It’s mid June 1968 at the Carousel Ballroom, San Francisco, California. Tim Buckley is performing two opening sets for ‘It’s a Beautiful Day’ and ‘Booker T and the MG’s. He is in the midst’s of arguably his most creative era. Throughout his entire career Buckley was always experimenting in one way or another, with trends, lyrics, sounds and drugs. Today in the rock room spins a lovingly curated for release soundboard recording by the Owsley Stanley Foundation. The Foundation was created to save and delve into legendary soundman, LSD chemist and recording engineer Owsley ‘Bear’ Stanley’s legendary cache of recorded concerts.
Featured is the majority of two sets hailing from June 15th and 16th 1968 with additional tracks available for download from the website with a code provided in the liner notes. While there are some cuts in the tapes, the sonic clarity is crystalline and features Buckley’s deft line up of Carter C.C. Collins on percussion. John Miller on bass and David Friedman on vibes each represented in technicolor sound. Those familiar with Tim Buckley and his career changes understand that these tapes focus on an important moment between the traditional folk leanings of Buckley’s early career and the aural fantasy and atonal expressions of 1970’s Starsailor. It is during this time Tim was using alternative instrumentation, experimental vocalizations and uncommercial recording methods.
Both Buckley’s April 1969 release Happy/Sad and 1970’s Blue Afternoon were being developed on stage in real time at the loose as a goose ‘Carousel’ performances spotlighted on this recording. Another additional detail worthy of note is that Buckley was also working in the studio on his off days developing an album while also curating launching points for his nightly excursions with the band. On June 17th and 18th following these shows Tim and group recorded a number of performances also found on these tapes which can be investigated on the This Dream Belongs to Me and Works In Progress releases.
Additionally, the ‘rock room’ has previously reviewed a performance from this era, one that takes place only a bit over a month later at the Newport Folk Festival here. There is also an official release from a month earlier in May from Chicago which spotlights the genesis of many of the songs found on the Carousel release. All of these available recordings can trace a creative arc that comes to beautiful fruition on the official release Dream Letter which hails from Buckley’s European Tour and is from October 7, 1968 at the ‘Queen Elizabeth Hall’ in London.
Back to our focus, the opening set from the 15th begins with the fluttering drift of one of Buckley’s finest melodies. ‘Buzzin Fly’ is a glistening opener with Buckley’s churning acoustic strum the only guitar, allowing bassist John Miller to act as a ‘lead’ instrument. The most accessible song of the set (though still unreleased at the time). Buckley will play a collection of song that act more as meditations than actual set pieces. Buckley begins the show with a relatable acoustic mantra dressed in resplendent melody for the eager Carousel crowd.
A cut that would remain unreleased on an official album but acted as a favorite improvisational vehicle throughout 1968-1969 in ‘I Don’t Need It To Rain’ follows. Centered around a whirlpooling and bobbing John Miller sliding bass line this version lasts ten minutes though much longer attempts exist on tape (see Copenhagen). Buckley walks a netless tightrope lyrically letting loose with a stream of consciousness rap. Often the verbalizations Buckley emits are just as vital as the words. Here he investigates the corners of every syllable and available dictation with determination. Friedman and Miller rise and fall with the percussive aggression of Buckley’s guitar strokes. Verbally, sometimes he hits, sometimes he misses, but that is the risk taking of a constantly evolving and improvisational artist, Though his lyrical diversions always come back to the new cosmic blues statement of not ‘needing it to rain anymore’.
‘Blues/Love’, as its referred to on the release notes rises from the extinguished embers of ‘I Don’t Need It To Rain’. John Miller plays an active exciting bass line while Buckley free forms through a familiar set of changes but with a blurry autobiographical tinge. The group races forward initiated by an edge to Buckley’s raw throat. Pauses in the band’s dynamic sprint allow for Buckley to scat while also expanding his his vocal chords when reentering the ‘verses’. A total free musical expression.
A totally hip conga solo by ‘C.C’ adheres to the theme of the set being performed as one evolving and constant piece of music. Buckley reenters with vociferous strumming and the band falls into place around him. A hallmark of this era, Buckley directs the drift of the group with the dynamics of his approach. His strumming as much percussive as musical. Tim would again explore a similar theme with the expanded ‘Gypsy Woman’ on Happy/Sad which some formative elements can be discerned here. ‘Blues/Love’ again surpasses ten minutes before segueing into ‘The Father Song’, another cut destined to never see an official release. Buckley did attempt the song in the studio as well which can be heard on the official release Works In Progress.
