Mushroom: Songs of Dissent (Alchemikal Artz/Light In The Attic AA002)
Venue: The Make Out Room, San Francisco, CA August 9, 2019
Sound Quality: Excellent
Cover: Fold-open eco-friendly digipak with psychedelic “light show” style graphics with track listing and short summary on back and complete list of performers and recording information inside
Tracklist: Founding Father/ Two Men Say They're Jesus, One of Them Must Be Wrong/ You've Got To Get In To Get Out/ Everything's Gone Green/ The March of The Wooden Soldiers/ Free Range/ Kraut Mask Replica - Steal This Riff - Redux
Comments: After more than a dozen releases since their formation in 1996, with many changing line-ups centered around drummer Pat Thomas, Mushroom now identifies itself, not as a band, but as a San Francisco “collective” of musicians. The term is not one that fits easily in the American mindset, where artists are looked at as singular structures – either solo artists who employ session musicians, or bands that have defined members, which may change from time to time, but never with the idea that past members are at-the-ready for any future projects. Band members are replaced in favor of new members or simply quit. To understand Songs of Dissent, it’s probably best to understand the concept of “collective” first.
The idea of music collectives is one that has existed in some form for decades in San Francisco, going back at least to the days of John Cipollina. Cipollina, a founding member of Quicksilver Messenger Service, spent the last decade of his life playing with innumerable bands with such names as The Dinosaurs, Raven, Fish & Chips, Niksilver (The John Cipollina-Nick Gravenites Band), The San Francisco All-Stars) and others, often simultaneously. While these bands may have had identifiable line-ups depending on the musical direction, they were all centered around and orchestrated by Cipollina. They also had a lot of interchanging members. In essence, it was a collective that released albums under different band names, depending on the project.
Whittled down to their most basic principles, the difference between a band and a collective is that bands are insular, whereas music collectives are community oriented. That’s a concept that is at odds with the American psyche in general, but more common in the arts.
Driving this particular community bus is drummer Pat Thomas, a multi-talented visionary who has worn (and wears) many hats during his career – producer (mostly re-issues, an astonishing list!), A & R consultant for Light In The Attic Records (the labels output defines eclectic with some of my favorite releases such as reissues of renegade folkie Bob Frank’s 1973 debut on Vanguard, Spooner Oldham’s much overlooked Potluck album, as well as a reissue series of Roger Chapman albums and the Ozark centric Winter’s Bone soundtrack – the last two overseen by Thomas), and book author (Listen Whitey; the sounds of Black Power, Jerry Rubin & the Yippies).
On first listen, Songs of Dissent works as an overview of the band’s career, revisiting the many aspects and styles that the band has explored over the years. This is probably by design, as the concert takes place at the same venue where they performed their first live concert, but 22 years later. The line-up reunites 3 of the original 5 members (the other 2 being Graham Connah and Erik Pearson), plus ample contributions from long-time members and new recruits.
While there is ample here for fans of early European prog (Can, Gong), a style the band is largely noted for, there are also guitar excursions into the styles of early Grateful Dead (think Live/Dead) and guitar/synth similar to Steve Hillage. And when Mushroom gets down to their jazzier elements, it’s largely behind the flute playing of Pearson. Which is fine by me. If there is a saying among some jazz enthusiasts that irks me to no end, it’s “No flutes in jazz.” It’s as elitist, offensive, and divisive to my way of thinking as “No ni**ers in NASCAR.” Pearson’s flute playing on “Free Range” is both beautiful and invigorating. Following “Free Range” is the final track, a trilogy that has all the dynamics of Hawkwind’s tour de force, Space Ritual. There's plenty of merit leading up to those tracks - although improvisational, there is the necessary structure that holds it all together as a cohesive performance.
That's a simple overview of the musical aspects of Songs of Dissent, But it is the spiritual side that may carry the most weight. And that side is a direct descendent of Max Roach’s 1960 album, We Insist! 1960 was a dangerous time for a black person to insist on anything, especially equal rights. It was an album that needed releasing, a call to Black Power. And the progress that followed politically shouldn’t need to be explained to anybody. My, my, how we are a nation of backsliders.
But the progress that followed, which was social as well as political, shouldn’t be forgotten – it should be renewed and expanded. I’m not so cynical as to believe that white people learned nothing from the Civil Rights Movement. I am appalled, however, that so many people reverted back to old ways when they found it an easy way to excuse their own shortcomings when encouraged to do so. Songs of Dissent, a recording made with the same timbre as We Insist!, if not the same style, is a call back to community. It’s not only a great album musically, it’s a necessity - a reminder that we can do better.