Posts Tagged ‘Mercury Records’

In 1978, after three excellent but commercially underperforming albums for the Mercury label, British rocker Graham Parker was fed up with being “the best kept secret in the west,” as the lyrics to his acerbic “fuck you” song “Mercury Poisoning” had it. “The company is crippling me/The worst trying to ruin the best/Their promotion’s so lame/They could never ever take it to the real ball game,” he sang. Parker, with the encouragement of his manager Dave Robinson, had no problem burning bridges behind him.

Already signed to Clive Davis’ Arista label in a deal Parker later said had “way too much money in it than was healthy,” he satisfied his Mercury commitment with the live double-album The Parkerilla and went into London’s seedy Lansdowne Studios to record his Arista debut with his usual five-piece band of co-conspirators, the Rumour.

Despite being pals, the Rumour had been unimpressed when Parker played them a slew of new songs he’d prepared while on the road, and openly mocked him.

Jack Nitzsche, who’d worked as Phil Spector’s right-hand man for years, and contributed to sessions by the Rolling Stones, Buffalo Springfield and the solo Neil Young, was brought in to produce on the strength of his work supervising Mink Deville’s first two albums. Parker later described his arrival: “Jack Nitzsche, gnome-like under a hooded sweatshirt, disgruntled at being torn away from an interesting tryst in Los Angeles, and utterly mystified as to who I was, what we were, why he was here in miserable London.”

The Rumour consisted of fugitives from three “pub-rock” groups of the mid-’70s, Brinsley Schwarz, Ducks Deluxe and Bontemps Roulez. Steve Goulding played drums, Andrew Bodnar bass, Bob Andrews keyboards, and Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont were the guitarists. They were all experienced, confident musicians, and Nitzsche hated them immediately, feeling their playing was messy and their commitment to GP wobbly. “The band are terrible, they’re not serious about playing your songs,” Parker quotes him as saying. Parker replied, “I know they overplay the whole time. I’ve had three albums of it! Tell us what to do!” Parker said he needed the Rumour to play like they were in a studio, not on stage, and “get everything simple, like a heartbeat.”

It took a day or two for Nitzsche to take the reins in a come-to-Jesus meeting with the band. As Parker told New Musical Express’ Charles Shaar Murray just before the resulting album was released in late March 1979, “The next day, he came in and had a few beers and loosened up and got into being Jack Nitzsche the producer. He just said a few words that got it all going. ‘You’re being too clever. You gotta be dumb. Play the song the way you did when you were writing it in your bedroom.’”

Once they were clicking, it only took 11 days to complete the album, which doesn’t have a weak song or performance, and continues to be cited as Parker’s greatest achievement. Titled “Squeezing Out Sparks” after a lyric in the searing tale of abortion and regret “You Can’t Be Too Strong,” the album topped the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop critics’ poll for 1979 and drew comparisons to the best of Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello. Lyrically sophisticated, full of alternating vitriol and tenderness, it still excites on all levels. “Squeezing Out Sparks” transcends the medium,” Parker told journalist Scott Hudson years later with characteristic humour. “I don’t think there’s anything as good as that by anybody anywhere. And I don’t even take credit for it. I don’t know what happened. I blacked out.”

“Discovering Japan” begins with a sort of fanfare, then settles into a potent rhythm over which Parker snarls his widescreen lyrics: “Her heart is nearly breaking, the earth is nearly quaking/The Tokyo taxi’s breaking, it’s screaming to a halt/And there’s nothing to hold onto when gravity betrays you/And every kiss enslaves you.” Nitzsche and his engineer Mark Howlett capture every contour of the sound, from ringing guitars to Goulding’s insistent drumming. On the whole of Squeezing Out Sparks there’s no horn section or extra instruments as on previous Parker albums, just focused small band arrangements, with virtually no soloing. Elvis Costello and the Attractions were using the same kind of no-frills policy at the time, with equally spectacular results, essentially combining a punk aesthetic with high-level musicianship. Graham Parker and the Rumour have a similar antsy, anxiety-filled sound, with a vocalist who can sneer with the best.

“Local Girls” has a Chuck Berry-meets-Stax chugging rhythm (yielding to reggae at one point), a catchy chorus with everyone shout-singing back-up, and a rising little melodic hook that moves from guitar to keyboard. “Nobody Hurts You” has a fast, very peppy stop-and-start rhythm that sounds like the template for Joe Jackson’s subsequent career. Belmont and Schwarz lay down some terrific, simple guitar lines. “Saturday Nite Is Dead” is like its twin, at a similarly bruising pace. There’s a bit of a mini-Yardbirds freakout midway, but like everything else here it’s concise, and the momentum doesn’t flag. Parker’s typically cranky lyrics punch out: “The ultraviolet light hurts me so/It used to be my friend/I used to know a good place to go/But now it’s nothing like it was then.”

“Passion Is No Ordinary Word” is a mid-tempo tune that has an especially spontaneous feel. Parker really bites into certain couplets: “When I pretend to touch you/You pretend to feel,” “The movie might be new/But it’s the same soundtrack.” The song has a truly great bridge section: “Everything’s a thrill and every girl’s a kill/And then it gets unreal and then you don’t feel anything.” Schwarz has too many great moments to count, many coloured by various effects pedals. The ending is chilling, as instruments drop out, the tempo wanes and Parker goes into a near whisper.

Another mid-tempo track, “Love Gets You Twisted,” fades in weirdly before the slamming, jagged rhythm takes over and Parker shouts the minimal lyrics, which obsessively revolve around the same message, that love is confusing: “Love gets you twisted inside out/I knew it existed, I had no doubt/When she’s in my arms/I get tangled up, it’s true/I can’t see the other point of view.”

“Protection” is mutant reggae, with Bob Andrews pulling out a series of Steve Nieve-like interjections on piano and Belmont/Schwarz doing a potent lead/rhythm dance. (According to the liner credits, Parker plays some rhythm guitar on the album, but there’s no telling where, so he might be in here too.) Like a few other tracks on the album, there’s an effective use of double-tracking Parker’s voice, allowing him to sing and react to himself, as if there’s just too much to say for one man.

