VINEGAR JOE – The Island Recordings 1972-1973

Formed from the ashes of Dada, a huge jazz/blues rock band featuring guitarist Pete Gage, vocalist Elkie Brooks and (latterly) Robert Palmer, Vinegar Joe rode on the coattails of the British blues movement, releasing three albums in the early 70s. Over the years, their recordings haven’t been the easiest to track down, despite Lemon Records reissuing ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Gypsies’ (1972) and ‘Six Star General’ (1973) on CD in 2003, before giving the 1972 debut the same loving treatment somewhat belatedly in 2008. Bringing the Vinegar Joe legacy back to the masses once again, ‘Finer Things: The Island Recordings (1972-1973)’ rounds up absolutely everything the short-lived band ever recorded in the studio and issues it in one place for the first time. Although they never recorded what you’d call “a perfect album” they came pretty close on two occasions, and this set shows off a great band, even though the studio recordings supposedly never captured the fire of their live shows. There are enough great tracks scattered throughout the three discs to potentially attract a new generation of fans.

Some artists and bands appear on the scene with all guns blazing and present their potential fan base with some of their best work straight away (Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath), whereas others take a couple of years to build to a career climax (Free, Faces, Genesis). Although the self titled Vinegar Joe debut is very strong in places, the latter approach very much applies here. ‘Vinegar Joe’ (released by Island Records in early 1972) features some strong tracks, but feels like a patchwork of material. Indeed, a few of its songs were leftovers from the Dada days and take on more of a jazzy feel than Joe’s core sound, but at its very best, it’s still a record that showcases a new band in a very confident way.

Despite being a little unfocused, it’s certainly not without highlights. Not least of all in the summery haze of ‘Circles’ which really captures the mood of the early 70s and AM radio with ease. Its rich harmonies, vaguely jazzy lead guitar and easy listening undercurrents have more in common with that year’s debut from Daryl Hall & John Oates than later Vinegar Joe, but Palmer and Brooks immediately shine with a natural gift for singing together, and ‘See The World’ – a post-psych rocker with a very American feel – gives the first indication of Palmer’s strong vocal style. Although new listeners will quickly latch onto this great vocal performance, it’s a number that’s brimming with huge musical hooks. Steve York’s bass work is absolutely fantastic, dropping jazz funk riffs between the beats and vocals, giving the music a fluid groove, while a huge horn section – very much an overhang from the Dada days – suggests that the new Vinegar Joe are the UK’s answer to Chicago Transit Authority, although a musical shift on their next album would soon align the band with more of a blues and roots rock crowd.

Also worth hearing, ‘Early Morning Monday’ is a great bluesy rocker that showcases Elkie’s enormous voice and Tim Hinkley’s strident piano work. Although a sassy saxophone break veers a little too far towards sounding like something lifted from a soundtrack, it’s definitely one of the tracks that best presents the band’s approach to arrangement; a world where nothing is off limits. ‘Never Met A Dog’ puts Palmer in the spotlight for a soulful vocal that’s often challenged by a busy bass – something that hints at future greatness – while Brooks is on hand with a strong, late 60s-tinged harmony, and ‘Live A Little Get Somewhere’ proves that she is far more than a blues-rock volume dealer with a performance that mixes MOR musical tones with a vibrato fuelled vocal that absolutely aches with an over-emotive style, yet still works. Elsewhere, the theatrical ‘Gettin’ Out’ pumps a rumpty tumpty rhythm contrasted by a soul inflected voice (despite a quirkier edge, it’s a great vehicle for Palmer and certainly something that hints at a more than eclectic solo career ahead) and the tune’s straighter blues mood shows how easy Elk unleashes her inner Joplin, marking herself out as the UK’s finest female blues performer with a style and presence to rival JoAnn Kelly. Overall, ‘Vinegar Joe’ is the most eclectic of the band’s albums, but in terms of setting out the band’s multiple talents for all to hear, it does a fine job. Despite sales figures being less than modest at the time, it’s the kind of record most bands from that era would be proud to have made.

