By Richie Unterberger
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.
their lack of
recognition, Mad River broke up by the end of the 1960s, most likely
of the daring recklessness of their musical experimentation. Yet this
combining both of their Capitol albums, testifies to their place among
the most durable and intriguing San Francisco bands of their era.
-- Richie Unterberger
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