Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

June 12, 2020

The Great Metropolitan Steam Band (Decca Records LP, 1969)

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 10:32 am
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great metropolitan steam band


Decca Records LP, released 1969

A1 Blues Ain’t Nothin’
A2 Keep Your Hands Off Her
A3 Doctor Jazz
A4 Cocaine Blues
A5 Spare Change Rag
A6 It’s Tight Like That
B1 I Want A Big Butter And Egg Man
B2 Jackass Blues
B3 How Sweet I Roamed From Field To Field
B4 Cold In Hand
B5 Basin Street Blues

As the other bands who had albums released on Decca Records in the 1967-70 period can surely attest, Decca was not the hippest label to be signed to. They were a large company (part of the huge MCA conglomerate) and had excellent distribution and clout within the industry, but beyond  The Who and (for a much different audience) Rick Nelson, their releases of new bands tended to sink in the marketplace….great albums by bands such as THE NOVA LOCAL and THE FORUM QUORUM should have gotten much more attention than they did back in the day.

Undoubtedly, the same thing happened with THE GREAT METROPOLITAN STEAM BAND album, although I can imagine it getting a good review in, say, a college newspaper in a city in the Northeast where they might have played, and it is certainly a pleasant and to some degree timeless album. Basically, the band is in the old-timey tradition of the revival jug bands who were popular in the early-to-mid 60’s, though there is no jug here (some of the few online mentions of the album drop terms like “ragtime” and “vaudeville,” which are not really that accurate, but do help you anticipate the overall flavor of the album—-one nice element about the band is that they blend a number of styles together so that it’s difficult to put any label on them, other than “acoustic” and “old-timey”).

Members included vocalist Bonnie Bagley, guitarist Eliot Kenin, and also Peter “Sy” Simmonds and Rocky Rockwood. Bagley reminds me somewhat of Bluesville Records-period Tracy Nelson if she went more in a Tin Pan Alley direction, though I suppose listeners at the time might have thought of Janis Joplin. I also hear a bit of the brassy, stagy side of someone like Cass Elliot (I mean that as a compliment!). When the Steam Band broke up, she joined legendary New England trad-jazz unit The Black Eagle Jazz Band, which makes perfect sense as the Steam Band is very much in that general tradition, which would have been more clear if the band had horns in it. I’m assuming the guitar and mandolin work is from Eliot Kenin, a man who worked in folk music for decades and is a jaunty and inventive player here. The instrumentation, always understated, varies from track to track, but includes tuba and mandolin and harmonica and banjo.

According to online sources, the band originated in the Boston area circa 1968, which makes sense when one thinks of  Jim Kweskin’s longtime residency in that area and with Boston always having a folk and old-time music audience and club scene (some of the bluegrass revival bands of the early 60’s had a foot in Boston). I would imagine they were a fine live band who could keep an audience entertained and with a smile on their faces, but they were more than a “good-timey” band as they took on one of Ed Sanders’ adaptations of William Blake (the arrangement here would appeal to Carter Family fans!) and also their soulful and languid six-minute take on “Basin Street Blues” hints at some interesting possibilities not heard on the rest of the album.

Somewhere along the way, they hooked up with producer and music entrepreneur David Blume, co-composer of “Turn Down Day” and husband of folk great Carolyn Hester, then going through a fascinating period with her psychedelic outfit THE CAROLYN HESTER COALITION. Blume signed them to his Red River Productions (which also included Hester’s Coalition and jazz-fusion band Osmosis (with Charlie Mariano, a former Bostonian)) and co-produced this album, which was released in 1969. Blume also worked at Paramount Records (another great label for little-known, poorly-promoted LP’s  from the early 70’s) and had many interesting and diverse credits over the decades.

great metropolitan steam band 2

A single was released from the album, and the album itself was also issued in both Germany and the UK (and there is a mega-rare UK mono pressing too).

great met

Despite the front cover, there’s nothing remotely psychedelic about the album—-the back cover, with band members in a straw hat and a stovepipe hat and holding a tuba and a string bass, gives a much better depiction of what the band sounded like.

I could find nothing online about their time as a working band in Boston. Perhaps some Boston music historian has gig flyers, club listings, etc. There is always an audience for this kind of music among specialists, and it also usually goes over well with large audiences (outdoor city festivals, 4th of July celebrations, etc.) in a superficial way because of its spirit of fun and its timelessness. Also, everyone from 5 to 85 can appreciate it and finds themselves tapping their toes.

A second album going more in the direction of the “deeper” side found in “Basin Street Blues” would have been nice, but evidently the album was not a big seller and the band broke up (I wonder how Decca could have marketed it?).

Like so many obscure “roots” albums of the late 60’s and early 70’s, this was reissued on CD by the Korean “Big Pink” label, but that import CD would probably cost you a  lot more than a used copy of the actual LP—-50 copies are for sale at Discogs, starting at $2.00. Should you find this for a few dollars at a used record store and you enjoy, say, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (Mary Anne and I just saw a Kweskin livestream from his living room a few weeks ago, and the master is still in great form!), you’ll probably enjoy it. I listened to it three times in a row earlier this morning, which is what prompted me to write about it. If you have a taste for this kind of old-timey, acoustic 1920’s-based sound as interpreted by young musicians from the late 1960’s, you’ll enjoy owning this, and tip your hat to the musicians, wherever they may be, for making this largely forgotten album. I would love to have heard them in some neighborhood watering hole in Cambridge in 1968, being cheered on by their local fanbase….

great metropolitan steam band 3

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