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Jimmy McCarty, Guitar Hero 

One Way… Or Another

Wounded Bird

Let us all praise Jim McCarty. Since the '60s his respective band tenures — Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, the Buddy Miles Express, Cactus, the Rockets, Mystery Train — have borne the twin marks of diligence and class. Among a certain generation of heavy-rock fans, he remains one of America's most esteemed musicians. It's telling, though, and more than a little bit vexing, that among the Motor City's contemporary garage-punk scenesters who've elevated his peers Ron Asheton and Fred "Sonic" Smith to godhood, McCarty's a prophet without honor — and he remains a performing mainstay locally.

Some newfound appreciation is overdue. The guitarist is probably most often remembered for Cactus, which formed in '69 featuring McCarty, the erstwhile Vanilla Fudge rhythm section of Tim Bogert (bass) and Carmine Appice (drums), and former Amboy Dukes vocalist Rusty Day. The pair of Cactus reissues at hand are timely enough, arriving on the heels of last year's reunion that found McCarty, Bogert, Appice and new singer Jimmy Kunes (ex-Savoy Brown; tragically, Day was murdered in 1982) recording and touring behind the excellent Cactus V.

Metro Times has dipped into the Cactus well before; in the October 27, 2004, issue, yours truly reviewed Barely Contained: The Studio Sessions and Fully Unleashed: The Live Gigs, a pair of limited-edition sets from Rhino Handmade. Now, Wounded Bird has resurrected the first two Cactus albums, 1970's Cactus and 1971's One Way... Or Another, and while the material on both appeared on Studio Sessions, the Handmade titles sold out long ago. In a sense, it's a shame that Cactus had to find a home at Wounded Bird ( The Guilderland, N.Y., label's specialty is out-of-print (and often classic) titles from the late '60s through the early/mid-'80s, but W.B. is also notorious for its bare-bones productions.

At any rate, back in the day Cactus was frequently lumped in by critics with the blues-rockin' likes of Savoy Brown, Free and Humble Pie. Which, from the sonic evidence, wasn't entirely off-base: check such tracks as the hi-octane reworking of Mose Allison's "Parchman Farm," the extended 12-bar workout "No Need to Worry" and the testosterone-fueled boogie "Oleo" (all from Cactus — which, not so coincidentally, sported an outrageously phallic clump of cacti on the LP sleeve), or the swaggering, strutting hard thud of "Rock N' Roll Children" (from OWOA). Here was a band well versed in — per the hirsute demands of the post-psych/pre-prog early '70s milieu—the blues form.

But McCarty, Bogert, Appice and Day were no journeyman rockers. Cited by groups as disparate as Van Halen and the Black Crowes as an influence, Cactus had a subtle but distinctive virtuoso streak, and in certain quarters the band was known as "America's Led Zeppelin." The aforementioned "Rock N' Roll Children" provides a good example: about halfway through, the singer drops out and the tune shifts into breakdown mode, Bogert and Appice revving up to triple-time as McCarty unleashes a series of astonishing fretboard runs, squalling, echoing volleys that sound like Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page squaring off. The same thing happens on the first album's "You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover": After dispensing with the Willie Dixon-penned verses (during which, it must be said, Day blows some seriously badass harp), the band makes a hyperjump to somewhere in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri and McCarty grabs the helm to start spraying freeform interstellar goo that'd make Hendrix blush and give Thurston Moore vertigo.

"Barely contained," indeed — collectively, McCarty and his bandmates were a simmering cauldron of brains 'n' brawl, simultaneously elegant and primal — and goddam thrilling.

"Remember the name Jimmy McCarty," Ted Nugent once urged, in an interview. "He is as important as Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry and Les Paul. A god on guitar." 'Nuff said.


Just announced: Cactus is scheduled to perform Friday, July 27, at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward, Ferndale; 248-544-3030. It's the band's first Detroit show in at least 30 years.

Fred Mills writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to

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