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Chris Darrow's Kaleidoscopic Vision

Chris Darrow: Leonard Cohen, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor have all covered his songs.
Steve Cahill

He has an upcoming tribute concert and box-set release and yet the question many will ask is, “Who is Chris Darrow?”

“My favorite hippie/Billy Strayhorn figure who can play 28 instruments,” lauds music historian Harvey Kubernik. “Chris Darrow understands that the Rock & Roll Jukebox is a miniature temple that plays God’s music with the right unholy thrust,” says madman Kim Fowley. “Chris was world music before a buzzword was needed and he brought to life that Band/Gram Parsons sound before anybody,” explains his protégé Ben Harper, further citing Darrow’s “attention to musical detail, a rawness and a commitment to a brave production style. He’s a forefather, not only of a particular California sound, but acoustic music that’s bigger than folk.”

If your record collection includes the best American popular music of the past 40 years, then odds are you own at least one recording, if not several, featuring the man often called “the Zelig of California rock.” Leonard Cohen, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, John Stewart, Hoyt Axton, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, John Fahey, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band plus various surf and punk rockers and movie soundtracks all benefited from Darrow’s astonishing musicality. He was an original member of Kaleidoscope, the ’60s rock band that blended Middle Eastern and other world music, country, swing, Cajun, folk rock and psychedelia — and, with extended improvisations, influenced what is now called the jam band. He’s been a mentor to countless players, notably Harper, who as a young man was undecided on a career path. Darrow not only urged the kid to record, but his fiery blues song “Whipping Boy” became the opener on Harper’s first album, Pleasure and Pain.

Darrow, 64, still lives in his hometown of Claremont, 35 miles east of L.A. At 13 he learned guitar, and later mastered stringed instruments through Claremont’s legendary Folk Music Center, yet harbored an abiding love of rock & roll so strong that he cried the day Buddy Holly died. He co-founded the bluegrass Dry City Scat Band, featuring David Lindley, another virtuoso multi-instrumentalist. As regulars at the legendary Ash Grove nightclub in L.A., says Darrow, “we were the hot young guys — and pretty intense.”

In summer 1964 he heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the radio and thought, “Oh, I get it. It’s Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, bluegrass harmonies.” His world literally rocked, Darrow formed the Floggs, who quickly flagged. He reunited with Lindley, and they begat Kaleidoscope, inking a deal with Epic, who released Side Trips and A Beacon From Mars. While Jimmy Page called them “my ideal band — absolutely brilliant,” they were consigned, along with Love and Moby Grape, to the hapless category of Greatest Underselling Rock Groups of the 1960s. Discouraged, Darrow split to concentrate on his blossoming songwriting.

He formed the early country-rock ensemble the Corvettes and simultaneously played with Ronstadt, Stewart and Axton. But it was his second solo album, Chris Darrow, that elevated Darrow’s artistry. “At the time there was an international [movement], for example, Fairport Convention, that took indigenous musics and made them rock & roll. I wanted to incorporate that into what we were doing.” Armed with a record deal, Darrow flew to England in 1972 and, wielding an arsenal of instruments and a batch of remarkable original compositions, recorded with members of Fairport, the Jeff Beck Group and Elton John’s band, among others. He multitracked vocals, guitar, slide guitar, Dobro, fiddle, mandolin, piano, hammered dulcimer, banjo and bass. Cuts include “Whipping Boy,” good-timey, alarmingly topical “We’re Living on $15 a Week,” and what may be the first example of an American rocker doing reggae (with Cajun fiddle), “Take Good Care of Yourself.” Darrow dove into esoterica with Celtic harpist Alan Stivell on “Faded Love” and co-arranger Dolly Collins on the medieval-sounding “That’s What It’s Like to Be Alone,” two gorgeous, mournful songs that could’ve been rendered obvious with hack studio musicians in L.A. But then it wouldn’t have been a Chris Darrow record.

Therein lies his magic and the reason — along with song crafting and instrumental mastery — Chris Darrow albums manage to stand out from the mimicry and gimmickry. He never does anything ordinary. While considered an early exponent of country-rock, he stands apart from his peers, particularly the ultraslick millionaires whose group’s name starts with an E. Steve Turner of Mudhoney, another devotee, explains it perfectly: “So many of the singer-songwriters from the ’70s sound schmaltzy, like the Eagles. Chris’ voice is rough and unschooled. His records sound really honest, one of the things you search for in music, someone working hard and playing with conviction. He’s punk like Pete Seeger is punk.”

In 1974, Darrow recorded another classic: Under My Own Disguise. “I was going for a more spacious, panoramic sound. Not a lot of rhythm guitar going chunga-chunga. Patterns come from the piano.” In March, Everloving Records will re-release both albums as Chris Darrow/Under My Own Disguise in a deluxe two-LP/two-CD set with photo book, and on March 1, a tribute concert called Take Good Care of Yourself: The Songs of Chris Darrow will be staged at McCabe’s, featuring Ben Harper, Akron/Family, Howlin Rain and others.

Darrow continues to release new recordings, compose, invent musical instruments, photograph and paint. A bighearted man, he still helps the younger and less experienced. “Chris took the time to sit down with me,” recalls Harper, a Claremont native whose grandparents founded the Folk Music Center. “Being able to watch someone play slide guitar with that much soul was huge as a building block for me to establish my own sound on the slide. Chris has a mojo hand and he may be of the last generation to carry a real mojo hand, but I think he kept himself well-hid [laughs]. He gives a shit about the art and the art only. I admire that tremendously.”

While appreciative of the sudden attention, Darrow is well aware that he’s been overlooked. “I always thought if you were good at what you did, somebody would pay you and give you accolades. The music business is cutthroat and ruthless and not meant for the kind of guy I am. I’ve always been more in competition with myself.

“And I don’t think there are any rules except ‘Does this sound cool?’” he adds with a chuckle.

Chris Darrow/Under My Own Disguise, on Everloving Records, is released in March. Ben Harper, Akron/Family, Howlin Rain and others perform the songs of Chris Darrow at McCabe’s Guitar Shop on Sunday, March 1.


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