STEPHEN SOLES is a singer/writer/guitar-picker from NYC; he’s the one Dylan kept whispering jokes to during the Hard Rain special. T-Bone Burnett is a Texan guitarist who once led a band called the Fabulous B-52s; he played with Rolling Thunder, too. David Mansfield is an ace guitar player and fiddler who comes from New Jersey, just a ride across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan; he used to play in Quacky Duck & His Barnyard Friends along with Tony Bennett’s kids. Together, these three whimsy linked musicians form the core of the Alpha Band, a recklessly loose and witty outfit with a crazily eccentric debut album.
The Alpha Band plays homemade sounding American rock & roll – their musical style is roughly akin to the generous ladling of gravy on mashed potatoes. But while they’re throwing the slop around – plunking, pounding, fiddling, and boozily harmonizing – they’re also laying out some extremely offbeat lines. Like Burnett’s ‘Ten Figures’, which by hidden logic ties together Adolph Hitler and Cal Worthington, and ‘Interviews’ (which Bobby Neuwirth helped write), with its sonic bleeps and lyrical time-tricks:
“…And there were James Brown records sitting in the ground 50-million years ago…And there were submarines floating in the ocean 50-million years ago…
And there was a Peoples’ Republic of China sitting in the ground 50-million years ago…
And there was pendulums and sand and Coors cans sitting in the ground 50-million years ago…”
Naturally, Dylan’s shadow looms large over the whole affair – in the songs, singing, and instrumental rollicking. In its zaniness, the Alpha Band is also related – albeit in a looser, more urban way – to the Amazing Rhythm Aces.
But unrelieved zaniness can lose some of its edge over the course of an album, or even a side. A bit more straight talk or sentiment might’ve rendered the crashing cymbals (there are a lot of cymbals on this record) and breathlessly breakneck wordplay more pointed and dramatic. For my money, the best track is Soles’ ‘Arizona Telegram’, and it’s an unabashed love song, the only one on the album. So the alphas have the knack for classic modes, even if they choose in the main to be manic.
On the other hand, if you gotta make the choice, you’d probably prefer standing under an avalanche to sinking into a bog. At worst, the Alpha Band trades off its capacity for feeling in favor of exploiting its flair for cleverness, and that seems to me to be a bad trade, if not an unnecessary one. But the band is sharp and strong – and it’s intriguing to watch as smart people gleefully roll boulders downhill while so many others are solemnly trying to roll them in the other direction.
© Bud Scoppa, Phonograph Record, November 1976