by Fred Mills
As a veteran of several Cactus gigs during the brawny combo’s 1970-1972 heyday, I distinctly recall being on the receiving end of disparaging remarks from my, er, chemically unenlightened associates, commentary that essentially went like this: “Yeah, but they’re just a boogie band, aren’t they?” Well, yeah, I s’pose so, if you go strictly by such unfortunately titled songs as “Big Mama Boogie” and “Bad Mother Boogie,” and if you additionally subscribe to the notion that “boogie” is essentially directionless blues-riffing that hirsute, unreconstructed hippies do in lieu of writing “real” tunes. The late John Lee Hooker might’ve taken issue with this line of inquiry, but we’ll save that discussion for another day.
Rhino Handmade proposes, however, via its latest round of limited-edition, mail-order-only platters, that Cactus was, in liner notesman Russell Tice’s exceedingly well-reasoned words, a band wholly “set apart” from its lesser hard-rock peers due to “the high caliber of musicianship and the metallic intensity of their unpretentious approach.” Boy howdy to that: The rhythm section included virtuosos Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice (both late of Vanilla Fudge, eventually to partner with Jeff Beck). And in former Amboy Dukes vocalist Rusty Day (a harp-blowing, agile screecher of the Robert Plant tradition) and powerhouse ex-Detroit Wheels guitarist Jim McCarty, Cactus had a front line to die for. That incarnation of the band lasted for three studio albums — Cactus (1970), One Way … Or Another and Restrictions (both 1971) — before dissolving at the end of 1971, at which time Bogert and Appice rounded up a new vocalist and guitarist and added a full-time keyboardist for the final Cactus album, 1972’s half-studio/half-live ’Ot ’n’ Sweaty.
The two-CD Barely Contained brings together the entirety of the group’s studio output, and as overseen by reissue producer David Tedds, the material leaps from the speakers in manners even I don’t recall being privy to first time around. Yes, there’s plenty o’ boogie, from a hectic romp through Mose Allison’s “Parchman Farm” to the aforementioned “Big Mama Boogie,” a part-acoustic, part-electric anthem that includes Day’s shout-outs to his Motor City hometown. But there’s plenty more too, such as the previously unreleased 12-bar blues thud of “The Sun Is Shining” and the proto-metal, Free-styled stomper “Guiltless Glider.”
Fully Unleashed lives up to its name, and the entire first disc plus part of the second showcases a concert from Dec. 19, 1971, in Memphis. The group rides their big mama once again, of course, and a 16-minute demolition of Willie Dixon’s “Evil” makes the Faces’ version sound like the Archies. The group’s in rare form, expanding fluidly upon its original studio arrangements, and it’s hard to believe that at this point Cactus was on the rocks; it was the last time the original quartet would play together.
Rounding out Disc 2 is a handful of tracks that previously cropped up on various live rock festival compilations during the ’70s (but now long out of print), a pair of unreleased cuts from a June 1971 show in Buffalo, and the live half of ’Ot ’n’ Sweaty with the five-man lineup — which, it’s worth noting, was nothing to sneeze at, as the keyboards definitely added to the depth and texture of the basic Cactus sound.
It’s all a solid flashback for folks who came of age during the era, although it’s unlikely that a younger generation weaned on alt-rock and hip hop will “get it,” particularly if the notion of extended drum solos seems quaint (read: “that excessive shit my parents liked”). But the bottom line here is that Cactus, frequently maligned in its own time by pointy-headed critics and hinterland yahoos alike, was long due a reappraisal.
Fred Mills writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.