute jam, broken up into multiple tracks that highlight each member. Inevitably, the weight of jamming falls on the guitarists. During "When You Love," Gary Duncan bends strings and stutters his picking, with fellow guitarist John Cippolina harmonizing like a well-matched shirt to Duncan's jacket. One can't help but think that Duncan is over-thinking his part. Cippolina's moment, "How You Love," demonstrates a flaming-fretboard take on the blues, but travels in a straightforward direction.

The track separating the guitar highlights, "Where You Love," demonstrates the most psychedelic attitude. The barrage of notes from Duncan gives way to silence, punctuated with guitar vibrato, and a piano plinks eerily. At points, silence reigns. Too long, in fact. Some critics revile solos like Cippolina's as too much, but the emptiness here reflects an opposing form of indulgence. The band starts picking up steam again, and the audience provides a handclap rhythm out of the blue. This recording deserves kudos for featuring crowd interaction in such an effective way.

Quicksilver has a better grasp on its jam potential for "Mona," another Bo Diddley number opening side B. The same vibrato is used throughout the verses to enforce a trippy vibe. The solos aren't labeled, but it's easy to pick out who's who based on the side A experience. Duncan maintains his stuttering style for this track as well, but Cippolina is better.

As for the Western theme introduced by the album art? The last two songs on the record address that. "Calvary" is an instrumental from Duncan that opens with four minutes of ho-hum quietude, but distortion on the lead guitar brings promise. When an actual song emerges, the Western theme is introduced by drummer Greg Elmore's march routine, and the clanging of a bell coupled with the group's melodic chant evoke Ennio Morricone's scores. This may be the longest song on the album, but also the most worthwhile.

For my money, Quicksilver doesn't live up to other jam giants like the Allman Brothers, or the Grateful Dead, which they're labeled with. The ability is there, no doubt, but the smooth improvisation, less so. Admittedly, I just listed some pretty big names to live up to.

INTERESTING FACT: Every track on this album was recorded at either Fillmore East in New York City or Fillmore West in San Francisco, although no one's really sure which set of tracks was recorded at what location.

Calvary by Quicksilver Messenger Service on Grooveshark

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