Moby Grape made several good albums in their day, but only one inarguably great one (their classic 1967 debut), and getting their special magic on tape in the studio seemed to be a tricky affair. But the group apparently had better luck with their muse on-stage, judging from the evidence contained in this album. Featuring material from five concerts spanning a period that predates the first album and ends shortly before the recording of Truly Fine Citizen (the album that preceded their first breakup), Moby Grape Live: Historic Live Moby Grape Performances captures the energy and spirit of the band as well as anything they released during their heyday. This collection starts out with seven songs from a show at San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom in 1967, and if the performances aren't quite as precise as what they achieved in the studio, the interplay between guitarists Peter Lewis, Jerry Miller, and Skip Spence is exciting and brimming with imagination, while the five-part harmonies are terrific and all the more impressive for the fire of the band's attack. Next up is the first authorized release of Moby Grape's short set at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, and though the band might have been better advised to start with something more rousing than "Indifference" and "Mr. Blues," the group is in fine fettle and the closing version of "Omaha" rocks out. After a gritty 1967 blues workout on "Sweet Little Angel" that leaves plenty of room for guitar soloing, the album jumps forward to 1969 and a five-song session recorded for RAI Radio during a tour stop in the Netherlands. By this time, Spence was out of Moby Grape, but if there's a little less electricity in the band the passion is still there, the harmonies are spot-on, "Trucking Man" rocks furiously, and the extended version of "Omaha" shows this group was still finding new wrinkles in their classic repertoire. And finally, a 1966 Avalon Ballroom tape unearths the otherwise unrecorded "Dark Magic," an epic-scale guitar workout that runs over 17 minutes in this version. Given that concision was one of Moby Grape's great virtues, a quarter-hour guitar freakout wouldn't seem to play to their strengths, but if "Dark Magic" meanders just a bit, the interplay between the musicians is little short of amazing and they wind enough twists and turns into the song to keep it exciting throughout. While Moby Grape's studio work might offer a clearer picture of the strength of their songs, Historic Live Moby Grape does a brilliant job of revealing what made them great as a band, and the best tracks here should prompt any serious fan of late-'60s rock to reaffirm Moby Grape's status as one of the finest acts of their time.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming