The Blues Project and Seatrain
Albums reviewed on this page: Live
at the Cafe A Go Go, Projections, Live
at Town Hall, Planned Obsolescence,
Sea Train, Seatrain, Marblehead Messenger, Watch.
The Blues Project is one of those groups that isn't mentioned anymore, and may never have been mentioned to begin with. Starting out with the Lovin' Spoonful and the Youngbloods on the East Coast, the band had a good live reputation covering everything from folk to R&B, but never found much success. They only had one semi-hit, "Flute Thing" with bassist Andy Kulberg showing off his classically-trained flute skills, and only managed to record one studio-album, before splitting up in 1967 because keyboardist Al Kooper wanted to add horns to the group. Kooper took guitarist Steve Katz and formed Blood, Sweat and Tears, with the rest of the band re-locating to the West Coast, waiting for Danny Kalb to join them. Kalb never did, so with Kulberg putting together a new band, and beginning a long partnership with lyricist Jim Roberts, who later became an official member of the band. That band was Seatrain, and recorded two albums (the first under the Blues Project name) mixing just about everything (blues, jazz, folk, bluegrass, classical) and making it work. Their official debut (Sea Train) is one of the finest examples of American progressive rock, and certainly the place to start with the band. Alas, it was unsuccessful commercially, and half the band left afterwards. When Kulberg assembled Seatrain anew, they had become much more of a standard roots-rock band, focused greatly on the talents of excellent violinist Richard Greene. A couple more albums ensued (Seatrain and Marblehead Messenger), and one minor hit ("13 Questions") before the foundations (Greene and guitarist Peter Rowan) dropped out again. Kulberg made one final stab with the group (Watch) before calling it a day.
Still, those interested in progressive rock should check out Sea Train, and roots-rock fans Seatrain.
The Blues Project: Danny Kalb (lead guitar), Al Kooper (organ), Steve Katz (guitar), Roy Blumenfeld (drums), Andy Kulberg (bass), Tommy Flanders (vocals). Flanders left before Live at the Cafe A Go Go was released. They broke up in 1967, with Seatrain really recording the final album Planned Obsolescence. Reformed in 1971 with Blumenfeld, Kalb and Don Kretmar (bass, vocals) for Lazarus, and added David Cohen (guitar, keyboards) and Bill Lussenden (guitar) for their final album Blues Project.
Seatrain: Roy Blumenfeld (drums), Richard Greene (violin), John Gregory (guitar, vocals), Andy Kulberg (bass, flute), Don Kretmar (sax, bass), Jim Roberts (lyrics, vocals). By the second Seatrain, Blumenfeld, Gregory and Kretmar had left, to be replaced by Larry Atamanuik (drums), Peter Rowan (guitar, vocals) and Lloyd Baskin (keyboards, vocals). This lasted for two albums, and on Watch, Atamanuik, Greene and Rowan are out, and Julio Coronado (drums) in, along with Bill Eliot (keyboards) and Peter Walsh (lead guitar). Then they split.
Blues Project: Live at the Cafe A Go Go (1966), **1/2
In an unsurprising twist, American musicians try to be like English musicians, who, in turn, take their influence from America. While it was perfectly acceptable for the Yardbirds to release a live album of blues and R&B covers in 1964, by 1966 groups were expected to write their own material. With the exception of one instrumental ("The Way My Baby Walks") this album is just one standard after another. I mean, how many covers of Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" does the world really need? The band is really an outgrowth of the jugband blues scene (the sing-along take on Willie Dixon's "You Go and I'll Go With You"), along with The Lovin' Spoonful and the Youngbloods. The material exclusively blues songs, as they shine on covering some lesser-known material; there's an excellent cover of Eric Andersen's dreamy folk "Violets of Dawn" and and a beautiful slow jazzy take on the traditional "Alberta". Guitarist Danny Kalb is among the best of the scene's guitarists, eschewing the Chicago-blues approach for dancing finger approach of these jugband bands, but none of the rest of the band is terribly exciting. Vocalist Tommy Flanders is decent, bassist Andy Kulburg is sometimes inaudible and neither Steve Katz (who gets his spotlight number on Donovan's lethargic ballad "Touch the Wind" and is otherwise dispensable), nor Al Kooper (who gets his spotlight on Chuck Berry's "I Want to Be Your Driver") really show much. An interesting historical artifact, and pleasant enough to listen to once in a while, but if you really want R&B and blues buy yourself the Rolling Stones, the Paul Butterfield Blues band or even Willie Dixon himself. Produced by Jerry Schoenbaum.
