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Mad River - Mad River & Paradise Bar & Grill (1968

Mad River - Mad River & Paradise Bar & Grill (1968 & 1969)

Artist: Mad River
Album: Mad RiverParadise Bar & Grill
Released: 10/17/2000
Label: Collector's Choice
Genre: Psychedelic

Mad River - Mad River
Capitol ST 2985

"Mad River only existed for about 4 years, in which time they made 2 albums. Later, Lawrence Hammond made a solo album. That and the second album (Paradise Bar and Grill) are forgettable, but the debut was a superb slice of psychedelia.
Originally released in 1968, due to a mastering error the resulting vinyl played back faster than it was recorded. Speedy enough to begin with, this made it a tough album to listen to. The CD reissue on Edsel rectified this error, and if you can find a copy the effort is well rewarded. The main reason for the band’s drop by Capitol records was the surreal, druggy lyrics, and psychotic sound. A clue to what to expect. They are actually one of the most psychedelic sounding bands of the era. At times they are a bit like Quicksilver, at others like Big Brother, but imagine either of those groups playing much more tightly arranged, faster tempo, lyrically complex compositions and featuring a demented vocalist and you’re getting close. Berkeley neighbours of theirs were
the legendary Frumious Bandersnatch who are also worth checking out. Merciful Monks opens with rocky riffs and frantic part play, strained vocals and lyrics like: “Didn’t you say I could hold a broom and sweep the burning nostrils into the sea?” There’s a guitar solo that leaps and
twists everywhere, threatening to descend into chaos but never quite losing it. “High All The Time” is next, with a fade-in start. As you can imagine this song is about taking certain substances, and Lawrence sounds suitably stoned. Great big movies inside your head, your mind's
eye is just a camera taking photographs. The track has great fuzz guitar licks all the way through, as well. Amphetamine Gazelle opens with Greg Dewey, the drummer, stammering and muttering in imitation of a speed freak, and then the song rattles along with more crazy lyrics from Hammond and high octane guitar work.
Eastern Light is a sentimental, bluesy ballad with a sad, moody bridge and a wistful climax. For me the only slightly weak track on the album. The side 2 opener is “Wind Chimes,” and it starts with wind chimes tinkling in the breeze. It is an instrumental that builds and builds. Gentle harmonics and rhythm guitar are overtaken by panning distorted lead that develops into an eastern sounding jam of power, complexity and stunning beauty with an almost Bach-like quality at one point, followed by a tattoo of a drum climax from Dewey and a gentle subsiding afterglow. Next the 12-and-a-half minute War Goes On screeches, rattles and squeals its way into your consciousness. This sounds like a Vietnam veteran’s nightmare, a grinding, screaming, angry horror story of a song; you can almost taste the napalm. The final track is the brief, acoustic lullabye, Hush Julian." ~ DoctorDark

Mad River - Paradise Bar and Grill
Capitol (st 185)

As a follow-up, PB&G is an eclectic departure from the first album. They must have sensed that the winds of change was blowing away from psychedelic music, and with the likes of Dylan, The Band, The Byrds, Poco, The Flying Burrito Bros. and The Grateful Dead all changing direction and picking up on a mellower 'country' sound. Not that Mad River totally left mind-altering acid-rock behind. Those elements are still present on PB&G, though toned down a bit. But perhaps the band was hoping for some commercial success (slightly un-hip at the time, though it pays the bills) and trying to stay on the leading edge.

Personally, I like the album a lot, though for different reasons than the first album (which requires a certain state of mind to truly appreciate). The songwriting is top notch, but hardly mainstream. That is what made them unique, along with their abundant musical talents. As a musician I find more to take from the second album than the first. It has more textures, and a wide (too wide for most) range of styles. The first album is a timeless psychedelic treasure, and a true classic right up there with the Dead's AOXOMOXOA, and the second is a close cousin to the Flying Burritos "Gilded Palace Of Sin" and the Jefferson Airplane's "Volunteers".
There are three 'pure' country songs on "Paradise Bar & Grill": The title song, "Copper Plates", and "Cherokee Queen". The first is a waltz sung by bassist/pianist Lawrence Hammond with his unique tremolo, and features a pedal steel guitar solo, while the other two were sung by drummer Greg Dewey. Lyrically, the first song would have fit in on the first album, though the music would sound fine behind George Jones. "Copper Plates" is an up-tempo hot-pickin' send-up on counterfeiting, complete with banjo, and "Cherokee Queen" is a sad tale set in 3/4 time with some fine pedal steel guitar. It is downright tranquil.
The second big change is the inclusion of two short acoustic instrumentals (Harfy Magnum, and Equinox) and another acoustic tune that featured writer/poet Richard Brautigan reciting his own poem. (Brautigan was a big fan of the group, and he helped support them before they signed with Capitol. (Read his books.))

