The Flying Burrito Brothers / Gram Parsons

Gram Parsons Archive, Vol. 1: Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969

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It's very easy to underestimate the importance of Gram Parsons to American music. He never had anything close to a hit, and while he was pivotal in the creation of country-rock, and by rote, alternative country, none of his direct efforts at it (the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, an album and a half with the Flying Burrito Brothers, his own two solo albums) stirred up any kind of mass public acceptance. Yet three decades and on past his death, Parsons' fragile version of what he called "cosmic American music" (a seamless blending of country, blues and rock) continues to make him a both a cult figure and a continuing influence on musicians traveling a similar path and synthesis in the 21st century. Parsons probably came closest to realizing his "cosmic American music" dream during his brief stay as a founding member of the Flying Burrito Brothers, and so this double-disc release, which features well-recorded live sets from 1969 of the original Burritos lineup (Parsons, Chris Hillman, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Chris Ethridge, and Mike Clarke) opening two shows for the Grateful Dead at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco on April 4 and April 6, is a true archival treasure, perhaps doubly so because it comes direct from the famed Grateful Dead tape vault. The real surprise here is the sound quality, which is excellent, and it's easy to hear Parsons and Hillman work their sometimes unsteady (but endearingly unsteady) vocal harmonies while all of the band instrumentation is mixed back a bit (but not alarmingly so, every nuance is audible). The band sounds limber and fresh, and the versions here of "Close Up the Honky Tonks," Little Richard's "Lucille" (one version each night, with the April 6 rendition being a tad faster), and Parsons and Hillman's compositional masterpiece, "Sin City" (again, two versions, one each night), are vintage Burritos in full glorious flight. There are also inspired covers of Hank Williams' "You Win Again" and George Jones' "She Once Lived Here," which gains a kind of fragile emotional power when filtered through Parsons' frail, halting vocal approach. Also included in the set are two demo recordings, a delicate harmony workout on Phil Everly's "When Will I Be Loved" from 1967, and a gorgeous solo piano version of "Thousand Dollar Wedding" taped in 1969, and which is, hands down, the emotional highlight of this collection. Fans of Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers are going to love Gram Parsons Archive, Vol.1 and the solid sound quality of these recordings will no doubt surprise and delight. A real find.

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