Merl Saunders

Fire Up

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What might have been worth volumes of rock history, but turned out to be nothing much more than a short story, was the supergroup comprising members of both the Grateful Dead and Creedence Clearwater Revival, a ship whose captain was the wonderful Merl Saunders. With both the chops and musical background to lead the somewhat younger rock neophytes on a vision quest, Saunders became something of a galvanizing force, bringing out some of the tightest and strongest performances of the players featured here. As this band evolved in later years, former Creedence Clearwater Revival guitarist Tom Fogerty was pushed out of the picture and Saunders began a program of diversity in which the hapless Garcia would be thrust into the limelight on ballads such as "My Funny Valentine," an ungrateful fish out of water to be sure. There is none of that here, as the program wisely emphasizes the leader's clever songwriting; fans of the good ol' boogaloo should enjoy both "Soul Roach" and "Chock-Lite Puddin'." The range of material is narrowly focused into the areas where these players really excel, rather than attempting to be jaw-droppingly eclectic. Of the covers, the best is an energetic reworking of "Expressway to Your Heart," in which Saunders displays his feel for light, melodic soul material. He gets the others to play in the pocket, yet these are hippie bell-bottoms with holes in the pockets; the slightly unkempt nature of the Bay Area psychedelic rockers adds a nice atmosphere. The big airplay number of the time was the opener, "After Midnight," which despite its dated '70s mildew is after all a good vehicle for the Saunders greasy organ style, as would be anything even vaguely bluesy. Fantasy eventually combined this album with an earlier Saunders effort for a CD entitled Fire Up Plus.

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