From the opening number “Lazy Lightning/Supplication” it’s obvious this is a special album. Vocalist Bob Weir is at his hippie/cowboy best shouting out this cosmic love song while guitarist Robbie Hoddinott plays a perfectly tasteful and exploratory guitar part. The song stretches into the gospel-like “Supplication” portion and it is pretty easy to start getting religion about this group. Fronted by ex-New Riders Of The Purple Sage bassist and vocalist Dave Torbert, Grateful Dead frontman Weir, Hoddinot on lead guitar and Bay Area harmonica player/songwriter Matt Kelly, Kingfish burned bright for exactly one fantastic studio album and then fizzled for another 20 years after Weir left the band in 1976. That album, 1976’s Kingfish, remains an enticing taste of how much promise this band had. The four songs Weir sings are highlights, especially his warm vocal on the clever “Home To Dixie” and his excellent cover of Marty Robbins’ gunfighter’s tale “Big Iron,” but they are hardly the only reasons to love this album.
Dave Torbert was not only an outstanding bass player, he had a distinctive, reedy voice that was responsible for some of the New Riders’ best songs. He hits a sweet spot on Kingfish capturing the early 70’s back-to-the-farm, flannel shirt, pot-smokin’ gestalt to a tee. In fact his song “Good-Bye Yer Honor” is a real anti-establishment, pro-drug flag- waving anthem that may or may not be ill-advised with the clarity of historical hindsight. For that particular moment in history though the song, and the entire vibe of this band, fits like a glove. Two more songs that capture the era nicely are Matt Kelly’s “Asia Minor” a pre 9-11 love song to the romantic and chemical mysteries of Afghanistan, and “Jump For Joy” a counter-cultural love song that gets it just right musically as Hoddinot provides some really tasteful lead playing.
The real standout on the album for me though is “Hypnotize,” a very simple love lyric inserted into an absolutely gorgeous ascending riff that Robbie Hoddinot turns into a truly outstanding performance. He and Weir lock in and find that elusive guitarists’ stairway to the stars and play off each other in a workout that is as exciting as it is refined. It is too short at four and a half minutes. As the guitars spiral upward on the final climax you wish it could go on forever. The album closes at a spiritual high place when Weir tackles a traditional gospel, “Bye And Bye” to great effect. It is a perfect way to round out this comforting set of music.
Kingfish reminds me that simplicity is sometimes the magic sauce that brings together the greatest dishes. This album is made up of really fine musicians applying their skills to a set of simple, well-played songs, leaving the listener a plate full of delicious music. Even though it is hardly as well known as releases from other hit making bands of the 70’s it stands up to any other country-rock album of the era and surpasses many. Even though this version of Kingfish was short lived they produced an album that should secure them a place on your shelf forever.- Paul Epstein