VINTAGE—THE VERY BEST OF MOBY GRAPE

Of all the bands that emerged from San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury scene in the psychedelic '60s, none embodied the explosive energy of that period as ably as Moby Grape, the ill-fated near supergroup whose often brilliant work has been reissued (after 15 years out of print at Columbia) on an eye-popping double CD.

The Grape were the musical equivalent of a hippie commune: All five members wrote and sang, and their collective sound was a dazzling amalgam of styles ranging from jazz, country and blues to rockabilly and Indian raga. Their first LR released in 1967's Summer of Love (and included here in its entirety), was not just one of the greatest debut albums ever, but one of rock's all-time treasures. Propelled by instant classics such as the triple-guitar gallop of "Omaha" and the harmony-filled acoustic ballad "8:05," Moby Grape seemed bound for greatness.

Sadly, the group never reached its destination. Bad management made the players famous but poor. Bad label decisions kept them hitless. (Unsure which songs to promote from '67's Moby Grape, Columbia released five singles simultaneously; confused deejays ignored them all.) And self-inflicted bad vibes—guitarist Skip Spence spent time in a mental ward; bassist Bob Mosley went directly from the Grape to a stint in the Marines—ultimately snuffed their spark.

By Woodstock, in 1969, the band lad broken up, leaving behind quivering memories of their awesome power. As evidenced by this first-rate reissue, such tracks as "Fall on You" and "Hey, Grandma" are still smokin'. Time has passed, but no harpoon can sink the legendary Moby Grape. (Columbia/Legacy)

Natalie Cole

You might say Cole claimed her birthright when she recorded Unforgettable with Love, the 1991 album of Nat "King" Cole tunes that has sold more than 5 million copies. After starting as an R&B singer, she scored a major comeback by doing standard tunes Dad's way. But with the makeover came a new challenge: How to follow in her father's footsteps without getting lost?

On that level, Take a Look triumphs. By selecting 18 songs from all over the classic-pop map and giving them delicate, jazzy treatments, Cole carves her own identity while remaining true to her father. She is always a very musical singer, whether bending a blue note or piping heavenward.

And yet there is room to grow. Cole can't quite carry off the bop pyrotechnics of the Lambert, Hendricks & Ross tune "It's Sand Man" or the painfully ironic subtext of Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain." But most of this album showcases her understated charms. With only a few exceptions, Cole knows how to kill us softly with her songs. (Elektra)

Van Morrison

For more than a quarter century, Ireland's most soulful tenor has been notably prolific, putting out 23 albums. But Morrison's real accomplishment has been the musical grace with which he has pirouetted from brass-injected, revue-style R&B to heart-plumbing balladry to soul-searching pop.

Unfortunately, Morrison's reputation for consistency takes a pounding with this sloppy offering. It's not just the material: rambling jams and tossed-off lyrics. He also makes some odd vocal choices, occasionally adding to his repertoire a bleating vibrato that sounds like Elmer Fudd.

There are interesting moments: a duet with bluesman John Lee Hooker on a remake of Morrison's oft-covered 1965 song "Gloria" and Van's ragged but righteous harmonica solo on the old Doc Pomus blues vamp "Lonely Avenue." But it's regrettable to root around for a few redeeming moments when so many of Morrison's records have offered redemption itself. (Polydor)

>Jerry Miller

"ALL WE WERE DOIN' WAS JUST KILLIN' "

"WE HAD A REAL GOOD TIME—FOR A while," recalls Jerry Miller, Moby Grape's lead guitarist, from his home in Cave Junction, Oreg. "When we were out playing after our first album, we scared a lot of people. There was magic to what the five of us could do together. I remember when we opened for the Mamas and the Papas. We'd finish 'Omaha,' really boogying, and then they'd get up there and try to do 'Monday, Monday.' We got booted off that tour fast. We got a bad rap, but all we were doin' was just killin'."

Why did Moby Grape flame out so soon after rocketing to stardom? "I don't think we ever really realized the power we had," says Miller, now 49. "We should have just sat back, slowed down and done our second album when it was really ready. But we were being pushed very hard by everybody around us—and pretty soon fuses just started blowing."

Miller, who's married with a 5-year-old son and a 7-month-old daughter, has remained active in music (his Jerry Miller Band hopes to tour the country this summer). He is still in touch with the rest of his old mates, especially drummer Don Stevenson (a vacation time-share salesman in Seattle) and second guitarist Peter Lewis (currently finishing a solo album in Southern California). "Me and Pete and Don always talk about how we'd still like to do our second album the right away," he says. As it is, the new retrospective suits them all. "Hey, every pothole we could step in, we stepped in," he says with a laugh. "After all these years, it'd be real sweet to finally put the proper period on our story."

  • Contributors:
  • Billy Altman,
  • Ron Givens,
  • David Hiltbrand.