Bobby BeauSoleil may be best known for who he knows. Whenever his name is mentioned, it's often in the same breath as either Kenneth Anger or Charles Manson. The former association is strong-- in 1967, experimental filmmaker Anger cast BeauSoleil in his film Lucifer Rising and commissioned him to create the soundtrack. But the latter association is muddier. There's no question that BeauSoleil lived on Manson's ranch, and, in 1969 at age 22, killed a man during a botched drug deal. But Manson's involvement, and whether it's fair to lump the crime in with his more famous ritual murders, are matters of dispute. Either way, it landed BeauSoleil in prison, where he remains today.
But back in 1965, before he met Anger or Manson, BeauSoleil was a wide-eyed teenager who decided while sitting on a rock in San Francisco's Golden Gate pond "to assemble the first electric symphony orchestra". The band he did form-- at first dubbed the Electric Chamber Orchestra, then the Orkustra-- was actually a five-man rock/jazz/folk hybrid. Taking cues from modal bebop and Hindu ragas, their sound was wandering and mystic, not far from the meditations of their contemporaries to the south, L.A.'s YaHoWha 13. But Orkustra music could also be sharply-crafted, using non-rock instruments like oboe and bouzouki to inject worldly flavors, anticipating similar fusions by Dead Can Dance, Camper Van Beethoven, and Sun City Girls.
The Orkustra caught on quickly in the hippified Bay Area, and soon shared stages with the Grateful Dead and Buffalo Springfield. Their genre-straddling approach also landed them spots in folk and jazz festivals. A turn at the 1967 Invisible Circus festival inspired Anger to approach BeauSoleil, and the band broke up soon after, before they could record a proper studio album. Fortunately, Orkustra violinist David LaFlamme saved tapes of live shows and practice sessions. Two pieces from these archives surfaced on Arcanum's 2004 Lucifer Rising reissue, and now Mexican Summer has released the entire LaFlamme stash as a double-LP, with the aptly-rambling title Adventures in Experimental Orchestra from the San Francisco Psychedelic Underground.
The result is not as exciting as the 4xLP box set of complete Lucifer sessions recently issued by the Anja label, since the Orkustra recordings are rougher and sometimes glitchy. But even during the murkiest stretches, BeauSoleil's creative fire is clear. Bright Eastern melodies like the lilting "Bombay Calling" meld into floating improvisations like "Hungarian Stomp". The slow sway of "Bousaki Blues Experiment"-- a dead ringer for the Dirty Three-- matches the proggy riffage of "Flash Gordon" and the braying loops of "Punjab's Barber". Throughout, LaFlamme's searing violin winds around BeauSoleil's sandy guitar and Henry Rasof's winding oboe. The effect is hypnotic, eerie, even sinister-- a drifting take on "snake charmer music," as BeauSoleil himself calls it in his entertaining liner notes. The peak is "Gypsy Odyssey", a 25-minute live piece performed in a church on Christmas Eve. Snippets from other Orkustra songs drift in and out of the track's muffled sound-fog, as LaFlamme pulls the group skyward like a hot-air balloon.
The Orkustra's demise didn't stop BeauSoleil-- he formed two more groups for the Lucifer soundtrack, recording the final version behind prison walls. While much of that music is more sophisticated than the Orkustra material, Adventures has an eagerness that BeauSoleil could probably never capture again. We may someday find out-- the 63-year-old's next parole hearing comes in 2013, 44 years after he was last free to create this wide-open music.