Their second album, ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Gypsies’ (released just a few months later, at the end of ’72) shows a definite streamlining of ideas arrangements. It still has a lot in common with the debut, however, and its best tracks are another fantastic showcase for the musical union between Elkie and Robert. The duo by this time are something of a formidable force. Hearing them trade off vocals during opener ‘So Long’ while the rest of the band work through vaguely Little Feat-ish sounds – augmented by some great piano work, some tasteful slide guitar and a top notch solo – immediately suggests that this will be even better than the debut, and the bulk of the material that follows does not disappoint. Pushing Gage further into the spotlight, the busy ‘Charley’s Horse’ features strong echoes of the early Allman Brothers Band with some fine twin guitar interplay and although the results are somewhat of their time, there’s still plenty that suggests Vinegar Joe were well on their way to being one of the era’s tightest rock bands. Even working through a faithful cover of Hendrix’s ‘Angel’, there are glimmers of a band with a huge musical heart, since Gage manages to fill some fairly big shoes with the kind of solo that is respectful to the piece, and the fact that he’s never tempted to resort to obvious Hendrix-isms only gives it a greater strength.

During the title track, Brooks can be heard in especially massive voice. Obviously, there’s not a lot within the slow country blues sound that challenges her; this is about performing in a very natural way, and her choice of style and volume is perfect for the job in hand. The marriage of vocal vibrato, steel guitar and mournful piano summons a brilliantly retro sound throughout and, in the ultimate case of less being more, Gage’s understated solo barely fills two bars before Elk returns to deliver the aching melody one final time. It’s the kind of thing that prefigures Bonnie Raitt’s mid 70s work and doesn’t necessarily have much in common with Joe’s rockier side, but therein lies the charm: perhaps more so than the debut, this album really champions a variety of styles, befitting of a band with a variety of influences and talents. The best track, hands down, though, not only from ‘RNRG’ but Vinegar Joe’s entire career, ‘Falling’ works some serious funk. It’s something of an obvious precursor to Palmer’s ‘Sneakin’ Sally’ album from 1974 with it’s tight rhythms, brilliant organ fills carrying a strong Dick Sims vibe and killer bassline, yet it retains a lot of the natural flair from Vinegar Joe’s own rootsy style. Palmer in fabulous voice, showing so much confidence that even Elkie’s best Joplin wail cutting through the second verse and chorus doesn’t faze him. If you’ve never heard Vinegar Joe before, this track really ought to be one of the first things to check out.

Most of ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Gypsies’ is first rate, but a run through of Jerry Lee’s Whole Lotta Shakin’ fares less well. Brooks is in good vocal shape and Gage occasionally sounds like a dead ringer for Clapton circa ’78, but it’s not quite enough to lift the band beyond energetic bar band status. Luckily, the hard edged blues rock of ‘Buddy Can You Share Me A Line’ sets everything back on track with a cool mix of confident harmonica lines and rigid rhythms and the stomping roots rock of ‘No One Ever Do’ gives another insight into Gage’s solid abilities as a guitarist, whilst supplying a great platform for the two brilliant singers. Rhythmically, there’s a frightening desire for everything to descend into a Mungo Jerry pastiche – and in the hands of a lesser band it may well have been just as horrible – but thankfully, each of the featured players pull out the stops, creating something much stronger than the sum of its parts. Even with a couple of small missteps, ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Gypsies’ is the kind of album that could legitimately be called “essential”, despite the record buyers of 1972 being rather less convinced once again.

