The San Franciscan music scene these days is reminiscent of London in the sixties. Within a two-mile radius, in the first week of August, the Tubes, the Meters, Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia, the Jerry Miller Band, Graham Central Station, George Duke, John Fahey, The Wailers, Jean-Luc Ponty, Freddie Hubbard and former Miles Davis sideman Dave Leibman were all playing to packed houses in the city's small night-clubs. At the Orphanage, residents Keith and Donna were taking some time off; Jamaican reggae outfit, The Inner Circle, were playing to some of their biggest audiences ever, and not just because Frisco is just latching on to Jamaican music. The newspapers had promised 'special guests', and when I phoned the club an efficient-sounding voice informed me that Garcia, David Brown, and John Cipollina were expected to sit in with the band that night.

I had first met Cipollina a few nights previous to his Orphanage appearance, when I drove down to San Jose for a Quicksilver concert, along with Dr Billy Davis and Ron Sanchez who, with KSAN's Phil Charles, were responsible for engineering the Man/Cipollina get-together earlier this year. It had not occurred to any of us that Cipollina wouldn't actually be playing with his old band that night, so we were a little surprised to see him standing in the middle of the Civic Auditorium (a cavernous dance-hall rather like a scaled down Alexandra Palace) with his girlfriend, during the closing number of a tedious, badly-balanced and unintentionally hilarious set by The Chambers Brothers. The entire evening was in many ways suggestive of some grotesque time-warp, especially as only two or three hundred people had turned up for what, in England, would have been undoubtedly a highly publicised sell-out. There had been no public announcement of the concert, and it had been brought to my notice only because the hoardings were being erected as I left the building the night before, having witnessed amazing sets by Blue Oyster Cult and Journey. That night the place was like a sauna, packed with bodies. The Quicksilver gig was as well-attended as Brighton beach at Christmas, and for a while the only sign of fife was a few pimply youths (and their dates) echoing the Chambers' frenzied chants of "Time!".

In some parts of the Golden State, it is apparently not unusual for a Saturday night concert to be attended solely by kids who want somewhere to take their girl and smoke dope, irrespective of what band may be playing. The security men who had so carefully frisked us the night before, seemed indifferent to our unconcealed tape-recorders tonight, and even seemed mildly surprised at our interest in recording. We moved backstage without let or hindrance, and caught glimpses of Gary Duncan and Dino Valenti, who were busy preparing themselves for the stage, before spotting Cipollina and engaging him in conversation.

He is an amiable fellow, physically unchanged since the early days of the group, still with long hair and a slightly wired, nervous air about him, but extremely easy to talk to from the first moment we approach him. It's a night out for him, he explains, and the band doesn't know he's there. No, he probably won't play, as he's not strictly a member of the new Quicksilver, but he is recording with them in San Francisco's CBS studios. There's a new album contracted, possibly two, and the original group has reformed especially for the recording. He wasn't even planning to come along tonight, and had intended to go to the cinema instead.

Now Cipollina's alleged attitude to Dino Valenti, and the ways in which Quicksilver altered under his direction, have been well documented in the pages of ZigZag. It's interesting to study the reactions of any musicians to the front man, but particularly so in the case of a band like Quicksilver, who have changed so radically over the years that were it not for the clear, piercing tone of Duncan's guitar, and Greg Elmore's relentless and distinctive drumming, they would be totally unrecognisable from their early days. Before Valenti was released from what he likes to refer to as "the penitentiaries of our nation", the band - Duncan, Cipollina, Elmore and David Freiberg, latterly of Jefferson Starship - was primarily inclined towards instrumentals of a loose, acid nature, compatible with the climate of those heady days in California. With Dino's arrival in their ranks, the group became a vehicle for his autobiographical songs and ditties on love and freedom. These tended to be rather cloying and too pretty, but not so much unpleasant as uncharacteristic for a group of what CipoIlina described to me as "good guys trying to be bad guys; heavily into violence".

On stage, Freiberg has been replaced by an energetic bassist called Skip Lewis, and an effeminate young man in sparkly suit who looks like the result of an unlikely union between Freddie Mercury and Steve Tyler sits behind an organ and ARP synthesizer. They both play very well, especially the bassist who leaps forward for his solo spot, and proceeds to pummel his instrument into submission in a manner reminiscent of Larry Taylor. Gary Duncan takes all the guitar honours now, and really shines, particularly on 'Fresh Air' and 'Who Do You Love', which has gone through some changes since the legendary 25-minute version on Happy Trails. That song provides an opportunity for Duncan to sing, leaving Dino to bash out the chords on his Gibson and give his throat a rest. Valenti is Roy Rogers in the lead role in 'The Good Ship Lollipop'. He presents an anachronistic sight in his cowboy boots, tight pants and curly hair: small and chubby, he seems determined from the start to upstage the band. It's strange that Dino hasn't made it on his own by now, considering his obvious ability and the real style that he exhibits.

The Chambers' fans have all split to some car-park or drive-in, and the hundred or so of us who are left are standing at the foot of the stage, with a perfect view of Dino's tonsils as he belts out his paeans to the life of an outlaw. There's no denying that the man can sing; in fact, his voice is surprisingly strong for a guy of 38, and makes it easy for him to get away with some of the less successful lyrics. Quicksilver is now a strong rock band, closer in style to Moby Grape than the original fine-up which recorded the QMS and Happy Trails albums, and clearly capable of making a few disillusioned West Coast devotees sit up and take notice.

