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Album Review: In search of Moby Grape

Rock and roll's great white whale

Published: Friday, January 26, 2007

Updated: Sunday, September 6, 2009 10:09

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Moby Grape 1967.jpg

Courtesy Photo

During the 1960's, San Francisco was a cultural Mesopotamia that saw one of the greatest artistic explosions in American history. History remembers names that came out of the Bay Area like The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Quicksilver Messenger Service, but the fact of the matter is that none of these legendary groups could put together as strong of an album in studio as the now forgotten Moby Grape. Although the group was struck with possibly the worst luck in the history of rock and roll, their self-titled debut album from June 1967 is a stunning artifact of rock history. It's a perfect blend of folk, country, blues, and psychedelic music, and one of the greatest LPs of all time.

Moby Grape was comprised of Skip Spence, Peter Lewis, and Jerry Miller on guitar, Bob Mosley on bass, and Don Stevenson on drums. All five members of the group sang. Mosley probably has the most prominent lead voice of the five. although, their real strength lay in their ability to mix, blend, and switch up their voices, and all members of the group wrote songs. The group was put together by former Jefferson Airplane manager Matthew Katz around Spence, who was the Airplane's drummer on their first album (Katz would also prove to be one of the Grape's many setbacks through time). The band quickly pulled together and took shape, and by the end of 1966, Moby Grape had risen to become one of the most prominent bands in the San Francisco scene. In fact, it has been said that Stephen Stills ,a friend of the band, had come up to Lewis and told him that his group, Buffalo Springfield, had just recorded a song he had written and then realized he had been influenced by two Lewis songs that Moby Grape performed -- "Murder in My Heart for the Judge" and "Stop." That song turned out to be the seminal "For What It's Worth."

Probably the most unique thing about Moby Grape was their guitar playing. No rock and roll group has been able to use a guitar trio as effectively as Moby Grape did on Moby Grape. Spence played a distinctive rhythm guitar that really sticks out throughout the album. Lewis, meanwhile, was a very good guitar player overall and was excellent at finger picking, as is evident in several songs. And then there is Miller. It's unfortunate for Miller that he was in a group that had such a brief and forgotten tenure, because he could slash and burn with the best of them. His lead guitar is nothing short of remarkable throughout the album, and he shows why Rolling Stone magazine picked him as one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all-time on this album alone.

The way they crafted their parts and played together on Moby Grape is like nothing else I've ever heard in my life. The guitars are like a collage of sound that makes perfect sense. Buffalo Springfield (in many ways Moby Grape's Los Angeles counterparts) were great at having Stephen Stills and Neil Young play against and compliment each other's playing while Richie Furay held down the rhythm, but their overall scheme wasn't nearly as complex as Spence, Lewis, and Miller. The three of them play with their own unique quality that allows each player to stand out on their own. However, when their parts are locked and layered together as a whole unit, it is a thing of beauty; almost like a Monet painting.

The album starts off burning with the rolling acid blues of "Hey Grandma." Moby Grape have often times been described as "The Beatles on speed," but really, they sound more like The Yardbirds on speed (among other things). Miller's best guitar playing might be found on this song, or at least his most prominent, as he just completely tears through the track -- he's sounding so good. The end of the song provides some very Beach Boys like "la-la-la" harmonies that are on par with the aforementioned masters of said technique. And who says that '60's groups are outdated and can't relate to today's youth? With a line like "Robitussin make me feel so fine," Moby Grape shows today's youth that getting high off over-the-counter medications is nothing new...groovy.

"Mr. Blues" comes next, with an incredibly inspired singing performance from Bob Mosley. Mosley has one of the most authentic blue-eyed soul voices I've ever listened to; it is incredibly powerful and isn't forced at all. The group backs Mosley with simply breathtaking harmonies on "Mr. Blues"; especially at the end of the end of the song. "Fall on You" is almost like a combination of the previous two songs. It is a rocker that follows a basic blues structure, much like "Hey Grandma," although it is relatively restrained and more focused in comparison. Miller's solo is another barn-burner, although he plays much more within the group during the verses. Mixed in are the incredibly soulful harmonies that prevailed over "Mr. Blues." This is just straight ahead, balls-to-the-wall rock and roll song, maybe the most cohesive and straightforward song on the album.

Next comes the delicate "8:05," one of the best ballads to come out of the San Francisco scene, along with Jefferson Airplane's "Today" and The Grateful Dead's "Uncle John's Band." This song is very much a country-inspired effort. Lewis showcases his finger picking on this song and proves to be a master of the trade, while Miller puts a twist on it with some jazzy fills. With all due respect to The Beach Boys and The Mamas and the Papas, the vocal harmonies on this song are better than any I've ever heard; the blend seems to just float at times, and get pretty tricky in some parts. This song laid the groundwork for the intricately constructed harmonies that Crosby, Stills, and Nash perfected and some other groups lamentably tried to imitate in the late '60's and on into the '70's.

"Come in the Morning" is much like "Mr. Blues," which isn't too shocking considering they are the two songs Bob Mosley wrote on the album. Mosley once again shows off his soulful singing while the group provides gospel-like harmonies.

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