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Quicksilver Messenger Service and Nicky Hopkins

Albums reviewed on this page: Quicksilver Messenger Service, Happy Trails, Shady Grove, Just for Love, What About Me,
Tin Man Was a Dreamer, No More Changes.

More consistent than the Airplane and more varying than the Dead, but with the same instrumental prowess, Quicksilver Messenger Service were a first tier Frisco band that has been lost in the shuffle.  In America the blame is easy to fix - the group had only one single that approached being a hit, "Fresh Air", and it only cracked the Top 50.  Classic rock programmers tend to ignore the group's string of four albums in the Top 30, from Happy Trails to What About Me.  As for the band itself, they say you can never go back, but that is exactly what Dino Valenti did.  During the group's really early days he got busted for drugs and wound up in prison.  Music and drugs seem to be the common things in his life, as he previously had sold song rights to pay for legal defense.  With Valenti out of the way, Quicksilver focused on the intertwined guitars of Gary Duncan and John Cippolina, with David Freiberg on bass and Greg Elmore on drums.  The band focused on acid-rock and folk, with an interesting taste in instrumental passages.  Cippolina's guitar has a distinct ringing tone which gives it a unique sound.  Of course, it couldn't last, as Duncan soon left to join a freed Valenti in some project that proved to be a non-starter.  In what has to be the most inspired move around, the band coaxed British session pianist vet Nicky Hopkins into the fold, and the move paid dividends immediately on Shady Grove.  But then Valenti and Duncan both returned and everyone played together for a while, with Valenti taking charge and scoring the aforementioned almost hit "Fresh Air".  But listening to Just for Love and What About Me it is pretty obvious that Valenti really crowded the group, and it is no surprise that Cippolina, Freiberg and Hopkins all left after one more album.  After one album with scrubs the band called it quits.  Cippolina formed a group named Copperhead, which released one album, while Freiberg went over to Jefferson Airplane. Hopkins went back into session work, and had an unsuccessful solo career.   God knows what Dino Valenti did.  Probably more drugs.

In the American game of baseball there is currently the notion circulating of a level of playing referred to as "replacement level."  The idea is that those people who perform at or under this level can easily be replaced by someone who is at "replacement level" who probably costs a lot less.  This is somewhat analogous to the position of sessionmen in rock music.  If a member of your band is not playing up to "replacement level" (or in the case of John's Children, the entire band) simply have session people take their place on the recording.  This oversimplifies things, but there were a good number of people who were good enough (i.e., "replacement level") to make their living by filling an often anonymous role.  The best of them, people like the Keys-Horn-Price horn section, Jimmy Page and Nicky Hopkins, were often far above "replacement level" and instead of simply filling a role they augmented recordings musically (as opposed to simply sonically).  Essentially, the best session guys were more than just spare parts, and Nicky Hopkins was the premiere session keyboardist in the late 60s and 70s.  His style is mainly R&B/rock, but he could handle all sorts of roles - from a Kinks' harpsichord session to a loopy Giles, Giles and Fripp session to a pounding Stones one.  He was in the Jeff Beck Group, he was in Quicksilver Messenger Service, and he turned down a chance to join the Rolling Stones.  His own small output is terribly uneven, but Tin Man Was a Dreamer is worth checking out - along the lines of the whole post-Delaney & Bonnie countrified rock sound.

Personnel: John Cipollina (guitar), Gary Duncan (guitar), David Freiberg (bass, vocals), Greg Elmore (drums), Dino Valenti (guitar, vocals).  Valenti imprisoned before the band recorded..  Duncan left after Happy Trails, replaced by Nicky Hopkins (piano). Duncan then returned with Valenti in 1970.  Cipollina, Freiberg and Hopkins quit mid-1971.  Band ended 1973.

Nicky Hopkins: Revolutionary Piano (1966)
I don't think I'll be seeing this.  Ever. EZ listening material, not revolutionary.

QMSQuicksilver Messenger Service (1968), ****
Quicksilver had been around the San Francisco scene for a few years before recording their eponymous debut.  The straightforward production is rather surprising given when it was recorded, the band perhaps having learned a lesson from some other local groups.  Instead of hazardous psychedelia, QMS is a guitar-led acid-folk album that stays focused while it chugs along (the imprisoned Valenti's sole contribution "Dino's Song" is a good example).  As for musical influences, QMS includes everything up to the kitchen sink - folk, jazz, Spanish classical, country, blues all thrown together, giving the band a diverse sound not unlike Love's Forever Changes, but much more electric guitar based.  Lead guitarist John Cipollina coaxed a unique ringing twang out his instrument ("Pride of Man"), giving Quicksilver an identifiable sound, but the entire is tightly knit (the early country-rock "Too Long").  The longer tracks are of a lesser quality, but barely.  Cipollina and Duncan trade off frequently, which creates some good moments, such as the instrumental "Gold and Silver": the inevitable "Take Five" based song transferred into 6/8, which could have appeared on This Was.  The other example is the slightly sprawling "The Fool", which sounds like the soundtrack to a Western (at one point a guitar is wah-wahed into sounding like a rattlesnake, while occasionally a whip is heard), before panning out with some fairly lame 60s lyrics.  Otherwise, everything on QMS is extremely well done.  Energetic, entertaining and featuring some strong guitar work.  In good Frisco style, who did what is not shown.  Produced by Nick Gravenites, Harvey Brooks, and Pete Welding.

