With my twin passions for blues and 1960s psych, one might think that I would also have a special place in my heart for a hybrid that combines the two genres. In general, this is not the case. While there are some prominent exceptions - the Insect Trust, Canned Heat, the Butterfield Blues Band, and the Blues Project come to mind - most countercultural bands during the dawning of the Age of Aquarius simply could not grasp the more subtle characteristics of this uniquely African-American style of artistic expression. Part of the problem lie with the indirect sources that influenced many well-meaning melanin-impoverished interpreters. Although British bands like the Rolling Stones should still be commended for turning on countless Caucasian American teenagers to a style of indigenous music to which they had remained underexposed due to cultural norms of the day, many of the musicians that such groups inspired possessed insufficient curiosity to seek out blues in its original form. This trickling-down has often resulted in a widespread misunderstanding of what constitutes authenticity in the genre, with endless guitar soloing a la Blueshammer being the most egregious example. Consequently, the white musicians who have most successfully adapted blues for their own uses are not the ones who merely imitate the originators or earlier interpreters but rather those who incorporate it into a larger body of musical influences and create a new synthesis in the process.
Although the four bands mentioned above exemplify some of the more prolific outfits obviously influenced by original blues recordings, the decade in which they existed also produced a few one-shots who seem to have been similarly moved by going directly to the source in lieu of exposure through British exponents of the style. Referring to singer-guitarist Ellen McIlwaine (b. 1945) in such a manner is not really accurate because of the number of albums she has released since going solo, but the lone eponymous LP by her 1960s band, Fear Itself, qualifies as one of the most interesting blues-inspired records of the period. Although American by birth, she spent her formative years growing up in Japan with her adoptive missionary parents, an experience that undoubtedly provided her with a unique worldview. McIlwaine returned to the United States in mid 1960s and first settled in Atlanta, where she attended art school and began her career as a professional musician. 1966 found her performing regularly in the clubs of New York City's Greenwich Village, appearing as the opening act for rediscovered bluesmen and occasionally sharing the stage with a young Jimi Hendrix. Inspired by the burgeoning psychedelic rock movement sweeping the country, she recruited lead guitarist Chris Zaloom, bassist Steve Cook, and drummer Bill McCord as the supporting musicians for Fear Itself during her return to Atlanta. In 1968, the quartet relocated to Woodstock, New York and started working on their album under the supervision of noted producer Tom Wilson. According to one source, Cook quit after the recording sessions and was replaced by Paul Album (who is erroneously[?] credited as the bass player in the inner gatefold), and it was this version of the band that apparently played at Woodstock (the festival) in 1969. Fear Itself's new new bassist was killed in a car crash caused by a drunk driver not long afterward, a tragic event that ultimately contributed to the group's dissolution. Since that time, McIlwaine has continued playing and recording on her own terms while keeping her repertory fresh through the assimilation of world music elements into her unique performing style. She is rightly recognized for her outstanding talents as both a vocalist and guitarist (with an emphasis on slide). Zaloom has earned a reputation for being a musician's musician and continues to reside in Woodstock at last report.
TOP L TO R: ELLEN McILWAINE & CHRIS ZALOOM - BOTTOM L TO R: STEVE
COOK (OR PAUL ALBUM) & BILL McCORD (OR PERHAPS VICE VERSA)
COOK (OR PAUL ALBUM) & BILL McCORD (OR PERHAPS VICE VERSA)
Fear Itself was the best rock album ever released on the usually lame Dot label and arguably one of the finest from any record company to combine blues and psychedelic rock as major ingredients. The comparisons of Ellen McIlwaine to Big Brother & the Holding Company-era Janis Joplin are, of course, inevitable as are the approaches of the supporting musicians. While both bands were undeniably heavy and quintessential products of the 1960s, their singers serve as a study in contrasts. While Joplin frequently comes off as abrasively screechy and undisciplined, McIlwaine's husky vocals sound pleasantly earthy but never out of control. Moreover, the latter possesses far greater skill as an instrumentalist as demonstrated by her impressive contributions on rhythm guitar, harmonica, and organ throughout the proceedings. "Crawling Kingsnake" and "Born Under a Bad Sign," blues standards that bookend the LP, rank among the better white interpretations of these songs that you're likely to hear, although they also might suffer a bit from overfamiliarity. "Underground River" is a superbly unique McIlwaine original featuring excellent guitar interplay between her and Saloom in addition to lyrics that are evidently about Jimi Hendrix. "Bow'd Up" sounds like a tongue-in-cheek ditty that is antithetical to the strong personality that I imagine the singer to be. "For Suki" contains more impressive fretwork that finely complements McIlwaine's powerful vocals. Judging by its title, I'm guessing that it must have been dedicated to someone she knew in Japan. As was the custom of the day, labels often gave bands an opportunity to stretch out and "do their own thing" on one album track. In this case, that particular piece is a rendition of the old gospel tune "In My Time of Dying" (recorded in the 1920s by Blind Willie Johnson as "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed" and Charlie Patton as "Jesus Is a Dying-Bed Maker") that clocks in at eight-and-a-half minutes and blows Led Zeppelin's better-known version clear out of the water. Although the cover of the Box Tops' "The Letter" is merely competent, the following cut, "Lazarus," qualifies as Fear Itself's masterpiece. Once again, a vintage spiritual serves as source material, but the psychedelic haze that envelops it transforms the piece into an exercise in first-rate mind expansion. I can't say enough good things about this track. "Mossy Dream" comes out of nowhere featuring Procol Harum-like arrangements, with McIlwaine's stately organ playing to the fore. "Billy Gene" is another song that could have only come from her fertile imagination, and as such, defies easy categorization. At one point in the performance it sounds like McIlwaine goes into her singular take on scat singing (including Japanese syllables, no less). It must have been a favorite of hers because it reappeared with a slightly different title ("Jimmy Jean") on her We the People LP from 1973.
1. Crawling Kingsnake
2. Underground River
3. Bow'd Up
4. For Suki
5. In My Time of Dying
6. The Letter
8. Mossy Dream
9. Billy Gene
10. Born Under a Bad Sign