May 28, 2003 at 12:00 am

Nantucket Sleighride
The Best of Mountain

Not long ago I sat down with Gov’t. Mule’s guitar god Warren Haynes. During the conversation it came up that his longtime producer, Michael Barbiero, is the cousin of the late Felix Pappalardi. The latter, of course, was bassist and producer for Mountain, a band the Mule has frequently paid tribute to in concert. Haynes told me about Barbiero being invited, as a teenager, to sit in on the recording session for Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen”: “Felix dragged him in there. It was the first session Michael had ever been to, and he hears this [makes clunking cowbell sound] followed by that riff. He said the hair on his arms just stood up: ‘Oh, my god, this is something I want to do for the rest of my life.’”

A response, no doubt, a lot of us had the first time we heard “Mississippi Queen” — the cowbell, the volcanic riff, the scorched sharecropper’s bellow of guitarist/vocalist Leslie West, the sheer sonic whoomp. Yet what’s most remarkable about 1970’s Climbing! is not the group’s estimable prowess as a post-Cream hard-rock outfit but the astounding diversity displayed on its long-playing debut. Sure, there’s “Queen” plus “Never In My Life” (another brawny riff ’n’ cowbell concoction) and kinetic thumper “Sittin’ On A Rainbow.” But there’s also “Theme From An Imaginary Western,” a luminous slice of guitar/organ psychedelic soul written by Cream bassist Jack Bruce and sung by the honey-tenored Pappalardi (he’d previously worked as Cream’s producer); “To My Friend,” an Eastern-flavored solo piece from West; and “The Laird,” a haunting, mostly acoustic ballad featuring Pappalardi on rhythm guitar, West on slide and moody tribal percussion from drummer Corky Laing.

The following year saw the release of Nantucket Sleighride, and while fans tend to rank its predecessor slightly higher, there’s no denying either its visceral impact — opening track “Don’t Look Around” blows from the speakers like Phil Spector’s wall of sound crashing down upon the stage of the Fillmore East — or its resonance as a more mature and sonically complex effort. On an anthemic track like “DLA” the Laing-Pappalardi rhythm section picks up the torch dropped by Cream’s Bruce and Ginger Baker and runs with it. Elsewhere one hears the keyboards of Steve Knight, previously utilized more texturally, fully integrated with West’s supple leads and riffs — the tandem Mellotron-guitar passages in “Travellin’ In The Dark,” for example, or Knight’s stately piano lines and Leslie-speaker organ surges pirouetting with West’s weeping blues licks in the gorgeous Pappalardi-sung title track.

Best Of Mountain essentially revisits those records’ choice tunes, adding a few of the better tracks from the decent-but-flawed third Mountain album, 1971’s Flowers Of Evil; for this remastered CD edition Legacy also saw fit to include, among four bonus tracks, a pair from West’s ’69 solo release Mountain. (The other two remasters add one bonus live cut apiece.) It also features new liner notes from noted Motor City scribe Ben Edmonds — drummer Laing contributes first-person recollections for the other discs’ liners — in which he accurately and acutely summarizes the group thusly: “The band covered more ground stylistically than any of their heavy contemporaries. … Whatever they chose to do, they did it good. Jaw-droppingly good.”

Mountain’s key, initial run was brief. One of its first big gigs was Woodstock; three years later, by the time of the release of Mountain Live, their artistic footing had become wobbly; with Pappalardi’s shooting death in ’83 any hopes of scaling the gold-album peaks of yore disappeared. Just the same, the recent West-Laing reunion was heartening for old-school fans, and both last year’s Mountain album Mystic Fire and the recent Sea Of Fire live DVD suggest there’s still fuel in the old combustion engine. Not that Mountain needs to prove anything — proof of its mettle is right here on these three discs.

Fred Mills writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].