Moby Grape: Live
Major props to Sundazed for getting Sony/BMG to crack the vaults to one of the best, and least appreciated, bands in their estimable catalog. Moby Grape never had the hits of Jefferson Airplane, the mass appeal of the Dead, or the underground cred of Buffalo Springfield, but in the annals of West Coast rock, their place is secure. While the band’s woeful story is oft-repeated in the same way – bad luck in record biz, members freaking out and quitting – Live shows an outfit that succeeded briliantly (musically, at least) despite internal struggles.
To think that Skip Spence’s LSD-induced breakdown, which led to his departure and the recording of Oar, hurt the band is a myth that Live puts to rest. The set from Rotterdam, Netherlands, in ‘69, shows a group hardly affected by his leaving. Superb guitar work and close harmonies remain intact as they pay tribute to their lost bandmate with an extended version of his classic “Omaha,” as well as rocking solid takes of the material that would cement their rep in the annals of country-rock, like “Truck Driving Man” and “I Am Not Willing” (later covered by Wilco). The opening tracks, from San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom, circa ’67, show a fledgling band already in fine form, tunes and arrangements fully realized. Their set from Monterey Pop is an audience-destroying tour de force; a blazing, three-guitar gumbo of country, rock, blue-eyed soul and psych that contrasted heavily with the Springfield at the time, who struggled through their death throes on the same stage.
Live legitimizes a long-time fan-fave bootleg (Dark Magic) and Sundazed has followed the boot’s sequencing, wisely ending with the unreleased Spence composition “Dark Magic,” probably only played that once, at the Avalon in ‘66. As a song, it’s nothing more than a wispy, trippy incantation. As a group effort, the 17-minute jam anchors Moby Grape firmly in the San Francisco sound as first-tier innovators: consummate musicians who may have chosen their name more wisely than it suggests. Despite consistent major label backing, they only got their full due from somewhere below the surface of the mainstream.