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Vinyl Tap: The James Gang – Rides Again

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I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #61:

When James Gang Rides Again rode in 1970, I had no need to own a copy of the album for a while. Friends, family, factions thereof and the kindness of strangers I depended on allowed for healthy chunks of sustained swagger, reverberation, and the churning guitar-grabber classic "Funk #49" to permeate via close at hand speakers the power trio brio of Joe Walsh, Dale Peters, and Jim Fox. From the 8-track in my neighbor’s ’65 Impala on the way to school – the whirs and clicks are almost still imposed upon my mind – to the cassette my brother boomed in the garage with his budding biker buds and the LP he kept in the room we shared, there was easy access to James Gangiana.

And with the boogie ‘n’ beseechin’ “Woman,” going to the beach with friends even allowed a little soundtrack to my life as we passed a sheer rock cliff above a tunnel on Malibu Canyon Road, where existed a fascinating example of Southern California folklore: the short-lived but legendary Pink Lady, a 60-foot painting of a nude woman covertly created overnight in 1966 – painted by the mother of a junior high classmate (we were very skeptical when he finally revealed the scandalous news). Figuring that getting distracted by "art" was better than staring at yet another stone wall, there was a bittersweet quality to some of the lyrics of “Woman,” and whatever painted-over naked dame they might be directed toward (hey, we were in high school): “Wanna take you home, spend my time with you / You see it, babe, it's clear that I miss you.”

Though “Woman” was pretty musically and lyrically simplistic, “The Bomber,” however, was perhaps the finest and most adventurous showcase for Walsh’s instrumentality and vocals. Not only does it startlingly merge hard-drivin’ rock with sublime slices of Ravel’s Bolero and Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” it also highlights Joe’s stellar and versatile guitar skills and his plaintive or wailing singing ability – whichever the words and mood need to convey.

The lyrics and tenor of the largely acoustic and affecting second side of James Gang Rides Again was easier for Joe Walsh to ascertain, since he wrote virtually all the songs by himself. Kicking off with “Tend My Garden,” Joe adds shimmering piano and sings a song sung of a gray area between cautious optimism and tenuous resignation – “Nowhere, just arrivin' / Still I play the game.” “Garden Gate” and “There I Go Again” are marked by folkish and country elements, while the penultimate and reflective “Thanks” takes on more of a lyrically defeatist theme:

That's the way the world is
Get just what you can
Wake up again tomorrow
A little less a man…

It’s a stoicism that sets up the listener for the standout final track, the lamenting yet luminous “Ashes the Rain and I.” Punctuated by a stirring orchestral coda, the melancholic melodiousness is offset by the impressionistic grace of the song’s evocative lines:

Sometimes I sit and I stare at the rain
Isn't rain filled with sorrow?
Wonder if I'll see my home again
Will it be dry tomorrow?
Time passes softly and I'm a day older
But still I’m living days gone by
Ashes to ashes, the rain's turning colder
Finding tomorrow, the ashes, the rain and I

James Gang Rides Again: From “Funk #49” to “Ashes the Rain and I” – it’s all a heady, wide-ranging brew, and almost cause enough for me to have bought my own copy back in the outlaw day. And I would have certainly succumbed – had my brother not struck out on his own trail and left me his extra copy. Indeed, it was enough to pull my inner groove-meister out of a funks #1 to 48.

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