If you’re reading this review, I expect you already know about Moby Grape. To make a long story short, the Grape, one of the most promising bands to emerge from San Francisco in the mid to late 1960s were beset from the git-go by extraordinary bad luck and poor management choices and they fell into obscurity even though their self-titled debut album is one of the most extraordinary first (or second or third or . . .) albums ever released. In 2006 they won a decades long legal fight with their original manager which allowed them to use and release recordings under their own name. Sundazed records immediately began releasing Moby Grape material. Live is the first “official” live album from the band – released 44 years after they formed in 1966.
If Moby Grape is a new band for you, their first album, Moby Grape, would be a much better place to start. Fans of the band will almost certainly enjoy Live as long as they understand what they are getting. The album collects 7 tracks recorded at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom in 1967, another track recorded at an unspecified location in SF in ’67, the band’s complete performance at the ’67 Monterey Pop Festival (none of which was included in the film), a 5-song Dutch radio broadcast from 1969, and “Dark Magic” a 17+ minute psychedelic jam recorded at the Avalon in 1966. With the exception of the ’67 Avalon tracks, everything is in mono. Skip Spence had fallen prey to mental illness and was no longer with the group at the time of the radio broadcast.
Recording quality varies from not-so-good to pretty-good. Overall it’s better than you might expect. At times you have to listen carefully to pull some of the instruments out of the murk but the effort is worth it. You’re getting this album for the music, not the recording quality, and the music is there.
Live makes it abundantly clear that Moby Grape were the real deal. Everything promised in that superb first album – the guitar interplay, the intricate vocals, the superior songwriting, all of it – was there in their live shows. Fans who are very familiar with the songs on the first album will be delighted with the riffs played on well-known musical and vocal passages and it becomes apparent that the versions of these songs immortalized on the album were just the versions they happened to play that day in the studio.
Moby Grape were introduced as a band that played carefully crafted and intensively practiced songs. Their guitars and vocals would have been outstanding on their own but it was the use of those elements in their markedly original songs that made Moby Grape a legend. The Grape were a band that worked the short form in a time and place where their contemporaries were given to extended jamming. Seen in this context, the 17+ minute “Dark Magic” is a revelation. The Grape were also highly accomplished as a jamming band.
Oh, what might have been. “Monterey Pop”, the film that introduced Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Otis Redding to a much wider audience, might have done the same thing for Moby Grape. Instead, the manager they fought (and continue to fight) in court for almost 50 years demanded ridiculous amounts of money for the Grape’s performance and film rights. The band were stuck with this guy but the festival organizers and the film’s producers were not. Moby Grape was originally scheduled to go on stage right before Otis Redding on Saturday night. Thanks to their manager they were slotted in as the opening act on Friday night when the venue was half empty and left completely out of the film. What should have been a story of widespread recognition and professional success became a story of lost opportunities, sadness and despair. Now, thanks to Sundazed Records and a court system that finally figured it ouy, we have the chance to hear what we should have heard decades ago and the music is just as thrilling now as it was then.
“Omaha” recorded live at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival
“Murder in My Heart for the Judge” (sans Skip Spence) recorded for a Dutch radio broadcast in 1969