Album review: ACE OF CUPS

High Moon Records [Release date 08.11.18]

Get ready for an incredible story you just couldn’t make up; the journey of a band and its music spanning over 50 years, from the heady, idealistic-hippy days of 1967’s Summer of Love in San Francisco to November 2018’s release of Ace of Cups self-titled debut album. Named after the tarot card, all-girl band Ace of Cups enjoyed a brief career from 1967 to 1972, during which time they played support to and shared stages with many legends of that wonderful, bygone era – The Band (at SFO’s iconic Winterland), The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix (just one week after his Monterey Pop festival appearance – he also famously name-checked the band in London to Melody Maker in 1967 as being “groovy, write their own songs and whose lead guitarist is hell, really great”….and he would know, right ?).

Never offered a record deal back then – since no-one really knew what to do with an all-girl group – Ace of Cups fizzled out in 1972 amidst the conflicting obligations of having families and raising kids (“the guys in our brother bands were having babies too but they had wives and girlfriends to take care of the kids while they went on tour”….). That would have been the end of the road for most bands. But if you were at the infamous Acid Test gatherings, if you were one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Prankster’s “on the bus” and hung out with The Diggers in the Haight-Ashbury, if you were hit on the head by a beer bottle at Altamont and required neurosurgery whilst five months pregnant, if you ran the label office where John Fogerty stacked and packed the records and if you can count amongst your close friends and collaborators such luminaries as Bob Weir (the Dead), Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna), Pete Sears, Charlie Musselwhite, Taj Mahal, Peter Coyote, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Steve Kimock (Zero/RatDog)…destiny demands that this story be told and the music be heard.

There is a unique coolness to this heart-warming story and sure, nostalgia sells but great songs endure and imprint themselves indelibly into the fabric of our consciousness and stick like toffee. And what a discovery this album and story has turned out to be…..

Through the inspiration and efforts of High Moon Records boss and band-champion, George Wallace, and producer-extraordinaire Dan Shea, this veritable time capsule of fantastic songs, which may otherwise have remained buried forever deep beneath the enchanted forest of 1960s Golden Gate Park, will now finally and justifiably be released to thrill a wider audience.

Now in their ‘70s, four of the original five band members have re-formed to record 21 tracks, some more or less as they were originally done and others freshly-written or “finally finished” during the recording sessions for this album. As a somewhat obsessive fan and student of the 1960’s countercultural revolution and the musical output of singularly the most creative decade in history, I am astounded at the quality and durability of these songs.

Certainly, it is easy to imagine how five young impressionable hippy chicks absorbed the sensorial onslaughts of ‘60s pop culture, many of which were supercharged by various ‘chemical influencers de jour’ but, that said, it is still quite astonishing how Ace of Cups managed to capture the zeitgeist of the time and channel their disparate musical influences to produce such a collection of extraordinary songs.

Touched and influenced at various times by country rock and blues, gospel, folk, R&B and even Welsh mining songs and Bulgarian close-interval choral work, Ace of Cups started some of these songs many years ago and only recently “finished” them (like “Indian Summer”). Others like one of the brilliant stand-out tracks “The Well” (with Bob Weir guesting) and slide/handclap swamp groove “Pepper in the Pot” (featuring ex-Zero/RatDog’s Steve Kimock on slide and Buffy Sainte-Marie on vocals) were composed in the last couple of years.

Naturally, there is a tip of the hat to the era’s signature psychedelic pop overtones but this album is about as far away from being “a collection of ‘60s tunes found in the vaults” as the hippy movement was from Nixon’s White House. Witness the jaunty, lead-off single “Feel Good” and “Pretty Boy” which just ooze straight-up ‘60s pop and the jangly, Byrds-like “Fantasy 1&4”. The latter is an amalgamation of two different songs which were never actually performed by the band but gathered dust for years until brought to life by the collective visions of the Cups and producer Dan Shea. Indeed, Shea is rightly credited by the band for making this album sound so organic – as if it was all written at the same time, not put together during events which happened 50 years apart.

The groovy R&B work-out “Circles” is a fun cut which The Yardbirds would surely have been proud to have penned whilst “We Can’t Go Back Again” comes straight out of the CSN playbook (particularly the “N”), a vocally-resplendent appeal to make the most of relationships and live in the now.

