The Charlatans are on the list of my top three favorite San Francisco bands from the 1960s. While some critics will argue that the group was more important historically than musically, I still think the sum is greater than the parts. The Charlatans' mixture of rock, folk, blues, country, cannabis, and LSD essentially created West Coast psych and Haight-Ashbury as we understand it today. Authoharpist George Hunter's vision and guitarist Mike Wilhelm's virtuosity still don't receive enough accolades.
When I first started really getting into psych, I had to make do with crappy sounding bootleg recordings of the Charlatans. By the mid-1990s, I was overjoyed when their unfairly dismissed Philips LP from 1969 was legitimately reissued and Big Beat Records released the thoroughly excellent The Amazing Charlatans CD. So imagine my excitement when I heard about this collection of live tracks that came out about six years ago. Unfortunately, it's mostly a bum trip. "I Saw Her," "I Always Wanted A Girl Like You," and "When I Go Sailing By" are among the few songs in the band's repertory that never really did much for me, and these live versions don't change my opinion. "Folsom Prison Blues" is a competent version of the Johnny Cash classic. "Lulu's Back In Town" is an unremarkable instrumental that clocks in at barely more than a minute. "Interview" is an audio clip featuring, if I remember correctly, George Hunter from the documentary The Life and Times of the Red Dog Saloon, which is definitely worth a rental or download. "Wabash Cannonball" is a fraudulent track that the album "producers" would have you believe was recorded at the aforementioned landmark watering hole in Virginia City, Nevada during the legendary summer of 1965. While the onstage banter before and after the music seems legitimate (and provides evidence of the technical problems that seemed to plague the Charlatans at many of their live performances), the song itself is obviously cut from the Philips LP and pasted into the audio file. Even though I love that version of "Wabash Cannonball" - where Mike Wilhelm weaves together the disparate threads of psych, the Carter Family, and Chuck Berry - even bootleggers shouldn't try to pass off a studio track as a live recording. Caveat emptor.
So what are we left with? Three live versions of the Charlatans' signature tune, "Alabama Bound." Actually, it's only two versions since tracks 2 and 10 are identical, although the latter seems to be a higher fidelity recording, relatively speaking. Track 2/10 to my ears sounds the same as the live version that appeared on the Alabama Bound LP on the notorious Eva label from France. According to the less-than-reliable liner notes, this recording dates from a Family Dog event on June 13, 1969. It is performed by the third lineup of the group, and is pretty much the same arrangement as it appears on the Philips LP. This rendition gets pretty far out there and contains a great part where you can hear Richard Olsen playing his effects-laden woodwind instrument and foot-pedal bass simultaneously. Track 3, an earlier version apparently from 1967, features the Charlatans' original lineup and is very similar to the Golden State Recorders version featured on The Amazing Charlatans. Yeah, it's a bit ragged and Wilhelm's amp sounds like it's bleeding feedback, but it still takes me to the promised land every time I listen to it in the right state of mind.
So the sound overall is not great, and there are really only two exceptional tracks here. But if you're a Charlatans completist like me, you'll still want this. To make up for the other somewhat lame tracks, I've also included a PDF version of Jud Cost's exhaustive "The Saga of the Amazing Charlatans" article from the second issue of Cream Puff War in the file for your perusal. It's a fascinating piece on the band, the Red Dog, and early Haight-Ashbury. Definitely worth a read for the historically-minded head.
Be sure to check out the superb documentary The Life & Times of the Red Dog Saloon, produced and directed by Mary Works.
1. I Saw Her
2. Alabama Bound
3. Alabama Bound
4. Folsom Prison Blues
5. Lulu's Back In Town
6. I Always Wanted a Girl Like You
8. Wabash Cannonball
9. When I Go Sailing By
10. Alabama Bound