HTQuicksilver Messenger Service: Happy Trails (1969), ***
The title does not reveal this, but Happy Trails was mostly recorded live.  It is a wrongful game of catch-up: the dated experimentalism Quicksilver successfully avoided on their debut is present.  The first side is the "Who Do You Love Suite", a rendition of the Bo Diddly tune divided into instrumental solo sections.  Thankfully, the band dropped Diddly's infamous rhythm fairly early on, and stretch out into some bluesy/jazzy soloing.  At its core, however, the suite collapses first into harmonics (which is, well, unusual) and then into Freiberg's violin scrapings while the crowd noise is viciously panned ("Where Do You Love").  Back in the studio, Duncan wrote another track that sounded like a Western soundtrack (the instrumental "Calvary"), which is structured as the suite's inverse; that is, it has a worthwhile song portion in the middle, but is bookended by abstract noises and instrumental diddling.  The other live tracks show them to be an excellent hard rocking San Francisco group ("Maiden of the Cancer Moon" and Diddly's "Mona").  Only their instrumental craftsmanship saves this album.

SGQuicksilver Messenger Service: Shady Grove (1970), ***1/2
Their first album with Nicky Hopkins, and his impact is enormous.  Of course, I should hope so, as he replaced Duncan, who was Quicksilver's main songwriter.  But a change of musical scenery (diffusing the musical focal point away from the guitar) did everyone good, and producer Nick Gravenites stepped in to co-write with group members.  Do not be deterred by the first two songs on this album, which feature iffy vocals and are not astounding.  The third, "3 or 4 Feet From Home", is a blues stomper with guitar and piano both wailing away.  Hopkins is the center of the next two tracks, "Too Far" and "Holy Moly", and they are even better.  The former is a real classic, and the latter is also a good time, despite similarites with Donovan's "Atlantis".  Shady Grove's back side is more experimental, with Cipollina more content to play around with weird effects than actually soloing (the coda to "Joseph's Coda"), and some traditional (the nice "Words Can't Say").  But the real stuff is the sad "Flashing Lonesome", with interesting interplay between Hopkins and Cipollina.  Finally, Hopkins' contributed the uncharacteristic (for a West Coast band) "Edward (The Mad Shirt Grinder)", a faintly jazzy keyboard masterpiece.  Just listen to the rest of the band try to keep up with him!  If you like piano-based rock songs (and I don't mean bastards like Billy Joel) Shady Grove delivers, just don't expect Dead or Airplane-like material. (Capitol SM-391 LP)

LQuicksilver Messenger Service: Just for Love (1970), **
Like a good Mafia family, Quicksilver welcomed back Dino Valenti after he paid his debt to society. He immediately became the group's central figure, which was unfortunate. It was not an ideal match; Valenti had been a folk singer/songwriter in the pre-Byrds era, while Quicksilver's talents were more instrumental and loose. Thus, Quicksilver became a vehicle for Valenti's physical and musical voices. His physical voice is a few shades of annoying-- an offputting nasal twang that cuts through the air. Just for Love's production only exacerbates this; the band moved to a remote Hawaiian location to record the album, and it sounds like it was recorded in the Hollywood Bowl without microphones. This results in obvious mixing problems, and the band sounds dispersed and distant. This in turn makes Valenti's vocal dominance all the more scary--he must have had quite the pair of lungs. His musical voice dominates the album, leading Quicksilver into latin-jazz ("Fresh Air" or the languid "Gone Again"), New Age instrumentals ("Wolf Run") or needlessly long bluesy compositions ("The Hat" with some over-the-top vocals or "Gone Again"). Sure, the rest of the band might have offset this with their usual wizardry, and they may have done so, except they are not really audible. Cippolina gets one nice instrumental track ("Cobra"), but that is about it. Two of the shorter tracks are more tolerable - the blues-rock of "Freeway Flyer" and the Santana-like "Fresh Air" which became a semi-hit. The song's succees seems more the product of dumb luck than any particular talent, although it is the one track where the guitars are the clearest. Somehow the band managed to squander the talents of Duncan, Cippolina and Hopkins on this folly. Under-rehearsed, under-recorded, and underwhelming.

