David Lindley - lead guitar, vocals; Solomon Feldthouse - guitar, oud, vocals; Chester Crill - harmonica; Stuart Brotman - bass, vocals; Paul Lagos - drums
Of all the groundbreaking bands of the 1960s, few developed a repertoire more wide-ranging and eclectic than the Los Angeles-based group Kaleidoscope. Existing from 1966 to 1970, the group released four albums during those years, but the combination of non-existent label support, questionable management, and a repertoire that defied categorization all contributed to a lack of commercial success. Kaleidoscope's albums never reached a wide listening audience and with the exception of early underground radio listeners and attendees of the group's live performances, Kaleidoscope remained generally unappreciated during their existence.
Categorizing Kaleidoscope's music is next to impossible, but the wide-ranging diversity of the group's music can be attributed to limitless musical experimentation and a group founded on a leaderless principle. The music that Kaleidoscope created can be traced to the various backgrounds of its members, most notably David Lindley and Solomon Feldthouse, the two guitarists in the group, both of who were adept at many stringed instruments.
Lindley, a founding member of the group, who eventually would receive the most recognition later in his career, also had the most previous experience. Lindley had played in a number of bands and served as a studio musician for several labels prior to the formation of Kaleidoscope. A gifted guitarist and banjo player, Lindley formed the group in Los Angeles in 1966 as the Baghdad Blues Band, joined by Solomon Feldthouse, another gifted multi-instrumentalist born in Ismet, Turkey. In addition to playing guitar, fiddle, dulcimer, and dobro, Feldthouse introduced more exotic stringed instruments into the mix, like vina, oud, doumbeg, and bouzouki and brought a distinct Eastern influence to the group's sound long before most Americans had ever heard the likes of Ravi Shankar. Bass player, Chris Darrow, another founding member, added vintage jazz, R&B, bluegrass, country, blues, and jug band elements to the mix. They were joined by harmonica player Chester Crill (who went by various other names, including Templeton Parcely and Max Buda on the releases) and drummer John Vidican. The group's live performances attracted the attention of Epic Records, who signed the group in 1966. Changing their name to Kaleidoscope, they recorded their first single, released at the tail 1966, which immediately went nowhere.
Over the course of the next two years, the group established itself as one of the most experimental and adventurous bands in America, releasing their debut album, Side Trips in June of 1967 and its follow-up, Beacon From Mars, the following year. These first two albums reflected the group's great musical diversity and their live performances included improvisational jams that floored many a listener, including many other musicians who would claim Kaleidoscope as an influence (including Jimmy Page). Despite receiving favorable album reviews and critical acclaim as a live band, the albums sold poorly and were lost amidst the flood of psychedelic music being released in the wake of the Beatles Sgt Pepper album.
By the time of the group's third album in 1969, Incredible Kaleidoscope, the rhythm section of Darrow and Vidican had been replaced by Stuart Brotman and Paul Lagos, who temporarily rejuvenated the group. This third album continued the eclectic experimentation of the earlier albums, again featuring Eastern-influences, blues, rock, country, a psychedelicized traditional ballad, and the highly experimental "Seven-Ate Sweet," which would serve as another impressive vehicle for improvisation during live performances. Again, the album was generally ignored and this recurring pattern further fueled the internal problems that would lead to the band's demise over the course of the next year. One final album, titled Bernice, was recorded next, with funk bass player Ron Johnson replacing Brotman and a new singer, Jeff Kaplan, on board, but it clearly displayed a band struggling and on its last legs. The bands label made the situation worse, by refusing to release several of the tracks that reflected the group's sense of humor and their political opinions, deeming them too controversial. Unsurprisingly, shortly after the release of Bernice in 1970, the group called it quits and went their separate ways.
Which brings us to this extremely rare live recording of Kaleidoscope, recorded shortly after the release of their third album, Incredible Kaleidoscope, performing before an intimate hometown audience at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles. With so few live recordings of the group known to exist, this will be a revelation to scholars and hardcore fans of the group, as it captures the band at a transitional time. A new rhythm section was now in place and the group was in a most challenging and experimental live phase, achieving mixed results in the process.
The recording begins surprisingly, with the composition destined to be the lengthy substitution track for all the tracks that Epic would refuse to release on Bernice the following year. Titled "New Blue Ooze," this composition would become the final track on their final album. This unusual composition has always been perceived as something tossed together at the last minute to fulfill contractual obligations, but clearly here it is, months prior to the Bernice sessions beginning. While it lacks the inventiveness of much of their earlier experimentation, this is the 1969 lineup at its most improvisational and challenging and the piece clocks in at twice the length of the eventually released studio version. The basic structure of the composition is the same as what they eventually recorded, beginning with a bass improvisation by Stuart Brotman, with Paul Lagos establishing a pulse on his bass drum approximately three minutes in. A minute or two later, Chester Crill joins in on harmonica, adding some bluesy flavor to the proceedings. At exactly the seven-minute mark, Lindley joins in for four solid minutes of blazing overdriven fuzz-drenched guitar, followed by Fieldthouse on oud introducing an Eastern raga-flavoring. While, Brotman and Lagos maintain the simple steady pulse, Fieldthouse and Lindley develop their improvisations over the next several minutes, eventually dropping back out around the 14-minute mark, at which point, Brotman maintains the beat on bass while Lagos begins an improvisation on drums for several minutes. This piece defies categorization up to this point and it's not until 20 minutes in that they actually count in and almost perversely play anything resembling an actual song. The whole band playing together lasts less than a minute before concluding this lengthy experiment.
Appropriately enough, the set continues with one of the songs "New Blue Ooze" was rumored to have replaced on the Bernice album; "I'm White And I'm Liberal," a song which typifies the sense of humor and political bent that struck fear into their label. In retrospect, it's not difficult to see why the label refused to release this song, as it is essentially a parody of the James Brown funk anthem, Say It Loud - I'm Black & I'm Proud (which had been released the previous year) played by white musicians having a laugh. Full of funk clichés and catchphrases of the day, this is not without hilarious moments, most notably during a brief jam where they say "this is how they do it at the Fillmore" and during the wacky ending that includes a musical quote from the song Born Free, a blockbuster movie of the era. These elements and references to TV shows like Mod Squad clearly date this number and reduce it to a product of the times.
With Feldthouse on lead vocals and featuring another dose of Lindley's stinging overdriven lead guitar, "Cuckoo" is an old traditional folk song transformed into a raunchy psychedelic blues, reminiscent of early Captain Beefheart. Here Kaleidoscope's high level of musicianship, combined with exotic eclecticism, works in a most engaging manner and this final song of the set is also the most musically satisfying.
Written by Alan Bershaw
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