Sunday, May 17, 2015

"Time Has Come Today" /
The Chambers Brothers

File these guys in the No Easy Category category -- gospel singers (and really brothers) from Mississippi who got into the folk circuit, went electric with Bob Dylan, and brought a distinctive soul emphasis to their 1968 psychedelic hit "Time Has Come Today."

We've heard snippets of this mesmerizing song on movie soundtracks for years (I mean, c'mon, who has the patience to sit through the entire eleven minutes of this song?). But road-tripping this weekend (between my son's graduation and my own college reunion, I logged 764 miles), listening to Sirius Radio's 60s station, I finally sat through the whole thing, and you know what? It blew my mind.

Okay, let's address the elephant in the room. There is one white guy in this band -- drummer Brian Keenan, an English guy who started out playing with Manfred Mann. And I have to say, this brilliant track is totally anchored by the eerie tempo-shifting drumming.

The rest of the band, the four Chambers Brothers from Mississippi, had already signaled their intentions to move beyond the gospel circuit by moving to L.A. in the early 1960s, where they played at the Ash Grove and, with a little push from Pete Seeger, played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The next stop was probably inevitable: moving to New York City, which is round about when Keenan joined the band.

1968: That was a great year for rewriting all the rules. Sandwiched between the Summer of Love and Woodstock, 1968 found everybody scrambling out of those genre boxes, mixing folk and rock and soul and blues and gospel and jazz and whatever else you had to play. Our ears were open and our sensibilities were remarkably eclectic.  

In my (admittedly fuzzy) memories of this track from the time, I don't think I had any idea whether the musicians were black or white. Why would it matter?  It's not a song you should think about too deeply -- it's all about submitting to the experience, to the tempo changes, to the echo-chambered background vocals, to the Hendrix-like half-sung testifying of the verses. When it came on the radio, you just knew you were in for a spacey few minutes.

But put this up against other long-form singles of the time, like "Inna Gadda Da Vida" or the folky "Alice's Restaurant," and I think the Chambers Brothers more than hold their own. It's mesmerizing without being boring; the instrumental solos don't seem endless and repetitive; and, I don't know about you, but I feel pleasantly on the edge of my seat waiting for that timekeeper drummer to slow down or speed up.  There's an edge of spookiness, but it doesn't belabor the mind-blowing factor. Just submit to the (live, human, totally not drum-machined) beat, and go where it takes you.

Because, hey, wow man, why not?  

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