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Brian Auger

+ {Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express}

Born 18th July 1939, London, England, Brian started off in 1961 within a four-piece jazz and blues group (AUGER on organ with tenor sax, bass and drums as the other instruments), a group fronted by “cool school” jazz singer Marion Williams. The man also played in trad-jazz musician Chris Barber’s Soul Band. One of AUGER’s first recorded works was on the 1965 SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON album, “Don’t Send Me Flowers”; eventually released in 1968; the band also included a young JIMMY PAGE. AUGER also released a brace of singles for Columbia Records in 1965: ‘Green Onions ‘65’ (b/w ‘Kiko’) and `Fool Killer’ (b/w ‘Let’s Do It Tonight’).
In the year ahead, AUGER played in Steampacket, alongside future stars LONG JOHN BALDRY, ROD STEWART, PETER GREEN, MICK FLEETWOOD and JULIE DRISCOLL. Steampacket were basically an R&B roadshow, playing clubs and ballrooms. However, they did record some music that was finally released in 1977.
After Steampacket split in July ‘66, Julie and Brian went on to form The Trinity. The original (and short-lived) line-up included JOHN McLAUGHLIN and Rick Laird; later of The MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA, on guitar and bass, respectively. The line-up was completed by drummer Phil Kimora and sax player Glen Hughes. This quickly changed to Vic Briggs on guitar, Rick Brown on bass and Mickey Waller on drums.
By the time the group’s first album, OPEN (1967) {*7}, was released, it was all change personnel-wise, with Gary Boyle (later of ISOTOPE) on guitar and a rhythm section of Roger Sutton and Clive Thacker; Sutton was then replaced by Dave Ambrose. AUGER’s ambition with The Trinity was to create a “jazz rock bridge”, and the album’s title pretty much summed up the approach; best exemplified by ‘Goodbye Jungle Telegraph’, an experimental Afro-beat based number, to be revisited later. This was one of four instrumentals on side one, the first of which was a cover of Wes Montgomery’s ‘In And Out’, that highlighted some cool guitar and organ interplay. Driscoll’s involvement only really started on side two.
`Black Cat’; an Italian hit and a melodic variation on ‘I’m A Man’, was a swinging Hammond-based number with brass; ideal for go-go dancers at the time. The exclusive single was ‘Save Me’, which didn’t appear on the album, but reached a well merited #1 spot in France, and sported one of Driscoll’s best vocal performances, along with ‘Tramp’, which started side two in similar style to ‘Black Cat’, albeit at a slower pace. ‘A Kind of Love-In’ illustrated the kind of psych jazz direction at the heart of the band, while a lugubrious, atmospheric 8-minute long ‘Season Of The Witch’, was one of many covers of the famous DONOVAN song.
The group’s sophomore album was DEFINITELY WHAT! (1968) {*6}, was indeed minus Julie Driscoll this time around. This record had an ambitious production (Richard Hill writing arrangements for a 30 piece orchestra), with a spread of horns in the mix influenced by QUINCY JONES’ “Killer Joe” set. It was not quite a successful attempt to fuse traditional jazz tracks like ‘John Brown’s Body’ with ‘pop’ classics like ‘A Day In The Life’.
Side two was where most of the good music was identified; like ‘Red Beans And Rice’, a rev-up of a BOOKER T. & THE MG’s number, and Wes Montgomery’s ‘Bumpin’ On Sunset’; eight minutes in all with African drumming, bass soloing and some flute; a clunky arrangement in places letting it down. A shorter version was released as a 45 in the States; with ‘A Day In The Life’ on the B-side; ‘Red Beans And Rice’ was also released as a 45 in two parts in 1967. A groovy version of MOSE ALLISON’s ‘If You Live’, and the interspersing of chat and frivolity created an informal atmosphere, though the most interesting track was the title track, a development of the aforesaid ‘Goodbye Jungle Telegraph’, a vehicle for flute and piano, mindful of the playing of IAN ANDERSON and KEITH EMERSON. That year also saw the release of a fine single by way of a cover of DAVID ACKLES’ ‘A Road To Cairo’, and the re-release of ‘Tiger’, a song from earlier times.
The Trinity finally pulled it all together with the release of STREETNOISE (1969) {*8}. Billed as JULIE DRISCOLL, BRIAN AUGER AND THE TRINITY; a year earlier they’d enjoyed the success of a major hit single with DYLAN’s ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ (an exclusive one-off psychedelic trip plucked from the then-unreleased “Basement Tapes”), the album opened in style with a memorably constructed organ solo and some of Clive Thacker’s finest drumming on ‘Tropic Of Capricorn’. Other tracks, like the excellent ‘Ellis Island’ and ‘Finally Found You Out’, also pointed the way to Oblivion Express’s first album two years down the line.
