Album Review: Quicksilver Messenger Service — Live at the Fillmore June 7, 1968

Quicksilver Messenger Service were one of those bands of the 60s and early 70s that undeservedly sort of fell through the cracks of history. They released seven LPs between 1968 and 1972, but the highest any of those ever charted was #25 (1970’s Shady Grove), and as far as singles, their highest-charting number was “Fresh Air” from 1970’s Just for Love, and that single only reached #49. Quicksilver didn’t play Woodstock. So they’re sometimes forgotten, and they deserve far better.

Moreover, by the time of the two aforementioned albums, QMS’s sound had changed in a more commercially-oriented direction that fans of the earlier music might have found less interesting. In their earliest days, QMS was a more open-ended, free-form, dare-I-say jam styled outfit. And it’s from that era that a new 2cd set comes. Live at the Fillmore June 7, 1968 features the band’s original four-piece lineup, and they’re in delightfully fine form. Hard-edged, r&b influenced yet equipped with the goods to apply some nice vocal harmonies to their catchy riff-rockers, Quicksilver were at their early peak.

Though Dino Valenti was a founder of the band, he wouldn’t be an actual performing member until later years. Yet his presence is felt, especially on a fiery reading of “Dino’s Song,” perhaps the best thing the band ever did (though “Pride of Man,” which opens this set, is a strong contender as well). Muscular yet heartfelt, the track is emblematic of what QMS was all about onstage.

The band did quite a few covers in their live set: Howlin’ Wolf‘s “Smokestack Lightnin’” (in which David Frieberg sounds like Jim Morrison circa 1970), long and winding readings of Bo Diddley‘s “Mona” and “Who Do You Love,” and the Willie Dixon (by way of The Doors) classic, “Back Door Man.”

All those covers are effective, and all are extended in that particular manner associated with the era. But the band’s originals show a creative side of the band not necessarily evident within the cover tunes. “Light Your Windows” displays power and subtlety; even when the harmonies get a bit dodgy (monitor systems were relatively new in ’68, and one suspects this was one loud concert), the grace comes through. Santana might sound a whole lot less revolutionary if you’d heard QMS first.

Throughout, the guitar work of John Cipollina and Gary Duncan is always precise and slashing (if not always in tune); Greg Elmore‘s drumming is tight and thunderous; and Frieberg’s underrated bass is subtle but assured, holding things together when the band heads into exploratory realms, and bringing it back into focus when needed.

In fact, listening to the band tear their way assuredly through these tracks – heading into jam territory when they feel moved to do so, but always reeling it back in – I can’t help describing them thusly: what The Grateful Dead might sound like if they had any clue how to rock. The band’s live version of Buffy Sainte Marie‘s “Codine” ratchets up the tension even more so than their studio version (included on Rhino’s Love is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970).

There have been at least as many archival releases of prime-era Quicksilver Messenger Service concerts as original studio albums; in 2008 alone, no less than five live albums documenting the 1966-68 lineup were released (all recorded at venues in the band’s hometown of San Francisco). This particular recording dates from just a bit later than any of those. While there are a few glitches in the master tape, the recording as a whole is far better than the liner notes’ apologia might lead you to believe. And the performance itself makes such quibbles moot in any event. Recommended.

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