Ab fab: Auger shaped boomers' memories.
By Bruce Robinson
With 30-plus albums to his credit and a career that stretches back to the dawn of the early British Invasion, Brian Auger could be forgiven if he chose to simply rest on his considerable laurels. But even at age 67, the energetic jazz-rock organist, composer, arranger and bandleader will have none of that.
"I haven't managed to cure myself of wanting to play live," Auger says wryly over a cup of tea, speaking from his Southern California home. "It's always been the thing I liked best. I could spend my time in the studios here, but that would probably bore me to the point where I'd stop playing."
It helps that these days road work is a family affair. The current edition of his band, Oblivion Express, features his 31-year-old daughter Savannah as the primary vocalist, inheriting the role, and some of the songs, once associated with Brian's noted former musical partner, Julie Driscoll. Her older brother, Karma, is not only the drummer for the group, but has served as engineer and producer for his father's more recent recordings.
"He kicks me around in the studio, tells me, 'Dad, you can play better than that. Go and do it again,'" Auger laughs. "He's generally right." Auger and Oblivion Express come to the Mystic on Jan. 26.
Although Auger is not quite a household name in America, his anonymous fingerprints can be found on some baby boomers' musical memories. He contributed the icy harpsichord to the first Yardbirds hit, "For Your Love." And the version of Bob Dylan's "This Wheel's on Fire" he recorded with Driscoll and his early band, the Trinity--a 1968 smash in most of Europe, even if it was ignored on this side of the Atlantic--is now familiar to millions as the theme music from the BBC comedy, Absolutely Fabulous.
He can even lay claim to assembling the first British supergroup, Steampacket, which also included Driscoll, and blues shouter Long John Baldry, guitarist Peter Green, drummer Mick Fleetwood, and yet another up-and-coming singer by the name of Rod Stewart.
In 1965, Auger recalls, "there was really nothing like that on the circuit, and the Steampacket was an immediate smash. The only drag on it was that Rod had a manger, I had a manger and John had a manager, and the managers argued for the life of the band about whose label any recording should come out on. And finally we really didn't record anything."
After about a year, the group splintered, with Auger and Driscoll forming the Trinity. "The idea behind the Trinity was to try and make a bridge between the separate scenes of rock and roll and R&B and jazz," Auger says, "because a lot of jazz player were purists and said, 'Oh, this rock and roll stuff is just absolute rubbish.' It wasn't rubbish, but it was in its early infancy, so in terms of harmony, people were using three and four chords to make music. I had a lot more at my disposal than that, so what I tired to do was build a bridge using the current rhythms with a guitar player, a singer and some good tunes with a positive message and also firing solos on the Hammond that none of the jazz guys could argue with. That really was the recipe for the Trinity."
Despite his early days as a jazz pianist, Auger is best known for his muscular work on the Hammond B-3 organ, an instrument he adopted soon after he first encountered it. "I was wandering past my record store in Shepherds' Bush Market, and I heard this sound coming out over the speakers in front of the shop, this amazing sound," he recalls. "I stood there for a moment in shock, then I ran in and said, 'What is this you're playing?' And they showed me this cover: Back at the Chicken Shack, a Jimmy Smith album." It wasn't long before Brian had acquired his own organ, and "Back in the Chicken Shack" became a regular part of his live sets.
These days, however, the set lists draw heavily on his early recordings, both with the Trinity and the original Oblivion Express, though more recent material is mixed in, too. "I've done different arrangements of everything to keep them current," Auger says, "and it's great to have my kids with me and to have a really blazing band.
"I'm having probably the best play that I think I've ever had."
Brian Auger's Oblivion Express rolls into the Mystic Theater on Friday, Jan. 26. Local jam faves Plum Crazy open. 8pm. $20; 16 and over. 707.765.2121.