Randy Burns

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Randy Burns is a minor figure on the Greenwich Village '60s folk scene, but his albums are largely enjoyable examples of post-Dylan psychedelic folk; the first three have the added collector value of…
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Randy Burns is a minor figure on the Greenwich Village '60s folk scene, but his albums are largely enjoyable examples of post-Dylan psychedelic folk; the first three have the added collector value of being on the legendary New York indie ESP-Disk although they're not as interesting as, say, Pearls Before Swine.

Burns was born in Connecticut in 1948 and ran away from home at the age of 17. After the requisite period spent bumming around with a guitar on his back, the teenager ended up in New York City at the tail end of the folk boom of the early '60s, sleeping in Washington Square Park and busking for spare change. In early 1966, at the age of 18, he landed a regular gig as the permanent opening act at the legendary Gaslight Club on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. Shortly thereafter, Burns was approached by ESP-Disk founder and president Bernard Stollman, who invited the young folk singer to record for his label. Although Burns' style was far more "normal" than anyone else on the label (his cohorts included the Fugs and the Godz, plus the best of the city's free jazz scene), he dutifully recorded his first album, 1967's Of Love and War, a pleasant but fairly unremarkable folk album of the time with Burns' smooth voice accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and Emery Fletcher's occasional 12-string accents. Burns only plays three originals (all quite good), with the rest of the album consisting of scene standards by folks like Eric Anderson and David Blue, with a haunting version of Irene Paul's haunting 1940s anti-war ballad "Mr. War" the highlight.

The Village folk scene petered out during the summer of love, and like many of the New York folkies of the time, Burns became intrigued by the possibilities of psychedelic rock. Briefly returning home to New Haven, Burns hooked up with a local psych-pop band called the Morning. Thus inspired, he returned to Greenwich Village and formed the Sky Dog Band, which consisted of Burns on vocals and both electric and acoustic guitar, Mat Kastner on piano and organ, Bruce Samuels on bass and flute, and John O'Leary on trap kit and (more often) hand percussion. The new foursome gigged around town in the winter of 1967-1968 and entered the studio to record Burns' second ESP-Disk album, Evening of the Magician, the following spring. A huge improvement over Burns' rather pedestrian debut, Evening of the Magician is a minor classic of acid folk with ten excellent new Burns originals and none of the uninspired covers that dragged down Of Love and War.

Burns kept the Sky Dog Band for his third and final ESP-Disk release, 1970's Song for an Uncertain Lady. The psychedelia is somewhat toned down on this release, and a newfound country tinge colors several tracks. The country-rock feel suits Burns' voice and songs very well, and this album is nearly the equal of its predecessor.

When ESP-Disk began winding down in the early '70s, Burns made the major-label jump that only his erstwhile labelmates the Fugs and Pearls Before Swine had previously managed. Signing with Mercury Records, Burns recorded 1971's Randy Burns and the Sky Dog Band, another fine country-rock effort. Unfortunately, it didn't sell much more than his ESP-Disk material had (hardly at all, in other words), and Mercury dropped him. Polydor came to the singer/songwriter's rescue for two more albums, 1972's I'm a Lover, Not a Fool and 1973's optimistically titled Still on Our Feet. Polydor followed Mercury's lead after that album, which remained Burns' final release for nearly two decades.

Burns didn't give up performing in the '70s and '80s. He and Kastner, who switched from keyboards to guitar and bass, played folk festivals and coffeehouses throughout those years, and in 1991, the pair recorded The Cat's Pajamas, a cassette Burns self-released on his own Picket Fence label, selling most of them at shows. Burns continued to perform through the '90s while writing his autobiography, Before the Road Ended. Excerpts from this book appeared in a variety of folk-related zines and websites in the late '90s. All three of Burns' ESP-Disk releases came out on CD as part of the German ZYX label's ESP-Disk reissue campaign in the mid-'90s.