“Waiting for The UFO’s” begins with a guitar riff that approximates a police or air-raid siren, and there’s a nifty snare-drum figure from the reliable Goulding. GP’s lyrics are among his most cynical: “People are not worth their life now, they are obsolete/We’re dying to be invaded and put the blame on something concrete.” There’s even an anti-love-song lurking in the lines “This new obsession is turning us alien too/Much more resounding my heart just stopped pounding for you.” The pronunciation of UFO as “U-fow” no doubt confounded some American listeners: it definitely helped the flow of the words to use the British diction.

“Don’t Get Excited” ends the album, with Andrews on a variety of keyboards (including electric piano and a cheesy-sounding garage-rock organ). The middle section builds into intense drama, with Schwarz’s lead guitar unleashed for one of the few breaks that might actually be considered a solo. The pounding repetition of “don’t get excited” with the lyrics and rhythm melded fades out and the LP’s over with a bang.

Up until now I’ve omitted mentioning the lone true ballad, the immensely moving “You Can’t Be Too Strong,” which lays unobtrusively in the track listing like a camouflaged bomb. It sports perhaps Parker’s best vocal ever, with a palpable pain showing as the protagonist asks a series of brutal questions to his lover, who’s just aborted his child: “Did they tear it out with talons of steel/And give you a shot, so that you wouldn’t feel?/And washed it away as if it wasn’t real?” Parker described “You Can’t Be Too Strong” to Murray: “Just acoustic guitar, piano and a bit of bass on it. Most of the songs were first takes after we got into playing it like I wrote it. I’m not disguising so much…I’m singing about what cuts you up and what doesn’t cut you up. The songs are more honest.”

Normally, Parker named his albums after song titles, although this time he toyed with calling it “The Basingstoke Canal” after a waterway connecting to the Thames River, about 30 miles from where he was born in the London area of Hackney (he originally thought he’d write a concept album about the London suburbs). But then he woke up one morning with “You Can’t Be Strong” going through his head: “I know it gets dark down by Luna Park/But everybody else is squeezing out a spark/That happened in the heat, somewhere in the dark.”

Squeezing Out Sparks made it to #40 on the Billboard album chart and #18 in the U.K., and sold respectably. “Local Girls” was released as a U.S. single but didn’t chart, although it and several other tracks found considerable airplay on the FM dial. Parker made three more albums for Arista before wandering from label to label for the next 40 years, including time at Elektra, RCA, Capitol, Bloodshot and Razor & Tie. In 1996 Arista reissued Squeezing Out Sparks on CD with the excellent promo-only Live Sparks appended, and in 2019 Parker re-recorded the whole album “solo acoustic” for its 40th anniversary, adding for old time’s sake “Mercury Poisoning,” still a fan favourite.

Parker has announced a new live album, Five Old Souls, recorded in 2018 with his backing band, The Goldtops, and the return of the Rumour Brass. 

Spirit were a highly regarded rock band that achieved modest commercial success, charting 11 albums in the U.S. between 1968 and 1977. Founded in Los Angeles in 1967 by musicians who had a mixture of rock, pop, folk, blues, classical, and jazz backgrounds, and who ranged in age from 16 to 44, the group had an eclectic musical style in keeping with the early days of progressive rock; they were as likely to play a folk ballad featuring finger picked acoustic guitar, a jazz instrumental full of imaginative improvisation, or a driving rhythm tune dominated by acid rock electric guitar playing.

Most people got to know the band Spirit because of their belated and ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit alleging that Led Zeppelin plagiarized part of “Stairway to Heaven” from their tune “Taurus”. That’s a very sad legacy for a quirky crew of visionaries whose guitarist was mentored by Jimi Hendrix and who created an original sound that embraced everything from psychedelia to jazz rock. They deserve to be remembered as more than a legal anecdote.
Spirit is almost certainly the only band of the psychedelic era whose story actually starts in the 1930s. That’s when their oldest member, drummer Ed Cassidy (born 1923), began his musical career. By the mid ’60s, he had played everything from big-band music to country, and had backed up jazz giants like Gerry Mulligan, Roland Kirk, and Cannonball Adderley. After playing with a young Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal in pioneering L.A. blues-rock band The Rising Sons, Cassidy looked closer to home for musical mates. It turned out that his girlfriend Bernice Pearl (whom he would marry in 1965) had a teenage son who was something of a guitar prodigy.

Randy Wolfe was just 13 when he started playing with his future stepfather in The Red Roosters. Pearl’s brother Ed was the owner of the Ash Grove, the legendary Los Angeles club where some of the greatest folk and blues figures appeared on a regular basis, so Wolfe had gotten guitar tips from the likes of Sleepy John Estes and Mance Lipscomb early days. Two other founding members of Spirit were from the Red Roosters too: singer Jay Ferguson and bassist Mark Andes. But the band abruptly ended when Cassidy, Pearl, and Wolfe moved across the country to Queens, New York in 1966.

Wolfe, then just 15 but already showing signs of greatness, ended up performing with Jimmy James & The Blue Flames, led by an unknown but wildly gifted guitarist making a name for himself on the Greenwich Village scene. The man the world would soon come to know as Jimi Hendrix took Wolfe under his wing, teaching him some tricks of the trade and even giving him his stage name: Randy California, to distinguish him from another Randy in the band.

It was pretty heady stuff for a kid California’s age. And when he wasn’t playing in the Village, he was giving guitar lessons to his neighbor Walter Becker, who would go on to form Steely Dan. But the egocentric behavior that would come to plague California in years to come is said to have started in his days as a Blue Flame. Depending on which story you believe, California stayed behind when Hendrix made the trip to England that would eventually lead to stardom One night at the Café Au Go Go, California starts playing slide using the neck of a sawn-off 7-Up bottle while James/Hendrix guns down a fat riff. Suddenly the kid reaches across to his boss’s guitar and spins the volume control down to zero. Hendrix throws a fit, flings his Stratocaster across the room and walks out on to the street. A tentative invitation from Jimi for Randy to join him on his maiden visit to London is withdrawn.

In either case, Cassidy, his wife, and his stepson moved back to L.A. in 1967, where the Red Roosters regrouped as Spirits Rebellious, bringing jazz keyboardist John Locke into the fold as well. Shortening that name to Spirit, they delineated their new, ambitious agenda to forge a free-flowing sound that could incorporate jazz, rock, folk, and anything else they cared to explore. Southern California in 1967 was about as hospitable an environment for such ambitions as one could want.

