Town Criers

Live in San Francisco

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San Francisco-based folk quartet the Town Criers, who played around the American West during 1963 and 1964, have tended to be remembered as a footnote in the career of group member Marty Balin because he went on to found Jefferson Airplane, sing with Jefferson Starship, and have a successful solo career. The group never issued any recordings during its brief existence, but more than 40 years after the fact, mail-order firm Collectors' Choice Music issued this half-hour live performance, which aural evidence suggests was recorded at San Francisco State College in 1963. It shows the Town Criers to be a talented act in the commercial folk vein of the Kingston Trio, that is, with the addition of a female singer, Jan Ellickson, who sounds like Joan Baez. The group's repertoire consists of originals written by Balin as well as fellow group members Bill Collins and Larry Vargo, but they are so traditional in form ("Virgin Mary" is a spiritual, "99 Years to Go" is a chain-gang song) that they might as well be taken out of an old songbook. The revelation for those who purchase the album curious about Balin's pre-Jefferson Airplane days will be his demeanor. For much of his career, Balin has come off as shy and aloof, but with the Town Criers, thumping a string bass, the then-21-year-old singer serves as the comic MC (the role traditionally taken by the bass player in folk and country groups if only, as he notes, because somebody has to entertain the audience while the guitarists and banjo players are tuning their instruments for the next number). A frisky, joking Marty Balin is not what most fans would have expected, but that's what he was with the Town Criers. When he isn't telling jokes, however, Balin sounds much as he did in later configurations, his elastic tenor lending force and emotion to the otherwise pedestrian and derivative material and playing off well against his fellow singers, just as it would in Jefferson Airplane. If the Town Criers had come along earlier in the folk boom, say in 1960 instead of 1963, it is conceivable that they might have achieved national recognition. They remain a footnote, but this recording will have interest both to folk fans and to Marty Balin fans.

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