Doc and Merle Watson: Bear’s Sonic Journals, Never the Same Way Once: Live at the Boarding House May 1974
Owsley Stanley Foundation (7 CDs). 2017. Hawk, exec prod.; Starfinder Stanley, Jeffrey Norman, Pete Bell, project coordinators; Owsley Stanley, orig. eng.; Jeffrey Norman, CD mastering, tape archivist; John Chester, Jaime Howarth, digital transfers. ADD? TT: 5:33:17
Performance *****
Sonics *****

The late Owsley “Bear” Stanley spent his life raising consciousness. Whether it was mixing up jars of LSD, building his famous Wall of Sound PA system for the Grateful Dead, or supervising the creation of an incredible library of live recordings, Bear Stanley was after a certain purity, a higher level of quality, epiphanies.

He recorded a stash of music that runs to more than 1000 reels of tape. While some of it has been licensed out to established record labels and released over the years—and some has been bootlegged—this box is the first project of the Owsley Stanley Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit “whose primary mission is the preservation, future and public distribution of Bear’s Sonics Journals.”

Sonic Journals is what Stanley called his recordings, and if his son Starfinder and the rest of the Foundation board were looking to make a splash with their first release, this incredible treasure more than fits the bill.

The great Arthel Lane Watson (1923–2012), better known as Doc, is, by all measures, one of America greatest musical treasures. Blinded by an eye infection before his first birthday, Doc began on a Martin guitar by age 10, though later in life he switched to Gallagher guitars. Although he could fingerpick, Doc was best known for his flatpicking. Despite the down-home likability he exuded as a frontman, Doc was a take-no-prisoners, blazingly fast guitarist who could cut heads and get flashy in his solos. He could also negotiate ballads with impeccable timing and uncommon tenderness. Doc was also fluent on banjo and harmonica. Every bit the equal of his guitar playing was his supple, articulate voice, equally good in upbeat numbers like Jimmy Driftwood’s “Tennessee Stud” and the ballads he made his own over the years, headed by Jimmie Rodgers’s “Miss the Mississippi and You.”

Not a songwriter of note himself, Doc was a folk musician in the broadest sense of the term, and a wonderful interpreter of early Americana equally adept at singing and playing George Gershwin’s “Summertime” and the traditional blues “Mama Don’t Allow No Music” as he was at another traditional song often associated with Louis Armstrong, “St. James Infirmary Blues,” as well as the ageless “Wabash Cannonball

Though it sounds like hyperbole, there isn’t such thing as a bad Doc Watson record, but this boxed set may be the most extraordinary Doc Watson ever captured on tape. Ever. From the very first notes of the first of the seven different shows presented here, it’s clear that Doc, his son, Merle, and bassist T. Michael Coleman are locked in and having fun. They wanna be there, and it shows. The musicianship is sparkling and flawless throughout, and their joie de vivre bubbles through all seven discs.

There’s a bounce to these performances that I’ve heard on no other Doc record, live or from the studio. From the incredibly fast “Nancy Rowland/Old Joe Clark” to the impassioned “South Coast,” the song sung in John Ford’s film Grapes of Wrath (both on chapter 4, disc 1), to the unexpected Elvis medley at the end of chapter 2, disc 1, these are Watson performances for the ages. The slide-guitar work of Merle, who died in a tragic tractor accident on the family farm in 1985, is utterly sublime. Two guests—Ken Lauber on piano, and Billy Roberts on harmonica—appear in two different shows each.

All the good energy heard here may be the result of Watson’s recent star turn in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972), that three-LP meeting of hippies and traditional bluegrass performers. The critical acclaim he received for his performance on Circle of “Tennessee Stud” gave new momentum to Doc’s career. This box contains four versions of the song that are in no way repetitive, and that gave the set its title.

“The way Bear miked the stage, there are subtle and dramatic differences the whole way through, and so we couldn’t decide whether or not to include them all,” OS Foundation board member Hawk told me in a recent interview. “[Bassist] T. Michael Coleman was finally the guy who made the decision for us by saying, ‘Hey, don’t worry about the four “Tennessee Studs,” the repeats, because we never played it the same way once.'”

Bear certainly did know how to record in this room. The audience is audible, as are the between-tune exchanges among the three men—and most of Doc’s jokes are funny. The tapes were processed using the Plangent system, to correct any wow and flutter and to recover lost frequencies. The result is exceptional sound, intimate yet three-dimensional. LPs and high-resolution downloads of this set are in the works.

Grand plans for long series of recordings tend to go awry over time, but as initial releases go, this is utterly spectacular, in terms of both sound and music. The future of Bear’s recorded legacy looks bright.—Robert Baird

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