Shagrat Amber : Pearls of Amber (UK,1969-1971,re.2000)***'
Amber was a duo consisting of Julian McAllister (guitar, lead vocals), and Mac McLeod (lead guitar, sitar, tabla, percussion, backing vocals). For this direct recording they had help from Ray Cooper on tabla on the first few tracks.
The duo appeared often on the St.Albans jam sessions at the Cock where Mick Softly, Maddy Prior and Donovan were playing. Mac McLeod was very active in that period, and had toured with John Renbourne. In 1965 he had accompanied Donovan in a NME winning concert. But instead of heading further on tour with Donovan, he travelled to Scandinavia, while Julian travelled and stayed in Morocco and Turkey and areas in between, while discovering the Turkish saz and other stringed instruments. Mac McLeod made a popular single in Sweden which resulted in a TV show appearance. Shortly after that he joined a Danish duo called the B.B.Brothers, which led to the formation of a trio called Hurdy Gurdy, influenced by Cream and early Hendrix. In that time he asked Donovan if he could pen them a song, which became 'The Hurdy Gurdy Man' (George Harrison, Donovan said, wrote an extra verse for the song). Donovan didn’t like much the heavy version by the band and made his own version, based very much upon the Hurdy Gurdy one, which became a huge hit. Work permits were very difficult matters in Danmark, so it took until 1971 and a few side-projects before Hurdy Gurdy recorded their own album in 1971. This album was a combination of very heavy bluespsychrock and sitar driven tracks. They recently found 3 extra tracks on the master, and found now an official reissue by the Danish psych label Karma Records which list the album as “the oldest blues-rock-cult band in Denmark”. Before that was all possible Mac met Julian again, who had returned from his travels. Donovan was still interested in this duo to have them as a backing band for the US tour, with drummer Candy Carr, and they rehearsed one summer together, but again, in a hippie hearted freedom dream catcher fashion, they ended up in touring solo a while under the name of Amber, sometimes in an almost busker-like fashion. Only a few of the studio effort sessions survived. The liner notes say that in the second session, produced by ex-Yardbird Keith Relf, he almost joined the band.
First track, “Sea Shell Rock Me” (accompanied by sitar, tabla, guitar, bass), a track which has another version from the second session, is a song that reminds me very much of Wizz Jones when he was accompanied by John Renbourne on “Right Now”, for the guitar playing, the sitar as well as for the voice. I also wonder reading all the history how much a song and approach like this was an influence in the existing scene or was just very much part of what brooded in the area. The second track is a bit bluesier, in a hippie fashion, with acoustic guitars and tabla, bells. In this track I can sense Donovan’s interest here, and with all the right feelings there I still think it is a shame how such a duo wasn’t given the chance for a proper recording, and that that it had to wait until just now for the surviving tapes to appear. Most songs have rather hippie sunshine loving lyrics, and of course it must have been the circumstances partly lived by or made by the duo with fluent making free directions, which are also logical, that a discovery or chance didn’t materialize. A nice album, limited to 300 10" copies.
Other review :
Merlins Nose Rec. Amber : Pearls of Amber (UK,1969-1971,re.2011)***°
It was a pleasant surprise to see this mini-LP re-released on CD. In fact it is more like an EP with two bonus tracks, one of which is an alternate version of the first track.
Mac Macleod in the leaflet explained how he once played second guitar on Donovan’s first international tour in 1965, ending up in Scandinavia, where he started to play with bands like The Other Side, Exploding Mushroom and Hurdy Gurdy (with one LP of bluesrock mixed with sitar tracks) before returning to England in 1968. Julian McAllister had acquaintance with Donovan too. Mac and Julian rehearsed with Donovan to play on the American tour, which never happened because of visa problems. Mick Softley then started playing with them, with Mike Thompson on bass, problems with Mick’s personality made it so that they fell back to being a duo, which was first called Soft Cloud. Some success at local folk clubs led to the birth of Amber, with Julian playing guitar and Turkish saz and Mac on guitar, sitar and tabla. Ray Cooper played more percussion. Despite several successes, a bit of bad luck and bad promotion didn’t make more of the band commercially. These taped recordings are all that was left from this period.
Especially the first track, “Sea Shell rock me” shows the band’s full potential, where the picking recalls Bert Jansch, the voice and the combination of sitar with guitar and tabla a combination of Donovan and Chris Thompson, a great song and sound to remember from a similar quality as the last two artists mentioned. The song after, White Angel” is bluesier, with a combination of strummed and picking guitar parts, and usage of some tambourin. “Swan in the evening” is less attractive than the opener as a song although it has some sitar too, is accompanied by strummed rhythm guitar and what sounds like congas with some cymbal percussion. Also “Sing on the Sunlight” is a more common song with a sing-a-long song theme, strummed rhythms and a fast picking part. The last track, after the alternative take with different more improvised guitar, is another bluesier song with country folk dual harmonies, strummed rhythm guitar and percussion, has something more of a folk café orientated song. It is a shame this is all that was left of this period, what is left behind is worth remembering.