About 6 and half minutes into the 13-minute, instrumental, cinematic epic “City, Country, City” the listener can’t help but be carried away to a place of all-enveloping grooviness. No matter when you were born, it is immediately “back in the day” and it is summer and everything is cool. War has that effect on a lot of people, and their finest album The World Is A Ghetto is the quickest passport I can think of to that wonderful land of used to be. Considering that The World Is A Ghetto was the best selling album of 1973 according to Billboard, War has been relegated to a historical handful of hip bands that fit into a skin-tight bag of soul/rock that has been, if not forgotten, at least given short shrift by the historical/journalistic arbiters of history. War, like Sly and The Family Stone or Parliament/Funkadelic, sat as comfortably in the record collections of the 1970’s next to The Beatles or Joni Mitchell or The Allman Brothers as they did rubbing shoulders with Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder and James Brown. In other words, War had that rare and uncanny ability to cross the lines of race, class and culture. I don’t mean like in that publicly acceptable Michael Jackson, mass appeal way, I mean that on a Friday night in the mid-70’s no matter what part of town you were from, War was likely to make an appearance on the turntable at some point. Additionally, War became a particular favorite of the Latin culture. At a time when few Latin stars crossed paths with the charts, War spoke directly to that experience, offering up such La Raza classics as “The Cisco Kid,” which opens The World Is A Ghetto, and “Low Rider” a few years later.
Musically, The World Is A Ghetto ticks all the boxes of a conscious, stoner soul classic. Everyone in the band shares in the percussion and vocal duties, which ensures that this band has rhythm and harmony down. In fact, one of the distinctive features of War was that they had a uniquely communal identity (fortunate because they changed personnel over the years) that allowed them to forge a recognizable sound, but not be tied to the relative skills of any one front man. If there was a visual front man it was the only white guy in the group, harmonica player Lee Oskar. With his huge afro, gunslinger’s belt of harmonicas and perpetual motion in time to the music he was great to watch as the band chugged out their sophisticated blend of rock, jazz and soul. The songs are layered with fat bass lines, heavy organ, beds of congas, bongos, timbales, wah-wah guitars and Oskar’s harmonica lines weaving on top of it all with sax player Charlie Miller’s jazzy explorations. This is truly an “all the way through” album. There isn’t a weak cut. From the classic funk riff of “The Cisco Kid” to the ultimate down-tempo stoned contemplation “Four Cornered Room,” to the epic 10 minute title cut, to the album-closing upbeat jam “Beetles In The Bog,” each song is a template for what a band can accomplish with some great songs, some seasoned players and time enough to jam in the studio. You remember; the good old days.
- Paul Epstein