Blues Project: Projections (1966), ***
The band had a lot of things going for it - lots of talented musicians and an closer ear to musical trends than most American bands, but they never put it all together. It is true that "Flute Thing" was an underground hit (an oxymoron if I ever heard of one), but this album is no classic. R&B is still the band's main element, and they generally does a good job at it. Kooper's "I Can't Keep From Crying" kicks off the album with a supremely catchy bass riff, "Wake Me, Shake Me", and Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" are all excellent tracks. It's not all R&B of course, and the band is both experimenting with classical folk (the intro to "Steve's Song" which is better than actual song) and the infamous jazz-rock underground hit (an oxymoron par excellence) of "Flute Thing". The latter is what both the album and the band are most remembered for - but how is it? The song takes advantage of the fact that Kulberg just happens to be an excellent flautist, and Kooper constructs a nice lead riff, and as an instrumental, the band just takes turns soloing. Well, everyone but Katz that is, but since he's stuck playing bass, it's not a real loss. Not many people were creating jazz-rock at this time, so it certainly is ground-breaking, but nowadays it's just a nice song. Almost the same thing can be said with other little contemporary cool moves (Kalb's Indian-like guitar lines on "Cheryl's Going Home"). The blues numbers are the real drag on the album. Kalb has his own easily identifiable technique - using quick runs with lots of note bending, but he mistakes plodding on indefinitely for drama (Muddy Waters' "Two Trains Running" runs for over ten minutes and Jimmy Reed's "Caress Me Babe" is a blues that is all atmosphere and no excitement). The downside to his impressive speed is that he gets a bit sloppy in parts ("You Can't Catch Me" among others). Still, he's clearly the instrumental star here - even though Kalb's bass lines are usually catchy, and Kooper place-holds when given the chance to solo ("Caress Me Babe"). Kooper displays the most songwriting talent here, the nice folk-rock "10" shows him merging his earlier pop talent with Dylanesque folk-rock, and a touch of jazz. Sure, Steve Katz has a song, but it is ...well, it's a Steve Katz song. Slightly goofy in nature, delivered in his earnest straight-man voice, just like his cover of Bob Lind's folky "Cheryl's Going Home". He never really hit his songwriting stride until after the Project broke up. The end result is an album that has its moments and good songs ("I Can't Keep From Crying" is my mark for a keeper), but feels like less than the sum of the individual players.
Indeed, this was their only album that was entirely recorded in a studio. Afterwards they split over a disagreement on whether or not to add horns, with Kooper and Katz forming Blood, Sweat and Tears.
Project at the Town Hall (1967), ***
Therefore the sage manages affairs without doing anything.
-Lao Tze, Tao Te Ching, ch. 2, par. 3
Kooper and Katz had split, and the label, sensing trouble, decided to cash-in by releasing this album. Half of it is from an undated concert at "the Town Hall" (wherever that is), with some fill-in studio outtakes. The album is pretty good - the concert half really rocks and is pretty cutting edge. Rocks in a way that you wouldn't expect from the boys who put out Live at the Cafe A So-So. They are cranked up, fast, and blurred on the edges. The version of "Flute Thing" (titled "(Electric) Flute Thing") takes the jazzy underpinnings of the song and then runs off into psychedelic territory. The band gets so far out there that Kooper plays static on his organ, Katz is making odd clunking noises on the bass, while Kulberg plays with a tape(?) delayed version of himself on flute. This was brand new for 1967, and was the same thing that both Terry Riley would do with Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band, and more famously Brian May of Queen would do with guitar. Pretty cool. Kalb is a fast and sloppy as ever ("I Can't Keep from Crying"), although he is sometimes hard to hear in the mix. "I Can't Keep from Crying" is downright revelatory - it unlocks the mystery of Steve Katz. It turns out good old Steve was a hardcore rhythm guitar player, in addition to his passable harmonica skills. I mean, how many rhythm guitarists do more than just strum away? Katz makes the rhythm guitar punch - he is bursts of electricity pulsating along with the rest. After all that breakneck playing, Kooper tops the song off with one of his odd ondioline solos, sounding like the electric bagpipes (if such a thing exists). Sweaty. Great. The other two live tracks ("Mean Old Southern" and a long version of "Wake Me, Shake Me") aren't as good, but they still show a band far more interesting than Projections, as they get the little things right as only a band that has worked through the numbers can. "Wake Me, Shake Me" has some nice moments of interplay between the band. Oddly enough, the thing that sounds most out of place is Kooper's organ amongst the suped-up guitars. The ondioline is bizarre enough that he sounds futuristic, but aside from that his solos are never anything that make you go wow, a lot of times he sounds like the passable session guy who played on Dylan albums.
