One particular genre that had American bands playing catch-up to the Brits in the late 60s was hard rock. While the English were putting out monsters like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, American ‘equivalents’ amounted to the likes of Bloodrock and Grand Funk Railroad. Part of the problem was a misunderstanding of what hard rock was, a) a strongly riff-based approach, and b) music that actually went somewhere, something atmospheric and evocative rather than distortion and very loud thrashing about. But out of all that noise came one American band that had the nuts and bolts screwed on tight, and broadened the genre to not only rip good hard rock, but also country/rock and a heavy dose of funk, which was the James Gang, led by guitar wizard Joe Walsh. Other components of the band were Jim Fox, drums, (the James of the gang) and Dale Peters, bass (who replaced Tim Kriss).
The release of their 2nd album, Rides Again (1970) brought them some critical acclaim and earned them the handle “best white funk band of all time”, this is some of the slickest groove-oriented music of the day.
The opening track, Funk #49 is probably their most famous number, with the rocking rhythm section setting the groove while Walsh masters the funky art of syncopation on his Fender Telecaster plugged in a Fender Champ blackface (it wasn’t his Gretsch 6120, a guitar he would later give to Pete Townshend and was used to record The Who’s smash hit album, Who’s Next; nor the Gibson Les Paul he sold to Jimmy Page for 1.200 bucks). The song had a catchy vocal melody that screams “I know where you’re going!”, and a percussion performance by Fox that makes this number a masterpiece. Track 2, Asshtonpark, is an romping instrumental, where Walsh is toying with a delay effect that flows neatly through a bass and drum groove. It stops abruptly leaving the listener wanting more. Woman is more of a standard rock piece with a driving beat and riffs and vocals that are signature Joe Walsh. Perhaps the album’s ‘magnum opus’ is The Bomber: Closet Queen/Bolero/Cast Your Fate to the Wind, is composed of 3 different bits linked together in a winding odyssey of astral guitar solos and effects which were something ‘mind-blowing’ at the time.
The album is essentially a 2 in 1 mix of hard funky rock on the front side and soft melodic on the back end. Tend My Garden is decidedly more psychedelic with the introduction of harmonised organs and piano blending smoothly with the vocals. Walsh straps on an acoustic Gibson Les Paul Goldtop for Garden Gate, a lovely ballad about solitude, “Don’t forget to tell the sun I sleep through the day, see him when the morning comes, everything’s OK”. There I Go Again stays in the acoustic lane, but features a Walsh slide performance (likely a 1960 Gibson Les Paul), a technique he says Duane Allman taught him, with an E tuning that makes it a nifty little country ballad. That said, here’s where some critics slammed the record for inconsistency, they should have stuck to those whitehot funky rock grooves instead of veering into Creedence Clearwater Revival territory.
Nevertheless, Rides Again is remarkable for what it aspired to do, to compile a variety of songs by excellent players trying to fund themselves in an era of expression and individualism which was becoming the new trend, something refreshing in place of obnoxious noise.