RAVI SHANKAR At The Monterey International Pop Festival (World Pacific)
My self-imposed policy of only writing about albums that I have acquired in shiny, new, factory-fresh form in "Feedback" means that, so far at least, you've all been spared my dewy-eyed nostalgic ramblings about the neglected glories of the reel to reel format. Gripped since infancy by an inexplicable desire to own a reel to reel tape deck, and buoyed up by the occasional article in the hi-fi press that hinted at the Aladdin's cave of sonic delight it would provide access to, I finally acquired an example of the breed a few months back.
Tracking down the preferred stereo 7 inches per second software has been relatively painless, although you'll almost certainly have to import it from American sources, you might as well search for hen's teeth as anything released during the last 30 years, and when it sounds bad it will be staggeringly so: my copy of The Band's "Stage Fright" surely cannot have left Ampex's Elk Grove Village facility sounding so painfully sockbound. Added to this is the delight of interacting with cranky elderly machinery and levels of user involvement that make playing vinyl look positively convenient.
But, and here's the biggie, from my early, limited experience it seems to me that a well produced tape played through a sympathetic system casts a long shadow over subsequent audio developments. Reel to reel can have the beguiling natural quality of good vinyl, without familiar bugbears such as scratches and end of side distortion. Although proper subjective tests will have to wait until I have material duplicated on both formats, it still seems that when playing, for example, my reel of Rod Stewart's "Never A Dull Moment" (and how right he is!) I hear a presence, an ability to project band and singer into the room, that I've only experienced before from mortgage money systems.
So, when I had the good fortune to be in the Hollywood branch of Amoeba Music -which claims to be the world's largest independent music store with a stock of over a million items (which it may well be; I can only report that I became weak at the knees just walking into the shop) - I was delighted to discover that they carried a small selection of reels. One of them, advertised as new and sealed, was Ravi Shankar's "At The Monterey International Pop Festival". Despite not being of the carpe diem persuasion, reasoning that this might be my only opportunity to purchase a new tape from a bricks-and-mortar shop, and having enjoyed the segment of the performance excerpted on the "Monterey Pop" film immensely, into the basket it went.
The opening track, "Raga Bhimpalasi", is a solo sitar piece that takes up the entirety of the first side. It noodles pleasantly without ever wrapping itself around anything akin to a memorable melody, possibly the kind of work that Eno might come up with after visiting the subcontinent. "Tabla Solo In Ektal" is more spirited, Alla Rakha firing off round after round of percussive dexterity with the titular instrument. All this comes together satisfyingly during "Dhun", which winds up into something familiar from the film, a controlled frenzy of crashing, rippling melodic peaks that fully deserves the ecstatic applause at its conclusion. Whether I would have derived as much sonic satisfaction from a vinyl copy is a moot point: being so different from any other album in my collection, its pretty much impossible to make predictive comparisons. Nevertheless, in this form, in parts at least it's as stirring as the hype on the front cover suggests.