I Was There When…Joe Walsh & Barnstorm Stole Stephen Stills’ Thunder in 1973

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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)

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13 thoughts on “I Was There When…Joe Walsh & Barnstorm Stole Stephen Stills’ Thunder in 1973

  1. jeff Middaugh Reply

    I saw Joe and Co. at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle about that time, was struck by how clear and pure the sound of the band was, I agree with you, truly a fine performance. The opening act was Stories, man they sucked, Joe and Co. cleaned the stage with them. Saw Al Stewart there a couple of weeks later, great time for music. Rock on!

  2. Alan Reply

    Never got to see him live, but I have always been a fan of live albums- so when I was in the record store one day in maybe ’78, I picked up the 8-track (yes) of “You Can’t Argue With a Sick Mind” to get a live version of “Rocky Mountain Way”. I have since owned that album in every format made (still have the vinyl too), and it goes to 11 every time I listen to it. The version of “Turn to Stone” is worth the price of admission by itself.

  3. kenne meier Reply

    Walsh’s album was titled The Smoker You Drink The Player You Get.

  4. Leif Williams Reply

    Nice tribute to Joe Walsh when he was at the absolute height of his creative powers. ‘The Smoker …’ was an act of sheer genius. One more correction (in addition to the incorrectly stated LP title by the author): the fusion of jazz and rock had been around far longer than “a couple years” by this point (’73). It’s almost as if the author hadn’t heard of huge acts like Chicago Transit Authority or Blood, Sweat & Tears, and that is merely the tip of the iceberg … Either way, nice to see the Walsh/Barnstorm assemblage get a bit of their due. Kudos.

  5. Dave Reply

    Saw most of the Fillmore west acts in late 60’s.. My band is better than your band is a lame subject. When it comes to 60’s Jazz rock.. Joe has a ways to go to catch up with Jeff beck
    Fist time I heard the beck blues band, rod Stewart was the singer. A year later Maggie May was on the radio and everyone knew who rod was.. One of the greatest shows at Fillmore was the Ike and Tina turner review..

  6. Bob Wired1 Reply

    Simple words, simple chords, heavy effects, some “fusion” of sound, maybe—but truly a glorified and dressed up version of the rawer James Gang sound. Thank God Joe got Sober, I think he killed a lot of brain cells and almost himself along the way. Stills?—too soft of a sound when put up next to Barnstorm–unfair comparison. Two totally different sounds, genres, etc. Both good, in that time period for the sounds they rep’d.

    Nice intro by Richard Pryor. Midnight Special about all we had back then if you couldnt see it LIVE. And seeing it LIVE back then was a Must…Whoever said the Ike and Tina Turner Review was best, is right—circa 1971, 2,3—man what a Show—often imitated, never duplicated.

    • Tony Scantlin Reply

      I’ had the great pleasure of seeing Joe Walsh and Barnstorm in those days and have seen him play few times since. Always a bad ass guitar player Walsh had the best of players to back him up and still remember, even all these years later, that the music was the show. In those days of Alice Cooper and Jethro Tull and the rest if the theatrical performance rock circuses, Joe Walsh and his band did nothing but play and man did they play! Joe Walsh looked like a kid with a guitar and a cowboy hat. For the whole performance you only saw his face when he stepped up to the mike to sing and the rest of the time you’d only see the top of his hat as he wrapped his whole self around that guitar when he went to work. He is still great fun to watch and I’m 61 years old now.
      I’ve seen Stills too with Crosby,Stills, and Nash several times too, from Red Rocks to Dallas Starplex and Stills is one of the all time greatest too. At Red Rocks he got his best solo off sitting an one of the monitor speakers out front on the stage with a 10 minute acoustic break on a Guild guitar for Suite Judy Blue Eyes. In Dallas he did a solo version of his own classic For What It’s Worth on an ancient Gibson Flying V. The guitar and Stephen Stills combined made for one if the most memorable performances of my 40+ years of Rock-N-Roll concerts.

    • steve-o Reply

      Manassas was a force to be reckoned with in the early 70s. Having seen both them and Barnstorm, I would favor Stills’ band, as he played way more guitar solos than Joe, and his band was tighter. Manassas’ show was also about twice as long.

  7. LJB Reply

    Well first, Rocky Mountain Way is one of the top 5 songs from Joe Walsh (who is great). Colorado is a throw away song for Stephen Stills. Stephen probably doesn’t remember writing it. With that said, Colorado does grow on you the more you listen to it.

  8. Bruce Pike Reply

    The song that stole the show that tour was “Turn to Stone”. He later performed it almost as well with the Eagles. Roy Buchanon and a couple of others covered it. “Turn to Stone” was proggy with majestic power chords and a lot of quiet to loud transitions. It is easily my favorite Joe Walsh composition and he has his fair share of good songs.

  9. John Ulysses Reply

    I was at that show in Saratoga, I was 14 and it was my first rock concert. I remember how loud Joe’s amps were, I was blown away as I only ever heard music on cheap stereos before then.

  10. franco Reply

    I was also there at Saratoga that night in ’73. My friends and I saw many concerts there…Stills played there every year and we saw him 3 or 4 tiimes…always a great concert. But for some reason, we were running late that night and wouldn’t you know it, the concert started on time (for once). And we missed Joe Walsh. But I got to see him in 2012 and he was fantastic.

  11. Tsip Reply

    I saw Joe and Co. in the early/mid 70’s in Austin. An unknown (to ME) Lynyrd Skynyrd opened for them. I was so glad the guy next to me offered me some “mood enhancer”. That was the best show I’ve ever seen and at my age that says a lot. I also listened to the “So What” album so much that I bought spare copies from the cut-out bins in the record store for when I put too many scratches on the one I listened to.

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