Doug Sahm & the Sir Douglas Quintet
The Complete Mercury Recordings (Hip-O Select)
Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., April 15, 2005
Doug Sahm & the Sir Douglas Quintet
The Complete Mercury Recordings (Hip-O Select)
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's neglect notwithstanding, Douglas Wayne Sahm is music history, Texas and otherwise. Rock & roll hippie, country outlaw, R&B hepcat, Tex-Mex pollinator, jazz linguist, Sahm (1941-1999) lives forever as the Johnny Appleseed of Texas Music, hitching the Lone Star State's myriad musical traditions to his legend and spreading them the world over with his trademark cackle. Hip-O Select's Internet-only The Complete Mercury Recordings is Sahm's 5-CD Rosetta stone. Correction: Rosetta stoned.
Returning to print some six LPs, one EP, and more than a dozen singles, plus previously unheard surprises, this 6-inch-by-8-inch linen-bound collection should nestle perfectly on any bookshelf, which is where a comprehensive volume like The Complete Mercury Recordings belongs amongst literature. This is a crucial chapter not only of the Austin music scene and Texas as a whole, but arguably, of world music itself. Whenever a glacier-living European dreams of Texas' big sky and the twin fiddles swinging underneath it, they sing Doug Sahm's jukebox.
Now that some of its most important vinyl content has a digital finish preserving it from the cold, wet Pearls resting atop it, Sahm and friends sound as Summer of Lovingly analog as the day these roots were planted. The box set booklet, in fact, incorporates beer stains into its design. A sole essay, sleeve art, and sessionographies are amusingly thorough in a thoroughly Sahm manner: "Recorded in San Francisco, California, between St. Patrick's Day and the first full moon in June of 1968."
So read the man on the rise's original liner notes to Sir Douglas Quintet + 2 = (Honkey Blues), the opening LP of The Complete Mercury Recordings. "These tracks consist of our first recording sessions in over two years," furthers Sir D. "A long time was spent absorbing and digging all forms of music, and at the same time, trying to find myself musically and spiritually." If there was ever a year to do just that in San Francisco, it was 1968, when the Fillmore Auditorium was one of the headquarters of 20th-century evolution cultural, musical, universal. Sahm's "(Is Anybody Going to) San Antone" sound is in full bloom from groove one, acoustic guitars and fiddles drunk on the patented accordion wheeze of a Vox organ, and firmly in pocket by the third track, the haunting "Song of Everything."
Organ coats most every Sahm exhale, flashing back to its Sixties heyday, while at the same time anchoring the music in present day Austin, where old school still thrives in the acoustics of the Continental Club, Broken Spoke, and any number of old rooms. They might not be the grand ballrooms of S.F.'s baroque downtown, yet they're the roots from which the British Invasion sprang in the first place. San Antonio shout-out "I'm Glad for Your Sake (But I'm Sorry for Mine)" is old school like the Alamo is old school. Closing duties belong to a blues original to make Clifford Antone misty, the entire LP clocking in at under 30 minutes: "You Never Get Too Big and You Sure Don't Get Too Heavy, That You Don't Have to Stop and Pay Some Dues Sometime." Ain't it la verdad?
Honkey Blues is only paired with one of the most precious jewels in Sahm's 10-gallon catalog, '69's Mendocino, which returns Augie Meyers' organ grinder grin to the fold, opens with its charting title track, and never looks back killer art et al. Not only isn't there a bad song on Mendocino, from the slowly psychedelicizing keyboard shuffle of "I Wanna Be Your Mama Again" to the equally stripped pop nugget of Delbert McClinton's "If You Really Want Me to I'll Go," they're all Quintet canon classics. "At the Crossroads" ("You just can't live in Texas if you don't have a lot of soul"), organ-fueled duo "Texas Me," and Sahm's signature song, "She's About a Mover," are standouts on an LP lousy with them.
"And It Didn't Even Bring Me Down" matches McClinton in AM radio smarts, while one jaunty toss-off earns its place in the lifeboat in title alone: "Lawd, I'm Just a Country Boy in This Great Big Freaky City." Bonus tracks include the bucolic "Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day," from box-set guru Bill Levenson's previous definitive one-disc comp, The Best of Doug Sahm & the Sir Douglas Quintet, and the dynamite "Dynamite Woman" single.
