March 8, 2024

There are, of course, duplicated tracks here – but it scarcely seems to matter as Stone The Crows never seemed to play a song in the same way twice … This is a long way from modern arena performances where everything has to be rehearsed to the second in order to sync with the enormously detailed light and projection shows – this is living, breathing, live rock music, and listening to it is a tonic for the spirit.

I freely admit it. I was something of a latecomer to the Stone The Crows party, something I now regret. Of course, I was aware of the band back in the ’70s – what self-respecting rock fan of the time wouldn’t be? – and their powerhouse vocalist Maggie Bell; Scotland’s answer to Janis Joplin, and one of the finest female blues-rock singers these islands have ever produced. And yet, somehow I never got around to hearing one of their albums in full, or anything besides the odd thing here and there. Of course, it was easier to miss things back in those days, when you had to buy or borrow an album in order to hear it, and teenage funds didn’t stretch all that far even when second hand emporiums were involved! Time went by, and still I never got around to giving a serious listen to the band’s albums until recent years, when I had the pleasure of reviewing all of their studio albums (and Maggie’s two solo releases) when they were reissued. And I loved what I was hearing. Bands like Stone The Crows, and others cut from a similar cloth such as Vinegar Joe (fronted by an altogether rockier pre-chart Elkie Brooks), seemed to slip through the cracks a little, their muscular yet soulful blues-rock-based output never quite reaching the mass appeal of harder rockers Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin, or the prog-rock titans such as Yes, Pink Floyd and ELP. No, while those bands were playing bigger and bigger shows, Stone The Crows and their ilk stayed more grounded in the college and university circuit, and the rock clubs (when Les Harvey, original guitarist with the Crows, and brother of Alex, was tragically electrocuted onstage, it was in the confines of Cardiff Top Rank as opposed to Hammersmith Odeon or Manchester Apollo). This somehow lent them a ‘people’s band’ earthiness and gravitas which can be heard clearly throughout these exceptional discs comprising televised broadcast performances by the band.

Right off the bat I have to lay my cards on the table – if you want an introduction to how good Stone The Crows could be, this set is as good as you could want. Always more at home on stage than in the confines of the studio, this collects some outstanding examples of the heights they could reach. I have covered a previous, and similar, set entitled Live At The BBC, and it is excellent. But it isn’t as good as this. What you get here is four audio CDs of performances between 1970 and 1973, from places such as Germany, Paris and Montreux, plus – and this is a huge bonus – the whole of those performances (or almost) in filmed form, spread over two DVDs. So as well as getting to hear some of the best raw, thrilling blues-rock you’re ever likely to want, you get to see the almost alchemical interplay between Maggie Bell and Les Harvey, as their twin axis formed the live backbone of those shows up to the fateful Cardiff gig. Even after that time, when the band continued for another year or so, there was little let-up in quality as the lead guitarist position was taken up by Jimmy McCullough, just prior to his joining Wings in 1974 and going on to significantly greater recognition (though tragically he himself also died far too young not too long afterward). One would like to picture Paul McCartney being impressed by Jimmy’s performances in this band and jotting his name down in his ‘ones to watch’ book…

There are, of course, duplicated tracks here – but it scarcely seems to matter as Stone The Crows never seemed to play a song in the same way twice. Their astonishing take on Dylan’s Hollis Brown (surely inspiring Nazareth’s own masterfully dramatic version) here lasts for between 15 minutes and over 20, while the four versions of Danger Zone and three of Love 74 also vary wildly in terms of arrangement, duration and attitude. This is a long way from modern arena performances where everything has to be rehearsed to the second in order to sync with the enormously detailed light and projection shows – this is living, breathing, live rock music, and listening to it is a tonic for the spirit. But what particular highlights are there here to stand above the rest? Well, if forced to pick two, it would be the first version of Danger Zone on Disc One and the 20-minute Hollis Brown on Disc Three. That particular Danger Zone – opening this set in fact – is without exaggeration one of the very finest blues-rock masterclasses I’ve ever heard, with the guitar, vocals and keyboards combining for a display of aural pyrotechnics which simply begs you to immediately go back and play it again. (The later version of the track on the same disc is still good, but cannot help but pale beside this one). Meanwhile that assault on Hollis Brown sees the band hit an almost telepathic instrumental jam for at least ten minutes wherein they appear to be entirely in sync and mutually inspiring each other to greater and greater heights. Those two highlights alone would lead me to unreservedly recommend this set. But of course, there is a host of quality aside from that, and also the opportunity to actually watch the footage, all gathered together in one place, which is priceless for fans of the band. Indeed, the DVD content, which includes a couple of interviews (annoyingly spoken over by a French translator!) and some offstage clips, which are omitted from the audio and help explain some excerpted songs, is arguably the real goldmine here. As great as the audio is, there’s something about being able to see the band, and especially Maggie, performing at their peak which is a privilege to witness. Sadly, the aforementioned 20-minute Hollis Brown is the only track omitted (it does fade out on the audio CD, so there may be that there was some issues with the audio and more so with the video), but what is left is still an embarrassment of riches.

Of course, there are occasional faults to pick. perhaps four versions of the rather overplayed (to these ears) Penicillin Blues is a couple too many, and there is a glaring editing error on the second disc when the excerpted track Palace Of The King is indexed to include the first three minutes of the following Niagara. Also the packaging is a little samey throughout. But I can live with those things. The editing error is one of those things which only matters if you aren’t playing the whole disc, and when you’re collecting all the available material, repetition cannot be reasonably complained about. It is what it is, occasional warts and all.

All in all, there isn’t really anyone to whom I cannot recommend this. If you’re a fan, well, I think it could be argued that at least 70% of the performances here outdo the studio counterparts (and of course, things like Hollis Brown were never recorded and released in the studio), the video content is essential, and you simply need this. If you’re a newcomer, be assured that this isn’t a completist set for after you’ve collected the regular studio album catalogue. On the contrary, this is the entry point you want. There are a lot of acts from that decade who could lay claim to being the greatest unsung band of the ’70s era, without doubt, and I’m sure we could all suggest one or two. On this evidence, both musically and as a visual live act, Stone The Crows can present a case to go toe to toe with any of them. If you haven’t already, discover them now.