Like many other Americans of the era, something happened to Eugene McDaniels between 1965 and 1970 that transformed him from Gene McDaniels to “Eugene McDaniels the Left Rev. Mc D”. The former Mr. McDaniels was a clean-cut soul singer in the mold of Jackie Wilson that enjoyed minor commercial success in the early ’60s with songs like “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” and “Tower of Strength”; the reinvented Reverend posited himself as a fervent voice of protest, recording a pair of now-classic records for Atlantic in 1970 and 1971. But where many other artists dabbled in the counterculture to explore different ways of presenting their image or to take advantage of looser codes of moral conduct, McDaniels fully embraced the movement’s radical politics — so much so that then-Vice President Spiro Agnew allegedly called Atlantic to issue a verbal cease-and-desist order upon the release of his second record (Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse) for the label.
Although Headless Heroes was briefly available on CD as part of Joel Dorn’s Label M reissue series (it’s out of print once again — if you run across it anywhere, snap that sucker up), McDaniels’ first LP, Outlaw has gone without domestic reissue until now. Label M’s release of Headless Heroes was quite revelatory, for its jazzy soul vibes had been a source of significant hip-hop samples (Pete Rock, A Tribe Called Quest, Organized Konfusion) whose original sources were only heard by a fortunate few cratediggers. Outlaw, on the other hand, is an entirely different breed of soul: more rock-influenced, more overtly political (if that’s possible), and truly beyond comparison with any of its contemporaries.
As on Headless Heroes, McDaniels recorded Outlaw with a rock- (and jazz-) solid band that featured legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter and ubiquitous ’70s session guitarist Hugh McCracken — a group that fleshed out the Rev’s hippie-folk-funky dreams with undaunted restraint. The band is largely responsible for the record’s pure cohesiveness, as they bring McDaniels’s disparate styles together into one of the most powerfully lasting statements of post-Aquarian Age culture. Yet without the songs McDaniels brought to the table — a potent balance of leftist politics and polyamorous escapades — it’d be a merely entertaining record; as realized altogether, it’s an incredibly potent diatribe that resonates as strongly today is it must have 33 years ago.
The politically motivated songs range from jaunty ditties tempered with a bit of idealist humor (“Welfare City”) to righteously melodramatic torch songs like “Love Letter to America”, the latter of which finds McDaniels veering dangerously close to a Neil Diamond-esque vocal delivery before the band bails him out with an astonishing freefloated instrumental bridge. Elsewhere, McDaniels previews the more jazz-inflected moodiness of Headless Heroes as he takes the Left Rev. Mc D to his highest pulpit on the urgently preachy “Unspoken Dreams of Light”. “Silent Majority”, however, is the record’s most scathing tirade — with lines like “Silent majority / Is calling out loud to you and me / From Arlington Cemetery / To stand up tall for humanity”, it’s no wonder the government took an “unusual interest” in his musical activities.
Yet McDaniels’ more playful songs on Outlaw are just as brilliant, if not more so. “Reverend Lee” is an undeniably excellent bit of country funk that tells the story of a tryst with Satan’s daughter, ending in what might be termed a “pitchfork wedding”; keeping in mind McDaniels’s adopted alias, one can’t help but wonder if there’s a bit of truth to the story. The album’s opening cut, “Outlaw”, digs even deeper into an edgy, countrified soul vibe to pay homage to the same free-spirited, compassionate angel of the counterculture that Tom Robbins fantasizes about in just about every one of his novels. McDaniels’ delivery has the same come-down hangover blues of Let It Bleed-era Mick Jagger, except where you could hear Jagger’s nervous undertones of plotting escape, McDaniels feels more like “Let’s smoke a joint and do it again.”
One of McDaniels’s last lines in “Outlaw” is “She’s her very own person / Lovely, exciting, and raw” — I couldn’t think of a better way to describe the Reverend himself. Especially taken along with Headless Heroes, Outlaw shows McDaniels to be one of those artists you encounter only a few times over the course of an entire life’s worth of music listening.