For many people, the Persuasions are an acquired taste. Fortunately, I acquired that taste in 1977, two minutes into We Came To Play, perhaps the Persuasions' biggest album and one of the finest soul albums of that decade. Now nearly a half century into their career, the group is regularly cited as the greatest a cappella group of all time and an inspiration for groups ranging from Take 6 to Rockapella. Many vocal acts have performed over the last three decades without instruments, but none have bridged elements of Gospel, gritty Soul and even Rock in a manner that approaches the Persuasions. Constantly risk takers, they've not only handled the predictable music of Sam Cooke and the Motown songbook, but have taken on the Grateful Dead, The Beatles and Zappa with equal creativity and critical acclaim. And they've acquired a small but fiercely loyal audience that has followed them through dozens of albums on several labels, through tragedy (the death of Toubo Rhodes) and personnel changes (the 2003 departure of lead singer Jerry Lawson).
Because of their continuous movement from label to label, the Persuasions have had no single disc on which their fans can pick up the group's most popular songs and alternate, live versions of some of their studio favorites. Live At McCabe's Guitar Shop is notable for those reasons, but more importantly because it memorializes an excellent performance by the group five years before Lawson's departure. Twenty tracks deep, it catches an intimate performance of some of the Persuasions' most popular songs ("Chain Gang," "Looking For An Echo," "500 Miles") as well as a handful of songs never before recorded by the group ("Peace In the Valley," "Mona Lisa," "Old Black Magic," "Ramblin Rose").
The Persuasions have long been known as strong live performers, and Live at McCabe's... shows them in their glory. Their gritty harmonies are consistently spot on, and Lawson's rough-hewn leads are terrific. Their studio work was always pristine, so it is difficult to improve on their well known versions of most of these songs (it would be impossible to match Chirpin's haunting original reading of "Looking For An Echo"). But the fun that the group is clearly having with the audience adds a new dimension to the performances that makes them all work just fine.
For longtime fans of the Persuasions, Live at McCabe's is a great find, a reminder of this act at its best. For those unfamiliar with the group, it is a very nice intro and a good reason to seek out more by this legendary, groundbreaking quintet. Highly Recommended.