Among the original pantheon of Barbary Coast groups sharing the stage and amoebic lights at Family Dog's Avalon Ballroom and Bill Graham's Fillmore Auditorium during rock's epochal shift from pop commercialism to a more eclectic counterculture boogie, Quicksilver Messenger Service was, perhaps, San Francisco's archetypical representative. Already an incredibly versatile unit as the San Francisco sound dawned on the rest of the world, Quicksilver was adeptly wandering the snaked path of the transcendental jam with all the finesse of the Dead; resurrecting and transforming traditional folk and blues with the skill of the Airplane; and displaying all of the insane power of Big Brother.
It's not as if the band was without a style of it's own. After all, it wasn't the Beck/Page combination that earned the cult "guitar slinger" moniker for London's Yardbirds, but Duncan and Cippolina who claimed it in the City By The Bay. Quicksilver was a guitar band on a new level, and the band was capable of playing within any genre that didn't smell like "pop" music. Pride Of Man, Codine, and Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You were as innovative as contemporary folk ever got - integrating each tune's original flavor with the band's raw vocal and ramped-up guitar harmonies. In tackling the blues, Quicksilver was looser but tougher than either the Butterfield Band or The Blues Project; Backdoor Man being a particularly rough ride that compares to the Door's version of the same song in the way that a hell-bound freight might compare to a Dodge Dart. Who Do You Love and Mona were, of course, the classic Bo Diddley 50's rockers that the band dragged into the future on the wake of an unprecedented sound, and Gold & Silver ( a la Dave Brubeck's Take Five ) may very well be our first taste of Jazz/Rock Fusion - harmonically and rhythmically intelligent, and offering up a prophecy of one path that the guitar was about to travel. During an era when the City was acknowledged as rock's new mecca, Quicksilver Messenger Service enjoyed an unsurpassed reputation among San Francisco's renowned lineup of groups.
A quick sketch of the band's early history finds John Cipollina traveling to the Nevada badlands to offer his Jeff Beck - Dick Dale guitar style for hire to the temporarily expatriate Charlatans - indisputably San Francisco's prototype psychobohemian electric cowboy outfit. The audition, however, failed to secure his membership. David Freiberg, an acoustic twelve-string adept and folksinger with a sense of radical social commentary found himself, around the same time, getting bounced from his tour of Mexico for inciting the police, if not the general populace, to take action. Pairing up in search of a band, the duo approached rising folksinger Dino Valenti (aka Chet Powers - "Get Together"). While a tentative deal was struck to join forces, Dino missed the audition due to an eleventh hour appointment with the state over an issue of Marijuana.
All the same, Fortune had not altogether abandoned this hapless partnership. The Reno - Las Vegas - Lake Tahoe lounge scene was shifting from R&B to a new sound in the wake of the British Rock invasion and a young Gary Duncan found it necessary to end his tenure there as a Bassist because of an Eleven month debt to the State of California for a similar offense as Mr. Valenti. After his release, a short stint with The Brogues, pounding out tunes more akin to The Animals than to Booker T, found him teamed with journeyman drummer Greg Elmore. With the disbanding of The Brogues, this pair of young R&B veterans packed up and headed for The City, where Fortune lay in wait in neighborhoods like North Beach and the Haight-Ashbury. By 1965 she had selected a scant twenty characters to deliver a radical push on the international rock scene, parceling these twenty out among the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & The Holding Company, and Quicksilver Messenger Service.
The "classic" four-man lineup of Freiberg, Elmore, Duncan and Cipollina expanded over time to include Nicky Hopkins and finally Valenti. It was this version of Quicksilver that produced the band's most commercially succesful recordings, Fresh Air and What About Me; but it was also a lineup that some long-standing fans felt compromised the band's musical integrity - a common complaint as any band evolves. Eventually Freiberg would go on to join an old partner, Paul Kantner, in the formation of the Jefferson Starship, and Cipollina would leave to front a number of local bands beginning with Copperhead and culminating with the Dinosaurs. A final reunion album, "Solid Silver", brought everybody back together, and it was this "final" Quicksilver recording that also prophesized the band's future. One only need listen to Gypsy Lights to know who the Electric Muse was pointing to.
After following Quicksilver's music for 30 years now, from live gigs in the halls and parks, and throughout their recording - both bootlegged and authorized, I suddenly find myself in possession of "Shapeshifter" the best recording the band ever made. It is far and away the most consistent, most esoteric and most vital recording in the band's history; and it also stands as one of the most innovative contemporary recordings by any artist of the era.
Gary Duncan gave us precious few glimpses of himself as a frontman during Quicksilver's heydey. Between his earliest epic instrumental tracks ( Gold and Silver, Calvary, The Fool ) and those final recordings that spotlighted an artist who occasionally wrote, sang and offered up a "true" guitar solo ( Doin Time In The U.S.A. and Gypsy Lights ), we hear a musician who takes on the unpresupposing task of grinding out the underlying rhythms and crisp harmonies that were the foundation of Quicksilver's sound. This is not to suggest that Gary was the second lead guitarist in this most formidable of guitar outfits. He was the ever-present acetylene-like burn that served as tight counterpoint to Cipollina's rolling wah-wah. Their guitar-slinger mythos grew out of the fact that both musicians drove their half of the dual attack on an equal basis. But no band lives on guitar solos alone, and it was Duncan who did double duty unleashing the band's solid drive and creating it's distinct harmonies.
