The Orkustra - Light Shows for the Blind (LP RD Records)
There's a lot to be said of the internet. It facilitates new lines of communications. The right people asks the right questions of the right people, who then reply 'Oh yeah, I remember now. I have a tape fo that in the attic.' Over the last few years there's been a deluge of previously unheard recordings from the 60s. Some shiny gems, some cringe-inducing drivel. Some things never change. But it's been an eye opener, being able to put your favourite recordings into a better informed context. The gems shine ever sharper.
In 1967, future founder member of It's a Beautiful Day David LaFlamme formed an instrumental band The Electric Chamber Orkustra, later shortened to the Orkustra. He roped in Terry Wilson (drums), Henry Rasof (electric oboe), Jaime Leopold (electric double bass) and Bobby Beausoleil (guitar and bouzouki.) A stellar collections of young musicians who rapidly built up a following playing venues around San Fransisco, most notably The New Orleans House in Berkeley and jazz venue The Both/And. They also played the larger, more prestigious, venues like the Fillmore and Avalon as support to visiting big names. Often they played for The Diggers (the anarcho free-food/direct action activists, inspired by the 17th century English group of the same name), to the point of being known as The Diggers' house band.
There is a strong underlining jazz thread running through many of the tracks here, be it the walking bass line on the opening track 'Flash Gordon' or Henry's hypnotising oboe playing. There's something 'other' about Orkustra. They don't fit comfortably with the scene. They stride the ambitions of improvised psychedelia while maintaining a rigorous musicianship that comes of dedication to the exploration of sound. With Beausoleil's long running attraction to recognisably Middle Eastern modes, it was clearly a band that took delight in successfully crossing those sonic cultural boundaries. Musicality and melody form the framework through which the improvisational work can skitter through.
Back up a little. What's exactly on this magical piece of black vinyl? Side one carries 4 studio recorded tracks from 1967. Given the age and 'lost' nature of these things it's impressive sound quality. The effect is of it being recorded from the across an empty room. I like that. Two of the tracks, Flash Gordon and Punjab's Barber have appeared before on the double-cd 'Lucifer Rising' released by Arcanum Entertainment in 2004 but they were shorter versions. You get the whole thing on this LP.
The B-side is a spectacular experience. Recorded live at St John's Cathedral in 1967 in San Fransisco, it's a jam that spans meditative states to frantic jangles. It's been compared to The Theatre of Eternal Music but I'd suggest that's misleading. It lacks the acetic purity of their work. Far more accurate a comparison would be a live version of Sister Ray with a patient build-up and a more ambitious attempt at forming an evolving soundscape. Less New York, more of a focussed psychedelia.
The Orkustra told exotic tales through the use of music. They existed just long enough to do a string of well loved shows and make a few recordings. They broke up at the point at which they could've have broken through. Short, sharp, sparkling. LaFlamme went on to form the acclaimed It's a Beautiful Day and Leopold played bass for Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks. Beausoleil ruined his life because of the lousy company he kept. A dreadful waste of what could have been a genuinely great musical life.
The heavy-vinyl (180g?) LP comes with an 8 page booklet that reproduces an enormous history of The Orkustra written by Beausoleil. Reading it, it's clear that Beausoleil has fond memories of his days with the band. It's a pleasure to read and infused with details, passing tales and amusing asides that help fill out the biography of a lost band. The booklet reproduces many of the original gig fliers, posters and shots of the band. A nice reminder of when poster design was regarded as an art form in itself. The album is a limited edition pressing but I'm not sure how many they ran to, but it's worth tracking down if you can. HM