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This rare 1976 live recording shows the experimental folk musician in uncharacteristically lucid form, tying together unlikely influences into fluid, unusual compositions.
After playing one song in his live set, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Sandy Bull pauses to demonstrate the presets on his new-fangled drum machine. He bought the Rhythm Ace from Japan, and he goofs on the programmed marches, jazz waltzes, western lopes, bossa novas, and boleros that this “drummer” can provide. “Now I’d like to introduce the rest of the band here,” he announces to the crowd at the Berkeley Community Theater, opening up for Leo Kottke on May 2, 1976. “We got Sandy Bull on rhythm guitar (he whistles and impersonates the crowd’s roars), we got Sandy Bull on bass, and Mr. Rhythm Ace playing the kick-ass drum part.” The crowd laughs, as no doubt the only sight is of Mr. Bull on his lonesome up on stage, with guitar, oud, four-track machine, and the Rhythm Ace as accoutrement.
That his humor remains intact is evident, and as this rare concert document (rescued by Steve Krakow and released on his Galactic Zoo Disk label, an imprint of Drag City) can attest, Bull was physically intact in the 1970s as well. Much like the Kottke crowd on that night, you could be forgiven for thinking that Sandy Bull had already expired from a drug misadventure earlier in that decade. Although I already knew that Sandy Bull had passed away in the early 2000s, I mistakenly assumed that this live document would have shown Bull deep down in a hole. Aside from the unfocused and muddled 1972 studio album, Demolition Derby, not a note of his had been recorded in that decade as he grappled with serious drug issues that irredeemably waylaid his promising career.
A contemporary of steel-string virtuosos like John Fahey, Robbie Basho, and Kottke, Bull’s recorded work in the 1960s outstripped those of his peers for their singular vision and sense of adventure. Take “Blend”, the side-long tour de force from his 1963 debut, Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo. While his aforementioned peers navel-gazed and wove solo acoustic guitar music well into the 70s (though Fahey did take a few whimsical detours), Bull enlisted jazz drummer Billy Higgins for his first recording date. By that point in 1963, the crossover between folk and jazz was non-existent, the worlds of white and black barely engaged in dialogue. At that time, Higgins worked primarily with the likes of Donald Byrd and Ornette Coleman, so it says something of Bull’s adroit skills on acoustic guitar that he not only enlisted but matched Higgins’ powerful and free rhythms note for note. For 10 minutes or so, Bull casts a spell on his steel-string, but when Higgins’ toms thunder in, these two master musicians flash a level of telepathy that still astounds. Elsewhere, he fused banjo and “Carmina Burana” and juxtaposed Bach with Bo Diddley, Indian raga with the reverb of Roebuck “Pops” Staples. His subsequent records were diminishing returns as his drug use increased (and while it remains a bit of a mess, I have a soft spot for the writhing snakepit of sound that is his 1968 album, E Pluribus Unum) before he dropped out altogether.
by Andy Beta