“On The Road” is a joint band effort (okay, THAT’s a pun !) which is as catchy as the clap was in ’67 – as good a twangy, country-fiddle jig as you’ll hear. “Medley” is a fascinating 9+ minute mash up of the band’s early pieces, a very progressive showcase of the Cups’ individual and collective talents, featuring some stellar guest guitar fretwork from Terry Haggerty (Sons of Champlin) and backing vocals from Quicksilver’s David Freiberg. “Stones” is a typically tight ‘60s four-minute freak-out and “Simplicity” (one of many personal favorites) is a driving two-part little rocker with guitarist, Mary Simpson, trading licks seamlessly with her guitar teacher of 50 years prior, a certain Mr. Jorma Kaukonen !! I did say you couldn’t make this up. Peter Coyote and the ladies excel on Peter’s gorgeous, back-of-the-porch ditty “As The Rain”.

The clever pairing of the haunting, celtic lament, “Macushla” and folksy “Thelina” will moisten your eyes – two entwined pieces celebrating the miracle of birth and the very pulse of life and community. There is really so much to admire on this first album and Volume Two comes out in 2019. As well as a damn fine collection of tunes, the (re-)discovery and belated unveiling of Ace of Cups’ music is of very significant cultural importance to the legacy which is the Summer of Love. There, the Mad Dog said so.

So, thank you ladies – thanks for NOT getting a record deal back then – if you had, you probably wouldn’t be talking to each other today. I can’t wait for the rockumentary (for there surely must be one) and I’d write the book for nothing. How prophetic does Moby Grape’s 1967 hit sound now – “Hey Grandma, you’re so young…… *****

Review by Mark “Mad Dog” Shaw

The Mad Dog spent a very enjoyable hour chatting with Denise Kaufmann from Ace of Cups during her recent trip to the UK. Here are the highlights;

GRTR! – Thanks for making the time to talk to GRTR! – in London doing promotional visits ?

DK – Well, a little of that yes but actually we have a big extended family gathering going on – my mother was originally from London – and my grandson, Eli Smart, is a singer/songwriter and is attending the Paul McCartney-endowed Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA) so we’re going to see him perform at the Cavern Club…very excited about that (Editor’s note: the music of Eli Smart will be featured in an separate upcoming review….)

GRTR! – Tell me more about this incredible story and the music, has the band been together and performing at all during the last 50 years?

DK – No-one ever actually stopped playing over the last fifty years and we never lost touch. We’ve played together variously from time-to-time as a pair, a trio, a 4 or 5 – Diane has been drumming non-stop and Mary Gannon has a degree in music and teaches. Each band member brought different influences to bear back then – Mary Ellen with blues/folk (Joan Baez), I was even listening to Welsh mining ballads at one stage, Mary Gannon always loved traditional Irish music and Broadway musical tunes, Diane loved country rock and Marla was into R&B and church gospel music. Despite our disparate influences, it all made sense to us and we were able to fuse different styles to produce many of these songs. As young people in general back then, we all felt like anything was possible and we all had something to say, something in common and it seemed like everyone, wherever you were in the world, was listening to the same kind of music. I mean, Dylan and the Beatles resonated right around the world …… and we were all part of this bigger picture/greater meaning type of thing.

GRTR! – Brief interruption….news headlines and social issues/concerns from 50 years ago compared to today, must feel like not much has changed?

DK – Of course, music was a much bigger driver of the culture back then and we, collectively, felt that we could change society and effect progress. Today, on many of those same issues of things like women’s rights, racism, etc. it is a bit disheartening to see how little some things have changed.

GRTR! – Indeed. Back to the start of the Ace of Cups journey…..

DK – Looking back it all happened quite quickly. Like a month after we hooked up and started to play and rehearse together, night-by-night, it was like – wow, I guess we’re a band!! Max Weiss who owned Fantasy Records in San Francisco (where I worked stacking and packing records with John Fogerty), would co-sign for us to rent equipment like bass, keyboards, amps and we shared rehearsal space/nights with Fogerty’s first band (The Golliwogs) in the store. Mary Gannon was waitressing at Tracy’s Doughnuts in the Haight so we were all supporting ourselves as best we could.

