For those of us growing up in the late 60s in California, one of the staples of the era was the Elvin Bishop Group. Sometimes it all comes together, a confluence of events, people and time. I think this LP was it for Bishop. Released in 1970 (Fillmore Z 30239), it was the end of flower power, although no one knew it at the time. Janis Joplin would die that year, Jim Morrison of the Doors would be dead in 1971. The Vietnam War was still raging, and in 1973 I was worried about whether I would be drafted or not.
Good friend Robert Hanashiro** was a big fan, too, and introduced me to their songs. This LP is a great example of the sound Bishop created after coming to San Francisco from Chicago (He had been a founding member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band).
So this LP is that confluence. Bishop’s blues roots, combined with his new situation in San Francisco and the fortune to be a part of promoter Bill Graham’s cadre of artists. Like most of his later work, there are some fun songs, but it was balanced with a deeper, darker tone that must have come from his blues background and exposure to San Francisco. Later in his career he would turn even more towards good time rock.
I don’t know if this LP always fits neatly into the sound of San Francisco back then. I can’t think of another similar band that compares. Party Till The Cows Come Home is a bit of anthem for fans of Bishop. Lyrically, the title sounds like it should have come from Nashville. Instead it’s a party timer that isn’t country, but solidly the kind of rock that he would become best known for. Good fun, with a heavier beat and a Hammond B3 adding a sound that was never associated with the Ol’ Opry House.
Party is followed by a somewhat Santana-influenced instrumental, Hogbottom (Chepito Areas and Mike Cababello, both of Santana, are the percussionists on this tune). The title even sounds like Bishop, but this time the sound is more in line with the bands he was surrounded by at the time. A bit of swamp rock mixed up with late 60s guitar stylings; add a healthy dose of latino percussion, that’s Hogbottom. Not a trace of Chicago blues here.
Side two closes as a showcase for Jo Baker’s vocals on the dark, soulful blues, As The Years Go Passing By. Baker had one hell of a voice. A bit of a gospelish belter, with a lotta soul. Chris Cobb, owner of San Francisco’s Real Guitars shop, worked with Baker from 1983-1990. “The reason Jo left the band was that she and Elvin were unable to make their relationship work and work together in his band too,” Cobb said in a 2013 email. “They were boyfriend and girlfriend for a long time but both were very volatile, talented people and add all the alcohol and drugs going around then to the mix and there you go. In my long friendship / working relationship with Jo, she never said a bad word about Elvin and I suspect he was the love of her life. She went on to play in a popular Bay Area Band called Stoneground for many years after the EBB.”
Baker died in November 1996 after a few years of illness. A real tragedy that she died so young.
Elvin’s solo is dynamically constrained on As The Years. It’s the one thing missing from the LP; his let-it-loose while playing live kind of sound. The recording quality of this LP is compressed and lacking the dynamics you’d love to hear from Bishop’s live band. The group just isn’t in your living room the way you’d like. I wonder if the recording engineer asked them to tone it down, or perhaps in the mastering process he munched down the dynamics. Bishop’s live set on Fillmore: The Last Days (see Recommendations below) is just the opposite; it’s full of life and jumps outta the speakers.
Don’t Fight It (Feel It), the opening song, is another good timer that fits neatly into the Bishop style. That B3 is there again. The guitar solo is short, but it’s classic Bishop, with sliding blues notes that are all Chicago, I wish this solo went longer. Edgy vocals by Stephen Miller (he is also the B3 guy), aided by Jo Baker. I can see the audience at Graham’s Fillmore West dancing all over this one, although this studio version sounds a little scripted in advance. I wish this was a live LP, with Wally Heider doing the remote.
Pointer Sisters Anita, June and Patricia do what they do best, harmonize the lead vocals on I Just Can’t Go On. This sounds like Bishop again, it’s bluesy, New Orleans and yet San Francisco of the late 60s, too. Bishop double tracks his short guitar solo (again!).
This LP is a bit of a conundrum for me. I loved hearing Bishop live, performing songs from this LP. It’s just missing a few elements that would keep it fresh. But when I think back to my teen years, my favorite live band was his. You just couldn’t help but rock with the guy.
P.S. Above are my photos of Bishop and Baker, from a 1971 set in Fresno, CA at Selland Arena (see poster at left). Shot on venerable Kodak Tri-X, pushed to at least ASA 1600, and processed in Acufine. The Bishop photo is blown up beyond the max, hence the extreme grain. The poster at left is from that same show, by Randy Tuten, a terrific poster artist whose work spans several decades.
**When Robert was throwing dances for local events in the early 70s, he named his organization “Party Till The Cows Come Home, Inc” as witnessed by this ticket (at right) to the dance, featuring a Los Angeles soul band, East Wind.
Got one minute and 50 seconds? Check out a four song medley, direct from this LP!
Fillmore: The Last Days. This is a live, three LP set, from the last week of Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, before it closed in 1971. A large number of San Francisco bands are here. I’d vote it the best live rock LP ever (yes, I’ve heard the Who: Live at Leeds) and will blog about in the future. Bishop plays a great version of So Fine and an even better, if hurried Party Till The Cows Come Home. He also jams on two tunes with Taj Mahal and Boz Scaggs. If you’re aware of Graham’s online archive, Wolfgang’s Vault, some of the songs from this set are available for download. But be forewarned, the Vault did very little mastering and most of the final week of the Fillmore West downloads sound flat and utterly lifeless. The best sounding versions from this week are on these three vinyl records. This is the Bishop I recall hearing as a kid, his guitar wailing and Jo Baker singing her butt off.
Rock My Soul: CBS KE 31563. More fun stuff, better recorded, with Jo Baker on vocals.
1965-1985 San Francisco Rock: The Illustrated History of San Francisco Rock Music. Ok, this isn’t music, it’s Jack McDonough’s book about the bands, promoters, poster artists and times that produced the music of the City. Very well illustrated, with excellent photos that are very nicely printed. I found it illuminating.