Live (Mystic Records)
By: Steven Maginnis
The British rock group Family had always been an unpredictable band. In the late sixties and early seventies, Family cultivated a reputation as one of the wildest, most innovative groups of the underground rock scene, issuing albums composed of songs that would shift keys and tempos midway through or maybe swing back and forth between one style and the next. Though never very successful in the United States, Family were easily one of the most influential bands of their time in the U.K. Their overall sound changed as commonly as their lineup. Their 1968 debut album, Music In a Doll's House, was a mix of mannered Sgt. Pepper-style psychedelia and Stax-Volt rhythm and blues that somehow blended seamlessly; by 1970, with the release of A Song For Me, Family had become a ferocious band that had perfected a fusion of folk, country, and brutally hard rock. The group reached its apex in 1971 with Fearless, in which their penchant for adventurous arrangements and complex chord progressions had reached full fruition. As carefully crafted as their music could be in the studio, however, Family were a different band in concert, offering some of the rawest, most intense performances on stage in rock history; it was said that the Jimi Hendrix Experience were afraid to follow them at festivals. And now, thanks to a wonderful new CD release, rock fans now have the ability to hear a Family concert for the first time since the Leicester band broke up in 1973.
Family's Live (Mystic Records UK, MYS CD 176) is an incredible document of the group's November 1971 tour of Britain to support Fearless, in which the band pushed the envelope to find new vitality and new meaning in both their earlier songs and in selections from their new album. The lineup at the time, as always, was anchored by the three members who remained in Family from start to finish: drummer Rob Townsend, whose precise timekeeping and explosive fills always kept Family rock-steady; guitarist Charlie Whitney, whose biting solos sounded as menacing as his cocky sneer and his double-necked Gibson guitars looked; and lead singer Roger Chapman, who made Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant sound like a crooner with a bleating vibrato voice that was accurately described as the sound of an "electric goat." Rounding out the group in 1971 were bassist/vocalist John Wetton (yeah, the guy from Asia), who paced Family's music fluidly, and Poli Palmer, who contributed on the flute, piano, synthesizer, and vibraphone -- and excelled at all of them. These performances, from a tape found in Chapman's possession, are a chronicle of a rock and roll band that tore through material with a thunderous, relentless drive few of their peers in British rock could match.
Live, mostly recorded at Family's Rainbow Theatre gig in London, opens in typical Family fashion, with a song that alternates between light, introspective rock and heavy metal, swinging violently between the two. "Good News Bad News" explodes with some rudimentary power chords, turns to Chapman's musings on class struggles with accompaniment from Palmer's sharp vibes, than returns to heavy rock with Chapman's monstrous screech: "Closing their ears to other men's views / Change for the good would not bring bad news!!" Chapman and Whitney battle each other for supremacy on stage, with Chapman extending the words in his raw delivery and Whitney contributing equally vicious guitar passages; Wetton's ominous bass and Townsend's steady drums keep everyone on track without fail.
Other cuts on Live show how Family would rework their already unconventional arrangements in their efforts at new sounds and new experiences. A good deal of their ideas -- an extended bass line, a heavily phrased vocal passage -- were spontaneously added, or developed over time. Routinely, Family would play a song live repeatedly, sometimes in different ways, before settling on a definitive studio recording, and even then they'd continue playing it differently on stage. "Part of the Load," Family's ode to touring America, is rougher here than on their 1970 album Anyway; the shuffling drum passage from the original recording is absent here, giving Wetton room for some sly bass improvisations and allowing Whitney to solo with more abandon. Family extend the coda by repeatedly playing the same riff, each time lighter than before, when they suddenly close with a loud, heavily distorted line that concludes as abruptly as it appears. Their take on Anyway's "Holding the Compass" is more pointed than the original version (which was also live), with Chapman raising and lowering his voice at random. Whitney and Wetton play with a more acidic edge than the song -- compared by some to Led Zeppelin's folk-tinged power ballads -- is known for.
Family are even more potent with the Fearless tunes, performing four of them here in the wake of the album's release. "Spanish Tide," recorded in the studio as an esoteric folk rocker, mutates into a blistering, blues-based number with Whitney's fiery guitar lines keeping the band grounded while Chapman delivers the desperate lyrics in a searing fashion. "Between Blue and Me," by contrast, stays close to the original record, with the rhythm of Wetton's economical bass, Whitney's stinging guitar solos, and Townsend's rolling drums conveying the stormy, choppy sea alluded to in the lyrics. Chapman, however, is even more impassioned than on the studio version, delivering the lyrics with a raw and provocative power. The band offers up a sly, strident take on the acoustic ballad "Children" as well. The best performance of a Fearless cut on Live, though, is the jam piece "Take Your Partners," a freewheeling rocker sounding even more intense here than on Fearless, with some of Whitney's hottest licks complemented by Palmer's synthesizer. The audience must have been dancing (or something like it) in the aisles at the time; the band goes for full speed, kept marvelously on time by Townsend, while Chapman goes for the jugular in delivering some of rock's most incomprehensible lyrics -- "God knows I'm hip, but I ain't yours or his - everybody's ass is up for kicks!" -- in a rasping voice that is more low-key than his other performances on Live but is no less restrained. Chapman, who had worn his voice out considerably in Family's early days of live performance, was now learning how to use his voice for dramatic effect and to conserve his energy, holding back and phrasing syllables carefully on some songs and going more over the top on others.
Chapman's predilection for the latter course comes through loud -- very loud -- and clear on Live's renditions of Family's two best known songs. "Drowned In Wine," a defiant song from A Song For Me celebrating nonconformity, comes to life vividly here as the band plows through an alternating chord progression of intense folk and heavy rock, anchored by Wetton's bass and powered by Whitney's hurdy-gurdy riffing in the chorus. It is Chapman, as always, who steals the show with his chillingly melismatic phrasing. Live closes, as it should, with "The Weaver's Answer," a song about aging and death from Family's second album (Family Entertainment, from 1969) that sounded rather polite on record but was always performed in concert the way Family meant for it to be heard -- as the dirtiest, most violent rock and roll they were capable of delivering. The Live version is no exception. As the song's narrator, a dying old man, prepares to see his life as a tapestry and pass into the next world, Family serve up a furious concoction of razor-sharp guitar passages, a heavy bass line, and an eerie synthesizer line passing in and out of the mix. Chapman's voice crackles like static as he vies for attention with Townsend's hyperkinetic drums and the wail of Whitney's guitar. The song climaxes with the old man's death and the music slipping into a funereal tone before a final rally slams the song -- and the record -- shut.
Family's Live sums up this band's concert persona brilliantly, displaying a band that rocked hard and destroyed any musical boundary or convention in their path. By the time Live is over, there is a definite sense of closure; Family have triumphantly given their all.
(Note: This CD can be easily ordered from Mystic Records UK at www.mysticrecords.co.uk)