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Music Review: Quicksilver Messenger Service – Live at the Fillmore: June 7, 1968

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I’m not alone feeling Quicksilver Messenger Service’s 1969 Happy Trails is a definitive artifact of the late ’60s San Francisco sound as performed by the definitive line-up of QMS. Before the arrival of keyboardist Nicky Hopkins and singer/songwriter Dino Valenti in the band’s next incarnation, Quicksilver was best known for the dual guitars of Gary Duncan and John Cipollina, along with the bass work of David Freiberg before he moved on to join Jefferson Airplane and Paul Kantner’s subsequent projects.

Before all that, one of the distinctions of Happy Trails was how it captured QMS live at two of its most frequented venues, Fillmore East and Fillmore West. Since then, other concerts of that era, including jams at the Avalon Ballroom, have been released with varying degrees of quality. Now, Live at the Fillmore: June 7, 1968 joins the catalog of these flashbacks and is billed as a “Collector’s Edition.” In many ways, that’s true. It will mainly be collectors who treasure this release as it documents what the band was performing between their first eponymous release in 1968 and what would be captured for posterity five months later on Happy Trails.

The best news about the two-CD package is the very clean sound of the mix, which is very much to the advantage of Freiberg and the drums of the under-appreciated Greg Elmore. As every instrument is separated so distinctly in the soundscape, it’s a real pleasure to pay more attention to a rhythm section providing the anchors for the flights of the two legendary guitar heroes. Speaking of, as others have already pointed out, the mix seriously favors Duncan at the expense of the late Cipollina. One can only speculate how and why that occurred. And one can only wish Duncan’s vocals could have been toned down. Way, way down.

Not every track is a golden nugget. Considering that Quicksilver’s performances were largely free-form jazz jam sessions with no pre-set song list, the improvisations would necessarily be hit or miss. For example, the set opens with Hamilton Camp’s “Pride of Man,” but the mics cut out several times towards the end. “Codine” and “If You Live (Your Time Will Come)” are marred by very, very off-key vocals. “Dino’s Song” is a bit of a harbinger of things to come, with an almost out of place poppy melody reflective of Dino Valenti, its composer.

But there’s gold and silver in them hills. Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin'” is one of the highlights where the band shows off their prowess with dynamics and energetic tempo changes. Despite some flat vocal passages, “Light Your Windows” offers some nice melodic guitar work. The band gives us a spirited rendition of “Mona,” and I admit thinking this version supersedes what I heard on Happy Trails. The guys even skat on this version.

Disc two is where the band gets into full flying mode with their rendition of “Back Door Man” and the very jazzy “Acapulco Gold & Silver,” with the restored full title. As the band points out, it had been labeled merely “Gold and Silver” on the album. Then comes their signature tune of the era, a fine performance of “Who Do You Love.” While it’s only 12 minutes long, half the length of the Happy Trails classic, it has all the ingredients that would be expanded on the immortal second album. Sadly, the last jam is a major decline in quality. “The Fool” opens with guitars noodling aimlessly before excruciating vocals sink the grand finale.

As a whole, Live at the Fillmore: June 7, 1968 is an audio document of what one band sounded like on one particular night, and the results are tops and buds as well as sticks and stems. It’s not going to augment the band’s reputation, but should please most listeners who’ve been following the San Fran sound for all these years.

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