Like a lot of bands in those days, Spirit lived communally, sharing a house in Topanga Canyon. One of their housemates happened to be a young record collector named Barry Hansen, who would find fame in the ’70s as radio personality Dr. Demento. But at the time, his deep musical knowledge made him a guiding light for the band, and he oversaw the demo that got them signed to Ode Records, the imprint of producer Lou Adler.

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Spirit (1968)

Adler, who had recently become a key architect of the era’s West coast sound through his work with The Mamas & The Papas, produced Spirit’s self-titled 1968 debut album, Though the band was unhappy with the orchestral arrangements Adler gave some of the tunes, the record would eventually come to be regarded as one of the great sonic statements of its day. From the very first track, the album exploded with eclecticism and offbeat inspiration.

The lead-off track to Spirit’s 1968 debut album comes out of nowhere and sounds like nothing else out there at the time. The closest relatives to the style of the song would probably be Love or the Doors, but with a touch of Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention thrown in. Even that doesn’t quite tell the story of the sound here.

It’s psychedelic to be sure, Fresh Garbage is a quirky, almost comedic variant on the ecological themes of the time, and it shifts organically from Latinate rhythms to distorted rock riffs to straight-ahead jazz and back again, with California’s liquid but larger-than-life guitar lines leading the way. From the moody, orchestrated art-rock landscape of Mechanical World to the hooky psych pop of Uncle Jack  ‘Spirit’ is pretty much a perfect debut, with Ferguson and California seamlessly sharing lead vocal duties and the band establishing a singular sonic fingerprint. Though no real hits emerged from the record, it did manage to make its way to No. 31 on the U.S. album chart.

‘Girl in Your Eye’ Very much of its era, lets loose with a flood of sitar-laced sounds. The song, however, is strong enough to hold its own and conquer any ‘period piece’ daggers you want to throw at it. A beautiful melody carries this one along while the sitar gives way to a biting guitar solo from unsung six-stringer Randy California who drives this deeper into lysergic territory. Come along for the ride, the weather’s fine.

The Family That Plays Together (1968)

The second album, The Family That Plays Together, followed in December 1968.

One of the album’s deeper cuts, the shimmering instrumental “Taurus,” would make headlines more than four decades later. On December 26th, 1968, an unknown Led Zeppelin, preparing for the release of their own debut album, played their first American show, opening up for Spirit. In 1971, Zeppelin, who had been known to insert the riff from “Fresh Garbage” into their early shows and would eventually become notorious for appropriating other artists’ material without credit or compensation, released a little tune called “Stairway to Heaven” bearing an acoustic guitar intro uncannily similar to “Taurus.” But the copyright infringement suit that was finally filed in 2014 failed.

Spirit’s innovations continued apace on The Family That Plays Together released at the end of ’68. Besides encompassing everything from Jewish —California’s nod to his background based on a Hebrew hymn—to the delicate chamber pop of Drunkard the album contained the band’s only real brush with mainstream fame. I Got a Line on You is probably the most straightforward rocker in the Spirit catalog, and undeniably among the most infectious, with its surging momentum and stinging guitar. It became the band’s only Top 40 single and helped the album make it to No. 22, a career peak.

Unlike the vocal-free atmospherics of “Taurus,” “I Got a Line on You” featured harmony galore, straddling the line between the soulful hard rock that was on the rise at the end of the Sixties and the lingering traces of peace-and-love trippiness that still informed California’s supple guitar work. California’s voice is gutsy and melodic, helping to propel the single to success.

‘Dream Within a Dream’ from the second album is one of the few that retains the more psychedelic overtones from their debut disc. showcasing the incredible guitar work of Randy California. Perfectly produced by the legendary Lou Adler, this Jay Ferguson composition has it all — a great arrangement, stellar instrumental interplay and beautiful lyrics. The harmonies have an almost Association-like feel to them, but California’s piercing guitar running throughout makes it unique.

Clear Spirit (1969)

In 1969, the band made its foray into the film world, scoring Model Shop for French New Wave director Jacques Demy of Umbrellas of Cherbourg fame. Spirit made an appearance in the movie as well, and Ferguson was even given a few lines. But the film was a flop and the soundtrack album didn’t see the light of day until 2005.The work Spirit did on the score wasn’t a total loss at the time, though; a number of tracks were re-purposed for the band’s third album, “Clear” which consequently ended up being the most intriguingly atmospheric of their releases. In retrospect it also paved the way for Spirit’s true tour de force.

Spirit flaunted California’s parallel love of sci-fi. The song was named after George Orwell’s dystopian classic, and in its own way, the music is just as chilling. “1984/Knocking on your door,” California intones at the start of the track before it segues into an angular, almost mechanical bass line that sounds totally New Wave – more than a decade ahead of its time, as if the year 1984 really were knocking at Spirit’s door.

Not included on the band’s third album, ‘Clear,’ ‘1984’ was released as a single in late-1969 and tried to warn us of a future that may have seemed distant then, but was obviously not too far off. Another killer Randy California guitar solo makes this one a home run and its catchy-as-can-be chorus should have made this a hit. It didn’t and it wasn’t, but it’s still one of the band’s finest moments

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Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (1970)

The band hired David Briggs, who had worked on Neil Young’s albums, to produce its fourth LP. Sessions for that album commenced in April 1970, but they were interrupted when California suffered a fractured skull due to a fall from a horse and spent a month in the hospital. A single, Ferguson’s “Animal Zoo,” emerged in July and grazed the bottom of the charts, Another great track from the band’s fourth LP, a pretty straight ahead pop-rock and roll, at times coming off like a cross between the Kinks and Paul Revere and the Raiders, of all things. That’s a compliment by the way! This gem from the pen of Jay Ferguson has an ultra-catchy chorus that should have made this a big hit, but it ultimately took six months to complete the LP, released as Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus in November.

Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus can justifiably be considered Spirit’s Neil Young’s producer David Briggs, the band really strutted its stuff, tapping more fully than ever into California’s six-string bag of tricks, his and Ferguson’s complementary songwriting gifts, and the whole ensemble’s empathetic interplay.

