Zero Feat. Steve Kimock Release Engrossing Live ’92 San Francisco Show as ‘Naught Again’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Guitarist Steve Kimock hasn’t so much flown under the radar of contemporary rock as planned inside, outside, around, and through it. His most high-profile position may have been in the post-Grateful Dead group The Other Ones, assembled in the wake of Jerry Garcia’s death, but he’s led more than a few alliances under his own name–see 2017’s Satellite City–and was also the co-founder of the band Zero along with drummer Greg Anton and Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist John Cipollina,  

Active since its inception in the Eighties and Nineties, the group has been populated by more than a few luminaries of the West Coast music community, including long-time JGB bassist John Kahn and Jefferson Starship/Jorma Kaukonen keyboardist Pete Sears, and their work on stage is now documented on a double-CD set titled, with no small touches of wry irony, Naught Again. Recorded by long-time Dead audio expert Dan Healy (with Don Pearson) at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall in October of 1992 (then mixed to maintain both depth and clarity by one-time Weather Report audio guru Brian Risner), music that first took shape in the instrumental form here benefits appreciably by its coupling with lyrics from the late, much-esteemed American poet Robert Hunter. 

The long-time songwriting collaborator of the Grateful Dead’s late titular leader provides a tongue-in-cheek intro (plus epilogue) to the ensemble’s performance. A colorful tapestry of sound unfurls, shaded not only by Kimock’s electric guitar but also by the spiraling saxophone lines splayed forth with no little soul by Martin Fierro; now deceased, the man with the horn had the distinction of membership in the mythic band Legion of Mary as well as more than a few of the eclectic endeavors led by late Texas Tornado (Sir) Doug Sahm.

In the heads, hearts, and hands of a lesser unit than Zero, “Cole’s Law” might well be the grand finale of a stellar set. Yet as anchored here by the steadfast Anton, it is but a precursor of more exploratory improvisations to come. After a brief billowing interlude, “Tangled Hangers” is a work of densely-plotted changes embellished with a knowing collective light-touch: an abiding fluidity may, in fact, be the hallmark of Zero. The musicians are in constant forward motion, yet, there is never any sense of hurry, as is the case with the altogether too brief interlude highlighting British expatriate pianist Nicky Hopkins (Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Who). 

This is all assertive improvisation without inordinate digressions and, as such, is equal parts provocative, enlightening and engrossing, effects reaffirmed by the rapt audience response at certain transitions. The modified twelve-bar number called “End of the World Blues” furthers the seemingly rapid passage of this ninety-minute total duration of this Omnivore Recordings release: lead singer Judge Murphy intones the post-apocalyptic but nonetheless personally relevant imagery in Hunter’s poetry with gruff, resolute defiance. It’s a vocal rendering that, with its staunch accompaniment, is as down-to-earth as other numbers are lofty, yet of a piece with what precedes and what follows. These players have clearly honed those lessons learned in the fundamentals of pacing and dynamics prior to this musical amalgamation.

Source material in such erudite education also appears on CD two in the form of some courageous covers. Keyboardist/vocalist Vince Welnick brought “Baba O’Riley,” Pete Townshend’s anthem for the Who, to the Dead earlier the very same year of this performance and if this Zero take isn’t so overtly dramatic (or extended) as those of the iconic psychedelic warriors or the English foursome’s, it nevertheless proceeds apace from the ambiance of “Gregg’s Egg’s” that turns into such a fast-paced romp. Steve Kimock never unduly holds the spotlight during such moments, but it is the elegant finesse of his guitar work pointing the way toward a formidable segue to the late guitar god Jimi Hendrix’ “Little Wing.” 

Subsequently covered with no little majesty by the Eric Clapton-led (and Duane Allman bolstered) Derek and the Dominos, this doleful take is an object lesson in contemporary rock history from Zero, whose work on Naught Again, especially in the form of the bracing jam piece “Golden Road” and the celebratory “Tear Tags Off Mattresses,” rightly stands as a redoubtable work-in-progress toward that same honorable end. Little wonder this band is touring again, albeit in modified form. In a reflection of an especially eye-pleasing package (oddly lacking in historical annotation, however), this aggregation transcends easy comparisons to their hallowed contemporaries and further suggests it has merely scratched the surface of the stories they could tell. 

As Murphy posits on “Roll Me Over,” the penultimate track of a baker’s dozen here: ‘…it’s not my intention to call your bluff… but hanging it up ain’t good enough…’ 

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