In 1975 Bonaroo Was Based In L.A.
Back in the 70’s record labels placed a lot of bets, largely because they could. The contracts they wrote never required the label to assume much risk, and as a result their rosters were very fluid. Bands were quickly signed and quickly dropped. Most fans weren’t given much time to mourn because the pipeline was quickly filled with someone new. Among the scores of those discarded acts remain some fantastic vinyl finds. This week we turn our attention to one from 1975, a band called Bonaroo.
Named after a Creole word that translates to “Good Stuff,” their path to Warner Bros. is subject to debate. Some contend that the band was formed by Doobie Brothers’ drummer Mike Hossack, who brought along guitarist Bobby Winkelman from the Steve Miller Band and keyboardist/vocalist Bill Cuomo (the band also featured guitarist Jerry Weems of the Edgar Winter Band and bassist Bobby Lichtig from Wounded Bird). Others contend that, Bobby Winkelman got a solo deal with Warner Brothers and they released his album backed by Bonaroo.
Other than bragging rights between Winkelman and Hossack the truth is largely irrelevant, and a debate there takes attention away from what was a really strong record. Recorded in LA at the Sound Factory, the album was completed in one month’s time to ensure the band was ready to head out on the road with Tower of Power, Little Feat, Graham Central Station, The Doobie Brothers and Montrose. That European tour put over 100 power line up people together and filled four train cars. It also put Bonaroo in the company of acts that had to suck up a lot of the air in every room they played. That said, this all-star lineup came to Bonaroo tested and had chops as strong as anyone who took anyone of those stages. This is evident in the brilliance of almost every track here on their self-named debut.
At times the record seems to be a bit ambitious and uneven – they try to cover too much musical ground in one setting. From the soaring America-like opener “Life’s Sweet Song,” to the fiery guitar work on the ballad “Spirit of A Dead Man,” to the TOP funk found in the extraordinary “Physical Fitness” the record tries to prove how versatile the band is instead of delivering a firm understanding of who they are or want to be.
This aside, the music holds up remarkably well. In fact, some tracks could be recut and turned into hits tomorrow. My favorite on the record, “Nobody Knows,” could easily appear on any current Keith Urban record and chart on the very day it was released — funny, because none of these songs on their own became a hit. As a result the band fell apart. Winkelman tried to keep things going by releasing “Bonaroo II” on his own. It made some sense given that his original songs, “Life’s Sweet Song,” “Dream On,” “Melody Maker,” “Spirit of a Dead Man,” “I See the Light and Let’s Go Down to the River” were among the best on the debut. But by then the market had moved. Thankfully this debut remains as a window into what real magic they were able to create together as a band, an album that almost represents the best of the ’70s in one sitting, and a testament to how incredibly hard it was then to break away from the pack.