Driscoll contributed two marvellous politically and racially charged songs of her own, ‘Czechoslovakia’ and ‘A Word About Colour’. She also covered two songs popularised by NINA SIMONE: ‘Take Me To The Water’ and ‘I Got Life’ (released as ‘Ain’t Got No, I Got Life’, a medley of songs from the musical “Hair”). There was also a cover of RICHIE HAVENS’ ‘Indian Rope Man’, which would grace the flip side of ‘Take Me…’ when issued as a 45. An exhilarating version of ‘Flesh Failures (Let The Sunshine In)’ was also released as a single, and a soulful adaptation of `All Blues’ (from MILES DAVIS’ seminal “Kind Of Blue” set) was risky, was did the steady version of LAURA NYRO’s ‘Save The Country’. Even if the cover of The DOORS’ ‘Light My Fire’ was a tad insipid, the double album – also released in two separate volumes – set a new standard for the music.
Switching from Marmalade Records to R.C.A., BEFOUR (1970) {*7} saw a return to The Trinity, but minus Driscoll once again. All four sang; with Gary Boyle singing lead on a regretful, sensitive tribute to Brian’s TRAFFIC favourite, ‘No Time To Live’. Released as a taster to the album on 45, SLY & THE FAMILY STONE’s ‘I Wanna Take You Higher’, took a while to get going, but eventually slipped into a groove. A version of Gabriel Faure’s ‘Pavane’ proved The Trinity were no NICE, and a meandering version of HERBIE HANCOCK’s ‘Maiden Voyage’ didn’t advance on the original.
Side two, in contrast, was a complete triumph, featuring one of AUGER’s all-time greats, ‘Listen Here’, which featured four drummers/percussionists: Micky Waller, Barry Reeves, Clive Thacker and Colin Allen; the drums, cymbals, cowbells et al demarcated in four bar breaks, bringing out the best in their leader’s brilliant extended piano and organ solos. ‘Just You And Me’ was another great track featuring electric piano and fluent guitar, and would be improved upon in Brian’s next incarnation of the band.
Later in 1970, the central figure formed the progressive jazz-fusion ensemble that dispatched the eponymous BRIAN AUGER’S OBLIVION EXPRESS (1971) {*9}. A cracker, heavily influenced by two seminal MILES DAVIS sets “Bitches Brew” and “In A Silent Way”, ‘Dragon Song’ was a JOHN McLAUGHLIN number that first appeared on his 1971 LP, “Devotion”. On this impressive opener, guitarist Jim Mullen (ex-PETE BROWN & PIBLOKTO!) was first to hit the accelerator with a mesmerising solo; then Brian was off and running with some awesome Hammond runs to a solid, menacing backing that ended with a rumble on the tom toms from drummer Robbie McIntosh. ‘Total Eclipse’ maintained the momentum; a slow and atmospheric “builder” with Mullen’s crisp, fluid style again to the fore. Six minutes in, AUGER started to build his solo runs leading towards ‘The Light’, which featured some avant garde jazz guitar licks and a false fade out; only the rather twee lyrics letting it down.
Side two opened with a straightforward rocker, ‘On The Road’; Mullen impressing, though again the lyrics let it down a tad. ‘The Sword’ was a better all-round Auger song, with Mullen pulling off another great solo that was in equal parts bluesy, rocky and jazzy. The title track stretched the band to its limit, a rhythmically challenging journey played at breakneck speed. In essence, this debut of sorts was as fine a jazz fusion set as one were likely to hear in this era.
A BETTER LAND (1971) {*5} ditched the prog-rock approach for a more soul/funk/jazz orientation; Mullen’s acoustic guitar and McIntosh’s percussion signalling the change of direction on opening piece, ‘Dawn Of Another Day’. A cover of traditional Scottish country dance number ‘Marai’s Wedding’ was a surprise, whilst the rest of the set featured smooth, laid-back and largely unadventurous numbers with finely honed, rather anodyne vocal harmonies. Mullen was heavily involved in the writing process, writing two numbers with AWB’s Alan Gorrie on the uninspired and poppy, ‘Fill Your Head With Laughter’ and also the title track, with a nifty bass line by Barry Dean.
The ‘Express made up for the stall on SECOND WIND (1972) {*9}; two of the tracks comprising both sides of a single release. These were ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’ and the title track. The former was an Eddie Harris jazz standard given new life by the group’s innovative rendition; the latter a strong original composition by Brian and Jim. Fresh singer Alex Ligertwood divided opinions. However the Scotsman’s R&B vocal style was a good fit for his self-penned opener ‘Truth’. The real gems though were ‘Don’t Look Away’; with its cool shuffling beat, and an amazing electric piano solo by Auger, ‘Somebody Help Me’; which recaptured the spirit of the first album and provided a platform for a mighty fast B3 solo by Brian, and a reworking of ‘Just You, Just Me’, which proved again that the man was right up there in the league of great piano soloists.