The studio tracks are a letdown comparatively - the necessary lukewarm Katz folk cover ("Love Will Endure"), and a couple of more poppy Kooper numbers. His "No Time like the Right Time" has a great mid-60s soul chorus, such that you could someone like Mitch Ryder destroying with it, but the others are the sort of passable fare that was wisely cut from Project records. It is pretty strange that some of their best tracks came out without their even really trying. The live tracks are not going to make anyone forget about the MC5 anytime soon, but shows that the band really did have some energy, which often got lost on their studio recordings.
Project: Planned Obsolescence (1968), ***1/2
Somewhere on the spectrum between contract filler and normal album lies Planned Obsolescence. It doesn't seem like anyone really remembers this album, which is a shame because it shows that America did have progressive rock. This is really a group effort, and with violin (Greene), sax (Kretmar) and flute (Kulberg) at their disposal there's a great mix of blues, jazz and folk at play. The Blues Project started with an album that showed their stylistic diversity (Live at the Cafe Au Go Go), and to live up to their name the group mixes the blues into the sound in various ways. The group can deliver "Mojo Hannah" a fascinating kick-butt slice of blues and soul, and then follow it up with "Niartaes Hornpipe" a sort of folky tune that incorporates some bluegrass from Greene. They generally stick with the same jazz-blues vibe that contemporary Jethro Tull used, although without the same drive or force ("She Raised Her Hand", "If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody"). Yet at the same time, they also predict where Jethro Tull was headed, playing traditional classical/folk music in other spots ("Calypso, "Turtle Dove" a traditional folk song arranged into a well-disguised blues number). There's a very loose feeling at play, perhaps caused the fact that this was one of those contract fulfilling albums. I don't really know how to explain Gregory's "Frank 'N' Curt: Incensed" which is sort of blues-rock with Dylan-esque lyrics, fuzz guitar and a decent jazz line by Kretmar plopped in the middle, or Gregory's off-the-cuff vocals during "Endless Sleep". Still, the "contract fulfilling" flags are raised throughout. Only "Calypso", "She Raised Her Hand" and "Frank 'N' Curt: Incensed" are songs written by the group. The first two bear the hallmark of Seatrain - poetic lyrics by Jim Roberts. Another flashing light is the fact that the record is padded with a 10 minute traditional jazzy jam ("Dakota Recollection"). Fear not - the core band was a good live act, with enough playing skills to pull it off. It's traditional in that everyone a chance to step out and solo, before pulling back and supporting the others. Nobody's going to mistake this for an English band, although few rock bands were delving this far into jazz, outside of Soft Machine's Third. Even though it was 1968 only a few inoffensive production tricks appear (backwards music at the end of "Calypso" for example) and one pretty bold one - having Kulberg play against a delayed tape of himself ("Dakota Recollections"), like he did live at the Town Hall. The final warning flag is that the album jacket credits the production and arranging to the Blues Project, while the actual record gives it to Seatrain. The arrangements aren't quite up to the level of Seatrain's official debut, but are still good. It's a shame it didn't sell - maybe it didn't have enough braying horns like their sister group. Self-produced.