Coinciding nicely with a resurgence of interest in Spirit, Jefferson Starship and Love, comes the new Quicksilver album, Solid Silver. Plans to reunite members of original aggregates often fall through, especially those which are brought to the notice of the public before that of the musicians in question. The reforming of Quicksilver, however, went almost unheralded in all but the most scrupulously-detailed trade papers in the States, but nevertheless went ahead, as planned. The results place the band in the popular countryrock idiom prevalent in America today, but there are enough examples of Cipollina's rasping cobra-like licks to keep everybody happy. Their original producer, John Palladino (who also supervised Steve Miller's The Joker set) was called in, and old faithful Nicky Hopkins is present on a few of the 14 tracks from which the album will be selected. Freiberg, now 38 too, has returned from the commercial safety of the Starship to put down some bass tracks and to record background vocals with the ubiquitous Kathi McDonald. Pete Sears is also on hand to add bass and/or keyboards as, seemingly, Valenti sees fit. He's evidently in charge, swift to chide and slow to bless; the petulant perfectionist in leather duds.

There's a businesslike atmosphere in the room of the studio despite Kathi's insislence on some clams; she's starving and she's got another recording session to do when this one finishes at 11pm. Greg Elmore pops out for an order of clams while the rest stand around listening to a playback of a new Valenti ballad, 'The Letter'. Miss McD, whose voice has never been one of my favourite sounds, is finding it hard to reach and sustain a note at the end of one of her vocal passages (where she sings in effective counterpoint with Dino) and the playback is punctuated by his exasperated shouts of 'Wrong note, baby'. When the unfortunate lady finally makes the note, it's a tad too long, and the engineer, obviously thinking of his wife and kids waiting patiently at home, inadvertently erases part of the next section. Do it again, fellers.

John Cipollina is pleased with the way things are going: "We're working together just fine, with a lot of enthusiasm after all the time apart. I've been writing some songs, but not necessarily with this band in mind. One of them, 'Rock'n'Roll Jekyll And Hyde" we played with Terry and the Pirates. They're basically just a bunch of punks, but we'd have a good time. I don't think I'll record with them ... not sure if I want to do that. The company wasn't interested in signing Terry Dolan anyway, but it was his group. We had Sid Page on violin, and Dave Hayes (who played bass and virtually commandeered Van Morrison's Caledonia Soul Orchestra), and I played guitar. Mostly, though, I played steel or Hawaiian guitar, 'cause our lead guitarist is so fast. Really kept me on my toes."

Dino Valenti has contributed at least half the prospective selections for the album, including 'Cowboy On The Run', an introspective, attractive ballad, which brings to mind 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue', at least in melody, while the lyrics are rather like, well, a few other songs about cowboys. Overall, the album displays more attention to harmony singing than usual. "Everybody sings but me," said John, laughing. "I'm not a singer at all, but sometimes I'll put in a little, you know."

Here in the studio, Cipollina speaks in a manner indicative less of a legendary guitar-hero than of an enthusiastic, little-known musician, eager to oblige anyone interested in what he has to say, at the same time faintly surprised that the interest exists at all. An unassuming character, whose manner belies his experience and eclecticism, qualities which appear in his playing, whether as the ubiquitous, gaunt figure at the back of the Orphanage's small stage, or the menacing, brooding leader of Quicksilver. "Do you dig violence, man? I mean when we were on stage, we useta love to scare the audience. I'd move right to the front of the stage, turn my amp up and turn on 'em. And they'd be standing there, and we'd be staring at 'em, and playing, man, and you shoulda seen their faces! We'd be lined up like a firing squad. You wanna hear about my guns? I got a few new guns now. Even more guns than guitars!"

Rather hesitant was John Cipollina, legendary West Coast guitarist, as he played his rosewood Telecaster (one of only 44 made) onstage with the Inner Circle. The band were into their third set, and were not an unfamiliar sight at the Orphanage. Riding into town on the wake of a triumphant visit by The Wailers, they found they had insufficient funds to return to their homeland, and had to play further gigs to raise the fare. Merl Saunders had just left the stage in rather undignified fashion, having been introduced as 'Earl Saunders' and invited to play 'Puppet On A String', a feat to which he was definitely unequal. JC slunk onto the platform, plugged in discreetly and picked his way through a couple of undistinguished songs, before stepping out in fine style on 'I Shot The Sheriff'. Although his reputation has taken something of a drubbing since his variously received performances as a member of the Man band, Cipollina is one of those musicians with the charisma, individuality, and enthusiasm (which manifests itself, more often than not, in youthful idealism) to be able to live up to any of the reports you've ever heard of his unquestionable ability. Sitting in his '65 Volvo, we listened to tapes of Terry And The Pirates - good, solid energetic stuff. Recent tapes in my possession of that band in rehearsal bear witness to a newly reborn power and confidence in his playing. Frail enough to have gone under long ago, he has shown that he has the staying power and inventiveness to be a positive force in any band, and in today's rock music as a whole.


ZigZag 57, December 1975, Volume 6, Number 7

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Last updated: 4-Sep-2002