Entry for August 15, 2005

by

Earth Opera

Earth Opera

Elektra EKS-74016

Wounded Bird 4616 (CD reissue)

Tracks: The Red Sox Are Winning/As It Is Before/Dreamless/To Care At All/Home Of The Brave/The Child Bride/Close Your Eyes And Shut The Door/Time And Again/When You Were Full Of Wonder/Death By Fire (45:11)

Producer

Peter K. Siegel

Released: 1968 Chart Peak: NA (US)

Personnel: Peter Rowan (voc, gtr), David Grisman (mandocello, mandolin), John Nagy (bs), Bill Stevenson (kybds, vibes), Billy Mundi (drm), Warren Smith (drm). Engineers: Dave Sanders and Roy Cicala. Producer: Peter K. Siegel

*Tasteful pop debut by former and future bluegrass boys Peter Rowan and David Grisman in classic ’60s Elektra Records mold Vivid anti-war sentiment colors each track

More than just a product of the times, though its subject matter oozed with contemporary relevance, the first album by Boston’s Earth Opera remains a largely unsung classic moment of ’60s pop music. The collaborative result of two players otherwise immersed in bluegrass music–Peter Rowan, formerly with Bill Monroe, and David Grisman, onetime Smokey Grass Boy–the album sounds strikingly contemporary three full decades later. Much of the credit must go the adventurous instrumentation throughout–Grisman’s mandocello and mandolin, subtle keyboards and vibes, and a noticeable scarcity of drumwork–but even more goes to Peter Rowan’s wonderful songs and vocals, which together with the subtle arrangements carved out a stylistic niche that was strikingly unique.

Essentially a quartet with a session percussionists Mundi and Smith added (drummer Paul Dillon would join the band following the making of this album), Earth Opera were Elektra artists of the same ilk as the Doors, Tim Buckley, and Love; musicians allowed to pursue their muse largely because they had one to follow. “This was the time when [Elektra head/production supervisor ] Jac Holzman was really pushing for artistic freedom,” says Rowan today, “seeing that whatever would emerge from this endeavor of his record company would have strength of its own. And they promoted it. If we had been driven by the format, we certainly would’ve rocked a lot harder and blasted away. And we felt–and it was–a special time, especially looking back, where really complete artistic freedom was given to the artist. And I sure would’ve liked to do those vocals again.”

What leaps out of the record today first and foremost are both the songs–filled with gothic-tinged lyrical imagery at times evoking the medieval/puritanical eras–and the strangely languid tempos. It’s especially evident on three of this album’s finest tracks: the utterly superb “The Child Bride,” a near-masterpiece of mood and intonation, “Time And Again,” and the lengthy, floating “As It Is Before.” Says Rowan, looking back: “I remember we’d play all those slow, turgid, subterranean, somnambulant, hard-driving things–which has basically become what grunge and hardcore is–slow, slow, slow. Grunge has found that place, and we were sort of going there. In fact, if you listen to `Time And Again,’ you will hear, kind of, proto-grunge.”

Earth Opera would go on to record the less subtly anti-war The Great American Eagle Tragedy, a fine but not quite as atmospheric successor to their first set, before dissolving: Rowan would join the reconstituted and more popular Sea Train, and eventually rejoin Grisman in Old And In The Way; both turned their back on playing pop music by the mid-’70s. Highly respected today, they share a past that might surprise those who’ve never heard it. “Somebody gave me a tape of both records two years ago,” Rowan says, “and I listened to to it for a long time driving around on the road. And I was totally stoked, especially by the first one. I mean, we were there but we didn’t know it. We were there.”

Further listening: The Great American Eagle Tragedy (1969), Sea Train (Capitol debut, 1971)

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