The remainder of the cuts could have easily fit on the first album. "Leave Me/Stay" is the killer follow-up to "Eastern Light", featuring a patented Robinson guitar solo and Lawrence's heartbroken vocals. "They Brought Sadness" feature a mix of electric and acoustic guitars and an inventive harmonic structure. Dewey sings this and the next song, "Revolution In My Pocket", which takes a musical scenic route through rock, funk, folk and choral music. It's even beefed up with horns. Without a break it goes straight into "Academy Cemetery", a fully electric instrumental augmented by the band's manager playing the congas. It's vintage Mad River, twisting, turning and snaking as it reaches a great climax and then coasts to the end. (This is where you would light a cigarette...)
The band had gone through some changes for their second album, most notably the departure of guitarist/bassist Thomas Manning. Manning appears on several cuts, as does producer Jerry Corbett and his Youngblood alumni Banana, both contributing pedal steel guitar. The pedal steel guitar in question was originally owned by Jerry Garcia and sold to Banana. This is before Garcia was serious about the instrument (ca. 1966)

The listener who expected another album like Mad River's first were probably disappointed with the country leanings on Paradise Bar And Grill. But as an attempt to tame the group and make them more accessible to the general record buying public, it's a big step forward. Put this record on between Crosby Stills & Nash's 1st and The Grateful Dead's "Workingman's Dead" and it's a perfect fit. ~ Roger Stomperud

