Title: A Contemporary Folk Music Journey
Catalog ID: 5120
I'll readily admit
to vacillating on this one ... I've played it quite frequently over
the five years it's been in my collection and during that timeframe I've
continuously flip flopped as to whether it's an undiscovered (and still
affordable) classic, or simply a dull and plodding slice of early-1970s
folk-rock. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle ground ...
Steve Cowan and Steve Melshenker got their start while attending the
University of Illinois, Urbana. Playing local clubs and coffee
pair managed to generate some local buzz. A short newspaper article in
the Chicago Sun-Times by Daniel
Lauber seemingly attracted
of producer Gary Usher, who helped the pair sign with Elektra Records.
Produced by Usher and credited to The Ship, 1972's "A Contemporary Folk Music Journey" was
a concept piece, though the plotline was largely lost on me (the gatefold
inner sleeve has the lyrics for anyone interested in trying to puzzle out the story line).
Speculation on my part, but I'm guessing the plotline had something to do
with navigating through life. While nothing here was overtly commercial or toe tapping catchy, all eleven
performances were engaging in a low-keyed fashion. Exemplified by
material like 'The Ship', 'The Calm' and '' the songs were highlighted by interesting lyrics, strong
melodies and some pretty CSN-styled vocal harmonies. A little bit self-conscious
and the occasional country touches were forgettable ('The Man'), but it was
never less than pleasant, and if you played it in the right mood it was a
true keeper. If you played it in the wrong mood ... well then it was
Ship: A Contemporary Folk Music Journey" track listing:
Ship (Steve Melshenker -
Steve Cowan) - 3:58 rating:
on a nifty little Steve
Reinwand acoustic guitar
riff, 'The Ship' was a mesmerizing ballad that showcased the group's sweet,
SCN-styled harmonies. I hate that little riff since I can't shak eit
out of my head when I hear it.
2.) The Order (Steve
Melshenker - Steve Cowan) - 2:45
rating: *** stars
Order' picked up the pace with a keyboard propelled tune. Kind of an
Irish bar band flavor on this one.
3.) Innocence (Steve
Melshenker - Steve Cowan) - 3:57
rating: *** stars
return to stark ballad territory ... think along a David Crosby-meets
Simon and Garfunkle, though without the irritating jazzy influences.
4.) The Man (Steve
Melshenker - Steve Cowan) - 3:05 rating:
a bluegrass vibe, I have to admit 'The Man' simply missed the mark with me,
though the dobro solo was nice enough.
5.) The Calm (Steve
Melshenker - Steve Cowan) - 5:01 rating:
sweet, pastoral ballad that has always truck me as being a mash-up of Simon
and Garfukel and CSN.
6.) The Storm (Steve
Melshenker - Steve Cowan) - 6:18 rating:
anyone doubted the CSN influences, check out the extended ballad 'The
Storm'. Quite dark, but in a fascinating fashion.
1.) Lost (Steve
Melshenker - Steve Cowan) - 8:21
you might have expected from the title, 'Lost' was stark, dark,
atmospheric ballad showcasing some Association-styled vocal harmonies.
2.) The Island (Steve
Melshenker - Steve Cowan) - 4:44
rating: *** stars
return to stark ballad territory ... think along a David Crosby-meet
recalling a Simon and Garfunkel tune (the song was packaged with a certain
sense of overwhelming earnestness). 'The Island' was p robably the album's
most conventional and pop ready tune. That may explain why I didn't
think it was as good as some of the performances. Admittedly the Steve
Reinwand harmonica solo
3.) The Reason (Steve
Melshenker - Steve Cowan) - 3:24
a moment I thought I was listening to a Peter, Paul and Mary performance,
but kicked along by a nice Todd
Bradshaw bass line the song quickly improved.
4.) The Return (Steve
Melshenker - Steve Cowan) - 3:25
rating: *** stars
a continuation of 'The Reason' with the addition of some stellar harmonies
5.) The Ship (Reprise) (Steve
Melshenker - Steve Cowan) - 7:15 rating:
timey, countyy-esque track ... Unfortunately I don't like good timey,
drew my attention to he akashaman blog that had borrowed my original review
of the album:
turned out several members of the band had posted recollections and other
comments about the band. I've "borrowed" a couple of the more
interesting ones (credit to akashaman).
