Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Jeff Littrell from the JPT Scare Band was kind enough to get in touch with me after I wrote a short review of his band’s Sleeping Sickness retrospective on Monster Records. What’s more, he sent along a couple new releases, Past is Prologue (another retrospective, but with more recent material), and their new single, “Wino,” which, in true Scare Band fashion, is nine minutes long.

Past is Prologue
Opener “Burn In Hell” is a 2001 recording of an old Scare Band song from 1974. The sound is much more polished than the home-fi sonics of the Sleeping Sickness material, with lots of studio reverb applied to everything. But this excellent number (it’s becoming one of my Jeff/Paul/Terry favourites) goes to show how good they are when stripped of all that mystique-enhancing scuzz. The song itself is an early Rush or Budgie-styled slow-burning number, with a lengthy solo from guitarist Terry Swope. The guy is just all over the place as always. Although the Scare Band is definitely his vehicle, I don’t think the solo work would be half as majestic without the fuzzed-out Rickenbacker support of bassist Paul Grigsby. And when the solo ends, there’s some great tom-tom work from Mr. Littrell to usher the last verse in.

“I’ve Been Waiting” is next, another deliberate head-nodder of a track, and another example of solid songwriting from a band that seems to have made the free-form jam its claim to notoriety. The band describes this song as a tribute to Ozzy and Black Sabbath, and I can see it to an extent, especially in the vocal delivery. The song itself isn’t pastiche at all, though. It’s very much in the JPT vein. After a while, the guitar drops out and Grigsby gets a chance to solo, and holy jeez, is it ever cool. And despite the fact this song was recorded eight years before “Burn In Hell,” he’s got the same monster tone happening. Even when the guitar solo takes off, my ears are still riveted to the bass line. Again, the sound is much cleaner than on Sleeping Sickness (which contains a much rougher version of this same tune, with a bonus flute solo!), but it only proves what good musicians these guys are…something that wasn’t as blindingly obvious beneath the murk on the other album.

The single “Wino” follows, recorded at the same session as “I’ve Been Waiting,” I think. This is a cover of a folk song by Bob Frank. “This arrangement is slightly heavier than the original,” says the band. No doubt! This one reminds me of “Parents” by Budgie. The first guitar solo is incredibly tasteful and elegant, with clean Mark Knopfler tones. Sure, the solos are this band’s selling point, but check out that singing. Some soulful stuff going on here. For the second solo, Swope unleashes some wah-wah, the rhythm section picks up and everyone drives the number home.

The album then heads back in time to the Stone House on Crooked Road for 14 minutes of “Sleeping Sickness” in 1976. This is a killer song—really reminds me of Robin Trower. My favourite moment on this is right before the first solo, where the guitar volume rises, and the amplifier hum gets more intense—even before Swope hits the first note he creates a lifetime of excitement in that one brief second. It’s sort of the musical equivalent of Dr. Bruce Banner’s seams bursting as he transforms into the Hulk. You just know you’d be wise to take a step back. What Swope proceeds to do during the next 10 minutes is pretty much indescribable, tearing into his instrument like the fate of the world depends on it. After one amazingly intense passage he stops completely, letting the bass and drums power along for a bit. I can only imagine he had to step back and fan away the smoke spewing from his amp, guitar neck and fingertips. With that done, he comes back for another brief solo flurry before the last verse. “Sleeping Sickness” may be the definitive Scare Band song and recording, and one I’d play to anyone interested in hearing what the band is all about.

“Time To Cry” is another refugee from Sleeping Sickness. This one’s pretty freeform, and it doesn’t take long to get going before Swope starts giving his guitar a good thrashing and the rhythm section hangs on for dear life, summoning all their enthusiasm and tenacity to get them through these 13 noisy minutes. Actually, everybody locks in pretty quickly. To be able to jam this well, you’ve got to listen to each other carefully…and it’s clear that the Scare Band figured this out back in the early days. With about 6 minutes to go, there’s another bass solo, followed by off-the-cuff vocals that herald some more crazed soloing. Yeah, that one’s a keeper.

Next up is “Titan’s Sirens” from February 1975, which is the title track to an LP that Monster Records put out. Like “Time To Cry,” it’s another freeform one. More of a sustained peak than the flowing and ebbing “Time to Cry.” It’s over relatively quickly and works as a nice bridge into…

“Jerry’s Blues,” recorded a year later. The band really swings on this song. “Jerry” is one Jerry Wood, a legendary Wichita musician whom the Scare Band used to back up. It’s great to hear them work within this format. If they had a set of tunes like this, they could come to town and play the Yale. Not a bad idea to contemplate. There’s a great moment with about four minutes left where the band smoothly changes gears and moves from a shuffle to a four-on-the-floor feel and it sounds like they’re gonna go into Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” But no, it just sets the stage for some more nutty Scare Band action.

The last track is a bit of a teaser. “It’s Too Late” is one of their best songs, and the hit single from Sleeping Sickness in my opinion. Here it is again—backwards!

I’m really glad to have crossed paths with this band, and with Past is Prologue. It’s given me another perspective on the Scare Band and their music over the years. They’ve achieved a lot, and I think they’re going to accomplish much more. It just goes to show what I’ve always believed—you don’t need huge recording budgets or marketing campaigns or cutting-edge technology or an “image.” None of those things can replace imagination and a love for what you’re doing. There’s nothing more radical than people playing music in a room together. Nothing better either.

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