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Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008

Gram Parsons With the Flying Burrito Brothers

Gram Parsons Archives Volume One: Live at the Avalon Ballroom 19

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Gram Parsons has long received the posthumous-legend treatment, and the 21st century continues to see a substantial number of reissues, tributes, books and documentaries for the man who defined country-rock as cosmic American music.

Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969 boasts two shows by Parsons and his band at the time, the Flying Burrito Brothers, at the famed San Francisco venue. Apparently the tapes haven’t been heard since 1969. They would likely not even exist had Parsons and company not opened for the Grateful Dead, who were obsessive about recording their shows.

And the tapes wouldn’t be heard now if obsessive Parsons fans hadn’t persuaded Dead archivist Owsley “Bear” Stanley to license the music. The effort was worth it, though: The performances catch Parsons near his 1960s apex. The Flying Burrito Brothers had recently put out their first album, The Gilded Palace of Sin, which wasn’t selling briskly but was finding them an eager audience of musicians like the Rolling Stones. And Parsons hadn’t yet fully immersed himself in the drugs and alcohol that would both limit his 1970s output and kill him in September 1973.

The later debauchery seems incredibly distant from April 4 and April 6, 1969. (Pamela Des Barres, the legendary groupie and member of Girls Together Outrageously, contributes liner notes that convincingly portray this period as innocent.)

Parsons has long moments of vocal tremor, with the nervousness amplified in his sparse between-song banter, but overall he relaxes into the music he loved so well. He also has one of his finer bands: Chris Hillman’s harmonies are sweet, “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow’s steel-guitar fills dexterously, Chris Ethridge’s bass is as smooth as Paul McCartney’s and Michael Clarke’s drumming is instinctive.

The set lists magnify everyone’s talents and predilections. Parsons presents the original material without much preamble, letting Gilded Palace selections like “Hot Burrito No. 2” and “Sin City” float on their own. They sit well alongside a jukebox of country classics, including a loping take of Hank Williams Sr.’s “You Win Again,” rollicking run-throughs of the Mel Tillis sourgrapes number “Mental Revenge” and a soulfully reverberating caress of Dan Penn and Chips Moman’s “Dark End of the Street.”

While the sound quality could be crisper and clearer— a product of the period as well as, perhaps, opening-band status—the first volume of Gram Parsons Archives does evoke a longing to be on the Avalon’s dance floor, digging Parsons back when he was neither posthumous nor legend.