The notion that one should never trust anyone over 30 still had plenty of currency when Doug Sahm, former child prodigy, leader of faux-Brit pop stars the Sir Douglas Quintet, was signed by Jerry Wexler to Atlantic Records in late 1972. He was 31 and, perhaps, just beginning to reconcile the competing instincts that would guide his mature musical explorations until his death in 1999.
This two-disc update reprises 1973’s Doug Sahm And Band and the follow-up, Texas Tornado (credited, probably in a diffident nod to marketing, to the Sir Douglas Band), along with extra and largely unfinished tracks which nearly double their original length. It is an index of Sahm’s stature that the set has been assembled with such obvious love and care, and a sad commentary on commercial realities that it arrives in a limited edition of 5,000.
“I’m a man of many worlds,” Doug Sahm told Jim Greenenwegen and Bill Bentley in a 1975 Austin Sun interview reprinted here. “For instance, I’m a part of Willie Nelson’s world and I love it but at the same time, I’m part of the Grateful Dead’s world. And those two worlds just aren’t the same world.”
But that was changing, both culturally and musically, and these two discs in particular suggest the meld was already well underway. Both albums are very much of a piece with two of my favorite Dead discs, 1970’s Workingman’s Dead and 1973’s Bear’s Choice.
The bulk of the tracks for both albums were cut in New York (Sahm recorded some of the second disc in San Francisco but ended up pulling unused tracks from the New York dates onto the final album), complete with — as Sahm’s son recounts — vintage major-label excess: an airplane sent specially to San Antonio for authentic Mexican food to keep the groove right.
The core band includes Augie Meyers, Flaco Jimenez, Mac Rebennack (Dr. John if you prefer), and David Bromberg, with Jack Barber on bass and George Raines on drums. A fine horn section (David Newman, Willie Bridges, Wayne Jackson) nails Sahm’s arrangements. Bob Dylan stopped by and ended up playing and singing a bit, but he’s utterly absorbed into the spirit of the ensemble.
That spirit may take some getting used to these days. It may be helpful to remember that the marijuana of the early 1970s was hardly the high-test hydroponic hybrid currently on the marketplace. The joint they shared was probably much more like a bottle of red wine than the lethal tequila of today’s one-toke smoke.
Still, the lazy opening of “(Is Anybody Going To) San Antone” may be jarring to those accustomed to the Nashville precision of Charley Pride’s hit. It is necessary to settle in, to succumb to the mood Sahm and his friends have so expertly and effortlessly crafted. And then, as with the best of the early Dead, these become vivid, richly rewarding and remarkably durable records.
Sahm and Garcia (who stopped by the SF sessions) and Nelson were gifted musicians who had been raised to appreciate the genius of the two-minute pop song. They had also been raised to appreciate the genius of the twelve-bar blues break. Fused together, we end up with joyous, loping, four-minute songs — far from the bloated, extended jams that came later, to imitators; more like extended explorations.
The repertoire of these two early ’70s albums is telling, from Dylan’s “Wallflower” to the Delmores’ “Blues Stay Away From Me” to Bob Wills’ “Faded Love” to T-Bone Walker’s “Papa Ain’t Salty” to Willie’s “Me And Paul” to Jack Clement’s “Miller’s Cave”, from Woody’s “Columbus Stockade” to the bulk of Sahm originals that make up the second disc.
Many of those songs are standards, and the hit versions adorn most decent record collections. They’re great songs, fun to dig out, fun to play for victims who think Buddy Miller wrote “Wallflower” or the like. And while Sahm really was a human jukebox, every one of those tracks does become transformed in his hands.
Don’t be misled: This doesn’t sound too much like the Dead. Sahm’s compadres are unmistakably schooled deep in the heart of Texas, his orchestration is different, they’re demonstrably better players, and those horns bring a level of precision and polish to the proceedings that serves as an interesting, if curiously placed, musical foundation. Especially when nestled up against steel guitar.
Much like the Dead, however, these are great road records, for they will fill your head and your heart with great pleasure, the miles will evaporate, and they will reward repeated attention.