Rhino Handmade RHM2 7702, 1999

Psychedelia was already dead by the time the Temptations invited us to the "Psychedelic Shack", but its replacement was already in place: a joyous sort of eclecticism which insisted that the delights of lyrically and instrumentally expanding one's musical vocabulary were at least a match for the delights of chemically expanding one's mind. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these eclectics came from California. The San Francisco Bay area gave us It's a Beautiful Day; from Los Angeles came a remarkable band called Sweetwater. But the comparisons end there: while It's a Beautiful Day proved to be largely a solitary vision, Sweetwater was a true collaborative effort.

CD cover artEven by 1968, bands with seven members were still not common, and this band was almost defiantly unique. At the core were the founding members and composers: bassist Fred Herrera, singer Nancy Nevins (she spelled it "Nansi" then), flautist Albert Moore, and Alex Del Zoppo on keyboards. All four of them sang when needed. What's more, Sweetwater boasted a cellist, August Burns, and two percussionists - Alan Malarowitz on the kit, Elpidio (call him Pete) Cobian on congas. Blessed with good songs and great instrumental work, the band blossomed, appearing regularly in Los Angeles, on national TV shows, and scoring a gig at the Miami Pop Festival in the last week of 1968, where they fit in well with the festival's eclectic mix of performers, which included acts as diverse as Chuck Berry, Steppenwolf, Fleetwood Mac, and Jr. Walker and the All-Stars. Miami drew nearly 100,000 people, some of whom surely must have bought Sweetwater's eponymous album on Warner Bros.' Reprise label, released that fall. Now an established crowd-pleaser, Sweetwater was booked for the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in Bethel, New York in August 1969. They were, in fact, the first full band on stage at Yasgur's farm, playing three songs from that album. So why did you not see them in Michael Wadleigh's film Woodstock?

In December 1969, a drunk driver barrelling down the Ventura Freeway turned Nancy Nevins' Buick into a heap of slag. Nancy survived, barely, but her voice was wrecked, and her recovery was long and drawn out. Wadleigh cut Sweetwater's scenes from the film, which insured that they wouldn't appear on the subsequent soundtrack albums. The band managed to complete two more LPs (Just for You, 1970, and Melon, 1971) using some vocal tracks Nancy had recorded before the accident, but something was missing, and it wasn't just Nancy, and Sweetwater broke up.

Someone remembered, though, because in 1994, the organizers of Woodstock II came looking for Sweetwater. They didn't find them, but the following year, Nancy Nevins, Alex Del Zoppo and Fred Herrera reunited — three of the original seven members had passed away — adding drummer Mike Williams and, for the first time, a lead guitarist, Joe Bruley. In 1997, Nancy and actor/screenwriter Joe Graves collaborated on a movie script about the life and times of Sweetwater, which came to the attention of cable channel VH1, which acquired the rights, hired another writer, and produced Sweetwater: A True Rock Story, which premiered on August 15, 1999 — thirty years to the day after Sweetwater appeared at Woodstock. A day later, Rhino Records' Handmade division made Cycles: The Reprise Collection available for the first time.

Cycles isn't a Greatest Hits set, exactly; none of Sweetwater's six singles ever made Billboard's Hot 100, although that first LP sold fairly well and got a decent amount of airplay, especially on the West Coast. What we have here, then, is a document of a band that started out strong and gave every indication that it was going to stay that way. The classic spiritual "Motherless Child" opens with a choral part that dissolves into jazz-funk, with Nancy Nevins' voice soaring above. "What's Wrong", the first single, comes from the preachy side of folk, but Peter, Paul and Mary never swung like this. "Why Oh Why", which Warner Bros. included in Songbook, the first Loss Leader album, is definitely a rocker, despite its utter lack of guitar parts. The pre-dawn traffic noises in "Just for You" lead to a period of quiet reflection, which suddenly turns into rush hour. "Day Song" mixes nursery-rhyme simplicity with contemporary choral arrangements. "Home Again", a 1998 recording, shows that while Nancy's voice has darkened over the years since the accident, it's still quite an instrument. We may never know what wondrous things Sweetwater might have done had things gone differently, but for the first time in many years, we have a recording of the wondrous things they did. And apparently they're going to keep doing them; the band's Refill Madness tour has spawned a Mini Refill CD with four new songs.

Further exploration: Your first stop surely must be Sweetwater's own Web site, which fills in all the biographical and discographical details, and tells you what the band is doing today.

Cycles: The Reprise Collection is not available at retail; to get one of the limited-edition CDs (10,000, they say), visit Rhino Handmade's Web site and hope they have some left. If not, Collectors' Choice Music is in the process of reissuing the three original LPs on CD.

Track listing:

  1. Motherless Child (traditional, adapted by Herrera-Nevins)
  2. Here We Go Again (Nevins)
  3. What's Wrong (Del Zoppo)
  4. In a Rainbow (Del Zoppo)
  5. My Crystal Spider (Del Zoppo)
  6. Rondeau (Herrera)
  7. Two Worlds (Nevins)
  8. Through an Old Storybook (Del Zoppo)
  9. Why Oh Why (Moore)
  10. What's Wrong (Live at Woodstock) (Del Zoppo)
  11. Just For You (Herrera)
  12. Day Song (Nevins)
  13. Song for Romeo (Moore)
  14. Look Out (Nevins)
  15. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (traditional, adapted by Herrera)
  16. Get It While You Can (Del Zoppo)
  17. Don't Forget (Nevins)
  18. Join the Band (Del Zoppo)
  19. Home Again (Del Zoppo)

Tracks 1 through 9 from Sweetwater, Reprise RS 6313, produced by Dave Hassinger, released 9/68
Track 10 recorded live at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, 8/15/69, previously unreleased
Tracks 11 through 14 from Just for You, Reprise RS 6417, produced by Chris Huston, released 10/70
Track 15 recorded 11/70, produced by Fred Herrera, previously unreleased
Tracks 16 through 18 from Melon, Reprise RS 6473, produced by Wiley Brooks (The Cosmic Man), released 11/71
Track 19 recorded 8/98, produced by Fred Herrera, previously unreleased

Updated 21 August 2005

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Copyright © 1999-2005 by Charles G. Hill
Cover art © 1999 by Rhino Records