Brian Auger has always demonstrated a rare devotion and dedication toward developing new musical forms. Equally comfortable with pop, R&B, and jazz, Auger was a founding member of the group, Steampacket, which helped launch the careers of singers Long John Baldry, Julie Driscoll, and Rod Stewart. Partnering with Julie Driscoll, Auger formed the Trinity, which recorded some of the most intriguing albums of the late 1960s, achieving international recognition for their cover of Dylan's "This Wheel's On Fire" in 1968. Straddling jazz, rhythm & blues, folk, gospel and pop in equal measure, the Trinity albums refused to be categorized. Auger's intention was to overlay soulful pop rhythms with jazz harmonies and solos and his late-1960s recordings exemplify this unique approach. Following the demise of the Trinity, he formed Brian Auger's Oblivion Express at the dawn of the 1970s, another genre-defying group that would gain him much wider recognition, eventually entering the jazz, pop and R&B charts simultaneously. The Oblivion Express created high energy, jazz-inspired music, with Auger's high energy Hammond organ style, in the tradition of Jimmy Smith, dominating the proceedings.
This performance, recorded at San Francisco's Winterland, when Auger's Oblivion Express opened for Fleetwood Mac, captures the band during a particularly interesting time and with its quintessential lineup. The band's album Reinforcements had just been released and their stage repertoire here includes two fresh new band originals from that album, as well as three of the most impressive jazz-inflected covers from their earlier releases.
Following Auger's high-spirited introduction of the band members, they launch headfirst into the leadoff track from the new album with "Brain Damage." A collaboration written by vocalist/guitarist Alex Ligertwood (who would soon be recruited as lead vocalist for Santana) and lead guitarist Jack Mills, this is an explosive opening number that explores a diverse range of influences resulting in a progressive jazz/rock fusion sound. Auger's high energy Hammond organ style, in the tradition of Jimmy Smith, is exemplary, and the musicians maintain a tight, cohesive blend on the extended improvisations held togethre by percussionists David Dowle (who would later go on to record four early albums with Whitesnake) and Lennox Laington.
Venturing back to material from the Second Wind album, they next deliver a tight rather economical performance of Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance," before again stretching out on Wes Montgomery's classic, "Bumpin' On Sunset." Here, the group establishes a relaxed, but nonetheless infectious groove, featuring Auger's superb, yet never over-bearing technical abilities and the entire band reaching inspired heights. Like the best jazz bands, the Oblivion Express plays with deep feeling and a cohesiveness that is a rarity among rock bands of the mid-1970s.
They next return to the Reinforcements material for a crack at Clive Chaman's "Foolish Girl." A recruit from the Jeff Beck Group, Chaman is an outstanding and creative bass player and this composition ventures into the funk territory that would be explored by groups like the Average White Band and countless others as the decade progressed.
The set concludes with a foot-stomping, full blown funky jazz blowout on a cover of Les McCann's "Compared To What." The original version of the song is a powerful example of black pop and soul that wasn't afraid to address political issues; in this case the Vietnam War, and it is no less powerful in the hands of the Oblivion Express. Although lyrically the song is clearly dated to the late-1960s, Auger's bluesy Hammond organ licks have a timeless appeal and he and the group's offbeat humor are apparent throughout.
All through this performance, Auger's technique is jaw-dropping and the amount of energy he and the group generates is unparalleled and relentless. The broad-minded musical attitude and skill of these musicians is never less than impressive and they manage to bridge the gap between rock and jazz-fusion in a way that remains inviting, accessible, and musically compelling.