Every so often you hear an album for the first time that, no matter when it was released, immediately connects. Here’s an album which, had I been aware of it, probably would have been in my record collection growing up. It would have fit right in with my Yes, Genesis and Rush albums. But I not only wasn’t aware of it back then, but I wasn’t aware of the band until after they had their reunion gigs at Natalie’s last year. It appears they may be releasing a DVD from the reunion, so I may yet get to see it. But I did find a mint vinyl copy of Strongbow and it blew me away.
Southwind – SWS 6401
Strongbow was originally formed as a trio fronted by Bob Hill (Capital City Rockets, The Godz) in 1970. Their claim to fame was an opening slot for Steppenwolf at Vets Memorial. But that incarnation’s brief run ended in 1971. Drummer Dave Smith would go on to help form the prog-rock band Axis. The Strongbow rhythm section was reunited when bassist Mike Haines joined Axis and they decided to restore the Strongbow name. After numerous lineup changes, including Haines’ departure, the band morphed into the Strongbow we hear on this album.
And what a band it is. They toured extensively playing both originals and covers and eventually recorded a demo at Columbus’ Owl Recording Studios. The demos were strong enough that they ended up landing a deal with Buddah Records subsidiary Southwind and the backing of legendary Frank Barsalona and his Premier Talent. Southwind president Alan Lorber wanted the group to re-record the tracks with himself producing. Big time, right? Well… Lorber booked sessions at Bailey North Carolina’s Mega Sound Studio.
"The reason for re-recording was the record company didn't like the sound quality (or they wanted to be able to fleece more money from us somehow),” said bassist John Durzo. "Mega Sound Studios in Bailey, NC, was - as I recall - a rat-infested little dump out in the middle of a field, miles from civilization. It sounded okay there, and there was room to spread the equipment out and isolate big amps (Ampeg SVTs) with fans from the speaker cabinets and mics, etc. The album kind of got wimpy-ized during the mastering and pressing. That's why I prefer the Owl demos on Con Carne to the actual album. It sounded more 'Strongbow.'”
That certainly piqued my interest, but I wasn’t able to find Con Carne. The Southwind release is excellently produced by Lorber and has the warm, dry 70s production I love. The vinyl sounds far superior to any of the online streams. Side one opens with One Armed Bandit and you immediately get a sense of Yes to some degree, but it’s heavier and less classically influenced. It begins with Moog and plenty of echo and delay. You have a strong, driving, trebly Rickenbacker bass sound. But it also recalls Echoes-era Floyd and early Rush. The drums are driving and up in the mix. With the horns, the band recalls Gentle Giant. But you know what? Strongbow has its own sound. Very riff-based. Clocking in at under four minutes, Bandit would have made for a good single, but it doesn’t appear any singles were released.
Vocalist/keyboardist/trombonist Bill Bendler handles the majority of the writing. And the keyboard work drives much of the album. Sister Sea is next. It sounds like drummer Dave Smith is playing double bass drums. If not, he loves bouncing the kick pedal. Either way, he’s a monster with eighth and sixteenth notes on the bass drum. The Only One Around completes side one and is the longest track at just under ten minutes. It opens with a Supertrampish Fender Rhodes and what sounds like a vibraphone but may be a synth. Then the organ comes in before an echo-laden spacy guitar riff. The vocals are a bit of an acquired taste, but isn’t that often the case? The harmonies are interesting, and while they definitely recall Yes, they also have some HP Lovecraft/Incredible String Band-type thing going on. We get some Mellotron. Then we get to a muted, treated trombone solo. These guys are insane! Bendler’s vocals quickly grew on me through repeated listens.
Side two opens with Move Over Gloom. You get some flange on the drums. One riff begins on synth, goes to guitar, then organ, then finishes with drums and bass. Lyrically, it seems to be about battling depression and making room for positivity in your life. John Stelzer plays some treated sax here too, reminiscent of the things Chris Wood was doing with the wah and other effects in mid-period Traffic. Stelzer also plays a nice flute solo in How Can I Be Loving You. The one song not written by Bendler is Wine Eyes, written and sung by drummer David Smith. It’s got a different, slightly poppier feel than the rest of the album. But, still, you get some dual guitar and "electric trombone" lines - cool stuff.
There are some great songs here. Hazy May, in particular, has a catchy melody that can stick in your head. There’s plenty of psychedelia too with wah, flange and sounds that will have you wondering if it’s a synth, a treated horn, or a distorted guitar. This is a layered album that rewards repeated listenings. The more you listen, the more you hear, the more respect you have for these musicians.
Southwind appears to have lasted only about a year, putting out three albums in 1975. Strongbow disbanded in 1978. It’s a shame because with some better luck and a bigger push, who knows what Strongbow could have done? Guitarist Michael Shortland, unfortunately, passed away in 1993 at 45. Original bassist Mike Haines passed in 2009. But the band lives on. The Strongbow album is a tantalizing debut and fascinating prog chapter in Columbus's Music history. Highly recommended.
A2 Sister Sea
B3 Wine Eyes
B4 Hazy May
Recorded At – Mega Sound Studio, Bailey, N.C.
Published By – Northgate Music
Mixed At – Bell Sound Studios
Distributed By – Buddah Records, Inc.
Phonographic Copyright ℗ – Southwind Productions Inc.
Bass [Fender], Vocals – John Durzo
Creative Director [Packaging] – Milton Sincoff
Drums, Vocals – David Smith
Engineer [Recording and Mixing] – Richard Royall
Guitar, Vocals – Michael Shortland
Illustration [Cover] – Martin Gulser
Lighting [Stage] – Rick Urban
Organ, Synthesizer, Mellotron, Alto Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone, Flute, Vocals – John Stelzer
Other [Stage Sound] – Dave Huff
Photography – Jeff Chrisman
Producer – Alan Lorber
Remix – Doug Rider
Vocals, Piano, Trombone [Electric] – Bill Bendler