Mike Wilhelm - guitar, vocals; Dan Hicks - guitar, vocals; George Hunter - autoharp, percussion, vocals; Richard Olsen - bass, clarinet, flute, saxophone, vocals; Austin Delone - piano, organ; Josh Riskin - drums
Before bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service existed, the foundation of the psychedelic music scene that would blossom in San Francisco was being set by The Charlatans. Despite having no virtuoso musicians and little interest in improvisation, The Charlatans had a concept that would influence nearly every San Francisco band to follow. Architecture student, George Hunter, and his music major classmate, Richard Olsen, initiated the spark of this concept in 1964. Inspired by The British Invasion, The Beat Poets, the Old Wild West and LSD, The Charlatans would be the first San Francisco rock band to embrace style in everything they did, both on and off stage. Over the course of the next year, Hunter and Olsen would recruit guitarist Mike Wilhelm, pianist Mike Ferguson and drummer/songwriter Dan Hicks into the fold. Six wild weeks during the summer of 1965 would result in a new lifestyle when The Charlatans became the house band 200 miles north at Virginia City's Red Dog Saloon.
Growing their hair longer than The Beatles, wearing flashy clothing that embraced 19th century Victoriana and cowboy gear, and performing under the influence of LSD with a barrage of unconventional lighting, The Charlatans sowed the seeds that would bloom upon their return to San Francisco, where they would be embraced as rebellious pioneers of a whole new lifestyle. Despite being so influential, The Charlatans were decidedly different from many of the groups that would replicate their style and lifestyle. They were out to have fun, but they also considered themselves on a collective mission both musical and cultural. The Charlatans consciously created an identity as an American band and their music was an amalgam of their individual interests, which was by no means limited to rock & roll. The repertoire was wide-ranging and included traditional folk, blues, jug band, country and old-timey jazz songs performed on amplified instruments, in addition to their own eclectic originals. The fact that they were the first of the young San Francisco bands to seriously approach these wide-ranging traditional forms on electric instruments is important enough, but it was their dress, attitude and lifestyle that equally impacted so many of their peers.
Despite being one of the sparks that would ignite the San Francisco dance hall scene and eventually the Summer Of Love, The Charlatans never emitted a peace-and-love vibe. In keeping with their image, they even carried rifles on stage, and Hicks in particular often wrote songs fueled with sarcasm and cynicism, which was distinctly different than the hippie vibe rapidly emerging all around them. Although The Charlatans would enter the studio several times between 1966 and 1968, the inability of record executives to understand their concept, combined with their own disregard for any logical businesslike thinking, would result in only one obscure novelty single being released during the group's heyday. (Thankfully, this has been rectified by Rhino 30 years after the fact, as they issued a CD compilation of early demos titled The Amazing Charlatans in 1996.) By the time the media circus descended on San Francisco in 1967, the success of many of the bands that The Charlatans directly inspired would eclipse their own and it was only a matter of time before the lack of income took its toll. Hicks and Hunter soon departed and the remaining Charlatans, augmented by new members, would release their one and only self-titled album in 1969 that, despite having its moments, sounded quite dated by the time of its release and received little promotion. After a one-off farewell gig by the original quintet in 1969, The Charlatans were done, relegated to becoming a footnote in the history of San Francisco's psychedelic music scene, having never achieved the commercial success of the bands that followed in their footsteps.
In 1996, a documentary emerged entitled The Life and Times of the Red Dog Saloon (later issued on DVD as Rockin' at the Red Dog: The Dawn of Psychedelic Rock) that traced The Charlatans' early adventures in Virginia City and remains the definitive account of that seminal era. The following year, The Charlatans were finally recognized for their contribution to the San Francisco music scene at Cleveland's Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, which had just opened two years prior. In conjunction with this event, the original Charlatans reunited for a brief time (minus Michael Ferguson, who had passed away in 1979). Augmented by Mill Valley keyboard virtuoso Austin Delone (who played Ferguson's piano parts) and drummer Josh Riskin (who freed Hicks up to play guitar and sing his own songs), they did a series of secret practice shows at The Sweetwater in Mill Valley before tackling a higher profile reunion gig at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Summer Of Love as well as their own first Fillmore gigs. Until now, only ambient audience recordings of this event have ever circulated, but presented here is the soundboard direct recording made by the Bill Graham Presents crew of that memorable night.
