Polydor 1970 / Angel Air 2015
Scotland’s finest birds’ first flight and second rising into progressive blues skies.
Possibly, the most underrated and misunderstood ensembles to have ever come from Caledonia, STC are always associated with the blues, but there was much more to them, and here’s the proof. Released within a span of a single year, the band’s self-titled debut and its follow-up, show a lot of style brought in from across the ocean, what with drummer Colin Allen’s experience in John Mayall’s school and singer Maggie Bell’s soulful wail, although their vision of the States seemed imaginary. That’s what made the group’s approach unique and that’s what taken them beyond any particular genre, as demonstrated on Side 2 of “Stone The Crows,” the entirety of it, taken by “I Saw America” which, encompassing all the strains of the combo’s DNA – Spanish lace, West Coast psychedelia, New Orleans boogie, New England baroque, heavy rock and, of course, Delta cry – lists Daevid Allen among its writers. The GONG Pixie would be back on creative call in 1971, yet his presence maps the surrealistic reach of his friends’ debut record.
In fact, there is a hypnotically vibrant, introspective incantation called “Friend” on their sophomore effort, “Ode To John Law,” whose title track, in its space artsiness – going from unison to sonic chaos and back again – lies at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum to “The Touch Of Your Loving Hand” that opens the first LP to showcase Jimmy Dewar’s vocal and bass-playing prowess. The future frontman of Robin Trower’s trio, his Otis-indebted inflections butter a simple groove here, as Les Harvey’s economical guitar embroiders the electric piano vibe before Bell cuts in and ups the emotional ante, the composition’s live version as a bonus on the second CD of this set giving their dual delivery jazzier edge. Even more impressive on “Freedom Road,” it turns Latinesque, rhythm-wise, for the sharp jive of “Raining In Your Heart” where John McGinnis’ Hammond runs wild and Allen raises a percussion storm which would be strangely reined in in concert, as another Angel Air addition to the original lore shows.
More so, the darkly hued on-stage drama of Dylan’s “Hollis Brown” – one never taken by STC to the studio yet embellishing the canon here and possibly inspiring fellow Scots NAZARETH’s version – demonstrates the quintet’s interpretational talents as does their take on “A Fool On The Hill” that changes its color to intense blue, while its shape remains the same. And where “Sad Mary” goes for a riff-led assault with a wah-wah wide dynamic amplitude, “Blind Man” gets distilled to only Les’ flamenco-tinctured strum and Maggie’s voice, so velvet on the “Things Are Getting Better” hymn, whereas the slow funk of “Love” comes as entrancing in its instrumental interplay as it is cosmically insistent. But “Mad Dogs And Englishmen” brings the good-time sway down to earth and closer to home.
Yet what might feel like comfort lands in the reimagining of Percy Mayfield’s “Danger Zone” that’s painful and soothing at the same time, hot and chilling in its lava of desperation which bares the band’s very heart. There would be more songs from them, but this collection might be the CROWS’ peak.