|THE PAUL NELSON, ROLLING STONE REVIEW OF WILDERNESS ROAD|
Into the life of every critic, there come rare times when both heart and head simultaneously signal blast-off! and he falls happily head-over-heels in love with a rock & roll band, just like when he was seventeen. While a decade may have weeded out much of the naiveté, that warm glow definitely remains, and the qualitative difference is that both sides supposedly know something this time around. A mature appreciation, some would call it, but I prefer good old-fashioned love. To me, Wilderness Road, on this LP and (especially) in concert, sum up much of the best of American music, and such an event surely calls for at least one joyful and unabashed whoop of genuine pagan delight. After all, any philosophizing fool can prove through logic that he doesn't exist when you wish he didn't, but how (or why) do you hightone and thereby reduce a sensual and celebrative experience into mere reasonableness? There's this outlaw on my record player - Billy or Ishmael the Kid - and, goddamn, I'll stake my critical reputation, et cetera, that he's a real outlaw. Before formality, permit me one more voyage of sentimental reminiscence. I've seen Wilderness Road at a small club in Chicago at least a dozen times - on one occasion, so great was my enthusiasm, I paid full air fare from New York City for another writer so he, too, could enjoy the magic - and each time, when the music was over, standing on the street in what the late Jack Kerouac would call the great American night, talking with Warren Leming and Nate Herman, the guitarists, and the Haban brothers, Andy and Tom, bass and drums, respectively, I've had the mythic feeling that, during the preceding three or four hours, there was no better music to be heard anywhere in the land.
They seemed at then best like the Who crossed with the Byrds, Jerry Lee Lewis spawning the Firesign Theater (Leming and Herman are erstwhile Second City members), the J. Geils unit all mixed up with the boys in the Band, two Eric Claptons playing dual (and dueling) lead guitars with the Carter Family while everybody goes crazy.
Thematically, Wilderness Road begins with a whisper - the desert wind blows over the plains as the Rider, the "hero" of this brilliant and original aural Western movie (yes, that's what it is: a concept album) ruminates about his pursuers (himself?) and the living death of the freedom of the road - and ends with an almost literal band: the nameless protagonist being shot to pieces in the climactic, obligatory, end-of-the- "picture" gunfight. In between, there's a lot more - a flashback to a "Peaceful Life," some Wanted "Pictures in a Gallery," a professional "Bounty Man" hot on the trail, salvation through religious ("Revival") and secular ("Dr. Morpho's Revenge") means, dramatic foreshadowing ("Death Dream"), a love interest ("Don't Cry Lady"), and the strange, near-Camusian, Ahab-like soliloquy ("I Had the Right") which somehow holds things together while asking more questions than it answers.
Imagine a fusion of Ford's The Searchers, Stevens' Shane, Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, Malle's The Fire Within, throw in a passage or two from Freud, Jung, Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, and play some of the gentle traditional music of Elizabeth Cotten for a soundtrack and you've got at least some of it.
Yes, folks, it's the same old story, but, as is the case with most really old stories (archetypes, myths), don't (mis)understand it too quickly. Horton Barker used to claim that songs like these were easy enough to get into; the problem was trying to get back out again. Exactly. The power of the positive cliche may at times be so much romantic nonsense, but, just as often, it strikes deep to draw heavily upon the supply of rich, red, native American blood; and all of those orphans, widows, solitary strangers, hobos, gamblers, cowhands, and gunfighters who have haunted as many geniuses as they have readers of Modern Screen at last have a rock & roll record to call their own, with a critique on modern violence and the gratuitous act thrown in as a footnote. That should be worth at least one (I hope not lonesome) howl at the stars. And what may well be the best - a live LP (make that a double, please) showing the full range and power of the group - is yet to come. Why not too much, too soon? (RS 106) - August, 1971
PAUL NELSON is considered among Americas greatest music critics. He co founded, the Little Sandy Review, and has written for most of the major American journals and newspapers. He was instrumental in reviving interest in American folk and blues at a time when they were being over run by commercial music. - Warren Leming