MeQuicksilver Messenger Service: What About Me? (1971), **1/2
Only partially composed of Hawaiian wilderness tracks, and Quicksilver benefitted from the return to a real studio. Valenti's dominance over Quicksilver' direction continued (the Santana-like title track or the cocktail jazz of "All In My Mind" are the most successful examples) with only a few nods towards their former style ("Baby Baby"), and the execution is poor on a few fronts.  Valenti really sounds like a marijuana cowboy - his vocals are constrained, twangy and really laid back.  His songs are much more conventional in construction than on Just for Love, but the band does not use the provided space to stretch out, resulting in the distinct feeling that many of the tracks have been padded out in length (the spacey folk "Long Haired Lady", "Call On Me").  It also does not help that Cipollina, Freiberg and Hopkins were only somewhat involved, although each placed one song on What About Me?, with Hopkins's "Spindrifter" being yet another piano instrumental classic. Mark Naftalin (ex-Butterfield Blues, Electric Flag) contributed piano on some tracks and Duncan is credited with some bass.  Percussionist Jose Rico Reyes was also brought in and did a good job in places.  All in all, there are a few good spots, but the rest is just eh.  No credited producer.

Quicksilver Messenger Service: Quicksilver (1971)
Cippolina, Hopkins and Freiberg's last album.

Quicksilver Messenger Service: Comin' Thru (1972)

GoofNicky Hopkins: Tin Man Was a Dreamer (1973), ***
Hopkins' first solo album is rather peculiar.  It is not really a singer-songwriter album, although many of the tracks are apparently reflective of his life a session pianist.  In fact, Hopkins sang on only about half the tracks, with the expressive Jerry Williams (aka Swamp Dogg, who also helped write some of the songs) handling the rest.  This makes Hopkins sound like a guest on his own record, but that the role in which he always seemed the most comfortable.  Tin Man is mainly piano-rock, alternating between orchestrated romantic numbers and more driven boogie or down-home rock numbers.  As a pianist Hopkins had a distinctive style, but his voice was breathy and his range rather limited.  It works well on the sad-sack "The Dreamer" which sounds like it could be from Kermit the Frog on Broadway, and on the strong "Waiting For the Band".  Out of the Williams numbers "Banana Anna" is a boogie with the vocalist occasionally shouting his way to a good time, and "Shout It Out" is another strong "rock" number.  On the downside Hopkins's overly earnest vocals make it hard to determine if "Lawyer's Lament" is poking fun or not.  The instrumental tracks are all decent, and the remake of "Edward" adds in a wonderful Bobby Keys sax break.  Of course, the majority of the people on session men - ranging from the famous (Keys-Horn-Price horn section and Stones guitarist Mick Taylor), the usual faceless crowd (Klaus Voorman, Chris Spedding, Ray Cooper), the future famous (Tubes drummer Prairie Prince), to the mysterious (George O'Hara, or should I say George Harrison, diddling around on slide).  So, this album is generally good, but it's never really clear as to who is in charge - with Williams singing and Hopkins's piano not really up-front a lot.  Produced by Hopkins and David Briggs.

ChangesNicky Hopkins: No More Changes (1975), **
Oh dear.  Remember how I said Hopkins limited voice only worked in certain situations?  While not an abysmal vocalist, on No More Changes he went all out, and at his best sounds like Ronnie Lane's bad side ("Refugee Blues").  Combine that with a no-name backing band and the results are something strangely akin to a misbegotten karaoke recording ("Wild You" or the vocally frightening opener "Sea Cruise").  Whereas Williams could sing and wrote a bunch of lyrics on the previous album, here Hopkins relies on a couple of covers (among them Jackie De Shannon's "Hanna", "Lady It's Time to Go") or his wife's rather bland lyrical skills.  Only once does he attempt to recapture the sad aura of his last album ("No Time") and it doesn't work that well.  Nor are his instrumentals very interesting - the exception, "The Ridiculous Trip", is simply Tin Man's "Speed On" without lyrics.  The most bizarre thing of all is "Mornin I'll Be Movin' On" which sounds faintly like disco.  Overall, the album continues his brand of slightly countrified piano rock, but not in a fun way.  The guilty parties (certainly "replacement level") are Eric Dillion (drums), Rick Wills (bass), David Tedstone (guitar), and Michael Kennedy (guitar).  Produced by Hopkins, John Edwards and Mark Smith. (Mercury LP SRM-1-1028)

In case you were wondering, if this had been two LPs it would have gotten half a star lower.

Quicksilver Messenger Service: Solid Silver (1975)
A reunion record.

Gee it's awful, waiting around, so back to the Music Page...
 

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