Veteran Aural Innovations readers will know that we’re big fans here of the San Francisco band Mushroom, and I’m happy to see this 3-CD set finally release, in its entirety, the May 24, 1998 show in which Mushroom backed Kevin Ayers, who passed away in February of this year. Mushroom drummer and bandleader Pat Thomas explains that the pairing came about in part due to a recommendation made to Ayers by Martin Wakeling, who published a UK based Kevin Ayers fanzine and was a Mushroom fan. Further sealing the deal, Michael Clare, bassist of Daevid Allen’s University of Errors, also knew Ayers and, as Thomas says, “did the real hands on arrangements of getting Kevin to come to San Francisco and stay at my apartment for a week.”
The first CD consists of Mushroom’s opening solo set, and on this night they were the sextet of Pat Thomas on drums, Erik Pearson on guitar and flute, Graham Connah on keyboards, Michael Holt on keyboards and Mellotron, Alec Palao on bass, and Dan Olmstead on guitar (Olmstead would bow out when Ayers took the stage).
The set opens with Leni Riefenstahl, a studio version of which would appear on Mushroom’s Aether Records LP the following year. A repetitive bass riff creates the foundation over which flute, Mellotron and keys casually and contemplatively drift. Oscillating alien electronics make for a freaky counterpoint to the flute and keys. And as the band slowly join in they retain the cool grooving feel of the intro, though the guitar gets nicely rocking, sounding like Neil Young’s Crazy Horse had hopped on stage. I love the combination of that dirty guitar and jazzy flute and keys. The Reeperbahn is next, originally on the band’s debut LP, and reissued the year of this show on the Cream of Mushroom CD. This is the kind of rockin’, groovin’, and eccentric Mushroom that caught my attention years ago with their killer combination of psychedelic, krautrock, jazz, and experimental influences. The infectiously melodic and hip shakin’ Martina, Queen of Hamburg is another song I know from Cream of Mushroom (which was a “sorta” crossover album with the Alive And In Full Bloom CD). This is followed by a trippy jazz and rock improv. We’ll Take You There goes into totally freaked out psych rocking heaven, with juxtaposed opening riffs that sound like Neil Young fucking with both Ohio and the Footloose theme. The last track is a spaced out jam of the Ayers penned Soft Machine song, We Did It Again, which leads into Ayers joining the band on stage.
Discs 2 and 3 consist of the full Kevin Ayers backed by Mushroom set. Each CD runs as individual continuous tracks so you can’t easily choose which songs you want to hear, but speaking for myself, I’m ok with that because it is, after all, a live show, meant to be heard as a whole.
Given Ayers’ Soft Machine roots, Mushroom made a glove fit of a backing band. Other than “Ratledge-isms” cropping up in the keyboards, Mushroom don’t really sound like Soft Machine. Rather, the commonalities are to found in each band’s unique psychedelic/progressive relationship to jazz, and, in Mushroom’s case, this extends to krautrock, pop, soul and more, depending on which of their albums you happen to be listening to. At one point in the set Ayers points out that he only had 5 hours to rehearse with the band, which is pretty damn impressive given how seamlessly the music gels. There’s an English troubadour element to Ayers and throughout the set we’re treated to his songs, interspersed with instrumental workouts. There’s lots of variety too. We’ve got the bluesy swing of Champagne And Valium and Strange Blue Coloured Moon. Lady Rachel is darkly moody, with beautify flute and guitar led instrumental forays. I like the flowing melodic spacey prog and experimental pop of Decadence. Why Are We Sleeping is simultaneously heavy rocking, dream-like and whimsical. Ghost Train comes across like a folk-prog minstrel song. I love the lively, uplifting blues rock of Didn’t Feel Lonely Till I Thought Of You. And there’s even some sad country song to be heard in I Don’t Depend On You. It’s a great set and an outstanding pairing of talents. Ayers had collaborated with a variety of luminaries in his career, and in subsequent years Mushroom would go on to do the same.
As you can see from the picture, the packaging is simple. Three CDRs without artwork, plus a 7 page printout with an excellent essay about Ayers in general and this evening in particular by San Francisco based poet and rock critic Michael Layne Heath, track listings and credits. But the price is right for this gem that will appeal to both Mushroom and Kevin Ayers fans.
Copies of this 3-disk set are extremely limited and are available directly from the band for US $20 in the US; all others: US $32. Price includes postage. Simply PayPal the money to email@example.com.
Reviewed by Jerry Kranitz