The case for California’s as a guitar-hero status requires no more substantiation than his work on ‘Sardonicus’. Harnessing feedback, overdrive, slide, and sustain with the precision of a master jeweler while investing it all with his left-field psychedelic shaman vibe, California creates a guitar language that’s informed by the innovations of his old mentor Hendrix but exists in a self-created space all its own. And on tunes like the folkish environmental lament “Nature’s Way” and horn-punctuated, (named for Cassidy’s clean-shaved cranium), California and Ferguson were pushing their compositional powers to their peak. Toss in forward-looking excursions like John Locke’s cosmic electro-jazz journey Space Child and it all adds up to the brightest moment in Spirit’s career, not to mention hippie-era rock in general.

The year, the band released its magnum opus, “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus”. Ambitious, multi-layered and sprawling – at the time, Rolling Stone raved that the album “lay languidly upon the very steps to Parnassus” – it produced the single “Nature’s Way,” which became a Spirit staple. It’s not hard to see why. Over a driving acoustic guitar, California pleads, “It’s nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong” – sounding favorably like fellow Angeleno Arthur Lee of Love, one of Spirit’s closest contemporaries. The coughing at the end of the song is reminiscent of the coughing at the start of Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf,” released a year later,

Mr. Skin – which became the title of the b-side of “Nature’s Way.” Starting with a staccato organ-and-guitar salvo, the song eases into a brass-punctuated, cowbell-happy jam that mythologizes Cassidy’s alter ego. The song proved to be so popular among fans,

In between the recording and release of ‘Sardonicus’, Randy California fall from a horse, fracturing his skull. He was down for the count for a while, and during that time, he started snorting epic amounts of cocaine and going a bit crazy (or crazier) to boot. Mark Andes has stated that California was forever changed by this period, and not for the better. There had already been friction between the guitarist and his bandmates before, but after the accident things worsened drastically, almost coming to the point of an onstage punch-up before Andes and Ferguson finally quit to start the much more conventional-sounding (and briefly successful) Jo Jo Gunne.

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Feedback (1972)

California found his way into a rehab program. Cassidy and Locke, suddenly finding themselves without a band, hooked up with singer/bassist Al Staehely and his guitar-playing brother Chris in a band that released 1972’s extremely mediocre “Feedback” as a Spirit album but resembled that band in name only. When California was match fit once more, he set to work on his first solo album, the weirdly wonderful Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds  which reunited him with his stepfather.

“Spirit of ’76” (1975)

After the dissolution of that unit, Cassidy traveled to Hawaii and got back in touch with California. Joined by Mark Andes, who had left Jo Jo Gunne, they began playing dates by September 1974; Locke also performed with them at the start of 1975, but neither he nor Andes stayed permanently. Instead, California and Cassidy hired another bass player, Barry Keene, and carried on. They recorded an album that they shopped, signing to Mercury Records, which released the double-LP “Spirit of ’76” in May 1975. It made the lower reaches of the charts.

When the stepdad/stepson team returned for the 1975 album Spirit of ’76, and like The Grateful Dead, Spirit decided to snub the trends of the decade and stick with what it knew best: psychedelia. While “Lady of the Lakes,” a single and standout track from Spirit of ’76, didn’t help Spirit become psychedelic standard-bearers like the Dead, the song’s easygoing vibe and swirling Americana weren’t that far from the concurrent work of Garcia and company.

They quickly followed in October with Son of Spirit, another modest seller. For Farther Along, released in June 1976,

Son Of Spirit (1976)

The following year, California and Cassidy toured Europe with ‘Kapt. Kopter’ bassist Larry “Fuzzy” Knight as Spirit, but California’s behavior was still disturbingly erratic and his drug problems seemed undiminished. He ended up in rehab again, and didn’t play music for two years. He dropped out of sight, seeking sanctuary in Hawaii, but Cassidy managed to reconnect with him eventually. With a new bassist in Barry Keane, they reemerged as Spirit in 1975.
The mid-’70s version of Spirit released two odd but excellent albums, ‘Spirit of ’76’ and ‘Son of Spirit’. It was a distinctly different band from the ’60s iteration, bearing a casual, stoner approach more in line with California’s solo album, but unlike the ‘Feedback’-era band, this was a lineup fully worthy of operating under the Spirit moniker.

Son of Spirit and Farther Along (1976)

All the original members of Spirit mended their fences and reunited for the 1976 album ‘Farther Along’, adding Andes‘ guitarist brother Matt to the roster for good measure. Unfortunately, the magic was missing. The production was too ’70s-slick, and the songs seemed to be courting commercial success more than answering the call of the muse as Spirit had done in the past. The public rightly turned a deaf ear, and the reunion didn’t last past the one album.

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Future Games (1977)

Randy righted the ship somewhat with 1977’s ‘Future Games’, a trippy, homemade sounding album that was really more of a solo session than a Spirit record, despite the name on the album cover. Spirit released Future Games, it was a safe bet the album was going to be weird. And it was. His interest in science fiction took an obsessive turn, with several of the songs even having pronounced Star Trek themes, including “Gorn Attack,” “The Romulan Experience” and, even more blatantly, “Star Trek Dreaming.”

Future Games (A Magical Kahauna Dream), the fourth Spirit album on Mercury, released in January 1977, found California standing alone and bare-chested on the front and back covers, and he played all the instruments on the record.

Potatoland (1981)

Randy California and his stepfather, Ed Cassidy, became the touring Spirit who kept the tradition alive until California’s untimely passing in 1997. The strengths and the weaknesses of creative freedom are evident on “Potatoland: Adventures of Kaptain Kopter & Commander Cassidy in Potato Land”, a concept album with a theme that is far removed from the intuitive cool that was The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. The material by California and drummer Cassidy is somewhat tremendous – “Open Up Your Heart” has wonderful Beach Boys/Beatles harmonies, there is some elegant playing, and a trippy melody. The production is also first-rate.

The music, however, is for the most part exemplary: at times a terrific listening experience resplendent in Randy California’s trademark guitar-oriented pop. Spirit needed a bit of discipline and direction at this juncture; but the zany nature of California’s Kaptain Kopter and potato obsessions inhibiting this stellar music from reaching a wider audience.