Train (1969), ****1/2
This gets my vote for America's best progressive rock album of the 60s, hands down. This was certainly the year for it, coming out alongside Chicago, The Flock, and Blood Sweat & Tears. But there are big differences between those albums and this one. First of all, looking across the ocean, Seatrain resembles Yes more than any other band. There is no one stand-out member of the band (a la Flock) or a section that is clearly the focal point (i.e. Chicago and BS&T's horns). There's a great deal of give and take between everyone in the band making this a group effort similar to The Yes Album. There another large difference between Seatrain and the aforementioned American bands - the lyrics. The group had a dedicated lyricist, Jim Roberts, who was by and far more poetic than other bands, focusing on personal experience and wispy romance. Making him, well, a very lyric lyricist paired either with Kulberg or Gregory in songwriting. Gregory has a warm tenor, but not a pure one, and does engage what could be termed as friendly light shouting when he gets louder ("As I Lay Losing"). At the same time, the band shies away from the long songs normally associated with progressive music. Not that they didn't have the musical talent to pull such tracks off, one longer instrumental ("Sweet Creek's Suite") demonstrates. Instead, their amazing arranging ability (only glimpsed on Planned Obsolescence) allows them to stir in everyone's talent and create a fascinating montage. What do they stir in? While simple associations like Greene = bluegrass, Kretmar = jazz, Gregory = folk, Kulberg = classical, are tempting, they don't tell the whole story (like where blues comes in). For everyone plays everything, and often. Take the eponymous opening track for example - an odd hybrid of classical, jazz and blues. Welcome to America! But this was Sea Train at their most English as well - with Kulberg's flute and some odd timing gives rise to another Jethro Tull comparison ("Pudding Street") and the hushed beauty of Gregory's "As I Lay Losing" echoing an organ-less Zombies before the beat really kicks in and Kretmar lets loose with a nice solo. In fact, many of the classical lines have the feel as the Bach-like line was inlaid in the Zombies' "Beechwood Park". Despite the blatantly American style of their music, this album is also rather English in that it is subtle. It would have been easy to be overbearing with so many talented musicians around to make a mess of things, but this is an album with depth. For example, the Gregory/Roberts song "Portrait of the Lady as Young Artist" is certainly guitar based, but is not overwhelmed by the guitar at all. In fact, the entire production is fairly light, with no blaring instruments, and the only electric instruments (guitar and bass) stripped of almost all their electric power. Even Blumenfeld's drumming is an older style, much like Hugh Grundy wasn't a progressive rock drummer, and Ian McLane wasn't a hard rock drummer. There aren't any real production tricks either, only a fuzz tone attached here and there to guitar or violin. All in all, sit back and let your ears wonder through the beauty, and wish that it would go on "forever more" as the record loops at the end.
And poof! there went the lineup of Sea Train to replaced by a less interesting, yet more commercial assemblage of people known as Seatrain. I guess they figured people wouldn't remember that they had just had an album that was self-titled, especially with a slightly changed name. This Seatrain has a completely different feel to it, and although the Kulberg/Roberts songwriting team is still in place, Kulberg cedes some control to the newcomers. Roberts is even officially a member of the group - making them one of the few American bands with an in-house designated lyricist (other than the Grateful Dead). This new lineup (for those of you scoring at home - Larry Atamanuik on drums, Peter Rowan on guitar and Lloyd Baskin on keyboards, with Baskin and Rowan splitting lead vocals) decided to pare down their sound greatly. Oh, not in terms of the number of group members, but in terms of styles. Jazz? Almost gone. Kulberg's flute is only let out once ("Broken Morning"). Classical? Greatly cut down to some of Baskin's keyboard parts (he sounds like Michael Brown before an electric harpsichord on "Waiting for Elijah"). What's left is good old American roots-rock. Where Sea Train's sound had a shifting focal point, Seatrain focuses mainly on Greene's violin. This is a good thing. Greene is a fiddle player of exceptional talent, and lets it shine not only in his spotlight pieces ("Sally Goodin" and "O.B.S." both of which he arranged and adapted and bring them closer to English groups like Fairport Convention) but scattered throughout the album, frequently with wah-wah pedal attached. But a paucity of songwriting seems to be on the land. Rowan, who was the predominant writer for his old group Earth Opera, contributes three songs - a couple of standard romantic ballads ("Home to You" and "Oh My Love") and a slower folk song that is nice, gentle and worth the wait ("Waiting for Elijah"). Roberts' lyrics aren't quite as strong here. "Song of Job" is a rather talky retelling of the old Biblical story, which doesn't have much suspense. Their lone charting single, "13 Questions", is an odd UFO encounter in reverse, but with a completely unrelated refrain that happens to be the catchiest part of the song. Only "Broken Morning" comes close to his earlier work, but only close. Actually, it does come close on the album, as the band redoes "Out Where the Hills" making it more jaunty and fun before entering Greene solo land. Nowhere close to the original, but still the most complex arrangement on this album. The two strongest songs are actually from outside the group - they somehow got Lowell George's signature tune and ode to drug-running ("I'm Willing") before Little Feat recorded it, and an excellent Goffin/King grandstand ("Creepin' Midnight" where Baskin's vocals just wallow in soul). The band is much simpler in their playing as well. Producer George Martin (yes, that George Martin) tends to make Baskin the central support in each song, such that one frequently forgets that Rowan even exists. The entire album may not have a guitar solo on it, and often Rowan is completely inaudible. The band in this incarnation relies more on rhythm than notes (compare the two "Out Where the Hills"), and the production is pretty clean, as compared to the intentional overlap of Sea Train. So the new Seatrain was a lesser band, a more focused band, and a decent roots-rock band.
