24   Rock Around The World October 1977


the band plays on ■ ■ ■ ■


by Don Snowden

Musical identity is one of the ingredients more crucial to the success of a band. For most groups, that boils down to simply developing a certain style or collective personality that will distinguish them from the countless others mechanically cranking out the same old riffs and lyrics everyone’s heard a thousand times before. But identity has proved to be a double-edged sword for the Anglo-Texan quintet named Crawler. Not only have they had to stake out their own musical turf, but at the same time they’ve been required to divorce themselves from the press and public image of them as nothing more than a back-up band for the late Paul Kossoff during their days as Back Street Crawler.

Now Free was one of the seminal rock bands of the early Seventies, a fact that many people–myself included –only recognized long after they split up and went their separate ways. Free came on the scene during the era of psychedelic excess when rock musicians were first starting to demand to be considered as serious musicians. That desire resulted in an unfortunate emphasis on extended jamming and instrumental virtuosity–the whole “Wow! He must he good if he can play that fast” syndrome–on the part of musician and audience alike. Both those qualities were light years removed from the incredibly sparse, blues-drenched intensity of Free’s music. Naturally enough, when the media and industry discovered that they’d missed out on some classy sounds, they immediately trained their magnifying glasses on the world in search of a band they could label “the new Free.

And equally naturally, their gaze fell most heavily on the members of the original group. Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke gave a few thrills by adding a healthy

touch of Zeppelin crunch to the basic approach and going on to fame and fortune with Bad Company while Andy Fraser attempted a few highly promising but always abortive ventures. But it’s a time of guitar heroes and the greatest expectations were focused on Paul Kossoff, widely viewed as the most important British blues guitar stylist since the Clapton-Beck-Page triumvirate.

And when the dimuntive axeman resurfaced after years of drug-induced ill health in the company of Back Street Crawler–named after the solo Kossoff released during his post–free recuperative days–the media and public alike wasted little time in labeling the rest of the band as his backing musicians. The tag rather conveniently overlooked the fact that they were responsible for writing and arranging virtually all of the material and were all accomplished players in their own right. The Texan

contingent–keyboardist Mike Montgomery, bassist Terry Wilson and drummer Tony Braunagel–had quickly established themselves on the English session scene and lead singer Terry Wilson-Slesser had acquired a reputation as an up-and-coming vocalist in the British band Beckett.

Their debut disc, The Band Plays On, was a self-produced affair that captured a group still going through their growing pains and adjusting to each other’s style of playing. The album has something of the flavor of a recorded jam session with the vocals occasionally overpowered in the mix and loose arrangments. At first, the unpolished sound grates on the nerves a bit with “New York, New York” and “Rock and Roll Junkie” ranking as the most immediately memorable tunes but after a few listens the record acquires a certain roughhewn charm of its own and songs like “Survivor,” “The Girls Are All Crazy” and the title track stick in the mind despite some minor flaws. Promoted to the hilt by Atlantic Records, The Band Plays On racked up adequate sales for a debut album on both sides of the Atlantic.

After completing work on their second album, BSC took off on their first American tour. By this time, Montgomery had been replaced by Rabbit Bundrick, a friend of Wilson and Braunagel since they toured together as part of Johnny Nash’s band and a veteran of countless sessions including a stint with Free during the postKossoff Heartbreaker days. I happened to catch their last gigs at the Starwood, and the performance gave every indication that Back Street Crawler would become a force to be reckoned with. The Wilson-Braunagel rhythm section was polished and powerful, albeit a bit overly dependent on laying down one funky-bluesy groove and Rabbit and Koss played off each other well although the latter tired noticeably toward the end of the set. The big surprise was Wilson-Slesser, a gritty, emotional singer in a kind of understated Rodgers-Stewart-Frankie Miller vein with an assured stage presence that spoke volumes about his self-confidence as a performer. And then, with the stage set for BSC to become a major attraction, Kossoff died of a heart attack en route to New York from Los Angeles.

