The Insect Trust: Special Rider Blues
From: The Insect Trust [Capitol Records, 1968]
The Insect Trust: Our Sister the Sun
From: Hoboken Saturday Night [ ATCO Records, 1970]
For this segment of the Memphis post, I will focus on the incredibly eclectic folk-blues-jazz collective known as The Insect Trust. Their name came from a local poetry journal called the Insect Trust Gazette which was derived from the William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch. The backbone of the band was formed in Memphis in 1966 as a trio called The Solips, which featured Nancy Jeffries on electric bass and vocals, Robert Palmer on alto sax and recorder and Bill Barth on guitar. The Insect Trust was born in New York in 1967 and was comprised of Robert Palmer (the popular rock critic with Rolling Stone and New York Times) on alto sax, clarinet and recorder, Nancy Jeffries on vocals (the vocalist for Peter Stampfel's Swamp Lillies before the Holy Modal Rounders became a functional unit), Luke Faust on banjo-guitar, banjo and vocals, Trevor Koehler on baritone sax, piccolo, thumb piano and upright bass, Bill Barth on electric, acoustic and bottleneck slide. Highly tauted session players rounded out the rest of the lineup on bass, drums and strings.
The sound of The Insect Trust's self-titled debut album on Capitol runs the gamut from country blues, ragtime, free jazz, New Orleans gumbo folk and 60's psychedelia. One of the highlights on this album is their version of Elmore James's "Special Rider Blues", which came about when the band was jamming country blues tunes in unusual modal tunings and time signatures. The result sounds like a cross pollination of country blues, soulful free jazz and electric guitar rock. It begins with a faint vocal sung over acoustic guitar for the first 1:19 and then the rest of the band chimes in with shuffling drums, wicked slide guitar and punchy horns. Nancy Jeffries, whose vocals recall Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane crossed with the folk stylings of Joan Baez, give the song a calm feeling until about the 3:30 minute mark. At this point, the discordant slide guitar playing goes on for 30 seconds and gives way to soulful horns reminiscent of the Stax sound. The horns lead right into a blistering guitar solo from Bill Barth that leads to another awe-inspiring alto sax solo from Robert Palmer that could stand up to Ayler or Coltrane on any given day. Then, Nancy comes back in for one last verse before the song comes to a close. This is only one track on an obscure classic that had been out of print for awhile, but has recently been reissued on CD and can be found here.
The second The Insect Trust album was released in 1970 on ATCO records. It was called Hoboken Saturday Night and featured Elvin Jones on drums as well as jazz guitarist Hugh McCracken. I think I will leave the explanation of this album to Robert Christgau (renowned music journalist and critic for Spin, Rolling Stone and the Village Voice) who wrote the liner notes to Hoboken Saturday Night. The track I am featuring is called "Our Sister the Sun" which evokes images of mysticism, darkness, happiness and faith. Nancy Jeffries channels Grace Slick via Surrealistic Pillow, with jazzy drums, soothing alto sax and lightly strummed guitar complementing the subtle nuances of her voice. Chiming flutes and a loping bassline fill out the sound as the upbeat sax playing punctuates the happiness of the song. This leads up to the climax of the song where Nancy sings a melodic chorus of la-la-la's while Robert Palmer simultaneously let's loose with a jarring alto sax solo. The juxtaposition of the two extremes at the same time is astonishing. If you are interested in purchasing Hoboken Saturday Night, it can be found here.
I was really blown away by the Insect Trust when I first heard them, and both of these albums truly stand the test of time. Please take the time to leave a comment.