Six months later, produced by none other than Bayou bad boy Huey P. Meaux, Together After Five opens with the Texas Tornados template: "Nuevo Laredo," border rock barbecue and beer. There's rib-ticklers ("T-Bone Shuffle"), sad letters home ("I Don't Want to Go Home"), steel string romance ("Backwood's Girl"), Dylanesque ("If She'd Only Come to Me"), and stoned Dylanesque ("One Too Many Mornings/Got to Sing a Happy Song").
The drifting backside of Together After Five stiffens on follow-up 1+1+1=4 (1970), a bracing shot of Lone Star R&B that by disc's close also can't mask the spreading malaise of a hangover decade. There's another classic opener in the thick ankles of "Yesterday Got in the Way," while Sahm's clip-clopping "Be Real" singes the Quintet highlight reel. As delicious as the horn innuendo of Junior Parker's "In the Dark," big beat jazz of "Don't Bug Me!," and Big D musical pistol whipping in "Catch the Man on the Rise" are, 4's covers telegraph a familiar tale: waning inspiration.
Disc three, the shortest at 46 minutes (the others top out at more than 70 minutes apiece), opens with two minutes of Texstasy: the unreleased C&W version of "Texas Me," recorded in Nashville, but giddy with its home star state. It's a sequencing coup; The Return of Doug Saldaña (1971) discards the burst S.F. Sixties bubble for "my hometown of San Antonio, Texas." Cut in Houston, Saldaña's Gulf Coast soul finds rejuvenation with the "help" of Huey Meaux, and a cast including Jack Barber on bass and S.A. tenor sax patron Rocky Morales. It's nothing short of groover's paradise, Sahm's "Keep Your Soul" keeping time with T-Bone Walker's "Papa Ain't Salty." The hipster's barroom serenade "Stoned Faces Don't Lie" sets the stage for his hold-me-close reading of future Tornado Freddy Fender's anthem, "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights."
In between, Sahm whoops up his return ("Me and My Destiny"), while already waxing nostalgic for his recently departed Left Coast ("The Railpak Dun Done in the Del Monte"). Apparently, Señor Saldaña returned to a drought ("Oh Lord, Please Let It Rain in Texas"), but with his two Atlantic stunners just around the corner, found on another originally Internet-only collection, The Genuine Texas Groover, this was yet another especially fertile entry in the Texas Tornado's saga. Bonus single "Michoacan" drives the point homestead.
Disc four's Rough Edges (1973) teeters and wobbles like contract fulfillment just prior to Atlantic's Jerry Wexler buying out said paper. The best here, "Soulful Woman," "Hello Amsterdam," and "Spearfish by Night," wouldn't be missed from any of the previous LPs had the songs made the cut in the first place. The rollicking throb of "Dynamite Woman" is a kick-up-your-heels exception, the baby not thrown out with the bath water.
The rest of disc four is also filler, but the right kind of filler: the 10-minute Mexican EP, more Texas Tornado scene-setting with Spanish versions of Quintet hits like "Mendocino," "Nuevo Laredo," and the killing "And It Didn't Even Bring Me Down." It's an archeological botana, short on credits, and washed down by a half-dozen shots of 100-proof Sahm productions: a pair for future Tornado sub Roy Head, and four more by Clarksdale blues man Junior Parker. Head sounds like Lowell George ambushed him at the crossroads, while Parker coasts with easy Delta style.
The fifth and final CD, "The Mono Singles," is the dark horse standout of The Complete Mercury Recordings, a greatest hits disc with substantially different radio mixes. Cramming the Quintet's expansive sound into a couple of channels so they'd pop on a single car speaker results in an abundance of sound as heady as Sahm's musical cornucopia. Call this the fiesta disc, preserving post-war San Antonio, Soap Creek Saloon's shakin' sides, and the Texas Hill Country as it dips and rolls for a Lone Star eternity. Just like Doug Sahm himself.