Quicksilver Messenger Service
Reviewed on this page:
Quicksilver Messenger Service - Happy Trails - Shady Grove - Just For Love - Quicksilver
Quicksilver is best known as local San Francisco competition for the Jefferson Airplane, and as the source for a future member of the Starship (bassist David Freiberg). Turns out they could play their instruments - guitarists John Cipollina and Gary Duncan sound like they had at least as much raw talent as their counterparts from the Airplane, Dead, and Holding Company; and drummer Greg Elmore was occasionally wild, but entertaining. Once British keyboard session whiz Nicky Hopkins signed up in 1970, they suddenly had an awful lot of virtuosos on hand. And even though the Airplane had them beat on both singing and bass playing, they always had just as much vocal and instrumental talent as the Dead.
One interesting fact about Quicksilver is that they went through some head-spinning stylistic changes during just their first three or four years of recording. They started out on a heavy blues guitar-oriented jamming trip; switched to a more experimental, Airplane-like groove when Nicky Hopkins joined them on Shady Grove; and later headed towards folk-pop with the addition of songwriter and old chum Dino Valenti, a.k.a. Chester A. Powers, Chet Powers, or Jesse Oris Farrow.
Incidentally, Valenti (as "Powers") was often credited with writing "Hey Joe," the homicidal folk song that was covered in the mid-60s by everyone from the Leaves to the Byrds to Hendrix to Love; but the actual songwriter was a guy named Billy Roberts who was not just another Valenti synonym. Some (including the Airplane web site manager) say that Valenti ruined the band. I tend to think that's an extreme point of view, but he certainly took them in a radically different direction.
I won't babble on because a fan already maintains an interesting web page on the band.
Normally we provide a link to at least one fan-based, non-commercial web site, but there doesn't appear to be one for Quicksilver.
The only major page I know of is awfully designed and plastered with commercial ads, so I won't link to it.
Both Hopkins and Cipollina have since passed away, and there's a John Cipollina memorial web site with information on his many exploits. (JA)
Lineup: John Cipollina (guitar, vocals); Gary Duncan (guitar, vocals); Greg Elmore (drums); David Freiberg (bass, vocals, viola). Nicky Hopkins (keyboards) joined, early 1970. Dino Valenti (vocals, guitar, occasional flute, congas) joined, late 1970.
Quicksilver Messenger Service (1968)
At least at this point, these guys had enough commercial sense to stick with playing tunes instead of messing around with studio sound collages, even when it comes to the obligate 12-minute zillion-part hippy-dippy guitar suite ("The Fool," with an amusingly spacey vocal section after seven minutes of tight jamming). Unfortunately the songwriting is thin, with the few originals mostly being instrumental tracks. So the best song is a cover of "Pride of Man," which has an irresistable refrain and great hooks; and the runner up is probably Valenti's quintessentially mid-60s hippy pop number "Dino's Song" (he wasn't officially a band member at this point). The up-beat cover "Too Long" is also in this vein, with cute backup vocals and a great rhythm guitar part - I guess you'd have to say it's "groovy." The record was produced by blues griot Pete Welding and Electric Flag conspirators Nick Gravenites and Harvey Brooks; they lend a whiff of Janis Joplin-style R & B to some of the proceedings. (JA)
Happy Trails (1969)
This is a nominal classic. But to my ears, Quicksilver galloped off in the wrong direction here, dispensing entirely with pop songs in favor of long jams in a generic Bay Area style. For example, the entire first side is a live, 25 minute jam on the blues standard "Who Do You Love," which predictably devolves to pure noise-making ("Where You Love"); and most of side 2 is a 13 minute studio jam reprising all of the space cadet gimmicks on the first record (Duncan's low-tech "Calvary").
