Tim Buckley Displays Adventurous Spirit Via ‘Bear’s Sonic Journals: Merry-Go-Round at the Carousel June 1968’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

In a life cut too short too abruptly, Tim Buckley was also just a bit overly idiosyncratic to ascend into the upper echelons of contemporary folk music. Yet, as much of an acquired taste they might be, his wide-ranging forays into jazz, psychedelia, funk, soul and avant-garde styles also present ample rewards in the hearing of them, albeit directly in proportion to the potential challenges of listening. Some eighty minutes taken from two shows at San Francisco’s mythic Ballroom in 1968, Bear’s Sonic Journals: Merry-Go-Round at the Carousel, is a snapshot of Buckley’s eclectics in action.

Recordings captured on tape by the late Owsley Stanley were transferred and mastered by Jeffrey Norman, a long-time technical collaborator with the Grateful Dead. Accordingly, as astutely sequenced as is this single CD, it clearly doesn’t take long for Tim to become lost in the moment(s)  during the first of two takes of ”Buzzin’ Fly.” Avid listeners will no doubt follow suit, entranced by the deceptive mix of resilience and fragility evident in what follows, the nine-plus minutes of  “I Don’t Need It to Rain.” The reappearance of the former tune later in these bakers’ dozen tracks will thus induce a welcome sense of grounding (as in ‘yes, I really did hear that!?’).

Merry-Go-Round at The Carousel is a clear picture indeed of a courageous artist nearing the full flush of his adventuresome spirit. Correctly apt in this context is Buckley’s willingness to push and pull with his voice, in effect utilizing it as another instrument: his vocals are tremendously effective in this mix of material, arrangements for which feature bass, percussion, and vibraphone. While not particularly mellifluous in his singing, Tim is nevertheless remarkably pliable with his phrasing and delivery, most notably (and fittingly) on “Strange Feelin’.”

Hearing this artist’s immersion in the mood, it is altogether apt to draw comparisons with Van Morrison and neither artist man will suffer for the equivalence. On the contrary, in his quest to draw in listeners, Tim may often sound more abandoned than The Belfast Cowboy (at least on the mythic LP Astral Weeks). Not only that but in extended segues like “Blue Love,” the father of Jeff Buckley is eminently confident in his own ability to hold the audience in the spell he casts. This is a projection of the most positive sort, not just on the part of the bandleader, but for all his accompanists too: when Carter “C.C.” Collins embarks on a percussion break, he maintains the momentum of the performance in progress.

In a further sign of synchronicity, this excerpt from the June 15th show catches Buckley playing “The Lonely Life,” which has never appeared on the many previous archival titles. Such a nugget resonates deeply alongside early versions of his own standards like “Happy Time,” as does a reverent cover of Fred Neil’s “Merry-Go-Round;” while Tim may have eschewed comparisons to contemporary peers such as Bob Dylan, here he was hardly averse to rightful homage to a somewhat unsung hero of the folk movement of the era. 

The four-part “Strange Feelin’ Suite” concluding June 1968 is also a bonafide rarity. But it flows as smoothly, mood-wise and otherwise, as the five selections from the first night, if not more so. Each clutch of tunes is akin to the soundtrack from a waking dream–no doubt a most eerie sensation for those in the room—but that only makes the warm glow from David Friedman’s vibraphone an even more comforting sound (in stark contrast with the ominous grating of  John Miller’s bass–is this Tim himself bowing it as journalist/author David Browne describes in his essay?).

The ardor of Buckley’s fans has grown exponentially over the years and will no doubt take a quantum leap with this release. As with the music itself, there’s an undeniable passion pervading the rest of the package, including the original cover art by Dennis Larkins plus, in a twenty-eight-page booklet, liner notes, and interviews with bassist John Miller, lyricist Larry Beckett, and Tim Buckley scholar Pat Thomas, among others on the curating team. As a result, this edition of Bear’s Sonic Journals is indeed the stuff of which essential archive titles are comprised.

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