Other Albums

But another ill-advised reunion occurred on 1984’s ‘The 13th Dream’, on which all the original members convened one last time to desecrate the memory of the classic tunes they’d crafted together years before. The record consisted mostly of generic-sounding AOR-style versions of early Spirit material. The fact that members of The Doobie Brothers contributed to the tracks should offer some idea of the overall vibe. 1989’s ‘Rapture in the Chambers’, featuring everybody but Ferguson, suffered from similar problems, and lacked worthwhile material to boot.

California and the ageless, ever-faithful Cassidy kept Spirit going through the ’90s with a variety of bandmates, touring extensively and releasing a couple more unexceptional albums. But the Spirit story came crashing to an abrupt end on January 2nd, 1997. California, then 45, was swimming in the ocean with his 12-year-old son near their Hawaii home, when a tidal wave took them by surprise. Guitar hero California died a real-life hero, pushing his son to safety before being overtaken by the ocean. His body was never recovered, but in a strange way that’s probably fitting for a man who spent much of his life pushing the boundaries of his world to see what lay on the other side.

Cassidy died of cancer in 2012

Compilations, It Shall Be: The Ode & Epic Recordings 1968-1972; and Time Circle

Spirit’s catalog was regularly reissued in various editions over the first decade of the 21st century, but it wasn’t until 2018 that they received a proper box set treatment. In March, Esoteric Recordings released It Shall Be: The Ode & Epic Recordings 1968-1972; The five-disc set gathered their first five albums (including both mono and stereo mixes of their self-titled debut), and the soundtrack to the 1968 film The Model Shop. Each disc was packed with outtakes, demos, and alternative mixes from 1991’s Time Circle compilation. It also included a booklet with a critical and historical essay by Malcolm Dome, as well as archival interviews with California and Cassidy.

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After he emerged in the pregnant pause between pub rock and punk, stardom never quite happened for the Camberley rocker, although his band’s spiky sound has echoed through artists from Elvis Costello to REM.
A few months before punk, the first sign a new order on the way was an awkward little rocker called Graham Parker. he appeared on the bill at Dylan’s concert at Blackbushe Aerodrome in 1978, only a few miles from his Camberley stamping ground, it was already clear by that time that the superior sneer, machine-gun delivery and catchy tunes of Elvis Costello

He was a skinny, T-shirted figure in shades; rough, honest, and angry. Heat Treatment has a Dylanesque snarl to it; a thirst for revenge in the light of the lost years mentioned above, and a sense of cutting to the chase, that there was no more time to waste.

One of the finest English songwriters of the past several decades, Graham Parker made a name for himself as the “angry young man” before the flurry of punk rock took over his native U.K. Sailing in on the smouldering embers of the pub rock scene, Parker came armed with attitude, amplification and an armload of great songs. From his first classic LP ‘Howlin’ Wind’ (produced by Nick Lowe) and right up to his most recent outing with the reunited Rumour, ‘Three Chords Good,’ GP has never stopped traveling his own unique road. Caught between the preceding wave of Bruce Springsteen and subsequent rise of Elvis Costello, GP, through no doing of his own, somehow got lost in those waters.

Howling Wind

‘Howlin’ Wind’ (1976)

For most intents and purposes, Graham Parker emerged fully formed on his debut album, Howlin’ Wind. Sounding like the bastard offspring of Mick Jagger and Van Morrison, Parker sneers his way through a set of stunningly literate pub rockers. Instead of blindly sticking to the traditions of rock & roll, Parker invigorates them with cynicism and anger, turning his songs into distinctively original works. “Back to Schooldays” may be reconstituted rockabilly, “White Honey” may recall Morrison’s white R&B bounce, and “Howlin’ Wind” is a cross of Van’s more mystical moments and the Band, but the songs themselves are original and terrific. Similarly, producer Nick Lowe gives the album a tough, spare feeling, which makes Parker and the Rumour sound like one of the best bar bands you’ve ever heard. Howlin’ Wind remains a thoroughly invigorating fusion of rock tradition, singer/songwriter skill, and punk spirit, making it one of the classic debuts of all time.

‘Don’t Ask Me Questions’ put the lid on Parker’s debut, ‘Howlin’ Wind,’ with a perfect swagger. Employing a reggae inspired backdrop, GP delivers an attitude-laced gem. Lines like, “Well I stand up for liberty but can’t liberate /Pent up agony I see you take first place” are delivered with pure venom as GP has this little conversation with God. Often accused of being too much the “angry young man,” Parker used that anger to his benefit. Meanwhile, the Rumour never let up from their rocksteady groove. A live version of the song was released as a single in the U.K. in 1978 and made it up to No. 32.

Heat Treatment

‘Heat Treatment’ (1976)

On his second album Heat Treatment, Graham Parker essentially offered more of the same thing that made Howlin’ Wind such a bracing listen. However, his songwriting wasn’t as consistent, with only a handful of songs — like “Pourin’ It All Out” and the title track — making much of an impression. Unfortunately, the record was also tamed by the production of Mutt Lange, who polishes the record just enough to make the Rumour sound restrained. Which means, of course, the sheer musicality of the band can’t save the lesser material. Heat Treatment still remains an enjoyable listen — at this stage of the game, Parker hadn’t soured into a curmudgeon, and his weaker songs were still endearing — but it’s a disappointment in light of its predecessor.

In Parker’s early years, the influences of soul music and Van Morrison were a constant presence. ‘Heat Treatment’ is a perfect merger of those influences and one of the highlights of his second LP. The jumpin’ R&B feel of the song is complimented by the horn section, a staple of his early records. The song’s chorus is so irresistibly catchy that if your toes aren’t a tappin’, you better check your vitals. The other great track. ‘Fool’s Gold’ from Heat Treatment is again indicative of Parker’s affinity for soul, and while producer Mutt Lange would go on to fame and fortune after aligning himself with pop-metal sounds of Def Leppard, his production here is crisp, direct and well suited to the sounds Parker was dishing out. A soul classic.