Despite the fine guitar work, the band's songwriting and singing deficiencies are badly exposed here - there almost isn't any songwriting or singing. Other than some aimless messing around, there's also little in the way of studio gimmickry, so fans of the Airplane's late 60s experimentation will be disappointed. The only real fun on the record is just a joke - the brief title track cowboy song at the end. I've already gotten two letters begging to differ, with one guy insisting that this is actually enjoyable even without taking a few bong hits first; and the Quicksilver web site master says it's his favorite, period. (JA)
Shady Grove (1970)
Gary Duncan missed this one; perhaps he was in jail dealing with a pot-smoking charge. However, new member Nicky Hopkins makes up for it, hammering the keys all over the place. Plus the band has suddenly shifted gears, crafting much more elaborate recordings (the complex, riffy "Joseph's Coat," with wild sound effects); avoiding long jams (but see the odd, laid-back "Flashing Lonesome"); using orchestration ("Flute Song"); and writing more new songs, with Cipollina, Freiberg, and Janis Joplin collaborator Nick Gravenites responsible for most of it (Gravenites hits the mark with the R & B number "Holy Moly").
They end up sounding vaguely like the Dead, as on Freiberg's 3/4 country number "Words Can't Say." But Cipollina is heavier and more facile than Garcia, and Hopkins in particular really sets them apart - he edges the rhythm guitar aside to carry the Bo Diddley rhythm on the excellent title track; his clever, vaguely jazzy instrumental suite "Edward, (The Mad Shirt Grinder)" almost defies categorization; and so on. Some of the experimentation doesn't work, but the record is consistently interesting and accessible anyway. (JA)
Just For Love (1970)
Dino Valenti had officially joined the band at this point, and he had an immediate and radical impact. Apart from a brief, but multi-part instrumental by Cipollina ("Cobra"), Valenti wrote the entire record - mostly credited as "Jesse Oris Farrow." Valenti's nasal, ragged tenor is sometimes grating, but he's expressive and distinctive. He also dishes out the charming radio favorite "Fresh Air," with its famous chorus: "ooh, ooh, have another hit - of [fresh air/sweet love/whatever]!" The tune may well have been the band's high point, but the rest of the album is totally uneven, full of rambling folk numbers like "The Mat" and "Gone Again," and song fragments like the alternate take of the title track and the two "Wolf Run" instrumentals. The rest of the band mostly stays in the background as Valenti leads the way, and it's just not very engaging. (JA)
What About Me (1971)
Hopkins doesn't appear on this one, although Valenti and the others do. (JA)
With the whole band finally together in the studio, Quicksilver at last delivered a solid, unpretentious rock record with consistent songwriting and performances. Valenti's in control almost all the way through. However, Duncan does get in a couple of his own compositions - most importantly the shimmering mood piece "Fire Brothers," which is loaded with Hopkins' arpeggiations.
But Valenti's singing is more assured and less mannered than previously, and all of the players contribute to the fully fleshed-out arrangements.
Relatively speaking, there's a lot of variety - hippie anthems ("Hope"), gentle roots rock ("I Found Love"), thudding acid rock ("Play My Guitar"), a bizarre cowboy theme song sendup ("Rebel," with enough shrieking war whoops to kill an army), and a bunch of acoustic-flavored ballads ("Out Of My Mind"; "The Truth").
The only drawbacks are the same ones you'll find on all the band's records: self-indulgent lead guitar antics, slightly ragged harmonies, and shambling melodies. And indeed, none of the tunes this time around really hits the mark.
"The Truth" is groovy enough to have had some commercial potential, but it runs seven druggy minutes; and "Out Of My Mind" has an memorable, arabesque riff but just doesn't gel.
Still, though, there's enough humor, intelligence, and impressive musicianship to make this obscure record easily among the band's best. (JA)
Comin' Through (1972)
The band was in bad shape at this point, with Cipollina, Freiberg and Hopkins all being absent - Freiberg had migrated to the quickly splintering Jefferson Airplane (which soon became the Starship), and Hopkins was still heavily involved with the Rolling Stones, the Who, and assorted session projects.
So Duncan and Valenti wrote everything apart from a couple of jams; Chuck Steaks is on organ and Mark Ryan on bass; and a horn section appears to fill out the sound. (JA)
Solid Silver (1975)
The title here is a little confusing; this is a new record and not a greatest hits (the band had already put out an Anthology disc). It features the original lineup, with Valenti but not Hopkins. (JA)