Average White Band: Winterland, San Francisco

THERE ARE THOSE who have had Average White Band pegged from the start as the best blue-eyed soul band since the Young Rascals, and these admirers have since been joined by a multitude who were captured by the irrestable ‘Pick Up the Pieces’.

As good as AWB is, and that’s very, they may have difficulty hanging on to their heterogeneous, and potentially fickle audience. A lot will depend on whether they can avoid being the focus of another round of the “can white play funky without being cultural thieves” controversy, and more crucially.

At Winterland, they got a chance to strut their stuff on the top of a very challenging bill, and they pulled it off. Say what you will about Bill Graham, he has a knack for putting together daring musical combinations, and this night was a winner. Opening for AWB were the Chamber Brothers, whose gospel-tinged vocals and interminable instrumentals made them the token psychedelic soul band of the late 60’s, and Etta James, one of the premier blues belters.

The opening acts fared extremely well, depending on an old inventory of techniques to get the crowd moving, and then the six-man Average White Band (who, with the addition of black drummer Steve Ferrone, are no longer Ivory soap pure) came out with a long, infectious version of the Isleys’ ‘Work To Do’. Vocally in fine form, they were off to a rousing start, and continued the pace with another song from their smash second LP ‘Person to Person’. Hamish Stuart and Alan Gorrie’s line trading on the chorus – one voice high and sharp, the other rough and growling – is reminiscent of such dynamic duos as Sam and Dave and Hatfield and Medley, and when the impact of AWB’s instrumental hit wears off, their singing will definitely help to carry the weight. This was proven by their third song, a selection from their forthcoming album, ‘If I Ever Lose This Heaven’, which they plucked from Quincy Jones’ Body Heat, a vocal and instrumental highlight of the set.

Throughout the Winterland concert, a few problems became apparent, and others were somehow muted. One didn’t mind, in person, the poor lyrics that are the main weakness of AWB’s Atlantic album, but the extreme volume and faulty instrumental balance (the bass often smothered sax solos) tended to create a rumbling effect, sacrificing the understated, almost Booker T & the MG’s-like crispness that is so vital to their style. They also found it hard to resist the urge to embellish their material. ‘T.L.C.’, from the debut album, starts off with a sax duet and leads into a catch-phrase chorus that makes it a natural hit for any black vocal group who’d approach it. AWB takes the basic idea and runs it into the ground with jarring repetition.

Not surprisingly, the set reached its apotheoses with AWB’s two singles: an aesthetic peak with ‘Cut the Cake’, a brisk, complex hook-happy number with staccato horn bursts; and a responsive peak with ‘Pick Up the Pieces’, which made it obvious that Winterland, a spacious but not cavernous arena with plenty of jump-around room, is perfect for AWB. The dancing stopped, however, when the band turned their throwaway instrumental into a virtuosity-filled extravaganza, almost breaking the spell. An ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ encore sent everybody home satisfied, and served as assurance that Scotland’s Average White Band, certain flaws not withstanding, are a driving, sophisticated aggregation whose talents belie the modesty of their given name.

© Mitchell CohenPhonograph Record, June 1975

Leave a Comment