Stick to Me

‘Stick To Me’ (1977)

Released in the fall of 1977, ‘Stick To Me’ was Parker’s third LP in less than two years. The album was recorded once again with Mutt Lange at the board, but a problem with the tapes forced a re-recording with Nick Lowe back in the hot seat. The result was a more stripped-down approach that, despite critical indifference, ultimately suited the album perfectly. ‘Watch the Moon Come Down’ is as perfect a GP song as you’re likely to stumble upon. The air of despair never sounded so beautiful. Graham Parker and the Rumour’s third new studio album to be released in 18 months finds the bandleader running short of top-flight material; “Thunder And Rain” and “Watch The Moon Come Down” are up to his usual standards, but songs like “The Heat In Harlem” find him dangerously out of his depth. As a result, although fiercely played, this star-crossed release (it had to be re-recorded when the first version suffered technical problems) is a cut below Parker’s first two albums.

The Parkerilla

Parkerilla (1978)

In 1978, Graham Parker & the Rumour’s career was on the rise in the U.K. but going nowhere in America, despite rave reviews for his first three albums and a growing reputation as a powerful live act. Most observers, including Parker himself, blamed his U.S. label, Mercury Records, for failing to give him the promotion he needed Stateside; eager to find a more suitable corporate partner, Parker opted to finish off his contract with Mercury via that time-honored form of contractual obligation filler, the double-live album. In many respects,

The Parkerilla practically screams “Let’s get this over with,” from the skimpy running time (54 minutes, including a studio re-recording of “Hey Lord, Don’t Ask Me Questions” that filled side four) and unimaginative set list, to a slightly dodgy mix that keeps losing track of the horn section, and a sequence that has a hard time keeping one of the most exciting acts of the day in forward gear. However, Parker and the Rumour were too good on-stage for The Parkerilla to feel entirely like a throwaway; Parker’s vocals are tough and soulful at every turn, the Rumour get more of a chance to show off their instrumental prowess here than they did on their studio recordings, and when the players connect with the right song, as they do on “Back to Schooldays,” “Soul Shoes,” and “Gypsy Blood,” it’s hard not to wish this hadn’t been such an obvious rush job, since the potential for a great concert set was clearly there. (The live take of “Hey Lord, Don’t Ask Me Questions” is also superb, and makes mincemeat of the silly disco-influenced studio recut that closes out the album.) The Parkerilla has a reputation as a tossed-off disaster, and while it’s a lot better than that, you don’t have to know the back story to hear a band biding their time until something better comes along on this set.

Squeezing Out Sparks

‘Squeezing Out Sparks’ (1979)

Generally regarded as Graham Parker’s finest album, Squeezing Out Sparks is a masterful fusion of pub rock classicism, new wave pop, and pure vitriol that makes even his most conventional singer/songwriter numbers bristle with energy. Not only does Parker deliver his best, most consistent set of songs, but he offers more succinct hooks than before “Local Girls” and “Discovering Japan” are powered by quirky hooks that make them new wave classics. But Parker’s new pop inclinations are tempered by his anger, which seethes throughout the hard rockers and even his quieter numbers. Throughout Squeezing Out Sparks, Graham spits out a litany of offenses that make him feel like an outsider, but he’s not a liberal, he’s a conservative. The record’s two centerpieces  “Passion Is No Ordinary Word” and the anti-abortion “You Can’t Be Too Strong” — indicate that his traditionalist musical tendencies are symptomatic of a larger conservative trend. But no one ever said conservatives made poor rock & rollers, and Parker’s ruminations over a lost past give him the anger that fuels Squeezing Out Sparks, one of the great rock records of the post-punk era.

With the 1979 album ‘Squeezing Out Sparks,’ Parker and the Rumour were finally starting to make headway in the American market. Ironically, the band was capitalizing somewhat on the success of acts like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, both of whom came late to the party Parker helped establish. Regardless, this new-found “spark” was full of charge, making one of GP’s finest all-around albums. The R&B influences had been usurped by an urgent, straight-ahead pop approach. This proved to be a good move commercially, as well as artistically, as the songs here are all vibrantly full of life. The Rumour are rock solid throughout what may be Parker’s finest LP. ‘Saturday Nite Is Dead’ is a real raver this full-on rocker stands as a testament to the power and urgency of the Rumour in their prime. Straight ahead, no frills, traditional rock ‘n’ roll, delivered full steam ahead, ‘Saturday Nite Is Dead’ was one of many high points on the fourth GP album. The Rumour tear it up while Graham spits it out. Perfection in action.

‘Squeezing Out Sparks’ ranks as one of Parker & the Rumour’s finest hours, and ‘Local Girls’ is one of their catchiest singles. The sound of 1979 is in full bloom here as Parker does his thing amid a pure pop setting. It was released as a single in America with video to accompany it, but failed to even make the Top 100. It’s a shame, since to this day, there’s pop gold to be mined from these grooves.

The Up Escalator

‘The Up Escalator’ (1980)

‘The Up Escalator’ (1980) would be the final album Graham would make with his legendary backup band, the Rumour, until their fine reunion effort ‘Three Chords Good’ in 2012. Produced by mainstream mainstay Jimmy Iovine, the album was an attempt to push Parker more into the mainstream, which worked modestly, as the album barely dented the U.S. Top 40. Chock full of great songs like the classic ‘Stupefaction,’ the album kicked off a rough decade for Parker artistically, as ’80s production values often clashed with his style. Not so on this one though, as the pure pop washed with grit here ranks as one of Parker’s best.

While it was something short of a hit, Squeezing Out Sparks did win a measure of richly deserved American recognition for Graham Parker & the Rumour, and for the follow-up, Parker’s American record label, Arista, paired him up with hotshot producer Jimmy Iovine. The idea looked good on paper; Iovine had produced or engineered great sounding hard rock records for Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Patti Smith, and his tough but vibrant sound would seem the perfect match for Parker and his band. But one listen to The Up Escalator reveals that Iovine’s trademark sound somehow escaped him for this project; the recording and mix are flat and poorly detailed (Brinsley Schwarz’s lead guitar and Stephen Goulding’s drums suffer the most), and the often mushy audio manages the remarkable feat of making the Rumour, one of the most exciting rock bands of their day, sound just a bit dull. But Parker fights the muddy sound every step of the way, and if his batting average as a songwriter is a shade lower than on Squeezing Out Sparks, he certainly offers up his share of A-list material, including the incendiary “Empty Lives,” the passionate “The Beating of Another Heart,” and “Endless Night,” which features one Bruce Springsteen on backing vocals. Parker’s singing is sharp and commanding, and even though the mix lets them down, the Rumour’s performances are tough and precise throughout. The Up Escalator failed to catch the ears of the mass audience, and Parker would soon part ways with the Rumour, but if this album doesn’t present them in the best light, it shows that they could play tough, passionate rock & roll that could survive even the most adverse recording conditions.

