Two of music’s more enduring archetypes coalesce with unexpected success on Mushroom’s extremely groovy new Mad Dogs & San Franciscans. Although Mushroom has more or less hoed the all-instrumental road until now, Mad Dogs features singer Gary Floyd, formerly of Texas political-punk band the Dicks, proto-grunge combo Sister Double Happiness, and a few obscure solo blues albums. Here he manfully limns the role of an unreconstructed gravel-throated rock growler in the tradition of Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, and John Kay—all of whom, not coincidentally, Mushroom and Floyd cover on Mad Dogs.
A poison pill of faithfully reconceived classic rock and soul, Mad Dogs delivers their nostalgic goodies alongside a couple of hefty portions of nutritious post-jazz-rock fusion. The Mad Dogs connection plays itself out in “Space Captain” (which both opens and closes the album) and “Delta Lady,” highlights of Joe Cocker’s cast-of-thousands 1970 “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour of the U.S. Whatever liberties Mushroom take with their arrangements occur mainly in the upper register, where Doug Pearson’s Wiardanalog synthesizer squirms like a kindergartener anxious to take a leak. Floyd, meanwhile, hungers for his lady’s “soft and fertile delta” with all the sly irony you might expect from a bear of a fellow who once characterized himself as a “gay communist” during his punk-rock days.
Since the classic-rock growl signifies masculine desire in all its uncompromising neediness, it’s no surprise that sex and drugs, and their associated joys and concerns, provide most of the genre’s content. Hence the inclusion here of both Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman,” which Floyd sings in a perfect falsetto, and Steppenwolf’s Narcotics Anonymous anthem, “The Pusher.” Mushroom bandleader-drummer Patrick O’Hearn has even politely confirmed my suspicion that in a certain sense the Mushroom project, and Mad Dogs especially, could be said to have sprung from the live “Pusher” Steppenwolf released as a sidelong free-form freak-out on Early Steppenwolf back in sexy ’69.
Formed in November 1996, when they recorded and released their first jam on 850 vinyl copies of The Reeperbahn, Mushroom are more or less the bastard children of electric Miles, the Brit-prog Canterbury scene, Krautrock, and that timeless Frisco Crisco. The blend may not be archetypal, but it keeps with the slipstream sounds of today heard in groups as diverse as the Sun City Girls, Tortoise, Medeski Martin & Wood, and virtually everyone featured in the last few issues of Signal to Noise.
The first Mushroom album released domestically in quantity, ’99’s Analog Hi-Fi Surprise, was a psychedelic revelation mixing funky keyboards, guitar Frippery, stiff-swinging horns, and Mellotron textures in such leisurely unspooled soundtracks for nervous swingers as “A Song of Remembrance for a Time When Wife Swapping Was Considered Politically Correct.” Foxy Music (2001), an album of would-be porn funk, demands far too much attention to function well in the boudoir background, I’m afraid. Ridiculously intelligent at times, Foxy abounds with perfect moments—like when the backward swirl of “The Greatest Pleasure in Life Is Doing What People Say You Cannot Do” segues into “I Got Blisters on My Fingers” as though the ‘Shroom had breached a portal into a hot 1973 Henry Cow session.
By opening “side one” of Mad Dogs with the delicious space rock of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, But It Will Be Auctioned Off on eBay,” and “side two” with the abstract George Harrison-like instrumental “Even the Beatles Had Beards,” Mushroom both transcend and celebrate the spores from which sprung Spirit’s “I’ve Got a Line on You,” Pete Townshend’s “Water,” and their other equally resonant cover subjects. Mad Dogs makes you hear the past with new ears. That’s a San Francisco treat indeed.