caught in an unplugged jag...

The more I think about this "unplugged" thing, the more I am taken back to a few artists I saw in the day who were neither electric nor acoustic, never only rock and roll but like CSN&Y put it: we have to do both because we love to play "wooden" music, too. Four late 60s performers grabbed me with this genre bending groove - Pentangle, Tim Buckley, Joni Mitchell and Donovan (when backed by either Jimmy Page or the Jeff Beck Group) - and I've been playing with it  in my own way for 48 years,too.

Pentangle brought together two of my favorite guitar players: Bert Jansch and John Renbourn along with the first upright bass player that really knocked me out:  Danny Thompson. They have been called an "English folk jazz" group and that is probably as good as labels get - but they were so much more.  They took their British background very seriously, whether that involved interpreting old folk songs with a jazz/rock sensibility or naming the band after Sir Gawain's five pointed battle shield emblem (it also was meant to evoke the unity and diversity of each of the artists, too.) This song, Sally Go Round the Roses, has been one of my favorites in every one of its incarnations: the Jaynettes did it as an "underwater" 60s lament, Grace Slick and the Great Society covered it in the early San Francisco psychedelic days and then Pentangle put out their cover on Basket of Light. The whole thing works for me from the early guitar/bass interplay to the female/male call and response vocals that are woven into the fabric of the instrumentation.
Tim Buckley (who was clearly influenced by Fred Neil's mining of this same vein in the early 60s) mixes it up best for me on his Happy/Sad LP from 1968.  No longer constrained by any one particular sound, Buckley blends acoustic jazz instruments with Lee Underwood's electric guitar riffs and his own folk/pop guitar playing. As I think about it, clearly Bob Dylan's departure from the purist folk camp was inspirational here (duh!) but so was the influence of Richard and Mimi Farina who put his satirical/political lyrics alongside her guitar playing and his mountain dulcimer (and a few top notch electric studio musicians including Bruce Langhorne) to create a grittier sounding American take on Pentangle. Diversion #1 - Richard and Mimi had an impact upon another British folk/rock band, Fairport Convention, who were also innovative genre benders in this style. Diversion #2 - Buckley's Happy/Sad was produced by Zal Yavlonsky who started off playing lead guitar for the Lovin' Spoonful who, in their own way, mixed acoustic/electric sounds in a more pop style. I cherish everything about this Buckley album but especially embrace "Buzzin; Fly" and my all time favorite, "Stange Feelin" (that falls into the category of songs inspired by Miles Davis masterpiece "All Blues.")
My introduction to Joni Mitchell was as the intense Canadian folkie with poetry every bit as nuanced and penetrating as Dylan's. Her first two albums sent me into folkie heaven as I tried on the intense folk-inspired persona her music felt like to me for a few weeks in high school. Her next albums - Ladies of the Canyon followed by Blue, For the Roses, and Court and Spark - kicked up the stakes for unplugged tunes as she moved from straight ahead folk sounds to this electric/acoustic/ jazz/rock/ folk experience that was gaining traction in my soul. The first notion that she would continue to mature in this groove was her take on "Woodstock."  As covered by CSN&Y, it became a rock anthem celebrating the pop festival, but Mitchell's version was a bluesy lament more aware of our fall from grace than our success in creating a "Woodstock nation." And as she collaborated more intentionally with jazz artists - from Tom Scott to Jaco Pastorius - all the lines between electric and acoustic were destroyed. I continue to return to For the Roses every few months and particularly appreciate what she does with "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire." It sounds like an anthem for this subject, yes?
The last late 60s artists who successfully explored the electric/acoustic divide was Donovan. Yeah, I know he could be too precious sometimes - and he really needed the presence of editor and producer Mickey Most who could take his excess and cut it down to the essence. But when this one time Welsh Dylan wannabe moved into the flower power era - and was backed up by both John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page in the studio (later of Led Zeppelin fame) he was on fire. He did some fine genre bending with the Jeff Beck Group, too - check out "Barabajagal" - but the hands down winner of this mixed up realm for me continues to be "Hurdy Gurdy Man." It ain't jazz and it ain't folk, but when it jumped out of the car speakers in 1968 and grabbed me by the  throat, I knew it was a killer. If you listen, wait for it first at 25 seconds into the song and then throughout the chorus. And then savor what happens at the instrumental break @ 2:02! It still rips me up and I have to play this thing over and over again because it just gets better and better (something that drives my lover NUTS but that's for a different post!) 


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