Aside from his guitar work, it's Duncan's long-standing vocal contribution that many Quicksilver afficianados will find the most familiar components of the band's'sound. Apart from Mona and Who Do You Love? ( Happy Trails ) only bootleg recordings feature his solo vocals ( Walkin Blues, Smokestack lightnin' and Backdoor Man ) up until the last albums. Nonetheless, there are very few recordings that were laid down without his distinct vocal signature. Here again, as his guitar work, he ain't necessarily fronting the band - but that sure DO sound like him.
All this leads up to "Shapeshifter", the 28 cut recording at hand, and Duncan's take on Quicksilver three decades after it's inception. It's also his take on music that both influenced the band and followed in it's wake. From cool beat to post-modern Jazz, street-wise Rhythm and Blues, contemporary Latin grooves, excellent pop hooks and his own tradition of Rock and Roll, Duncan delivers up an amazing alchemy of sounds that transcend Quicksilver while offering a consistent reminder of it's style and flavor. Those who still pine for a Happy Trails remake can take succor in an excellent live rendition of Hootchie Cootchie Man, but beyond that, Gary has created a surreal "back to the future" musical time-line that cares little for era loyalty. What he can't escape from, and doesn't attempt to, is the fact that anything he does is going to sound like Quicksilver at one stage of it's history or another, because, by and large, the band always sounded like him.
Melodic, erotic, funny, often tough and sympathetic in turns, "Shapeshifter" takes an evening stroll downtown, introducing the listeners to whores and lovers, saints, rebels ,small furry animals and an odd assortment of street philosophers and gangsters. Duncan's portrayals are vivid and uncensored - even when it comes to himself.
To get a sense of the flavor that Duncan has created on this recording consider the players; Original Quicksilver partner David Freiberg, vocal mainstay of the band before the Valenti era and the creative force behind the Shady Grove album, returns to lend a hand. Michael Lewis, who electrified the band's keyboards after Nicky Hopkins' departure, works a fine series of acoustic and electrical accompaniments throughout. Also on board is some major West Coast talent that gives "Shapeshifter" it's wonderfully familiar appeal. Greg Errico of "Sly and the Family Stone" handles the drums while Tony Menjovar of "Malo" does percussion duty. Joined by Bobby Vega of "Zero" on bass, the trio keeps things moving right on time through Duncan's unique brand of Rock, Jazz and R&B along with harpist extraordinaire Lee Oskar from "War" and vocalist Dave Somerville from the legendary "Diamonds". A true highlight of the project is Norbert Stachel on Sax (and apparently any sax will do) whose ability to make his axe hum, growl and cry showcases what a true craftsman is capable of. For his part, Duncan lives up to his "guitar rep" in fine style. There's no end to hints of classic Quicksilver, and equally there is no end to new guitar paths that the classic Quicksilver lineup could never have achieved. But the most important innovation here is that Duncan's Quicksilver is much more than a guitar band - the whole ensemble rocks, bops, grooves and moves as a tight multi-dimensional unit.
"Shapeshifter" is a complex recording. Gary is something of a Zen Romantic whose Koan appears to be the dusk to dawn neon Boulevard; a Dharma Bum wiseguy whose realism is tempered with empathetic insight and wit, because we ain't here to take any of this too seriously. His tales are spun from the perspective of someone who long ago outgrew the Kid Guitar Hero in "Baghdad By The Bay," but never forgot Chet Baker's last cool notes at the beginning of his own personal soundtrack. He has distilled more than half a century of hip American music into a Rhythm Gumbo that offers up a familiar taste to anyone who has ever enjoyed Getz, Freddy King, Cochran, Beck, Jr. Walker or Donald Fagen.
This isn't your pasteurized classic-vintage- super-mix FM syndicated airplay orchestrated out of some mid-western high-rise. In fact, this is one of those recordings that might convince you to "Kill Your Radio." It's that good.
Listening to "Shapeshifter" and looking back, I was reminded of a psuedso-historical reference to Quicksilver's affiliation with Kesey and the Dead in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool Aid Test. Wolfe made it clear that there was a difference between being on the bus and not being on the bus - the Leary/Ginsberg/Kesey tantricmantricman San Francisco psychedelic mandalic deal f alling out of the sky in a hip version of the Rapture. No doubt, from Duncan's perspective, the whole issue was meaningless. Psychedelic? Why not? Wolfe's ostensibly pivotal, and very hyped point of embarkation was just another nominal stop along the way for Duncan. If you don't understand that you are already on the bus (that in fact you are the bus), then you can't ever get off. It's the whole Jan Werner vs Ralph Gleason Paradox if you know what I mean.
We're all Shapeshifters. It doesn't take a Zen adept or quantum physicist to point out that the Moment never moves - that it is only our wandering attention and wayward focus that defines eras and styles. And since this isn't the place to ponder either Hui-neng or Heisenberg, we can simply dig the fact that Duncan has illustrated the same principle by way of his music. He has frozen a thirty year moment, and half a century of hip American music into a mix that tastes a lot like it always tasted. This here next one's rock and roll. Same as it ever was.
As Duncan would say: "The Truth Does Not Require Your Belief In It In Order To Function".
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