By the time of recording their third elpee ‘Six Star General’ (released in 1973), the band had taken on a very business as usual approach to making music, in that the record presents another fantastic mix of blues, rock and soul, delivered in a very effective and professional manner, but it’s certainly none the worse for that. Opener ‘Proud To Be (A Honky Woman)’ may now seem more of its time due to the usage of a now dated phrase, but musically, it’s especially tight. Throwing themselves headfirst into a very US-centric style, the roots rock riffs and rattling piano sounds evoke the busiest material from Bob Seger and The Allman Brothers Band. Gage’s slide guitar solo serves some some suitably aggressive chops and the piano adds a solid musical backline throughout, but neither is a match for Brooks, reaching for some brilliant extremes in her role as blues rock queen, while still showing a great range by dropping to a soulful cry when needed. ‘Food For Thought’ presents itself as almost funky, calling back to the brilliant ‘Falling’, only this time working a huge soul bias, some strong harmonies and an even more effective call and response between Palmer and Brooks. The manner in which this leads into the main hook is brilliant and the recording shows (at least in part) why the Joe were a formidable act at that time. In a sharp contrast with the effortless cool, a few squirly prog rock keyboards sound like library music for Schools & Colleges programmes and scream 1973 like nothing else, but thankfully, the track retains such a strong melodic core that ensures it’s actually another of the band’s standout tunes.

In a straighter mood, ‘Dream My Own Dreams’ is a fantastic 70s country rock stomper foreshadowing tunes like Eric Clapton’s ‘Tulsa Time’. What the track lacks in layers and complexity, it makes up for with an absolutely rollocking piano solo, showing off some of Mike Deacon’s strongest chops. Although the band opt for simplicity from a musical standpoint, the vocals are great throughout, and the young Palmer’s talents almost pre-figure his cover of ‘Man Smart, Woman Smarter’ from ’76, making this more than worth hearing. Another of the album’s key cuts, ‘Lady of The Rain’ features a more sedate, light pop/rock arrangement that pushes a fluid bassline to the fore, and in doing so seems very in keeping with the Carly Simon recordings at a similar time. Despite its more easy listening approach, there’s still plenty that shows Vinegar Joe to be exceptional arrangers, especially in the way the spacious music really allows Brooks to soar, while ‘Stay True To Yourself’ reverts to Vinegar Joe’s preferred hard grooves, where heavy funk and a great clavichord suggest a love for The Meters and Stevie Wonder. You’d think, at this point, such an obvious reliance on another call and response vocal would wear thin, but it’s testament to two talents somewhere near the top of their game that the performance sounds so energetic and fresh.

You might also think after that run of tracks – arguably the strongest of the band’s career – that ‘Six Star General’ is bound to be a front-loaded affair, but…nope, the second half of the LP isn’t short of gems. As the curtain begins to descend on an all too short career, Vinegar Joe have a couple more classics up their collective sleeve, not least of all ‘Black Smoke Rising From The Calumet’, a complex and lengthy piece that stands as one of the band’s greatest achievements. At first, the tune wrong foots the listener into thinking it’ll be an aching and bluesy ballad with Brooks out front and centre – she shows a great voice against a sparse piano here, pre-figuring moments from her soon to be solo career – but it soon takes a sharp left turn after a couple of verses into something far more interesting. Tapping into some light jazz rock with funky undertones, York’s bass drives a great melody, while floating keyboard sounds serve a hazy 70s mood. Moving from the bluesy into a style that comes closer to the light pop of Maria Mauldaur, Brooks continues to excel, occasionally throwing out a huge rock scream, just to remind people that her inner force is merely resting, until reaching a huge climax where she screams with the power of Janis Joplin and Ian Gillan combined. It’s mildly disconcerting on first listen, but also brilliant.

