Songs You May Have Missed #370

free handGentle Giant: “Free Hand” (1975)

I spent a few of my pre-teen years next-bedroom-door to an older brother who listened to everything from Dylan to Captain Beefheart. My love for Steely Dan took root in the days when “The Boston Rag” or “Rose Darling” or “Deacon Blues” crawled like a viper through the crack under his mostly-closed door. And the Yes masterpiece “Close to the Edge” blew the top of my head off when it came up in the rotation of albums he’d stack on the spindle of the dining room stereo with speaker wires threaded through holes in the floor to the basement so our ping-pong tournaments would be accompanied by an uninterrupted flow of music.

But when I first heard the break that comes at :57 of Gentle Giant’s “Free Hand”…I think that was the precise moment I realized there was a dimension beyond the “Dream Weaver”, way out past “Maggie’s Farm” and further on than “Over the Hills and Far Away”. When that weird little break came I was pretty sure I didn’t like it. But I found myself listening for it again. And soon I was pretty sure I did. (That’s how the best progressive rock works.)

Coming back to this record as an adult I realized I was not mistaken about that mind-expanding moment; Gentle Giant were a progressive band in the most literal sense of the word. Even now most of their catalogue is more of a challenge than I’m up to. But the Free Hand album at least (their highest-charting at #48) I find wholly approachable, if unnaturally originative.

Listen to the clip above for the definitive version of the title track–the version that came through the crack under my brother’s door and through my open door, blew my doors off and opened other doors down many other hallways since.

But do watch the clips below to appreciate the instrumental virtuosity of this band, which is impressive equally to their envelope-shredding musical creativity. Gentle Giant took compositional complexity to a level beyond even that of Yes.

The second clip is essential to a full appreciation of what this band could do. “On Reflection” (also from the Free Hand album, by the way) is the very next song in the same live set. And unbelievably, every band member begins the song playing a different instrument than on “Free Hand”, some while singing complex vocal countermelodies. They’ve also moved from a prog/jazz rock to something in an almost Medieval style, showing off uncannily complex layered vocal parts.

Many bands of the era were shortcutting it in live performance, trimming instruments or harmonies from sophisticated arrangements to make songs performable; Gentle Giant did anything but. It seemed to be a point of pride with them, not to mention a source of obvious joy, to nail it.


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