2nd Street was released a month after his death and revealed a band that had matured tremendously in the year they had been together. The sound is smooth and polished, the arrangements well-conceived; the material, penned primarily by Rabbitt and Terry Wilson, solid. Wilson-Slesser had become a commanding vocalist on vinyl as well as the stage. The one major problem is the fact that the performances are largely low key, almost as

if they were consciously shying away from evoking the ghost of Free, but even that is compensated for by three excellent Terry Wilson compositions. “Some Kind Of Happy” is a fine, funky up-tempo number, and “Blue Soul” is a mournful elegy about past mistakes with a superb vocal from Wilson-Slesser and beautiful use of dynamics. The real killer is “Sweet, Sweet Beauty,” a song that steadily builds in musical and emotional intensity to a climactic instrumental passage supporting Rabbitt’s organ solo. It’s simply a bitch of a song!

But with the one element that everyone identified them with gone, the remnants of BSC returned to England to find that not too many people gave three goddamns about their continued existence. Having invested a sizable amount of money in promoting them, Atlantic made some noises about hooking them up with another guitar hero–Mick Taylor figured prominently in the discussions for a while–without even considering whether BSC wanted to continue with another famous axeman. When the band elected Geoff Whitehorn, a veteran of the Maggie Bell Band and If (an underrated British jazz-rock crew that has also contributed drummers Dennis Elliott and Cliff Davies to Foreigner and Ted Nugent, resepctively. Whitehorn had also turned down an offer to join Lynyrd Skynyrd after Ed King left the Jacksonvill^ brawlers.) to fill a guitar slot, Atlantic dropped the band and the members returned to the session scene in order to survive.

After a year of scuffling, they acquired new management, a shortened name in Crawler and a contract with Epic. The debut release of the revamped line-up demonstrates conclusively that their confidence in their own abilities wasn’t misguided. In many respects, Whitehorn is a better guitarist for Crawler than Kossoff, whose instrumental repertoire seemed limited to sustained power chords and biting, vibrato-laden solos. Whitehom pitches in on the melodies as well, giving the band a harder, more electric edge that perfectly suits their approach. Wilson-Slesser has continued his maturation as a vocal stylist, easily adapting to the numerous styles demanded of him here. He may remind you of other singers at various points throughout the album, but what ultimately comes out is Terry Wilson-Slesser and that sounds just fine to these ears.

But the real clincher is the fact that the material,

again virtually all composed by Rabbitt and Terry Wilson, is the most consistently strong and varied collection offered by this crew to date. Most of the tunes settle comfortably into the funky-bluely rock mold that has become Crawler’s trademark but there are more than enough variations off that theme–most notably on “Sold On Down The Line,” a kind of jazzy voodoo piece that sounds like it was written about three in the morning while lost in a bayou outside New Orleans–to allow the album to avoid the kind of stifling sameness that occassinally plagued Back Street Crawler albums. This time out, Bundrick has come up with the real winners, ranging from “You Are My Savior,” a straightforward gospel-tinged ballad featuring Wilson-Slesser to a pair of classy rockers in “You Got Money” and “Stone Cold Sober,” that allows Whitehorn to stretch out on guitar–to excellent effect.

So, quite unexpectedly, Crawler has come up with one of the most consistently satisfying Ins of ’77 and effectively laid their association with the Kossoff legend to rest as well. With their new label firmly behind them and a major Stateside tour scheuled for the fall, they’re going to have every opportunity to break through in a big way. It’s going to be interesting to see what kind of reaction they get, not so much for whether their accomplished musicianship and material is up to snuff, but simply whether audiences can appreciate their greatest attributes. Crawler’s music is predicated on subtlety, a quietly understated sound for the most part that gradually insinuates its way into your blood and whether crowds bred on being smashed over the head musically are capable of sitting back and absorbing it is an open question. Likewise, their lyrics deal with real situations and emotional pain in the grand tradition of the blues, something diametrically opposed to the prevailing trends toward dream songs and wistful escapism. All I can say is that I hope there’s still room for a musically accomplished and emotionally honest band of Crawler’s caliber in the rock world.