Kingfish is kind of a strange fish: an offshot of both Grateful Dead and New Riders of The Purple Sage. The band was formed by Matthew Kelly and ex-Rider Dave Torbert, both of whom had played with the Dead and in various bands before that. Bob Weir, a friend of Kelly’s, came along for the ride as did drummer Chris Herold (who had played with Kelly and Torbert in the infamous Horses) and lead guitarist Robby Hoddinott. Their first record, produced by Weir and Dead sound engineer Dan Healy, ran the gamut from country to rock and featured original material from Kelly, Torbert and Weir. A live album followed, after which Kelly and Torbert (now without Weir) re-tooled the band to include Michael O’Neil, Bob Hogins and former Wings-drummer Joe English. The resulting Trident (1978) failed to chart, and from that point you could put a fork in them. In the land of the Dead, however, nothing ever really dies but comes back in zombified form through repackages, reunions and archival releases. Relix is at the root of this army of unDead, although Sundown On The Forest (1999) is actually a new recording by Kelly (Torbert passed away in 1982).
Kronomyth 1.0: NEW WEIRDERS OF THE PURPLE STAGE. Despite the familiar cover artwork, this is allahtogether a different animal than the Dead’s last album, featuring a mix of country, soft rock and a few tunes with Bob Weir on vocals that, yes, inevitably draw comparisons to the Dead and New Riders. In fact, the opening “Lazy Lightnin’/Supplication” actually made its way into the Dead’s live set for a short time. For my money, Weir’s contributions to Kingfish form the highlights of their first album. “Lazy Lightnin’” and “Home To Dixie” blow by like a cool breeze, and his reading of Marty Robbins’ “Big Iron” is country at its best. Even the closing “Bye And Bye,” which gets a reggae reading reminiscent of Jerry Garcia, is likely to please Deadheads. The rest of the record, sung and written mostly by Matthew Kelly, Dave Torbert and Tim Hovey (plus a couple of John Carter/Tim Gilbert songs held over from their old Horses days), is occasionally interesting but generally uneven. “Wild Northland” and “Good-Bye Yer Honor” feel like holdovers from the old NRPS days, while songs like “This Time,” “Hypnotize” and “Jump For Joy” are unremarkable in an era that produced Poco, Firefall and, of course, Eagles. Although it’s tempting to see Kingfish as New Riders Mk. II, the Riders had a raison d’être outside of Jerry Garcia and the Dead. Kingfish lacks the strong presence of a John Dawson or the sterling performance of a Buddy Cage (lead guitarist Robby Hoddinott seems like a fish out of water most of the time). Although it’s not on a par with the first NRPS album, Deadheads fishing for something Weir’d should be happy enough with the net results, especially given their dearth of options after Ace.
On paper, it looked like Kingfish had collided with a jazz fusion band: Bob Weir, Matthew Kelly, Billy Cobham, Alponso Johnson plus Bobby Cochran and Brent Mydland (who had been on board the Bob Weir Band since 1978) as the passengers. On vinyl, well, it’s a car crash alright. Weir and his benighted Midnites can’t seem to decide whether they want to be The James Gang (“Haze”), the E Street Band (“Too Many Losers”), Foreigner (“Me, Without You”) or the Bob Weir Band Mk. II (all of side two). I had honestly expected this album to be a lot jazzier, given the presence of Cobham (Mahavishnu Orchestra) and Johnson (Weather Report) coupled with the fact that Weir’s work on Go To Heaven (which was also produced by Gary Lyons) was clearly moving in that direction. Bobby & The Midnites, it turns out, is just a wrong turn. I’m not sure Arista ever knew what to do with Bob Weir in the first place; he inherited whatever producer the label had signed for the Dead, and his records seemed to make too many commercial concessions. Gary Lyons has a heavier production hand on the first Bobby & The Midnites album than he did with the Dead, which results in a more contemporary studio rock sound that overshadows (and effectively cancels out) the contributions of Cobham and Johnson. The second side of music, written almost exclusively by Weir, is closer to what Dead fans might have reasonably expected: blues (“Josephine”), ballads (“Carry Me”) and a song tailor-made for concerts (“Festival”), as well as the unexpected “(I Want To) Fly Away,” which incorporates reggae music into a highly original rock arrangement. That track and a cover of The Heptones’ “Book of Rules” suggest that maybe the band should have made an album of reggae music instead of trying to cover rock and roll from every angle. It’s not the Dead, it’s not disco, and it’s not the fusion of jazz and rock that its parts would indicate. I haven’t heard the band play live, so I couldn’t call it a failed experiment, but the first Bobby & The Midnites album does seem like missed opportunity to me.