The third BAOE album veered into a soul-jazz direction and was a great success. CLOSER TO IT! (1973) {*8} saw Brian in sparkling form on his B3 Hammond; his trademark crescendos lifting the music right from the first song, ‘Whenever You’re Ready’. Written by Barry Dean, the bass player quoted from John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” in its coda. ‘Happiness Is Just Around The Bend’ was a hip-swinging toe-tapper with BA mostly on electric piano interwoven with mellotron, organ and moog synthesiser. AUGER handled the vocals as well, now that Ligertwood had departed, and this number had effective percussion from Lennox Langton and new drummer Godfrey McLean; McIntosh having left to join AVERAGE WHITE BAND.
It would be hard to go wrong with MARVIN GAYE’s ‘Inner City Blues’ (a track also released as a single); Oblivion Express’s rendition turned out to be the best track on the album. That, and a cover of GENE McDANIELS’ ‘Compared To What?’, worked well, as did an Auger-Dean original ‘Voices Of Other Times’, which concluded a fine album with Barry Dean also at his best on bass guitar, and Jack Mills delivering an economical but effective guitar break.
STRAIGHT AHEAD (1974) {*6} did not entirely succeed in its attempt to replicate the successful formula of the previous set; with some of the music so laid-back as to be almost horizontal. The long opener, ‘Beginning Again’, took a while to lift off until BA came in with an electric piano break and the formidable drums/percussion unit of Steve Ferrone (of AVERAGE WHITE BAND), Lennox Langton (congas) and Mirza Al Sharif (timbales and percussion) got heavily involved. ‘Bumpin’ On Sunset’; while an improvement on the much shorter version of a number AUGER did with The Trinity, was still laborious and even pedestrian at times.
Side two was better, although Langton’s ‘Change’ fell just short of the SANTANA “Caravanserai” period it seemed to emulate.
LIVE OBLIVION, Vol.1 (1974) {*8} was recorded at the Whisky, Hollywood; the striking thing about the LP was how much better the live version of ‘Beginning Again’ was than the studio take. The faster pace brought out the best in both Brian, whose electric piano soloing was superlative, and Barry Dean, whose bass playing was panoramic; a crisp drum break by Steve Ferrone was the icing on the cake. The album included two numbers from the Second Wind album: a marathon variation of ‘Don’t Look Away’ (featuring AUGER’s memorable funky Rhodes stabbed chords and exquisite soloing), and Ligertwood’s own ‘Truth’, which was perhaps guitarist Jack Mills’ finest recorded contribution with the band.
Also released also as a belated double LP, LIVE OBLIVION Vol.2 (1976) {*9} started off with an ultra-funky version of ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’, showcasing Dean’s dextrous bass playing, Auger’s fluid and fast organ breaks and Mills playing very well within his comfort zone in a live environment. It was a strong set list as irresistible groove followed irresistible groove with a meandering cover of HERBIE HANCOCK’s ‘Maiden Voyage’. Auger switched to electric piano on ‘Happiness Is Just Around The Bend’; and again the studio version was surpassed. There was a great version of ‘Second Wind’, the group’s tightness after intensive touring shining through; Mills and Auger both excelling in their guitar and organ breaks. A free-form ‘Compared To What?’; with its topical references to “Tricky Dicky”, completed the concert in grand style.
REINFORCEMENTS (1975) {*5} was a disappointing studio follow-up. Much of it sounded derivative of the mainstream commercial soul-funk music that proliferated the era, with ‘Thoughts From Afar’ recalling the style of STEVIE WONDER filtered through The JEFF BECK GROUP. It was probably no coincidence that new bass player Clive Chaman had also played in Jeff’s group. ‘Brain Damage’, the chosen single, was an instrumental written by Ligertwood, on which guitarist Jack Mills traded licks unconvincingly with Brian’s electric piano and moog synthesiser; in essence influenced by HERBIE HANCOCK’s “Headhunters”. ‘Plum’ was a funky affair reminiscent of AVERAGE WHITE BAND, while ‘The Big Yin’ was a touching tribute to McIntosh, who’d tragically died. The most successful tracks were ‘Something Out Of Nothing’, a record in Brazilian samba style, with Chaman on flute and Auger on his trusty Fender Rhodes. ‘Future Pilot’ was the most progressive track, reminiscent of SANTANA.
