Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade's' "Sunday Morning Revival"

In the early '70s, the James Gang -- a Cleveland-based power trio fronted by guitarist-singer Joe Walsh -- were, with Mountain, the state of the art in American hard rock. But back when we were trying to cop licks off of Yer Album and Rides Again, we terrible tyros who teethed on Cream, the Jeff Beck Group, and Jimi Hendrix would never have guessed that James Gang was actually bearded, bespectacled drummer Jim Fox's band. Or that they'd made their initial impact as a Yardbirds-obsessed five-piece, built around the fiery guitar stylings of Glenn Schwartz, a slightly older (born in the same year as John Lennon) Army vet who'd absorbed the innovations of Clapton, Beck, and Hendrix while stationed in Europe. James Gang musos were also regulars on the fertile jamming scene that existed in Cleveland's bohemian enclave, University Circle. As a result of this interchange, Schwartz briefly occupied the lead guitar chair in Clevo's answer to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band -- the Mr. Stress Blues Band -- while still playing with James Gang.

In the spring of 1967, Fox was approached by a patron to record a blues album. One Sunday morning in May, following a long night of gigging (shades of A Session with the Remains), Schwartz and Fox entered a studio in downtown Cleveland along with James Gang bassist Tom Kriss, his guitarist brother Rich Kriss, singer-harpman Bill "Mr. Stress" Miller and his band's pianist Mike Sands to record a selection of tunes that remained tantalizingly unreleased for years. Estimable indie Smog Veil found the tapes and is releasing them as the latest entry in their CLE-focused "Platters du Cuyahoga" series (which also includes a worthy Mr. Stress document,  Live at the Brick Cottage 1972-1973). Painstakingly researched, in-depth liner notes from Boston-based muso-scribe Nick Blakey tell the story. (Somebody -- Ugly Things? Case Western Reserve University Press? -- puh-leeze give this guy a contract to write a book about the Cleveland underground!)

The sound here is young hotshots using blues forms as their vehicle to mature from Brit Invasion copyism to a nascent midwest rock aesthetic. Miller and Sands are the real bluesmen here, but the Fox-Kriss rhythm section explodes with a crackling energy no pocket can contain. The James Gang recruited Schwartz because they wanted an axe-slinger who could sustain a note like Jeff Beck, and his scorching tone here relies on stinging treble and throaty distortion. Under this treatment, "Baby Please Don't Go" throbs with the same rhythmic insistence that the Nashville Teens gave "Tobacco Road," while the version of "Dust My Broom" shows the influence of the Yardbirds' Beck-era Elmore James homage, "Nazz Are Blue."

A scant six months after the session, Schwartz decamped for the West Coast, leaving his former student Walsh to fill the slot he'd vacated in James Gang. He recorded three albums with Pacific Gas & Electric (of "Are You Ready" fame) before returning to Ohio and languishing for a decade in a religious cult (although he never stopped playing). Since '79, he's gigged with his brother, bassist Gene, in the Schwartz Brothers Band. In February of this year, Schwartz and Walsh cut a record in Nashville with Black Key Dan Auerbach's side band, the Arcs, then appeared with the band at this year's Coachella festival. The release of Sunday Morning Revival closes the circle, allowing non-Ohioans to finally experience what '60s Cleveland scene vets have known for years. Further "Platters du Cuyahoga" releases by Pere Ubu founding member Allen Ravenstine and electronic improv experimentalists Hy Maya are scheduled to follow.


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