Another solid rocker, ‘Let Me Down Easy’ finds Brooks in full wail against Gage’s busy guitar work. The result resembles a rock equivalent of the Ike & Tina Revue, or perhaps the sound of Foghat if they’d recorded at Muscle Shoals with a soul-obsessed producer. For Vinegar Joe, it’s all meat and potatoes stuff with the band chugging through some easy riffs, but Elkie’s full on performance is enough to give the potentially ordinary workout a massive lift. The rattling pop/rock of ‘Giving Yourself Away’, meanwhile, throws a slight curveball by sounding a bit like a Sutherland Brothers & Quiver deep cut, driven by a great bassline and some roots rock guitar leads. Due to this album’s highest highs, it might not sound like anything essential at first, but this clearly has its own charm thanks to a couple of cracking lead guitar moments and effortless harmonies. Those wishing to hear Palmer in full flight will get a kick from the vaguely bluesy ‘Talkin’ ’Bout My Baby’, where Rob seems to opt for volume over everything, but actually shows a great technique when dropping into a quieter chorus. Musically, this could be any number of jams from other great 70s bands, but the Little Feat undertones give everything a classier vibe than most, and even if the Peter Frampton-esque talk box work seems a little dated now, Gage certainly would’ve been ahead of the curve at the time. The punchy rocker ‘Let Me Down Easy’ is the closest ‘Six Star General’ comes to filler material, with the band coasting on something that sounds like another Allman jam in bigger boots, but even this works brilliantly with Gage tearing up his fretboard on occasion and Brooks screaming at full pelt. Bringing the orginal disc to a close ‘Fine Thing’ will be an easy highlight for Palmer’s fans with Yorkshire’s finest in huge voice throughout, but equal praise must go to Gage who spends the lion’s share of another vaguely bluesy number cutting between the vocal phrases with some great hard-edged guitar lines, only to turn everything around with something almost Motown-esque on the chorus. This is definitely another number that works Vinegar Joe’s fine balance between rock and soul perfectly, and taking York’s Andy Fraser influenced bass work into consideration, it’s an almost perfect final bow for the band. Yes, it’s almost possible to hear Palmer losing interest on a couple of ‘SSG’s other tracks, but this sounds like a band with so much more to give.

It’s fair to say that all three Vinegar Joe albums are good in their own way, but the cost of this anthology is worth every penny to obtain a decent copy of ‘Six Star General’ on CD. The mastering is excellent; you’ll get to hear it without the obvious needle drop pops and crackles during ‘Black Smoke’ and without the slight “furry stylus” distortion that’s marred previous copies circulating on the internet. For those who already own the three albums, unfortunately, this collection won’t necessarily offer much in the way of new interest. There are just four non-album bonus tracks included – two of which are merely 7” edits – and although the other two are a welcome bonus, they’re not in quite the same league as the best of the album tracks. A b-side from the first album era, ‘Speed Queen of Ventura’ is an off-kilter seven minute jam where Elkie’s voice sometimes seems at odds with a weird, lumpen groove, saved only by a few really inventive keyboard noises. It’s arguably the weirdest Vinegar Joe ever sounded; a glimpse into something wrestling with itself, never reaching the soulful brilliance of which the band were capable, but never letting itself descend into the deep psych with which it occasionally threatens. Much better, ‘Long Way Round’ – a ‘Six Star General’ outtake – seems very much to be a Palmer vehicle at first, and for those who still love his funkier side, the smoothness of his vocal colliding with a taut bassline will be an instant attraction. Not to be outdone, Brooks’s counter vocal is bloody massive, but by the time the harmonies hit during the chorus, there’s something here that’s decent. Its slightly angular music isn’t always as well arranged as the best moments of ‘Six Star General’, but for all of it’s unease, it’s a decent b-side – certainly the kind of track you wouldn’t have considered a waste of plastic had you purchased the 7” back in ’73 – even if two or three listens later, the urge to reach for that well-loved copy of Robert’s ‘Some People Can Do What They Like’ LP becomes irresistible.

The accompanying booklet provides an effective overview of the band’s brief lifespan. With memories of recording at the same studio as Mike Oldfield and time spent on the road, these historical points of interest are presented in a more interesting and more in-depth than Malcolm Dome’s usual workmanlike approach. Something that more than comes across when reading is that Brooks is understandably quite proud of these humble beginnings, but Gage seems far keener to air some very sour grapes about Palmer leaving the band for a far more successful career. We’ll just have to wonder, had they stayed together, if Vinegar Joe had the chops to record an album as magnificent as ‘Some People Can Do What They Like’… Overall, the interviews and notes are excellent in terms of bringing new listeners right up to speed. …And it’s those listeners who’ll understandably glean the most enjoyment from this set: with three full albums, all of the available extras, a decent mastering job and everything bundled into an easily affordable package, ‘Finer Things’ should be considered the definitive Vinegar Joe release.

July/August 2021