September 7, 2022

If you’re a fan of Stone The Crows or indeed the criminally underappreciated Maggie Bell, you will wonder how your record collection has coped without this all your life.

Unfairly forgotten by many nowadays, Stone The Crows (featuring the brilliant vocals of Maggie Bell) were a highly respected UK blues-influenced rock band back in the early 1970s, and only really came to a premature end following the tragic onstage death of gifted guitarist Les Harvey, electrocuted by a live microphone. The band continued for a while with future Wings man Jimmy McCulloch as replacement, but some of the spirit was irreplaceably gone. Happily, the band have had something of a reappraisal of late, and I reviewed their highly welcome batch of reissued studio albums for VT not too long ago. The one thing missing from those excellent releases was live recordings of the band in what for many fans was their natural habitat on stage, and this collection of BBC sessions (plus a ‘BBC Live In Concert’ disc) gives us four CDs worth of reasons why this is such a welcome addition.

The first two discs on offer here are pristine recordings from the BBC archives of sessions between 1969 and 1972, and as well as the performances being uniformly excellent, only two tracks are duplicated among the 19 on display (these being Raining In Your Heart from the self-titled debut album, and the superb On The Highway from the fourth and final album Ontinuous Performance). Almost throughout, these renditions display more fire, energy and power than their studio counterparts, especially in the case of the more upbeat, blues-rock material which really comes alive with the band all playing in unison, even without an audience. The biggest revelation, however, is the version of Bob Dylan’s The Ballad Of Hollis Brown, here retitled simply Hollis Brown. This tale of a poverty-stricken farmer running out of luck and using his last dollar on seven shotgun shells with which to take the lives of himself, his wife and their five children has already been given an extended makeover by Nazareth, who produced an astonishingly powerful interpretation taking up half of the second side of their 1973 album Loud ‘n’ Proud. Here, however, three years earlier, are Stone The Crows in 1970, extending the five-minute 1964 original to over 13 minutes, Bell inhabiting the words with deep anguish and suffering while an extended instrumental break has the band stretching out for a lengthy and powerful workout. It is hard to imagine this not having been heard by Nazareth before they recorded their own definitive take, yet this is the first time the Stone The Crows take has ever appeared on an official release. It’s practically worth the price of admission by itself.

Except that it doesn’t have to be, as there is a whole bundle of magic to come on the third disc, which features the band in front of a live audience – with two performances for two different broadcasts, one in late 1972 with Harvey and the other in 1972 with McCulloch. If the sessions are good, this is the real stuff – feeding off the audience reaction, the band sling out utterly definitive renditions of highlights such as Keep On Rollin’, On The Highway, Big Jim Salter and the sincere lament for the departed Harvey, Sunset Cowboy, which closed the final album. This is the disc which really gives the experience of Stone The Crows as they would have been in a sweaty rock-and-roll club, the walls dripping and the beer flowing. It’s essential stuff.

Oddly enough, however, some of the very best material here is saved for the fourth and final disc, which consists of some other BBC sessions which had been lost in terms of the original tapes, and had to be sourced from amateur radio recordings. This is the reason why these performances, from three dates in 1970, are collected together as a sort of ‘bonus disc’ with appropriate apology for sound imperfections. But thank goodness they were, as several of the performances on here are the best on the whole set. Freedom Road, opening proceedings, is superior to the better fidelity version on the first disc, while the next two tracks, Blind Man and the searing slow blues Danger Zone, from the first and second albums respectively, do not appear anywhere else here. The real pièce de résistance comes with track four, another take of Hollis Brown which outstrips even the earlier Disc One rendition for its sheer intensity. Coming in once again at nearly 13 minutes, despite the audible tape hiss it is an incredible performance which is thankfully rescued from the unforgivable fate of the cutting room floor. There is even a nod to the band’s more progressive side, with I Saw America Parts 1 and 3 being the opening and closing sections of the longform piece which occupied the second side of the debut album. With twelve minutes of the composition in total, it’s a slightly different side to the band, and wonderful to hear them having a crack at it in this environment. There is at least 40 minutes on this final disc which, sound issues notwithstanding (and it is perfectly acceptable by the way) are as good or better than anything else the band ever did.

If you’re a fan of Stone The Crows or indeed the criminally underappreciated Maggie Bell, you will wonder how your record collection has coped without this all your life. If you’re new to the band, however, this will still act as a highly effective introductory compilation, and can be approached entirely without reserve. With two booklets detailing the history of the band and the full details of each and every recording present here, this is 39 tracks of absolutely prime Crows. Very, very nice.