‘The Father Song’ may have brought it a little to close to the home front porch for Tim’s liking. The song resides in the same melodic basket as ‘Sing a Song for You’ and ‘Once I Was’ though a deeper look inward in content. An additional cool creative glimpse is the segment labeled on the CD as ‘A Lonely Life’. This fragment is a piece of the upcoming song cycle ‘Love from Room 109’ which would feature prominently on Happy/Sad. These melodic shards are scattered throughout the collection. The aforementioned download only tracks from the 15th are wonderful as well and spotlight ‘Happy Time’ and ‘Hi Lily, Hi Lo’ a film song Buckley had an affinity for but never officially released. Though a number of lacy live versions hit the spot as does this one.
The second set of the collection from the 16th begins with Buckley idol and folk legend Fred Neil’s ‘Green Rock Road’ from his self titled 1966 album. Actually, this reading by Buckley is a conglomerate between Neil’s ‘Green Rocky Road’ and Buckley’s own original vamp ‘Who Do You Love’. Neil’s influence on Buckley is well documented and obvious. Neil had released his Sessions record in the fall of 1967 and Tim’s major directional shift in his approach was initiated by Neil’s own movement on this record.
The second version of ‘Happy Time’ on the set is airy, brisk and fully realized, a bit tighter than the previous days reading. Close to an album worthy rendition with crisp and attentive playing. A Buckley arrangement of the folk standard ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ follows and surpasses ten minutes. This track contains Buckley’s wildest vocalizations of the show. While for the most part singing with a stony restraint throughout the Carousel run, here Buckley litters the confident jamming with off mic directives and gritty lyricism. A highlight performance.
‘Buzzin Fly’ is again given a test flight for the 16th’s show and is as sticky sweet as the first. The last segment available on the recording is titled ‘Strange Feelin Suite’ and is a twenty plus minute musical investigation of the later to be released Miles Davis influenced jam. What makes this particular recording so vital is the inclusion of a number of early song fragments and melodies nestled inside of the ‘Strange Feelin’ bookends. ‘Strange Feelin’ would eventually end up as the opener of Happy/Sad but here, similarly to most of the songs on the CD it floats, a feather on air. The song hasn’t gained it’s namesake lyrics just the churning instrumentation and bluesy central melody line. In this version Buckley freestyles and focuses on innocence, freedom and flight as opposed to a yet to be discovered ‘Strange Feelin’. John Miller is again a glorious star chasing Buckley, initiating the search for new musical heights.
After seven minutes Buckley tries on his new fragments of song directing the group into the central portion ‘Love from Room 109’ and then a early reading of the special ‘Sing a Song For You’ which would close Happy/Sad. It’s stunning to hear Buckley set up one of his finest songs with the delicate melodies that comprise the internal magic of ‘Room 109’. This is uniquely special stuff. In spite of a stumble negotiating the key of the song Buckley provides a stellar rendition complete with bowed bass by Miller.
Buckley then releases some well timed moans as he slips seamlessly back into the ‘Strange Feelin’ groove while reciting ‘Merry-Go-Round’ from Fred Neil’s aforementioned Sessions record. These whoops and groans would grow to their full potential by 1969. The group digs it as referenced by the additional ten minutes on the groove while Buckley pleads vocally. Again, as is the case with the 16th show, Buckley finds some locales of abundant inspiration vocally. He is undoubtedly turned on by the jamming.
Tim Buckley’s 1968 performances at the Carousel Ballroom fill a void in the picture of Tim’s musical mid 1960’s journey. What was once a live recording dearth has now become a wealth of material from the period. Thankfully ‘Bear’ and others had the foresight to document these moments for eternity. While Tim Buckley fans will find solace in every note, music fans unfamiliar with Buckley’s influence will discover a time when improvisation was encouraged and artistic freedom was in large supply. Buckley was always a forerunner in following his own internal weather vane, pointing his inspiration to clear skies and unlimited artistic horizons.