With “I Was There When…,” veteran music journalist Doug Collette reflects on his experiences in the glory days of live rock music. With each column, he takes us back to a specific concert he attended way back when, spotlighting bands like The Who, Pink Floyd, and The Allman Brothers Band, among many others.
Saratoga Performing Arts Center; Saratoga, New York (July 30th, 1973)
Joe Walsh and Stephen Stills had been neighbors before they arranged this co-billing in the summer of 1973, and they each offered their own paeans to the mile-high state in their sets at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The latter’s “Colorado” was set in a context of ensemble craftsmanship that was easier to admire than be moved by — a capsule summary of his career with the band Manassas — while the former’s “Rocky Mountain Way” was the touchpoint of a seamless performance by a true band, Barnstorm, that challenged the attention span of the audience perhaps as much as it stretched the capabilities of the musicians themselves.
That’s because Walsh, bassist Kenny Passarelli, keyboardist Rock Grace, and drummer Joe Vitale pushed themselves far beyond the arrangements of songs from the two albums (Barnstorm and The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get) the leader had recorded since leaving the James Gang. In fact, Walsh and company’s musicianship was a logical extension of his work with the seminal American power trio, but the quartet upped the ante far beyond grand power chords and thundering crescendos (though those elements played an important part in the dynamics of the concert).
The foursome allowed space within the sound of their four instruments, even as they used high volume as a means to enhance the dynamics within their interactions. Walsh’s nasal voice, on the occasional vocals that opened and closed numbers, sounded like nothing so much as another instrument — albeit an idiosyncratic one comparable to the talk box he used on the aforementioned signature song. But it was the ringing clarity of his guitar that created the heavily atmospheric sounds in which he and his band members luxuriated, the rhythm section pushing forward insistently while the piano, organ and synthesizer ornamented through flashes of color and minimal texture. It was startling to hear — not just because of how loud it was, but how delicately these men played. It wasn’t much less revelatory to watch: There wasn’t the slightest iota of showmanship, grandstanding or otherwise.
The influential fusion of jazz and rock was only a couple years old at this point, but Joe and his group were nonetheless fearless in exploring this bold new territory, the confidence and authority as palpable in their individual contributions as the unity of the group. They ultimately earned the somewhat glib but nevertheless fairly apropos retrospective description as a “funky Mahavishnu” — even if they didn’t get much credit for their groundbreaking foray, in large part because Walsh didn’t persevere in this direction for very long, opting instead for the much more accessible elements of style including vocal harmonies (and a goofy persona) that took him on to much safer ground as his career evolved.
If the audience hadn’t known quite what to expect when Joe Walsh and Barnstorm took the stage of the venerated open-air venue, they might not have known what they just heard when the quartet was done. Which explains why, at least in part, the response was somewhat hushed when the openers departed and the titular headliners took over shortly thereafter. The future guitarist for the Eagles and his anonymous cohorts had stolen a show from one of the era’s highest profile stars on this beautiful, balmy mid-summer night at SPAC — in fact, the more famous name couldn’t wholly recover attention for himself and his accompanists, even when they included the able versatility of multi-instrumentalist Al Perkins and the redoubtable presence of former Byrd Chris Hillman. Stephen Stills and Manassas did perform an encore that night, but the anti-climax had already occurred roughly two hours prior.
Joe Walsh and Barnstorm – “Rocky Mountain Way” (on The Midnight Special)