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Vinyl Cave: A trio of albums by Stoneground
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About the time the 1960s gave way to the "me decade" the Warner/Reprise family of record labels was really beginning to grow into the behemoth conglomerate it became in more recent times. Thanks to sharp A&R folks like Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker, the labels -- soon to include other independents like Atlantic, Elektra and many more -- moved into the forefront of rock 'n roll's gradual meltdown into the more self-serious rock forms popular during the '70s. Another big part of WB/R's growth during the late '60s and early '70s was due to Creative Services department head Stan Cornyn, who devised counterintuitive marketing ideas like their "Loss Leaders" sampler LPs and off-kilter ad campaigns to help give the formerly stodgy labels cachet to the hippie generation. Those interested in the rise (and later corporate overload fall) should pick up Cornyn's excellent and entertaining book Exploding: The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes, and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group.

As the result of lots of people at WB/R trying hard to think differently, the labels' albums from the time include a far higher percentage of interesting discs than what then-majors such as RCA, MGM or Decca were putting out. And once WB/R started having tons of success in the burgeoning LP market, there was cash around to also release a lot of now obscure albums which are usually worth checking out. Just one example is California's Stoneground, which released a trio of albums on Warner Brothers in 1971 and '72. The proto-jam band whipped up a melange of hard rock, country and blues (and, often some gospel-ish overtones in the vocals), a mixture that's often entertaining but at times also unwieldy as their 10- (or more) piece lineup must have been to truck around the country.

I've owned the first disc for years due to the involvement of former Beau Brummels singer Sal Valentino, one of rock's most distinctive voices, and always thought it was a one-off until recently finding the two follow-ups. The band's basic background is recounted in their debut's liner notes -- starting as trio, the group morphed into a much bigger band after adding Valentino, four female vocalists, and a few more players.

Stoneground built some early buzz before their debut album due to live performances, particularly by touring as the house band on the "Medicine Ball Caravan" -- a sort of traveling cross-genre Woodstock-ish festival organized by Warner and San Francisco DJ/occasional record label magnate (and Beau Brummels/Stoneground manager) Tom Donahue.

Considering their rep was made as a live act with the ability to take on various types of music, it's not entirely surprising that the self-titled debut LP feels a bit unfocused. Despite the fact that half the 10 tracks were written by Valentino, the group goes for a democratic approach and seven different lead singers are featured, which leaves Stoneground sounding more like a compilation album than one band. That being said, this debut showed the group's promise well; most of the singers are distinctive and the playing is great. The musicians' ability to fluidly mix and match musical styles makes for a more interesting brand of hippie rock than is the case for many similarly jammy supersized bands of the era. Particularly interesting are funky re-interpretations of "Rainy Day in June" by The Kinks and "Bad News," a song usually associated with Johnny Cash.

When their debut didn't set the world on fire, Stoneground returned with a mostly live album for their second effort, the double-disc Family Album. Sides 1 through 3 were sourced from KSAN broadcasts, and the chance to hear the band in a live context brings into focus the sound they were going for much more clearly than the previous studio album. The group's easy-rolling groove sounds relaxed but still maintains an intensity missing on their earlier studio material. While Family Album does include more covers than band originals, Stoneground's interpretations are usually so much their own that the covers might as well be new songs. Of special interest to Beau Brummels fans will be some uptempo new rockers by Valentino, and takes on a pair of obscure songs by Brummels songwriter Ron Elliott (who is also listed as co-producer with Valentino and Donahue).

Stoneground 3 features 12 original songs, including six by Valentino, and adds horns to their sonic mix. This album is quite a bit more straightforwardly '70s pop/rock-oriented, with only a couple songs clocking in over four minutes. Along with including perhaps Valentino's best song for the group, "From a Sad Man into a Deep Blue Sea," it's certainly their most coherent-sounding album due to the more unified sound. I haven't listened to it enough yet to decide whether that coherency is an improvement over their earlier more free-wheeling efforts, though.

The original Stoneground splintered after being dropped by Warner. Valentino joined up with his Beau Brummels bandmates for a short-lived mid-'70s reunion. Cory Lerios, David Jenkins and Steve Price went on to form the much more successful yacht rock band>Pablo Cruise, and the trio is still active with that group today. Lead guitarist Tim Barnes and singer Annie Sampson kept the Stoneground name alive with various incarnations active in the Bay Area into the mid-'80s, and there was even a re-formation in the 2000s that included Barnes and Price. (Warner Brothers, 1971 and 1972)

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