Marblehead Messenger (1971), **1/2
More of the same, but the songs aren't quite as good. The Kulberg/Roberts pairing seems to have gone in an odd direction. Roberts' lyrics are better ("The State of Georgia's Mind"), but Kulberg's music doesn't tread any new ground. This and the decision to restrict Greene, simplify Baskin's parts a bit, and bring Rowan up more deprives the band of any real musical identity (the jaunty folk of "Gramercy" could be anyone and the anti-war title track, which sounds like a flop single). A surprise is "London Song" where Kulberg tries to recreate the classical-hybrid sound of their debut, right down to the fuzzy guitar. Note that surprise doesn't equal great, however, or especially good. Where surprise does equal good is with Rowan, whose writing skills blossom. He contributes three songs, two of which are fun down-home songs ("Protestant Preacher" with Roberts-like lyrics, the 3/4 ballad "Mississippi Moon"). Baskin writes one song, "Lonely's Not the Only Way to Go", which on first listen might sound like a song about being friends, but upon closer inspection appears to deal with multiple personalities! But there's another warning sign is the resurrection of "As I Lay Losing" from their debut, retitled "Losing All the Years". The band gives it a different (inferior) feeling, imbuing it with the warm friendliness of a 70s roots-rock band, instead of the colder, dark reading it was originally given. Greene gets one showcase number ("Despair Tire") which is an odd combination of his hyperspeed bluegrass fiddle interspersed with Roberts reading intentionally goofy lyrics somewhere between Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein. An odd combination, and one would much rather listen to Greene than Roberts continually pun on the phrase "despair tire." Fans of their preceding album will want to check this out, but it's not a good place to start with the band. Produced by George Martin.
Blues Project: Lazarus (1971)
Blumenfeld, Kolb and Kretmar. Whoopty whoop!
I think this has the same line-up, but I don't really care.
Watch (1973), **1/2
A two-year gap, and a change of labels should have warned fans that something was afoot. Yes, two of the big names and attention grabbers are gone - Rowan and Greene. Without these roots-rock anchors in place the band drifts around from track to track. But seeing as how their sound had become pretty rote, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately the band is susceptible to mid 70s trends, adding in funky passages, Shaft guitar and the like. It's like using a matchbook - when you know what you're doing the results can be good. To begin the album, things are good - the opening track "Pack of Fools" is the swan song of the Kulberg/Roberts partnership, and new guitarist Peter Walsh gets every opportunity to get loose and funky at the end. The other times they do this sort of thing it backfires completely. It doesn't help that the two songs that use it (Kulberg and Roberts' "Freedom Is the Reason" and Baskin's "We Are Your Children Too") are crappy attempts at 70s people-affecting anthems. The former is the more palatable of the two, squatting in a murky rootsy/gospel area and trying to sound contemplative on "freedom" when all they're doing is sounding like your average contemporary James Gang track. I believe that Kulberg is the one gracing the song with some weak vocals as well. "We Are Your Children Too" is much, much worse, affording Baskin the opportunity to sound like some long-haired "with-it" pastor singing a contemplative hymn to God, with Kulberg's flute adding a healthy dose of lameness also. Toss these out, and the band mainly takes on a distinctly Louisiana sound, driven by new keyboardist Bill Elliot. Baskin's other song, "Bloodshot Eyes" is a fun ragtime romp with traditional Dixieland backing. The other glimmer of the Kulberg/Roberts is "North Coast" which sort of has that "Mabel" sound - a party going on (you can hear the voices ask where Richard Greene is, humorously enough), with some of Elliott's barrel-house piano driving the song. Continuing the Louisiana theme, "Abbeville Fair" was probably designed to be a Greene piece, but without him (there's some orchestration to help fill in the sound) it's just a decent Cajun/folk dance tune. Otherwise, "Scratch" is yet another anomalous track - a simple folk story that might have come from Twice-Told Tales. The band was clearly searching for a new sound without roots-rock gurus Rowan and Greene, but it doesn't appear they really found it here. The songwriting appears to have dried up somewhat, precipitating a decent bluesy take on Dylan's "Watching the River Flow". It may also be why the end of the album is taken up by a long version of the Kulberg's old Blues Project spotlight number "Flute Thing". He may have considered it his trump card, but I doubt many listeners allowed it to be played. It might have been interesting to hear them pursue the Cajun or ragtime theme, but their breakup isn't unexpected given this album.
Next time I get a chance I'll check the credits for this album, and double check who is in the group here.
Blues Project: Reunion in Central Park (1973)
The original lineup, I understand. A one-time event.
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