HAPPINESS HEARTACHES (1977) {*5} started strongly enough with Brian’s ‘Back Street Bible Class’; the master as fluid as ever on organ and synth; Lennox Langton in exuberant percussive form, along with drummer Lenny White delivering Afro-Latino rhythms; Chaman remaining on bass; and Ligertwood on vocals, although his conversion to a soul singer was unconvincing. ‘Spice Island’ was the longest number on the album; a slow, dreamy, impressionist piece with emphasis on vocal harmony with space for bass, electric piano and acoustic guitar; the shuffling drums providing an appropriate exit.
ENCORE (1978) {*7} – billed as BRIAN AUGER & JULIE TIPPETTS (née Driscoll) – was indeed much better. The album was bookended by two AL JARREAU covers, the first ‘Spirit’, graced by sterling work from the rhythm section of David McDaniels (bass) and Dave Crigger (drums). Tippetts was on top form and Auger’s organ runs were exuberant. The second Jarreau composition, ‘Lock All The Gates’, was just as good. ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ was tailor-made as a song for Tippetts, and George Doering also did a great job on electric guitar. The second side was where questions started to be asked: did the world need another version of ‘Rope Ladder To The Moon’, or to revisit Auger’s favourite TRAFFIC song ‘No Time to Live’. The choices were vindicated by dint of stronger versions than previously.
1981’s SEARCH PARTY {*6} saw a solo BRIAN AUGER deploying five drummers, two guitarists, three bass players and a synth programmer. It was a mostly instrumental album; mainly jazz fusion. ‘Planet Earth Calling’; with its terrific drumming and organ playing laced with synth and fast electric guitar, was a standout, while ‘Sea Of Tranquility’ was a piano-based ambient impressionistic piece. ‘I’m Gone’ had a nod to blues rock with a Hammond break, and some rousing guitar lifting the number; some of the music was reminiscent of WEATHER REPORT.
By the time of HERE AND NOW (1985) {*4}, AUGER had ventured even further into the realm of technology with three synth programmers, a conga player, and two female backing singers added to the conventional line-up. The tracks were shorter, soloing was restricted, and the music typical of its time with slap bass and funky MTV friendly music. A re-working of ‘Happiness Is Just Around The Bend’ sounded like the strongest material, although ‘Heart Of The Hunter’ was a well-structured instrumental and a “blast from the past” in the electric piano soloing which, like most such passages, faded out abruptly.
After a decade long gap, Auger revived the Oblivion Express name; though KEYS TO THE HEART {*5} was shelved until 1996. Despite some cool sax playing from DICK MORRISSEY on songs like ‘Sundown’, it failed to impress. More than a decade passed before the next Oblivion Express album, VOICES OF OTHER TIMES (2000) {*7}; AUGER making various dedications to his musical heroes and previous band members. He even played a piano solo in tribute to Victor Feldman on ‘Victor’s Delight’ and ‘Splatch’ was a MARCUS MILLER piece that appeared on MILES DAVIS’ “Tutu” album. The title track from ‘Closer To It!’ was re-worked in laid-back style with a nice “call and response” between Brian on electric piano and Chris Clermont on guitar. The protest song, ‘It Burns Me Up’ (an AUGER original), emerged as the lead-off song; the guitarist, bassist Dan Lutz, and Brian’s son Karma (on drums) taking the song out nicely. Brian’s daughter Savannah handled all the vocals on the album and did a pretty good job, whilst Karma produced the album for a real family affair. In fact, the album had a bit of everything, with re-workings of ‘Isola Natale’ and ‘Indian Rope Man’ from the early days providing an opportunity for the rhythm section to shine on the funk-fusion closer ‘Jam Side Down’.
LOOKING IN THE EYE OF THE WORLD (2006) {*6} was a retrospective album; daughter Savannah picking tracks like ‘Light My Fire’, ‘Season of the Witch’ from the old days, as well as a cover of MARVIN GAYE’s ‘Trouble Man’. Brian also composed some numbers in memory of his heroes: ‘Freddie’s Flight’, dedicated to Freddie Hubbard. Of course, the title song was another vintage number, written for piano and voice for the ‘Streetnoise’ album, with Savannah on vocals this time round; Karma demonstrating his growing development as a drummer and producer.
By the time of LANGUAGE OF THE HEART (2012) {*6}, Auger was in his seventies, had reverted to recording under his own name, and the music was understandably mellow and nostalgic; the organ prowess still there in abundance, thankfully. The album was well received by fans and newcomers alike, with musicians like Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’ (of STEELY DAN) adding his guitar to ‘Hymn to the Morning’. Two sets have since been released: MOD PARTY (2013) {*6} – recorded in 2011 with The Trinity and daughter Savannah Grace – and LIVE IN LOS ANGELES (2015) {*6} – featuring Alex Ligertwood from a concert at the Baked Potato in September 2013.
© MC Strong/MCS 1994-2000/GRD // rev-up PJ/Phil Jackson Nov2019

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