Actually, it [the album] came out in 1972. I had just turned 20 years old
that May and we spent the following month at Elektra in Los Angeles
recording. As I remember, it was released the following fall. There weren't
any folk clubs as such in Champaign, Illinois and the idea of Melshenker and
Cowan playing dances is pretty funny. In reality, we were all playing at a
coffehouse called "The Red Herring" which sponsored folk
festivals. Reinwand and Hamby generally played together as a duet,
Melshenker and Cowan usually performed solo and I was mostly playing
twelve-string, but was the only person they knew who had previously played
bass and I would borrow my roommates Hofner when somebody needed a bass
player. Most of the songs at the folk festivals were original and there were
some pretty good people in the core group of maybe 25-30 individuals who
played in most of them and did weekend sets down in the basement the rest of
the year. Notables among the regulars included songwriters Thom Bishop and
Fred Koller, singer/songwriter Linn Brown and a young guy named Dan
Fogelberg. For a fairly small city in the middle of the Illinois cornfields,
it was some pretty high-powered talent. Melshenker and Cowan got together
and wrote The Ship and then asked Reinwand, Hamby and me to help arrange and
perform it - originally as a one-shot deal consisting of three or four
performances at the Red Herring. It did well, so we eventually decided to
oficially form a group and take it on the road to other college campuses and
a few Chicago nightclubs. After the album came out, we played it another
year or two and then retired the piece and switched to playing individual
songs, mostly original and about 50% with acoustics and 50% electric
guitars. This was a real relief as the album was very tedious to play and we
were getting pretty bored playing it over and over. Looking back, it was
somewhat naive, but we were pretty young back then and it was our first
experience in a big-time studio. The band lasted another three or four years
with a few personel changes and then broke up in the mid 1970's. Former
members are spread across the country and I believe the only person from the
band still playing for a living is Steve Reinwand, who later changed his
name to Billy Panda. He's now a well known Nashville Studio musician with a
string of album credits as long as your arm and he spends some of his time
touring with Kim Carnes.
Anyway, thanks for the kind words and it's nice to know that something
originally done just for fun and intended for a few performances in a
coffeehouse is still giving at least a few people pleasure 35 years later.
suspect we played The Ship live 40-50 times over about three years
before finally retiring it and moving on to playing regular original
songs. It was played in two continuous halves with an intermission,
just as it is on the album and other than a few stray harmonies and
some vocal double-tracking to thicken the blend, the album is very
faithful to a live performance. We resisted mightily adding stuff to
the album that we couldn't do live. This didn't thrill the folks at
Elektra, as they leaned toward adding more "production",
but we didn't want people walking out of a live concert and thinking
that the live version didn't make the grade compared to the album.
We did add Tim Scott's cello in a couple small spots. Tim played
with Harry Chapin and Harry was recording during the daytime in the
same studio we were using at night. Being able to borrow Tim for a
couple nice fills was just too good to pass up.
I think Elektra found us hard to deal with - partially because we
were so young and clueless about big-time recording and because our
resistance to over-producing (in our minds) the piece made it less
sale-able on the street. Obviously, their main interest was selling
records and getting the most commercially viable product out there.
Our main interest leaned more toward getting a faithful recording of
what we had actually created and there was considerable friction
between the two viewpoints much of the time. When they sent us a
copy of the final mix, we hated it and sent Steve Reinwand and Roger
Francisco (our manager who owned a small recording studio) back out
to L.A. to re-mix it and get rid of a lot of echo and other effects.
We're pretty sure that doing so effectively slit our throats with
Elektra as most of the pre-planned promotion for the finished album
never happened. We had even made a music video (in 1972!). We had to
join the Screen Actors Guild to do it and they had shots of us
sailing around on the boat on the album cover set to music. I saw it
once, but it was never used for anything that I know of and I think
they then stuck us in the "tax-write-off" category. When
the option for a second album came up, they weren't interested. It's
hard to say which viewpoint was correct, but I don't think any of us
ever really regretted sticking to our guns and trying to keep it as
"real" as possible (of course, if I could now be living in
a mansion with a swimming pool, I might have changed my mind...). I
think The Ship was a decent first album for a young band. It's
obviously by no means perfect or a landmark piece of music, but it's
pleasant to listen to and offered something fairly unusual in it's
time. These days, we could have cut it in a garage on a laptop and
produced it ourselves, but back then, getting one of the half-dozen
or so major labels to take the risk of plugging a lot of cash into a
concept-album/folk-opera type of thing was a pretty decent
accomplishment for a bunch of young guys from Illinois.
