Keef Hartley Band: The Time is Near... & Overdog

John Kelman By

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KeefFrom the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, the music scene in England enjoyed a period of unprecedented cross-pollination. One could find free jazz pioneers like pianist Keith Tippett on records by art rockers King Crimson, while Crimson vocalist Boz Burrell (who would go on to later fame with Bad Company) was part of Tippett's unwieldy, 50-piece Centipede orchestra. Genesis drummer Phil Collins was doing fusion with Brand X, while the jazz-centric pianist Max Middleton could be found supporting everyone from guitarist Jeff Beck to singer/songwriter John Martyn.

But there were still certain stylistic dividing lines under which most rock-oriented groups would fall: the louder, heavier rock of bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath (that ultimately led to the ever-expanding heavy metal), groups that emerged from the psychedelic camps of Pink Floyd and early Soft Machine, and those who leaned towards the broadly inclusive progressive umbrella that ranged from jazz/rock groups, including latter-period Soft Machine and Hatfield & The North, to the more symphonic Yes and early incarnations of King Crimson.

Which meant that as good as Keef Hartley Band was, and despite the unfettered musical genre-busting going on around it (which it also embraced), it was very much a case of wrong place, wrong time. And that's a shame, because looking at Eclectic Discs' remastered reissues of The Time is Near... and Overdog one wonders if drummer Hartley and his soul-drenched version of horn-driven jazz/rock might have done better had they been across the ocean in North America, where groups like Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago Transit Authority (soon to be called simply Chicago) were mining similar territory and with much greater success.

Hartley had an auspicious beginning, working with seminal bluesman John Mayall on classic Bluesbreakers albums including Blues Alone (Deram, 1967) and the two-volume Diary Of A Band (Deram, 1968). A versatile drummer capable of voluminous power and a lighter, more jazz-centric sense of swing, when he formed Keef Hartley Band in 1968 and released Halfbreed and Battle of NW6 on Deram in 1969, there was clear promise but equally there was something missing.

That all changed with The Time is Near... and Overdog, both originally released in 1970. Two very different records—the former a lighter, at times even folk-informed record with jazz and soul tendencies, the latter a far heavier affair—they were the group's best and, sadly, final releases. The group didn't exactly fare badly, though few will recall that they performed at Woodstock in 1969. But Hartley's refusal to let the group be filmed meant that its performance disappeared without trace. Who knows—had Hartley allowed the group to be filmed, perhaps Keef Hartley Band might have benefited from the same push that turned artists like Joe Cocker, Ten Years After and Santana into international stars almost overnight.

Keef Hartley Band
The Time Is Near...
Eclectic Discs
2005 (1970)

The core of Keef Hartley Band, along with Hartley and guitarist/vocalist Miller Anderson, was bassist Gary Thain. He was heavily influenced by bassist Duck Dunn from Booker T. and the MGs but, like Anderson and Hartley, possessed a clearer jazz spirit. The Time is Near... features a number of different horn and keyboard players, with its line-up settling down considerably for Overdog.

If Overdog is generally heavy, The Time is Near... is a lighter affair, with Anderson found on acoustic guitar as often as electric and songs like "Morning Rain sounding almost schizophrenic. Opening with a psychedelic reverse-attack collage of drums and horns, it's a song whose changes could find a place in the repertoire of roots rockers The Band if it weren't for Thain's funky bass line and trumpeter Henry Lowther's soul-drenched horn arrangement. "From The Window could easily have come from Motown, but the shifting tempo and more complex horn parts that ultimately resolve into a sunnier, ambling groove are indicative of greater depth and complexity. Keef Hartley Band may not have been considered a progressive rock group by connotation, but its combination of soul, jazz, rock and folk here are progressive by stricter definition.

Hartley was fortunate to find Miller, who writes all but one song on The Time Is Near.... Possessing enough grit to deliver the stronger message of the nearly ten-minute title track but equally capable of carrying the gentler classical guitar/trumpet duo of "Another Time Another Place," his voice is so versatile that these two tracks almost sound as if they're being sung by different people. An equally versatile guitarist, he delivers a gritty, blues-drenched solo on the title track and the final part of "You Can't Take It With You, which also features a blistering saxophone solo from Lyle Jenkins during its lithely swinging 6/8 middle section.

The only non-Miller track on the disc is "Premonition, an instrumental by trumpeter Dave Caswell, another fine player who seems to have disappeared without a trace. It's essentially a light two-chord vamp with a brief chorus that paves the way for strong solos from both Caswell and Jenkins.

