Sleepy John

Sleepy John

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Sleepy John Review

by Stanton Swihart

Contrary to popular belief, Idaho is not strictly a vast wasteland of libertarian crankiness, or, to be more precise, it may be that on the whole, but it has also had its share of hippie nonconformists, some of them wielding electric musical instruments. With this archival find, Gear Fab has unearthed the work of one of the more worthwhile shaggy-haired Idaho bands of the rock era. The CD pulls together two separate 1970 sessions recorded by Sleepy John and here given their first public airing. The music is quite strong, often propelled by David Lee's overdriven Hammond organ work, a sound that might be thought of as the missing link between the aggressiveness of the garage and the gloomy complexity of prog rock -- think Procol Harum crossed with the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. There are a few other hints of progressive influences throughout Sleepy John, particularly in the minor-key chord changes, the epic, episodic song structures of pieces like "Nothing," "Seasons," and "Trying to Fly," and a single lyrical nod to literary fantasy ("Dragons"). That said, this isn't really artsy stuff, doesn't take itself too seriously, and even intersperses the heady instrumental passages at which the band excelled with occasional satirical nods to country ("Losing My Plow," "Cowboy") and the blues ("I Just Happen to Be (In Love With You)"). Sleepy John isn't really psychedelic, either, in the generally accepted sense of the term, though it's easy to see how dealers could mislabel elements of the band's music in that way, especially some of those instrumental explorations. Frank Trowbridge's intriguing guitar work sometimes approaches the sustained tone of Spirit's Randy California, and Tom Williams' drumming is effectively elemental (listen to the raw, relentless, almost tribal stretches of "Al Capa Strong"). But this is, by and large, blues-based hard rock, albeit considerably more sophisticated ("Prelude to a Dream" is adept jazz-rock), inquisitive, and penetrating than the norm. These guys were perhaps only a few hooks and a decent singer -- and a state line or two -- removed from genuine success.

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