In the onslaught of innovative San Francisco Bay Area psychedelic bands that recorded in the late 1960s, it was inevitable that some would get unfairly overlooked. Foremost among them were Mad River, whose two Capitol albums made barely a ripple saleswise. Overexposure of the San Francisco scene, however, was likely only part of the reason for their commercial failure. For Mad River were one of the hardest psychedelic bands to get a handle on, their eclecticism, oblique lyrics, and tortuous multi-segmented songs defying quick summarization. It may not have helped that Mad River's brand of psychedelia was decidedly dark, often venturing into distraught visions in stark opposition to the feel-good stereotype of the San Francisco Sound.
Mad River formed in late 1965 in Yellow Springs, Ohio, arriving in Berkeley in early 1967 after a detour to Washington, DC. In some ways they were a natural fit for the Bay Area rock community, with their affinity for winding, Eastern-influenced minor-key melodies, somewhat in the manner of Country Joe & the Fish (with whom Mad River often shared bills). Their knack for glistening, wavering interlocking guitars -- particularly those of lead axeman David Robinson and second lead guitarist Rick Bockner -- was somewhat reminiscent of those heard in Quicksilver Messenger Service, though Mad River played with more frenetic angularity. What set them aside most, however, was lead singer and primary songwriter Lawrence Hammond's nervous quaver of a voice.
These qualities were already in place on their rare 1967 debut EP, released on the small local Wee label. All three of its tracks -- "Wind Chimes" (to be re-recorded on their debut album), "A Gazelle" (to be redone as "Amphetamine Gazelle" on the first LP), and the outstanding anti-war song "Orange Fire" (never to be recorded by the band on their albums) -- can be heard on the Ace compilation The Berkeley EPs. Through the EP and live performances, Mad River drew strong grass-roots support in the Bay Area, partly through playing events associated with San Francisco radicals the Diggers. They also had a renowned fan in author and poet Richard Brautigan, who gave the band food to tide them over in rough times.
Capitol Records, as part of a big push to sign San Francisco bands that saw them net Quicksilver and Steve Miller, landed Mad River in 1968. With Nik Venet -- producer of some of Capitol's more adventurous acts, like Fred Neil, Hearts & Flowers, and the Stone Poneys -- they recorded the self-titled debut LP that stands as their best work. The don't-you-dare relax mood was immediately set by the opening cut, "Merciful Monks," Hammond singing (as he does throughout the album) as though someone's just given him the hot foot. The band charged through ominous ever-shifting jagged chords, snaky guitar sustain leads, and almost improvisational-sounding shifts among dissonant melodies and variegated rhythms. Mad River were blending elements of avant-garde jazz, Indian music, blues, and folk into acid rock, sometimes sounding more aligned with the Mothers of Invention's odder instrumental passages than with the typical Bay Area act.
Even when easing into more placid realms, as on "High All the Time," Hammond's pained high-pitched vocals gave the music a vaguely sinister, disquieting air, as though the record had caught the band at the very moment when a blissful psychedelic trip was turning sour and nightmarish. Certainly the manic "Amphetamine Gazelle," in both its speed-freak spoken opening and crazed stop-start rhythms, came across as the jittery rumination of someone who'd ingested one too many of a volatile substance. "Eastern Light," which closed side one of the LP, was psychedelic love song as funereal march, the exotic vibe embellished by Hammond's recorder.
Hammond also added recorder to "Wind Chimes," a nifty illustration of the group's facility for haunting minor-keyed soloing. "War Goes On" did perhaps itself go on too long, maybe reflecting the hopeless endlessness of the Vietnam quagmire in 1968. Mad River concluded with a too-short, wary grace note on the beautiful folk ballad "Hush Julian," although Hammond's as-ever spooked-out singing made this children's lullaby sound as ghostly as the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.
Mad River was a critical and commercial flop, not conventionally melodic enough to gain oodles of airplay, its obtuse adventurousness requiring several listenings to even begin to absorb. Their second and final album, 1969's Paradise Bar and Grill , was for the most part an abrupt about-face from the debut. Produced by Jerry Corbitt of the Youngbloods (both Corbitt and fellow Youngblood Lowell "Banana" Levinger add some steel guitar), the tracks largely retreated into calm country-rock, spurred by ex-folkie Hammond's love of country artists such as Merle Haggard. At the same time, the band's propensity for inscrutable acidic tunes with hard rock guitar and impossible-to-hum melodies did rear its head occasionally, making for an extremely diffuse record that seemed torn between several artistic paths.
The instrumental opener, "Harfy Magnum," indicated the band may have been listening to John Fahey, with its similar avant-garde-tinged folk guitar. Hammond got to stretch his sorrowful pipes to the max on the country-rock title track, and Richard Brautigan provided the words and spoken narration for "Love's Not the Way to Treat a Friend," backed by mellow folk picking. (Mad River, mindful of Brautigan's kindness when they were starving, had used some of their Capitol advance to pay for the printing of Brautigan's collection of poems, Please Plant This Book.) Having prepared the listener for an easygoing country-rock record, on "Leave Me/Stay" the band then veered back into the agonized hard rock that had typified the previous LP. This was an extremely downcast romantic lament, as if the desperation of Mad River's "Eastern Light" had been followed by the desertion Hammond seemed to have feared all along. The jarring roller coaster ride continued with the good-time uptempo honky-tonker "Copper Plates" (chosen as the single, which stiffed, of course) and the quasi-classical guitar-and-recorder instrumental "Equinox."
The second side of the LP was no more predictable, "They Brought Sadness" being yet another discombobulated lyric punctuated by twisting, occasionally atonal guitar. "Revolution in My Pocket" broke up strutting funk-rock verses with odd stretches of serene folk guitar and wordless humming, segueing into "Academy Cemetery," an instrumental showcase for squiggly electric guitar leads backed by Latinesque drumming. And what could follow that, of course, but another homespun slice of rustic country-rock, "Cherokee Queen"? It is hard to imagine exactly how Capitol planned to market such an all-over-the-place effort, yet the album did peek into the charts, although it only reached #192.
Frustrated by their lack of recognition, Mad River broke up by the end of the 1960s, most likely victims of the daring recklessness of their musical experimentation. Yet this disc, combining both of their Capitol albums, testifies to their place among the most durable and intriguing San Francisco bands of their era.

1 Merciful Monks (3:39)
2 High All The Time (4:07)
3 Amphetamine Gazelle (2:56)
4 Eastern Light (7:58)
5 Wind Chimes (7:15)
6 War Goes On (12:25)
7 Hush, Julian (1:11)
Paradise Bar & Grill
8 Harfy Magnum (2:41)
9 Paradise Bar and Grill (3:39)
10 Love's Not the Way to Treat a Friend (2:02)
11 Leave Me/Stay (7:11)
12 Copper Plates (2:32)
13 Equinox (1:51)
14 They Brought Sadness (4:53)
15 Revolution's In My Pockets (6:07)
16 Academy Cemetery (3:12)
17 Cherokee Queen (4:08)