The Real Macaw

The Real Macaw’ (1983)

Parker’s 1983 album ‘The Real Macaw’ was another solid offering, stocked full of instantly catchy tunes and a solid crisp production. Despite all the checks in the plus column, no one was taking the bait. The album wandered up to No. 59 in the U.S. charts, but fell as quickly as it arrived. ‘Just Like A Man’ is another in a long run of dead-on, glowing pop songs from GP. Street-smart lyrics over a power-pop backdrop should have gone a long way to turn people’s heads, but by 1983, Parker sadly at this point was yesterday’s news to most.

Also check out the “Live at Marble Arch” album, On this promotional live album, Graham Parker and the Rumour combine selections from their just-released debut album, Howlin’ Wind, and their upcoming second album, Heat Treatment, with such influential oldies as “Chain Of Fools” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.”

1977 BBC Top of the Pops with their version of The Trammps “Hold Back the Night” from The Pink Parker EP

Formed out of the ashes of Scottish punk band Skids by their guitarist Stuart Adamson, Big Country became one of the biggest British alternative rock bands of the 1980s, with a huge reputation as a live band to rival the likes of U2 and Simple Minds.

After their initial success with a string of albums on Mercury Records, Big Country continued throughout the 1990s with new albums on a variety of labels, playing as ever around the world to their devoted fanbase. Sadly, Stuart Adamson’s untimely death in 2001 closed a chapter on Big Country’s story forever…

“We’re Not In Kansas” pays tribute to the tour de force that was Big Country were in the Nineties, with recordings of five live shows released officially for the very first time and with the full blessing of the band.

The new box set We’re Not In Kansas (The Live Bootleg Box Set 1993-1998) (Cherry Red CRCDBOX43) seeks to fix this, offering fans a handsome, band-approved chronicle of a worthy era.

The story of Big Country up to the time covered in We’re Not In Kansas goes like this: the quartet, featuring ex-Skids guitarist Stuart Adamson on vocals and guitar, guitarist Bruce Watson, bassist Tony Butler and drummer Mark Brzezicki, hit the U.K. Top 10 with singles like “Fields of Fire,” “Chance,” “Wonderland” and “Look Away” during the early-to-mid-’80s; the hopeful, ringing guitars of “In a Big Country” gave the band a taste of American success, too. But by the late ’80s, consistent hits were harder to come by, with the Peter Wolf-produced Peace In Our Time (1988) a particular misstep, overly reliant on middle-of-the-road pop production. Brzezicki left the group at decade’s end, but served in a session capacity on the fraught 1991 follow-up, No Place Like Home, which turned out to be the band’s last major-label effort. 1993’s The Buffalo Skinners saw the trio go back to basics – effective, guitar-driven melodies coupled with fiery lyrics in praise of the hopes and dreams of the working class – and the ensuing tour found the classic lineup whole once more. The full band continued for two more albums and a final tour in 2000, one year before Adamson took his own life after a prolonged battle with alcohol abuse and depression.

Included on this 5CD set are selections from six different shows: a gig at Minneapolis’ First Avenue in 1993, right after the release of The Buffalo Skinners; an acoustic theatre show at the University of Stirling in the band’s native Scotland from 1994; two shows from the summer of 1995 (an electric performance at Glasgow’s Tower Records store and an acoustic one in Rotterdam) in support of that season’s seventh album Why The Long Face; a portion of a 1998 acoustic set in the group’s hometown of Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland (recorded at Tappie Toories, a pub run by Adamson and his second wife); and a final cover of The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” from a 1995 set.

For a band so known for electric guitar tones, the presence of so much acoustic material here is a particular treat. (As John Gouveia writes in his liner notes, the band’s first acoustic appearance at an American show in 1993 was in fact out of necessity, after the venue’s power failed before the group took the stage.) The songs retain their power even without their distinctive solos, and at a time when “unplugged” shows were in fashion, it ceretainly fits the mood of the day.

Indeed, “In a Big Country,” “Chance” and “Look Away” don’t lose much power when de-amplified, nor do newer tracks like “We’re Not In Kansas,” “All Go Together” and “Ships.” And both acoustic and electric sets from the same tour have enough unique songs among them: the First Avenue set includes powerful renditions of Buffalo Skinners cuts “What Are You Working For” and “Pink Marshmallow Moon,” while the Stirling set features a gorgeous, quiet take on Steeltown (1984) closer “Just a Shadow” and a slowed-down “One Great Thing,” one of the fine singles from The Seer. The electric set at Tower Records in Glasgow is more devoted to then-new selections from Why The Long Face, like “You Dreamer,” “I’m Not Ashamed” and “Send You.” Meanwhile, the acoustic Rotterdam show (punctuated by some interesting interactions between Adamson and the audience during the set) features some of those same tracks alongside the hits you’d come to expect.

Of particular note across the entire set is the presence of exciting covers. The quartet, eager to experiment on stage and nod to their musical influences, tackle tunes by Neil Young (“Hey Hey, My My,” “Rockin in the Free World”), Blue Oyster Cult (“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”), The Miracles (“Tracks of My Tears”) and even a fun, faithful acoustic take on the Gin Blossoms’ “Found Out About You.”

If there’s one caveat to the material on We’re Not In Kansas, it’s that is very much an official bootleg. These aren’t soundboard-quality recordings by any means, and even the better of the audience recordings tend to flutter quite a bit in the headphones. For some, that may drop it down from “must hear” to “fans only” status – which is a shame, as it’s not only good material, but packaged far better than any unofficial release. Cherry Red put each disc in its own cardboard wallet, accompanied by a fine booklet with band photos and a new interview with Butler and Watson – all in a compact clamshell box.

We’re Not In Kansas may not appeal outside of Big Country’s fan base, but if you’re part of that base, you should absolutely check it out. Adamson’s tragic passing means we only have Big Country’s music and memories to commemorate him as a frontman – and, speaking wholly from personal experience, his music has uplifted me long and far enough to consider any opportunities to hear him on record. The output of Big Country, as heard on We’re Not In Kansas, feels like home to those who feel that familiar lift whenever those guitars ring out. And you know what they say: there’s no place like home.

