On Second Thought: Bert Sommer – The Road To Travel (1968)

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I did not discover the late Bert Sommer until 2008, which is a damn shame because he was a fantastic New York-based songwriter much in the same league as Tim Buckley and also, to some extent, Donovan.

All three share similar vocalizing and songwriting skills, but Sommer really had more of a pop flair about his folk-rock than did Buckley — which, in hindsight, would’ve been an asset in those pre-FM radio days in getting airplay. There was also a theatricality feel to some of his songs which would’ve lent itself to the rock operas of the late 1960s/early 1970s. “Things Are Goin’ My Way,” for instance, would have fit in nicely as part of the productions like Hair, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, etc.

Prior to his solo career, Bert penned songs for the Vagrants (featuring a pre-Mountain Leslie West band), served as the lead singer on the Left Banke’s “Ivy Ivy” single, and wrote for Michael Brown’s post-Left Banke groups, Montage and Stories. The Road to Travel was an 18-year-old Sommer’s debut album on Capitol.

He would then become the only unknown performer at Woodstock the following year, in 1969. It didn’t hurt that his producer, Artie Kornfeld, was also one of the three creators of the festival. Footage of Sommer’s stunning “Jennifer” has survived, although it was not included in the original film. (This album’s version of the song, in part a tribute to singer/songwriter Jennifer Warnes, is no less stunning.) Sommer was actually part of the first Broadway version of the musical Hair as well, performing as the character Woof.

“And When It’s Over,” his opener on The Road To Travel, is another fantastically dramatic song — with Bert’s soaring voice and orchestral strings setting the album’s tone. “Hold The Light” shines much in the same way, while “She’s Just a Girl” serves as another whimsical and delightful romantic song. “A Simple Man” showcases more of the rocking, versatile side of Sommer as does the happy-go-lucky ,”Tonight Together.”

The harpsichord-driven “Brink of Death” is the only baroque number that’s reminiscent of his work with the Left Banke. The folksy, somewhat somber title track features a very cool and soulful harmonica, while there’s a positive, passionate message surrounding “Hold the Light.” The whole album is great. Not a bad song or filler in the whole bunch.

All of this should’ve propelled the man into stardom, but it didn’t happen to Bert Sommer for some strange reason. He released a few more albums on Capitol, Eleuthera and Buddha Records over the next ten years and he kept performing music — but nothing big time ever happened career-wise right on up to Sommer’s untimely death in 1990. The closest he ever came was with the minor hit single “We’re All Playin’ in the Same Band.” How sad, as the man had the talent, the songs, and looks to succeed.

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Steve Elliott

Steve Elliott

Steve Elliott has written for Shindig, Twist and Shake, Garage & Beat and Ugly Things. A big fan of all things rock and roll - especially the British Invasion, garage rock, psychedelic, new wave, folk rock, surf and power pop - he was a consultant on Sundazed Music's reissue of 'The Best of Butch Engle & The Styx: No Matter What You Say' in 2000, and has also provided liner notes for Italy's Misty Lane Records. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Steve Elliott
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