VH-1's Sweetwater: A True Rock Story, made punters familiar with this L.A. collective's abbreviated career. Rhino Handmade's Cycles: The Reprise Collection provided a nice taste of the act's distinctive sound, but one wonders why their first three albums took this long to be reissued. Well, here they are and the best on them is still good for a long time to come.
Sweetwater grew out of a series of impromptu performances at L.A. City College in 1967, with hippie-chick Nancy Nevins stepping out of the audience to wail an angelic "Motherless Child" over the band's kandy-koated jamming. The crew picked up a rock drummer, put a classical cellist in the lead guitar-player's seat and gigged in Silverlake coffeehouses before hitting the Strip. Reprise, already heavy with Hendrix, The Electric Prunes and The Dead, signed the octet and David Hassinger (the label's acid-rock guru) produced their debut.
Sweetwater (1968) brings to mind the jazzy lighter-than-air feel of early Spirit, but with that act's king-hoodlum Angelino drugginess replaced by a ten-feet-off-the-pavement amiability, as Nevins' high-princess vocals take "Motherless Child" and the superbly creepy "My Silver Spider" into dainty crevasses of inner space. The album also compares to Love's epochal Forever Changes, with Arthur Lee's refined L.A. cynicism shouldered aside by a butterfly wing of elegant L.A. cheeriness.
By late 1968, a drunk driver wiped out Nevins' car on the Ventura freeway and Sweetwater's appearance was being cut out of Woodstock. The lead singer's recovery was prolonged and painful, but the band had built up a large following through touring with the likes of The Doors and Frank Zappa. On Just for You, Nevins' damaged voice doesn't command as before but the jamband sensibility makes a roaring return. The centerpiece is a hippie-tonk rework of the McCann & Harris version of Gene Daniel's "Compared to What;" the stony pessimism transmuted into come-to-Jesus generational boo-yah. Melon, the notes remind us, was the last entry in Sweetwater's "three-album trilogy" and, given the tensions within the group, sounds better than it should. The formerly just-for-fun jam co-op was down to recording instrumental tracks at different intervals. Nevins' voice recedes still further, with "Don't Forget" serving as a clipped dirge for what the group had been. Most of the rest of the album is hippie howzat on degraded par with Delaney & Bonnie. A gnawed scrag-end of one of the more promising debuts on the late 60s, this album is partially redeemed by the dorky good-humor of "Take It From the Splice, Boys" and the overdone hoodoo finale of "Join the Band."
Sweetwater got back together in the late 90s, minus three original members, but plus Ms. Nevins. Late in the day, perhaps, but not entirely futile. (Ron Garmon)