Bo Grumpus “Before the War”
I came to this one working backwards along bassist Jim Colegrove’s timeline. I’d heard Colegrove’s wonderfully idiosyncratic bass playing on Bobby Charles’s eponymous album, whence I’d backtracked him to Hungry Chuck. It turned out that in an earlier life both Colegrove and Charles/Chuck drummer N.D. Smart II were founder members of Bo Grumpus, hence my initial interest in this album.
Originally assembling in Boston as a funky jugband comprising Colegrove, Smart and guitarists Ed Mottau and Joe Hutchinson, Bo Grumpus mutated into a New York-based folk-rock outfit in the style of the Byrds and veered towards psychedelia at about the same time as their West Coast contemporaries. Indeed, Before The War has been compared to The Notorious Byrd Brothers, though IMHO it also owes a debt to Revolver-era Fabs. The harmony vocals are sometimes very Byrds-ish indeed, but at others very Beatle-ish, as are the keyboards and other esoteric instruments provided by their George Martin equivalent, the classically-trained Felix Pappalardi. The production by Pappalardi is also more sophisticated and glossy than anything the various homely McGuinn collectives ever laid down.
Whatever, Before The War is a classy folk-rock-into-psych collection in its own right with carefully-constructed songs and excellent musicianship and vocals. For no obvious reason its original release on Atco in spring of 1968 tanked completely, and the album lay dormant until resuscitated by Wounded Bird for CD release forty years later. Meanwhile Bo Grumpus had moved to Bell Records with Pappalardi when he was headhunted by that imprint and recorded a further album Home under the changed name of Jolliver Arkansaw, again featuring Felix and also a guest appearance by his future colleague Leslie “Mountain” West. When this too bombed they called it a day late in ’69 and Colegrove and Smart subsequently joined Ian and Sylvia Tyson’s Great Speckled Bird. Today Before The War is readily available on CD or as an Atco vinyl re-release, but Home still awaits rediscovery and originals on vinyl will set you back a pretty penny.
Despite the intricacy of much of the playing and production and the frequently mournful and introspective hippy-trippy lyrics, this album has a carefree, floating feel to it. Most of the tracks use the same gentle 4/4 rhythm and seem to flow into one another effortlessly; it almost feels like the whole album is one suite. Colegrove’s nimble flatpicked Gibson bass work is distinctive throughout; like Paul McCartney he was a lead guitarist turned bassist, which helps explain the nature of his playing, adventurous but never intrusive. Probably by comparison to their live sound, the guitars are mostly mixed well back but provide plenty of sonic variety, with fuzz, wah and electric 12-string all exercised. By the time recording had finished drummer Smart had left to be replaced by Ronnie Blake; their no-frills styles are pretty well indistinguishable. The polymath Pappalardi contributes various keys, trumpet, ocarina and glockenspiel. The opening “Sparrow Tune” sets the template, led out by a trademark Colegrove riff and coloured by fuzzed guitar and churchy organ backing. Also notable are the overtly psychedelic “Yesterday’s Streets” with its electronically treated vocals, baroque harpsichord trills and glock fills; the string-laden “Travelin’ In The Dark” which recalls early Moody Blues, and the unmistakeably Beatle-ish “The Moon Will Rise” with lush answer-back vocals and a sublime ocarina solo. The wry “Ragtimely Love” and “Brooklyn” are hangovers from the outfit’s jugband origins.
Oh, and that name? Pappalardi’s artist wife Gail provided the name Bo Grumpus from a drawing of a fictional monster that she’d hung on their living-room wall. Perhaps that’s why the record didn’t sell; a distinctive name, but one unlikely to be taken seriously even in those hippy-dippy days. (Why they thought Jolliver Arkansaw would be an improvement is even more inexplicable.) For a lot more on this and a whole slew of related projects, visit Jim Colegrove’s website.