Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle More Oar

By Raoul Hernandez

DECEMBER 20, 1999: 

More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album (Birdman)

Helping inaugurate the age of tribute albums by assembling one of the first, and still one of the best, musical homages ever paid a true rock & roll visionary, 1990's Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson, music industry veteran Bill Bentley now ends the decade with its inspired follow-up, More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album.

As with its predecessor and spiritual blueprint, More Oar glows with Bentley's gift for matching artists and songs, while turning what others might consider a musical footnote into music history. A writer and early dean of Austin's music scene, Bentley's latest lesson on forgotten genius focuses on an artist whose story is remarkably analogous to that of local legend Roky Erickson.

Like the Red Temple shaman, Bay Area boy Alexander "Skip" Spence was a pivotal component of his burgeoning hometown music scene in the mid-Sixties, achieving modest fame as a gifted, charismatic songwriter and musician before being incarcerated in a mental institution (on drug charges), after which he never recovered.

An early member of both Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Jefferson Airplane, Spence ignited the three-guitar frontline of the great, lost psychedelic rock band from San Francisco, Moby Grape, whose hell-and-gone out-of-print 1967 self-titled debut is considered by many critics and fans alike to be one of the greatest albums of its era. "The only problem with that album?" laughs Bentley. "It was perfect."

While recording its follow-up in New York (1968's Wow), Spence landed in Bellevue Hospital's prison ward after an incident involving an axe and a bandmate's hotel-room door. Freed six months later and eager to record a collection of songs he'd written in Bellevue, Spence headed for Nashville, where he wrote, played all the instruments on, and produced one last album as a functioning artist -- his masterpiece, Oar.

Lovingly reissued earlier this year by NY-based indie label Sundazed, Oar gets its full due from Rolling Stone's David Fricke in the disc's booklet: "It remains an album of stunning musical and emotional clarity, the sound of a young man's blues -- Spence was only 22 -- poured from the inside out, as naked, honest, and solitary as Robert Johnson's 1936 San Antonio hotel-room sessions."

More than simply despair, however, Oar also celebrates its creator's freedom -- musically and otherwise. Despair mixed with euphoria filtered through a young man's unraveling sanity. A strange, potent, and ultimately awe-inspiring combination. Paying tribute to Spence through the album, More Oar mirrors its inspiration in both set list and sequencing, extending past Oar's 12 original tracks to include the reissue's bonus tracks in the same order as they appear as well.

Even more precise, and certainly the key to this tribute's overall success, nearly every one of the 17 contributors to More Oar respects the fact that Oar is an album awash in bass; its lo-fi warmth finds the limbo stick lying on the ground, and when matched with Spence's deeep, daaark baritone, Oar dwells in the netherworld of the subconscious.

That said, More Oar diligently enhances Spence's weary, repentant, and sometimes joyous songs so they blush with a color that's welcome. Thus Robert Plant, a longtime Moby Grape nut, makes this tribute's introductory toast a thoughtful, understated, thankfully unledded take on Oar's opening incantation, "Little Hands."

Screaming Tree Mark Lanegan, whose deep, whiskey voice is closest to Spence's own baritone, gives a plain, unmannered delivery of "Cripple Creek," Spence's own version being a dead ringer for Nick Cave and/or Leonard Cohen.

Austin's own Alejandro Escovedo proves the perfect choice for "Diana," a song on which Spence croaks "I am in pain" like he's dying; using his band's customary string-quartet sound to build tension, Escovedo also adds bloom.

One of Spence's peers, Ron Nagle, now a world-class ceramicist, returns from the vinyl annex with a somewhat phantasmagoric vision of the playful "Margaret Tiger-Rug," while Son Volt's Jay Farrar and Bottle Rockets' Brian Henneman with Dade Farrar sawing away on stand-up bass (aka the Sir Omaha Quintet) sound somewhat stiff on one of Oar's best songs, the ambiguous murder ballad, "Weighted Down (The Prison Song)."

Loose goosers Mudhoney, working to good effect once again with producer Jim Dickinson, put their typically acerbic sneer on a song that came off somewhat Moby Grape originally with its big guitar sound, "War in Peace," even as Robyn Hitchcock follows with an acoustic reading of "Broken Heart," which sounds like it was written for the eccentric pop genius.

Fellow Englishmen Diesel Park West next manage to turn Spence's haunting hymn "All Come to Meet Her" into a Nineties anthem, and Tom Waits puts that gravel-weighted growl of his to good use on his pulpit-pounding rendition of "Book of Moses."

Unfortunately, starting with icky Afghan Whig Greg Dulli's trademark egotistical reading of "Dixie Peach Promenade (Yin for Yang)," More Oar dips precipitously, Spence's hilarious "Lawrence of Euphoria," by SF's Ophelias, proving one last gasp before the album begins drowning in a sea of sameness. Given the reissued Oar's bonuses, "Extra Oar" and "Unissued Oar," this is not hard. Even Beck, covering the unfinished "Furry Heroine (Halo of Gold)," flounders.

It's Spence himself, who died at the age of 52 this past April, who saves the back end of More Oar with the mumbled, spacey, bongo madness of "Land of the Sun." A hidden bonus track deemed unworthy of 1996's X-Files spinoff, Songs in the Key of X, "Land of the Sun" brings More Oar full circle, driving home the fact that just as Bentley's two stellar tributes bookend this decade, Oar and More Oar together bookend an obscure chapter of rock & roll history that is finally becoming public record.


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