Fricke's Picks: A Legendary 1974 Concert, Now on CD

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Here's something you don't get in the new media: musicians playing for free, to benefit a rock magazine. But that is what happened on April 28th, 1974, at the Roundhouse in London, at The Amazing Zigzag Concert, where an odd cool gang of pop and underground spirits performed to raise funds for Britain's Zigzag. Founded by writer-illustrator Pete Frame, Zigzag was a kind of Mother Country Rolling Stone, minus the politics, with a specialist passion for San Francisco-inspired psychedelia and American country rock. Zigzag was also the original home of Frame's now-famous Rock Family Trees, hand-drawn graphic histories of bands such as the Byrds and King Crimson.

That Sunday in '74, the Zigzag staff celebrated its fifth birthday by throwing a party of eclectic favors, with proceeds dedicated to the magazine's usually-perilous survival. Homegrown entertainment included young Byrds devotees Starry Eyed and Laughing, previewing the pleasures of their two imminent CBS LPs; the encyclopedic-roots and pub-cheer band Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, with Elvis Costello's future drummer Pete Thomas; and rustic acid-flavored jammers Help Yourself. A wonderful five-CD set, The Amazing Zigzag Concert (Road Goes On Forever), issued last year and still available by mail order, includes each band's complete set. The result is a one-stop bang-and-jangle lesson in the great British rock that was off the charts in the mid-Seventies, filling clubs and dancehalls before punk.

A Monkee's Country Adventure
Topping the Amazing Zigzag bill, though, was an American pop star: ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith, in a unique solo appearance, backed only by pedal steel guitarist Red Rhodes from his Seventies country group, the First National Band. The Zigzag crew also threw in a complementary U.S. guest, California singer-songwriter John Stewart, who had composed the Monkees' '67 hit "Daydream Believer." Nesmith and Stewart's respective sets, also in the boxed set in full, are magnetic purity. Stewart's voice is a rich, slightly rusted baritone, like a gentler Johnny Cash, while his probing romanticism in songs like "California Bloodlines" and "July You're a Woman" sounds like a prescient bridge to the No Depression meditations of Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks.

Stripped of Monkee-shines, Nesmith was still Mr. Entertainment at the Roundhouse, spinning witty intro banter before giving straight strong renditions of grit'n'sparkle from before and after his TV life, including "Different Drum," "Joanne" and "Some of Shelley's Blues." The remarkable fidelity of the Zigzag Concert tapes highlights the rugged warmth of Nesmith's singing. His plaintive Texas drawl, ringed by the sweet gleam of Rhodes' wise and spare playing,  hangs in the attentive hush of the crowd. On this rare occasion, Nesmith was playing not just for fans but the faithful – people who knew his solo work mostly from a distance but by heart, thanks to Zigzag's enthusiastic coverage.

The Amazing Zigzag Concert is a fat box from a wonderful day, when passionate writing, great music and the art of giving back collided in celebration. It also reminds me of why I still do this, not just for a living, but my life – and why it still matters.

For more info and to order The Amazing Zigzag Concert, email info@rgfrecords.co.uk.