Across these various in-concert recordings, which have previously been available only on elusive, under-the-counter bootlegs, you’ll hear a band touring to promote their most recent albums The Buffalo Skinners (1993) and Why The Long Face (1995), with live sets which often climaxed with impassioned cover versions of ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’ (Blue Oyster Cult), ‘My, My, Hey Hey’ and ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ (both Neil Young) and ‘Tracks Of My Tears’ (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles).

Founder members Bruce Watson and Tony Butler have been interviewed for the Q&A sleeve-notes, which document a fascinating and largely undocumented period in the band’s history.

Also included, as one would expect, are rousing versions of many of their evergreen hits – ‘In A Big Country’, ‘Look Away’, ‘Chance’, ‘Wonderland’, ‘Peace In Our Time’ and ‘King Of Emotion’.

Track List:



(MINNEAPOLIS 6/11/93)(continued)



STIRLING 29/4/94


STIRLING 29/4/94 (continued)



ROTTERDAM ROTOWN 28/08/95 (continued)




On June 18th, 1986, John Mellencamp performed at an unusual venue: the Senate Subcommittee on Agricultural Production and Stabilization of Prices. Still using the Cougar moniker at that time, which an early manager saddled him with, Mellencamp had recently wrapped up touring behind the big blockbuster album “Scarecrow” a clear-eyed look at an America he felt alienated from.

“With Scarecrow, I was finally starting to find my feet as a songwriter,” he wrote in a 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit. “For the first time, I realized what I thought I wanted to say in song. … I wanted it to be more akin to Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, Faulkner.

With the simple, Steinbeckian tunes of Scarecrow fresh in his mind, Mellencamp came to Washington, D.C., with fellow Farm Aid activist Willie Nelson to testify in support of the Family Farm bill sponsored by Democrat senator Tom Harkin from Iowa. In a few short years, Mellencamp went from singing “When I fight authority, authority always wins” to facing the nation’s mightiest authority.

“In Seymour, Ind., the town I grew up in, there used to be a John Deere dealership. It is no longer there,” he told the Senate committee. “When I am out on tour and I am talking to people, they are afraid. Their vision of the future is, ‘What is going to happen to my children in 20 years when, all of a sudden, three farmers are farming the state of Indiana and they also own all the food-processing plants?’”

“It seems funny and peculiar,” he added as the opposition against Harkin’s bill began to file out of the room. “After my shows and after Willie’s shows, people come up to us for advice. It is because they have got nobody to turn to.”

Most of Scarecrow mined deeply personal stories — “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Small Town,” “Minutes to Memories.” But his work with Nelson and Farm Aid, and his growing connection to the national consciousness, turned his eye from personal to public pain as he penned songs for the follow-up album, The Lonesome Jubilee.

Released on August. 24th, 1987, a year after his Senate testimony, The Lonesome Jubilee became another Mellencamp blockbuster. It went triple platinum and spun out two Top 10 hits in “Paper in Fire” and “Cherry Bomb.” But today fans remember the album not as a pair of hits surrounded by album cuts, but as the singer’s most unified thematic and sonic vision. The Lonesome Jubilee is the ninth studio album by American singer-songwriter John Mellencamp, credited as John Cougar Mellencamp. The album was released by Mercury Records. 

Lyrically, The Lonesome Jubilee took on unemployment, poverty, homelessness, xenophobia, racism and the heavy burden of disillusionment Mellencamp saw weighing down his generation. The pain and contemplation show right there in the song titles: “We Are the People,” “Empty Hands,” “The Real Life,” “Down and Out in Paradise,” “Hard Times for an Honest Man.”

The album’s thesis statement came together in the lyrics of the opening track “Paper in Fire”: “There is a good life right across this green field/And each generation stares at it from afar/But we keep no check on our appetites/So the green fields turn to brown like paper in fire.”

The song burns with an intense energy while stinking of ache and angst. Even the famously cantankerous Mellencamp admitted it was an achievement. “After Scarecrow, the critics all kinda went, ‘Whoa, now we gotta pay attention to this guy,’” . “I think ‘Paper in Fire’ is the ultimate John Mellencamp song. I wasn’t trying to be on the radio anymore. Radio was on my side. There wasn’t any Woody Guthrie influence. There wasn’t any Rolling Stones influence. There wasn’t a Bob Dylan influence. I made the decision, much to everyone’s dismay, to use violins and accordions, and incorporate an Appalachian sound of original country. I tried to figure out how to make that work in rock ‘n’ roll.” “We were on the road for a long time after Scarecrow, so we were together a lot as a band,” Mellencamp said in a 1987 Creem Magazine feature. “For the first time ever, we talked about the record before we started. We had a very distinct vision of what should be happening here. At one point, The Lonesome Jubilee was supposed to be a double album, but at least 10 of the songs I’d written just didn’t stick together with the idea and the sound we had in mind. So I just put those songs on a shelf, and cut it back down to a single record. Now, in the past, it was always ‘Let’s make it up as we go along’ – and we did make some of The Lonesome Jubilee up as we went along. But we had a very clear idea of what we wanted it to sound like, even before it was written, right through to the day it was mastered.

Despite the themes, the album isn’t a sermon. Mellencamp’s words don’t come with solutions, or even wisdom. Instead, they just chronicle the mess and occasional but sustaining joys of life. While a big chunk of the album has the singer using his voice to speak for others — parents struggling to feed their families, but between the not-so-beautiful losers Mellencamp inserts his own stories. “Cherry Bomb” may be the most personal song he’s ever written.

The Band 

  • John Mellencamp – vocal, guitar
  • Kenny Aronoff – drums, percussion, backing vocals
  • Larry Crane – guitars, mandolin, harmonica, autoharp, banjo, backing vocals
  • John Cascella – accordion, keyboards, saxophone, melodica, penny whistle, claves
  • Lisa Germano – fiddle
  • Toby Myers – bass guitar, banjo, backing vocals
  • Pat Peterson – backing vocals, cowbell, tambourine
  • Crystal Taliefero – backing vocals
  • Mike Wanchic – guitars, dobro, banjo, dulcimer, backing vocals