As far as I know, Steve Cowan is still in California and works with
computers, Steve (now Albert) Melshenker is also in California and
does advertising for a living, Mark Hamby is in Seattle and has some
sort of investment firm and Steve Reinwand (Billy Panda) is in
Nashville, adding guitar and mandolin tracks to albums for folks
like Kenny Rogers, Montgomery-Gentry, The Oak Ridge Boys and a bunch
of others. I'm in Wisconsin and build fancy sails for sailing canoes
(Is that obscure enough? - I was a sailor and now I are one...). I
wrote a book on them a few years back called "Canoe Rig"
and get most of my business from people who have my book. I still
have three amps and a bunch of guitars in my office and play an hour
or two nearly every day (use it or lose it) but haven't played with
anybody or in front of an audience in 30 years. I did recently buy a
small digital recording deck and have been playing around, recording
little snippets, trying to figure out how it works. It has a
"canned" drummer built in who is quite steady, though not
particularly imaginative and I'm working around the fact that I've
never been a particularly good vocalist or lead guitarist (it sucks
when you have to play all the parts yourself, one at a time). But,
it's kind of fun once you get it all together (and at least the bass
lines are solid). There are a few samples here. Some are just one
guitar or bass, a couple are early attempts to actually multi-track
a song. There are mistakes, instrument buzz and other junk in them
at times, but I'm slowly figuring out how the recorder works. I
figure that if I can crank out 11-12 cuts per year I can send
home-made albums out to my relatives for Christmas and save a bunch
of money and hassle.....At this point, that's about all I have in
mind as far as musical asparitions go.
just found this blog today and am very happy to see all of the comments
about The Ship. I wrote The Ship with Steve Melshenker between December,
1970, and May, 1971. The remarkable thing is that we started writing it
after we'd known each other for only three weeks, and we met almost every
day for five months to complete it.
My old friend, Todd Bradshaw, very well summarizes (above) how the music
scene was in Champaign-Urbana in the early 1970's. The Red Herring
coffeehouse, which turned 40 years old last September, was the meeting place
for many good songwriters. Writing songs was contagious--every day there
would be two or three new songs to hear.
Well, Melshenker had come up with this concept of writing an allegorical
tale about a ship's maiden voyage, and he asked me to write it with him.
He'd completed about one verse of the first song, and I fell in love with
Don't have a lot of time now, but let me throw out a few tidbits of
* We were both good friends of Dan Fogelberg and asked him to join us when
we were about half done with the writing. He accepted but could never find
time to meet with us. As we all know, bigger and better things awaited Dan.
As it turned out, Steve and I were very fortunate that we asked Todd, Mark
and Steve Reinwand (now Billy Panda) to join us.
* Gary Usher, who had produced most of the Beach Boys and Birds albums and
who grew up across the street from the Wilsons, loved the idea of a concept
album. The chronology was that we signed with William Morris, and then one
of our co-managers (Peter Berkow) was instrumental in getting us the Elektra
contract. Elektra found Gary Usher, not the other way around. Gary died in
* The main reason we didn't do more than one album with Elektra was that
they were purchased by Warner Brothers and quickly dumped all but six of
their groups. They kept The Doors, Carly Simon, Judy Collins, Bread and two
* The whole idea behind the story of The Ship is that it's a framework for
any "first voyage" that the listener might take. That's why there
are no named characters in The Ship. We asked people to interpret the words
in any way that worked for them.
Should those of you who enjoy The Ship have any questions, please post them.
I'll be glad to answer. Steve Cowan
if another band member weighs in? Steve Cowan just tipped me to this little
discussion, which I've enjoyed reading. Thanks specially to those who
mentioned "Gwin" and "Your Back Yard" from The Ship's
"Gwin" was mine, a paean to very young, idealized romance,
inspired by a girl friend who moved away when we were in fifth grade
(seriously). "Your Back Yard" was Jim Barton's, and one of the
most interesting tunes we ever worked up. I e-mail Jim from time to time,
and I'll let him know a few folks remember.
And to all my "Ship"mates who might stumble into this discussion,
come see us in Seattle!