Thursday, 9 June 2011

Fresh Fish Only, A Berkeley Bag

You can tell that Joe & the Fish are a Berkeley band when you see them on stage playing their electric music; Dave swaying with his mouth open and his glasses off, jerking his head back and forth; Barry grimacing, contracting and stretching his body during his long lead electric runs, head lost in a myriad of new sounds and gadgets; Paul bending his body in sections and having fits of rhythmic enthusiasm with the tambourine; John looking so Lower East Side cool while he does beautiful drumming; Bruce innocently playing the bass while joy and dismay alternate on his face; and Joe yelling and singing, stamping his feet, and smiling thru the music when he wants to signal something to the rest of the band.

They're a warm open band, not a hard rock group, and they radiate the Berkeley hip-innocence when they play. You can tell how the performance is going by watching the light show of emotions flickering across their faces, especially Joe's, because he is learning to talk where there are no words, and uses his face to communicate with the band and his friends in the audience.

They give the impression of an unfreaked acidhead taking an outdoor trip in summer flowers amazed warm sun shining works out, amused when it doesn't, because nothing serious ever goes wrong, and things work out unexpectedly fine often.

Collectively they have no stage presence at all. Even more than the Spoonful, who radiate the same vibes, they are a collection of people in undistinguished clothing making a music which catches them half by surprise.

Obviously they don't believe the audience exists, for they strike poses and tell jokes in cowboy dialects, or start convoluted explanations of the evolution of a song, but forget and wander off mike or lapse into incoherence before they finish explaining that they "used to play folk music but now they don't, kinda, Roy, get it?" Stage presence will come, most likely, and with it stylized uniforms and the whole scene, and we're lucky to see it happens. They're real enough now that a chick can come up out of the audience and be a go-go girl for a couple of pieces without everyone getting upset, Perhaps some of you saw what happened to the Spoonful when Zal got kissed at UC.

The band tells me that they are going to make it, and certainly have the potential to ride the charts and have people pay $5 and glad of it to see them, but I can't help wonder if it will happen. Country Joe and the Fish are not, despite their talk, a business corporation nor a music making machine. They have just used the bread that comes with making it as an excuse to permit themselves to buy the equipment they wanted to so they could make serious music.

This seriousness about the music is going to be their worst hang-up if they want to get to the charts. If they did some serious practicing they could tighten up their arrangements and produce a commercial sound, but the problem is in the content. Like any artists they reflect the realities around them, and the realities in Berkeley are not the same as the image blown thru the mass media. Instead of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" they have the "Bass Strings" or the "Dope Song" as it is called. This is strictly an underground song, as are several of the others, like the protest material (Joe wrote the Vietnam Rag and recently one of the band was attacked in the Jabberwock by a drunk marine) and Joe wants to write some serious songs about sex.

Which is not to say that they don't have some commercial songs. "Sad and Lonely Times" would make Sonny and Cher so glad, and the flipped out stuff like "Happiness is a Porpoise Mouth" could make it, just as Dylan in disguise can make it, but it's difficult to say whether make the band could be happy only publicly doing half of what they know.

Anyway, a couple of months after they have formed they have already an identity of their own, and are the most potentially exciting and significant group on the whole Bay rock scene, even tho they may have to settle for a jazz size audience. What they need now is practice and an audience. If you have a where a loud rock band can Play for several hours a day, call the band at the Jabberwock. If you have a Thursday evening, go and see them there.

This nifty article first appeared in ED Denson's column The Folk Scene in the Berkeley Barb (Vol 2, No 23, June 10, 1966).