The performance kicks off with Mike Wilhelm fronting the group on a spirited version of "Wabash Cannonball." Right from the start, The Charlatans are in good form and it's immediately obvious that they could have made no better choice than Austin Delone to fill Mike Ferguson's seat at the piano. Dan Hicks next leads the way into rock & roll versions of his own witty "Along Come A Viper" and "By Hook Or By Crook." Both of these songs would later surface in the acoustic repertoire of Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks and it's a delight to hear them played by The Charlatans with the original electric instrumentation.
Multi-instrumentalist Richie Olsen next takes the lead and plays clarinet on his own Charlatans classic, "When I Go Sailing By." One of the highlights of the 1969 album, this song's old-timey vibe and double entendre lyrics are typical of what set The Charlatans apart. It's also a treat to hear this performed with Hicks and Hunter, who were gone by the time it finally got recorded in the studio. George Hunter introduces "East Virginia Blues" next, which the band copped from The New Lost City Ramblers. With Hunter on autoharp and lead vocals and the rest of the group providing harmony vocals, they give this folk song The Charlatans treatment. This is followed by Wilhelm leading once again, this time on a galloping version of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." With Hunter taking on the persona of an English Dandy and Olsen again on clarinet, a campy version of "Stepping In Society" comes next followed by one of the truly psychedelic songs from their wide-ranging repertoire, the Hicks-penned "We're Not On The Same Trip." These are both remarkable performances that rival the studio recordings and it's hard to imagine either song having been performed better in their heyday.
Two songs never recorded by The Charlatans turn up next to end the first set. First up is a fine example of Mike Wilhelm's slide guitar prowess as he leads the band on a gritty "Black Mountain Blues." Jerry Garcia went on record as greatly admiring Wilhelm's slide work and this performance makes it easy to see why. The set concludes with Olsen continuing the bluesy mood on "Early In The Morning," on which he also contributes sax. This also has a nice vocal arrangement with the group providing a chorus response to Olsen's lead vocal and an impressive piano solo from Delone.
Not surprisingly, much of The Charlatans' most memorable material, as well as the most challenging to play, is saved for the second set. Dan Hicks gets things started again with a perfect blend of country, rock and sarcasm on his classic "How Can I Miss You If You Won't Go Away?" Once again, it's a thrill to hear this song in its original incarnation. Hunter again fronts the group as they perform the traditional "I Saw Her," with Olsen contributing flute to a delicate arrangement that recalls an English madrigal from a bygone century.
With Austin Delone providing the spooky organ background, The Charlatans next resurrect their big flop single for Kapp Records, a cover of The Coasters' "The Shadow Knows," complete with a humorous attempt at the quasi-radio voice introduction. Wilhelm's slide guitar and Hunter's autoharp also play critical roles on this Leiber & Stoller-penned novelty tune. A nice slow groove on Hicks' "My Old Timey Baby" surfaces next, followed by Wilhelm leading the way on "Blue Skies and Sunshine," two songs that never made it to a Charlatans recording session. The same can be said for the next two songs, as The Charlatans tackle the jug band number "On The Road Again" and Chuck Berry's "Around and Around," two songs that would also be covered by The Grateful Dead.
To close the set, The Charlatans perform their most revered song, "Alabama Bound," which they inform the audience was deemed the #2 psychedelic song of all time. Unfortunately, the tape stock runs out just shy of the 2-minute mark, capturing only the beginning of this song. The encore, however was captured in its entirety, as The Charlatans wrap up the night with the other side of their one and only single, a fine electrified arrangement of Robert Johnson's "32-20."
What is most striking about this performance is just how musically adept and entertaining The Charlatans actually were. Certainly they had become more experienced musicians by the time of this reunion and these performances are probably more consistently strong and focused than any from the band's heyday, but it's more than that. The musical diversity of this group and their obvious disregard for musical boundaries is indeed what made them "psychedelic," even more so than their use of LSD. Most of The Charlatans' repertoire consisted of short, tightly arranged songs, with little or no improvisations, but the sheer diversity of the material and the enthusiasm of the performances makes this live recording a delight from beginning to end. Over the course of the evening, The Charlatans perform virtually all of their best material as well as many choice covers from their live repertoire that were never pursued in the studio. Dan Hicks' material in particular is quite fascinating here, as most of it was later stripped down to acoustic arrangements for the Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks recordings. Here listeners are treated to several of his most revered songs performed in the original electric arrangements. A lot of credit also goes to Austin Delone, who wisely avoids any modern keyboard sounds, which not only keeps the performances true to the band's original vision, but actually prevents these performances from sounding like a Charlatans cover band. There is a genuine freshness and enthusiasm to these performances that is sure to delight any fan of the group, as well as any newcomers who ever wondered what made The Charlatans so unique and influential back in the days before The Summer Of Love.
-Written by Alan Bershaw
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