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The Insect Trust. (Courtesy of the artist)

The Insect Trust: An American Band Deconstructed

Nov 20, 2012 (Fresh Air from WHYY)

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Reported by

Ed Ward

One of the great fantasies of the hippie era was that new combinations of music would emerge from the experimentation that was going on. But in practice, what really happened was that a few blues bands stretched out some more and a few short-lived bands made weird noises. There were a few exceptions, though, including The Insect Trust.

The band was an odd group of people: free jazzers, hippie rockers, old-timey and country-blues musicians. The guitarist, Bill Barth, had been one of the re-discoverers of Skip James, while one of the saxophonists, Robert Palmer, had grown up next door to a black kid named Ferrell Sanders, who went on to call himself Pharoah. Partially, at least, the band's members started out in Arkansas, where, calling themselves the Primitives, they made a little splash by recording a 45 that was immediately taken off the market because Thomas Pynchon sued them. They'd taken the lyrics from his novel V without asking permission.

The band, such as it was — Barth, Palmer and vocalist Nancy Jeffries — drifted to Memphis after that and named itself after a sinister group in a William Burroughs novel: The Insect Trust. A baritone saxophonist, Trevor Koehler, joined up, as did Luke Faust, who'd made a name for himself around New York as a banjoist. Despite not having a rhythm section, the band played around town, and somehow got a recording deal with Capitol in 1968.

The band's album featured an odd mandala painted by Faust on its cover, and a bunch of songs that sounded like nothing else: mostly originals, with a nearly eight-minute rave-up on Skip James' "Special Rider Blues" that brought the free jazz right out front while flavoring it with some Memphis soul feeling.

Predictably, the album did nothing, sales-wise, although a friend of mine who'd grown up with Robert Palmer alerted me to it, and I reviewed it in Rolling Stone. The fact that so many styles of American music could coexist so peacefully and creatively seemed to me to be a goal that musicians should pursue. It was a remarkable album, and it seemed a shame that not many people got to hear it.

But what was really remarkable was that, somehow or other, The Insect Trust got a second chance a year later, thanks to a new manager who got the band signed to Atco Records. By this time, The Insect Trust was squatting in an apartment building in Hoboken, N.J., with a commanding view of the New York skyline from its roof. Barth, Jeffries and Palmer got together and wrote the album's title track, a celebration of their new home.

Hoboken Saturday Night was even better than its predecessor. The band was stretching out and finding new ground, and it recorded the Pynchon song again ("The Eyes of a New York Woman"), this time with permission from its author.

Robert Palmer's recorder solo in that song is his finest moment on record, in my opinion, and Nancy Jeffries gives the words all she's got. The band had a bigger budget on this album, too, and among the additional players are bassist Bill Falwell, who'd recorded with Albert Ayler, and one of the greatest drummers of all time, Elvin Jones.

The band toured, and I got to see it twice — once at a disastrous concert I promoted at my college. They were even better live than they were on the record, although people still didn't get what they were trying to do. Back in Hoboken, the band quietly fell apart bit by bit. I was able to get Robert Palmer some writing work at Rolling Stone, and he went on to become a star at The New York Times; he wrote a couple of excellent books about music before dying in 1997. Nancy Jeffries got a job at Elektra Records, where she eventually rose to vice-president. Trevor Koehler battled drug abuse and killed himself in 1976, and Barth was living in Amsterdam when a heart attack killed him in 2000. Luke Faust continues to live quietly in Austin. To this day, though, nobody has come close to the heart of American music traveling from the direction The Insect Trust did. I wish someone would try.

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