The rhythm section team of Hartley and Thain powers the material throughout. It's hard to judge which of these two reissues is a better record since they're both so different (while remarkably still managing to sound like the same group), but The Time Is Near... gets a subtle nod for its broader mix of styles and a group sound that's as distinctive as its American counterparts, while feeling less like a group looking for a hit. Instead, Keef Hartley Band seems to have hoped that the audience would come to it, and while it had its brief moment in the spotlight, there's no musical reason why it should have been less successful than Chicago or BS&T other than the fact that it never got the international promotion it deserved.

Keef Hartley Band
Eclectic Discs
2005 (1970)

From the opening wah-wah rhythm guitar of "You Can Choose, and the thundering attack of Thain and Hartley when the group comes in, it's clear that Overdog is a considerably different beast to The Time Is Near.... While the previous album had an energy of its own, "You Can Choose righteously bristles with excitement. While nowhere near the metal-edge of Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, Miller adopts a weightier tone and more "reckless abandon approach to soloing.

That doesn't mean that Keef Hartley Band had walked away from its stylistic cross-pollination of soul, jazz, folk and rock. But even the ever-so-slightly countrified opening to "Plain Talkin' is propelled by a more visceral rhythm section, a more assertive solo from Anderson and some fine organ work from now-regular keyboardist Mick Weaver.

There were comparisons, at the time, between Keef Hartley Band and Colosseum, the group spearheaded by drummer Jon Hiseman, who guests on a couple of tracks here. The link is clear when Hartley takes the compositional reins on a couple of tracks, including the "Enroute section of the eight-minute "Theme/Enroute/Theme Reprise medley, which is a vamp-based jam feature for guest flautist Johnny Almond, whose group Mark-Almond would mine similar turf. He also contributes the Latin jazz-tinged, minor-keyed instrumental vamp "Imitations From Home, with Hiseman contributing some propulsive conga work.

But these tracks represent the lighter side of Overdog, an overall heavier album. Anderson's title track begins with thundering tom-toms and a bass pulse, over which Anderson delivers some processed guitar before heading into flat-out funk territory. "Roundabout —heard here in its original version and on two additional bonus takes—begins with another tom tom-driven beat that features a horn arrangement that, like many of the horn parts here and on The Time is Near..., could easily have fit into any version of British jazz/rock group Nucleus. Ultimately it turns rockier, but never loses sight of the soul component.

The link between Keef Hartley Band and groups like Nucleus is, in fact, not a far-fetched one. The difference is that Nucleus came to rock from a jazz background, while Keef Hartley Band did just the opposite. That there are common meeting points is further demonstration of the remarkably fluid cross-fertilization that was taking place in England at the time. Despite the liberal intermixing of musicians, each group managed to assert its own identity, and while there were other bands examining some of the same musical references, none of them sounded quite like Keef Hartley Band.

That Eclectic Discs has made these two seminal recordings available in 24-bit digitally mastered form from the original master tapes, with informative liner notes and a couple of bonus tracks on Overdog, means that while most of the members of the group have slipped into obscurity, a whole new generation of listeners can hear just how vibrant, unfettered and unbiased the English scene of the mid 1960s to mid 1970s was in general—and how great Keef Hartley Band were specifically.

Tracks and Personnel

The Time Is Near...

Tracks: Morning Rain; From The Window; The Time Is Near; You Can't Take It With You; Premonition; Another Time, Another Place; Change.

Personnel: Keef Hartley: drums, percussion; Miller Anderson: electric and acoustic guitars, vocals, Gary Thain: bass; Stuart Wicks: piano and organ (2,3); Henry Lowther: trumpet and flugelhorn (1,7), piano (7); Jim Jewell: tenor saxophone (1,7); Dave Caswell: trumpet (2-5, flugelhorn (2-5), euphonium (2), electric piano (4, 5), "D trumpet (6); Lyle Jenkins: tenor saxophone (2-5), flute (3); baritone saxophone (4,5); Del Roll: percussion (7).


Tracks: You Can Choose; Plain Talkin'; Theme Song / En Route / Theme Song Reprise; Overdog; Roundabout; Imitations from Home; We are All the Same. Bonus tracks: Roundabout (Part One); Roundabout (Part Two).

Personnel: Keef Hartley: drums, percussion; Miller Anderson: guitars, vocals, Gary Thain: bass; Mick Weaver: keyboards; Dave Caswell: trumpet, flugelhorn; Lyle Jenkins: tenor saxophone, flute; Johnny Almond: flute (3); Jon Hiseman: drums and percussion (3), congas (6); Peter Dines: keyboards (5); Mr. & Mrs. G.A. Orme (Preston): vocals (6); Ingrid Thomas: backing vocals; Joan Knighton: backing vocals; Valerie Charrington: backing vocals.


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