There was a great sense of community at the time back then so we all used to hang out together and became close friends – I mean Jerry (Garcia) would certainly have played on this record had he still been

around. Our friend Bobby Weir is on the album amongst many other close friends. There is only about one degree of separation between all the people we used to play and hang with, some of whom joined us on this album for certain songs. That’s how it was in those days – a big community, one big family.

GRTR! – Just how haphazard (or not) was it in the late ‘60s, getting gigs, etc?

DK – Well, all the Bay Area bands would hang out together and often the band management would share the same offices so we would often play on the same bill or shows together. All these managers shared the same ethos…”transformation through music”…. our management’s office was shared by the likes of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Sons of Champlin, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company. Whenever gigs came up, we were always grateful and happy to play and we never took those opportunities for granted. Sometimes it was the back of a flatbed truck but places like the Avolon Ballroom and Bill Graham’s venues were always very well-run and well-organized. There were always lots of places to play and you got paid – we would play all up and down California, across in Berkeley, we toured with the Airplane and that took us up to Vancouver and Seattle. One time, we went out and played in Chicago and opened a show featuring Paul Butterfield, James Cotton and Muddy Waters – part of Muddy’s “Fathers and Sons” album was recorded that night.

Broadway in San Francisco was were all the topless joints were and a place called The Peppermint Lounge used to have live music – Little Richard had played there – so our manager called them up and asked if the management wanted to hear us before hiring us. The guy said “no, no, no – an all-girl band ? We’ll hire them…..but they have to play topless”. We went back and told the guy we wouldn’t play topless but we would play naked. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a license for “naked” so we didn’t get the gig.

GRTR! – Was there a sense of regret that the band didn’t last longer or stay together as a unit?

DK – No, not at all. The music industry just didn’t know what to do with an all-girl band at the time, there were no role models or examples to follow. We believed in what we were doing but weren’t sure anyone else did. Then relationships and babies came along and we became mothers and partners – you have to understand that guys did that too – had, or actually “made” babies – but had partners to take care of the kids and were able to go off on tour anyway !! We couldn’t figure out how to do the band thing AND manage childcare.

GRTR! – I have to ask about the Acid Tests and Ken Kesey’s Pranksters. I understand Tom Wolfe name-checked you (Mary Microgram) in his book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test?

DK – Oh yeah but Wolfe came along and wrote his account afterwards so there are better sources to read about me and the Pranksters in books like “On The Bus”…..

GRTR ! – Fair enough !! Some good stories there for another time…….?

DK – I always used to find ways of getting in trouble, I was arrested when I was 17 at a student free speech rally over in Berkeley – we were at the center of a cultural revolution so there were things like that going on all the time.

GRTR! – And you were right in the thick of it?

DK – I was hit on the head by a beer bottle at the Stones gig at Altamont. I wasn’t even near the stage and still got hit – imagine the odds in a crowd of 250,000 people. It was serious – I was five months pregnant and needed urgent attention. The first-aiders asked to use the Rolling Stones’ helicopter to airlift me to hospital but the Stones refused. So I was ambulanced out of there to hospital and underwent immediate neurosurgery.

GRTR! – This has really been a pleasure Denise. How does the band intend to promote this life’s work – will you tour it (barefoot on stage like you used to play) ?

DK – We’re going to do some in-stores and we’re playing at the forthcoming 80th birthday benefit show for our friend Nick Gravenites (Electric Flag, QMS and many others) and we’ll probably go out and play for about a month locally. Still being worked out….

GRTR! – Good luck with everything and thanks again for sharing your cool story. I’m curious – for someone like you who was around during one of popular music’s most defining periods, who do you like or listen to?

DK – Well, there are so many – I love R&B, soul and gospel, always liked Prince, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rhiana Gibbons, Cake, Stevie Wonder – I think one of my favorite vocalists of all time would be Bobby Blue Bland.

GRTR! – Thanks again Denise, this has been a lot of fun. And I can’t wait to hear to your grandson’s music (Eli Smart)…..see what the latest generation of your family is up to musically.

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