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Vinyl Cave: The Ultimate Prophecy by J.D. Blackfoot

Of the tons of obscure rock albums from the first psychedelic era in the late 1960s through early '70s, it's always a pleasant surprise when one jumps out as far ahead of the pack. Some recent pickups that I had high hopes for -- the second Giant Crab album Cool It ... Helios and St. John Green's self-titled debut -- turned out to be limp pop/horn rock and the usual intermittently entertaining Kim Fowley nonsense, respectively. That was a particular disappointment in the case of Giant Crab, as their first album is pretty good ... but I digress. One album I recently unearthed that is worth many repeated spins is the debut album from J.D. Blackfoot, which was both the nom de rock of Ohio native Benjamin Franklin Van Dervort and, at least briefly, a specific group.

The group's origins are with Columbus garage band The Ebb Tides, who released the intriguingly odd single "Spirits Ride the Wind"/"Seance" on the local Jar label. According to his online bio, Van Dervort had joined the band in time for a 1967 Midwest tour; he also has a writing credit on both sides of the single. After returning from the tour, he decided to form his own project, eventually coming up with the Blackfoot moniker. When he couldn't convince his Ebb Tides bandmates to join up -- at least initially -- Van Dervort added some initials to the proposed band name and took it for his own name and musical identity. More importantly, he found a manager and someone willing to finance a demo which led to a contract with Mercury Records.

Meanwhile, Blackfoot was helping out the The Tree -- a new version of The Ebb Tides, some members of which had also helped record his demo, as detailed on Buckeye Beat -- win a battle of the bands contest in Columbus. When that group's victory didn't lead to any recording contract offers, some of the players finally officially joined up for Blackfoot's new venture for Mercury. Also added to the group prior to recording the album was singer-songwriter Craig Fuller, later famous as a member of Pure Prairie League, American Flyer and a re-formed version of Little Feat.

Making all these membership shenanigans more confusing several decades down the road is the fact that the sleeve notes don't actually reflect who plays on the record. Phil Stokes is credited on bass, but joined after recording bassist Kenny May left the band. And it's obvious organist Sterling Smith is not on the album, since there's no organ! Another potentially confusing fact is that this group has no connection to the Southern rock band Blackfoot which came to prominence later in the '70s.

The resulting disc, recorded quickly over a couple days in New York, is coming squarely from a country rock direction, particularly on the numbers written by Craig Fuller. But it's one of the heaviest country rock albums ever, especially the side-long suite which gives the album its title. There are tons of heavy drums, distorted guitar chording and fancy psych-tinged soloing, giving The Ultimate Prophecy a much thicker sound than most other bands from the era that were going for a more rural edge to their music; Crazy Horse would be a similar exception, for one example. The side-long suite itself is one of the best of its kind, carefully constructed from five songs and rarely letting up in intensity as it moves through portentously-intoned mystical lyrics and musical wigouts. More often than not, this sort of hippie space truckin' falls flat and just comes across as goofy, but The Ultimate Prophecy suite easily lives up to its reputation as a cult classic.

The original album is quite hard to find today. Blackfoot's bio states that Mercury pulled it from the market after he decamped for a promised contract with Vanguard which never materialized. Around the same time, he also left the band while the other members squabbled over direction. He's recorded many albums since, including one in New Zealand, The Song of Crazy Horse, which improbably ended up being Album of the Year for that nation's annual music awards in 1974. While most of the original records are just as hard to come by as The Ultimate Prophecy, Blackfoot's complete discography is available on CD at his website. (Mercury, 1970)

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