The Southern rock genre, for the most part, has been defined by its two biggest anthems, the Allman Brothers Band's "Whippin' Post," and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird." The truth does not fit the cliché or the stereotype. For starters, the Allmans were not, at least initially, a rock band. They were a powerful, extraordinarily focused and sophisticated blues unit who took rock and jazz -- in virtually equal parts -- into their mix and spit it out as a new kind of Southern blues. Skynyrd was a straight-up bluesy rock & roll band who touched on country occasionally but sonically had more in common with big power rock groups like Cream and Grand Funk and than they did the Allmans -- other than the multiple lead guitar pickers who happened to play dual leads; Thin Lizzy did that on the other side of the pond at the same time.
Enter South Carolina's Marshall Tucker Band, made up of a group of jazz, country, blues, and soul players (and in lead guitarist Toy Caldwell all four co-existed simultaneously), along with vocalist Doug Gray, brother Tommy Caldwell (the band's arranger and leader), saxophonist, flutist, and killer keyboard player Jerry Eubanks, rhythm guitarist George McCorkle, and drummer Paul Riddle. The Tuckers sought to blend these four genres in a unique form of American music that gave equal due to not only the influences of Southern music, but urban music as well (the city of Chicago was a big center of support for the act). What they created was a meld that relied more heavily on country and jazz than blues or soul, but it was still, at its best, a hell of a mix. This set from Shout Factory contains both a double-CD and full DVD of a concert from the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ in 1977, in support of what would be their sixth and biggest record, Carolina Dreams.
The album boasted the killer single "Heard It in a Love Song" (a track still heard with considerable regularity on classic rock radio), the rousing "Fly Like an Eagle" (no relation to the Steve Miller signature tune) that dared set flute lines and lead guitar riffs -- along with a bumpy, funky bassline -- inside a country song, and the lilting ballad "I Should Have Never Stared Loving You," which is not a country song but a pop ballad with some serious soul-jazz saxophone from Eubanks. That record makes up most of the first half of this show, and it is capped, basically, with "Heard It in a Love Song," a song with that signature flute, 12-string electric guitar, a big, open-toned bassline played close to the vest because of the slippery guitar fills, and Gray's silvery, clear, baritone voice, which is added to exponentially by the three-part harmony on the chorus. Seen this way, the songs offer a startlingly unexpected portrait of the band, yet the instrumental interludes are the most surprising. Tommy Caldwell, being the music director, left lots of room for free play between Eubanks, and Riddle. This drummer doesn't ride a beat but plays through, around, and under it with elements of Latin and breakbeat soul in his tool kit; he keeps everything in a groove that is never static; a groove that reveals a group seeking to realize their own musical vision, hungry, exploratory, and not content to rest on their laurels. The first half of the show ends with three oldies. "Take the Highway" moves the country element front and center, but the band's first big single, "Fire on the Mountain," with Toy's pedal steel added to the mix, makes it much more western than country. The bluegrass feel of the studio version has been displaced; Eubanks' flute solo plays right off Riddle's bell work on the ride cymbal adding a jazz element that is confounding and magical.
The second set is rowdier, but even here, on "Never Trust a Stranger," Toy's deep, Albert King blues intro is married to some improvisational bass work from Tommy, followed by a riff that would be pure Allmans if it weren't for Eubanks' modal flute and the purely funky backbeat by Riddle that takes it into a different direction despite the redneck lyrics. There is a worthy version of "Ramblin'" that pairs Southern New Orleans swing with R&B and Bob Wills with Gray singing like he's recording with Jerry Wexler or something. And no Marshall Tucker Band set would be complete without the anthem "Can't You See," sung by Toy. With his limited vocal range he injects so much pure blues emotion into a single three-chord song that the only way he can compensate for being so exposed is by playing the hell out of his guitar -- and he does. With the three-part harmony behind him and Eubanks' flute with Gray soaring above the cast on the refrain, it's muscular but far from macho. This is a song about the worst kind of vulnerability. And even as an encore and a crowd-pleaser, the emotion can't be escaped. The next encore, "This Ol Cowboy," features a complete Afro-Cuban jazz rhythm workout by Riddle and Tommy Caldwell, with Eubanks improvising fills and trading with Gray. Since it prefaces "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," it adds an entirely new element of mystery to this band, as does their reading of the standard, which becomes a gritty soul workout inspired more by the Staple Singers than the Carter Family.
Either way here, the listener gets the whole show. The songs on the CDs and the DVD are almost mirror images of one another, and there are plenty of extras on the latter. As for sound quality, this set was filmed by the band; and even though it's a multi-camera shoot, the resolution of the video is far from spectacular. It's shot from directly in front and from the side of the stage, but it's as intimate as it gets. We can see the visual cues from one bandmember to another. The sound on the CDs is radio broadcast stereo and board sound. While it is a tad thin in places, it doesn't lack for power or presence and captures the crackling, exploratory nature of this band on a stage in front of a wild yet cooperative crowd. It's also bittersweet in that both Caldwells and McCorkle are gone now. It's a document that makes a ton of sense to release in 2007, as the myth of Southern rock and its stereotypes seems written formally into the rock history books. Some of those clichés contain a grain or two of truth, but this amazing document adds another element, less easy to categorize, to the story. It leaves us with way more questions than answers.