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Pioneering late ‘60s all-female rock band Ace of Cups deliver one of 2018’s best surprises

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Pioneering late ‘60s all-female rock band Ace of Cups deliver one of 2018’s best surprises (photo courtesy Ace of Cups/Rachel Wright)

A few months back, I received an invitation to preview the new self-titled double album by Ace of Cups - a group of women who were at the epicenter of the San Francisco rock scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

Despite sharing stages with some of the era’s heaviest hitters, Ace of Cups didn’t have an opportunity to make a studio record of their own until now – and it’s a stunner.

“Ace of Cups” combines elements of rock, blues, folk and gospel delivered with a pop/garage/psych aesthetic.

It’s almost as if Ace of Cups had locked these 20 beautifully formed songs into a time-capsule 50 years ago with a note that it should not be opened until 2018 when the band would reunite to record them with contemporary discernment. I said as much to guitarist Denise Kaufman.

“I’m so glad that you say that because what you describe is exactly what we set out to do,” Kaufman told me during an interview conducted while she was en route from Los Angeles to northern California last month.

There may not have been a time capsule involved but Kaufman says the band members have remained close over the last five decades, occasionally performing together in various configurations while also becoming mothers and grandmothers. Don’t be thrown by the thought of rockin’ grannies – the ladies in Ace of Cups knew how to throw down then – and they can most certainly do it today.

“We didn’t set out to make a nostalgia album, we wanted to be true to our songs but also bring a modern sensibility to them,” Kaufman continued. “That was what we talked about when we decided to do this album.”

At the time of my interview with Kaufman, she hadn’t calculated precisely how many of the new album’s songs were present during the original 1967-1972 life of Ace of Cups.

“I’d say that we had about 65 percent of the songs back then and 35 percent are new songs,” she said. “This is the first of two double albums. The second one should be out in the spring of 2019. We’ve recorded some 36 songs already.”

A series of brief live period-recordings are incorporated into the album and serve as links between some of the tracks.

“You hear little comments that we made along with song introductions or endings and the sounds of the audience too,” Kaufman says.

They may not have recorded a studio album during their initial incarnation, but Ace of Cups did play a number of memorable shows back in the day – some of which were professionally recorded. A live album gleaned from those tapes finally saw the light of day in 2011 as “It’s Bad For You But Buy It.” That these women were not signed in the sixties tells us that major label dysfunction is not a contemporary phenomenon.

“We would have loved to have gotten a record deal in the sixties,” Kaufman said. “Most of the bands that we shared stages with were recording and we really thought that was going to happen for us. We toured a little bit. We did an epic show in Chicago and we toured up to Seattle and Vancouver with Jefferson Airplane, but we mostly played up and down California.”

From Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests (indeed – Kaufman was one of Kesey’s “Merry Pranksters,” where she was bestowed the moniker ‘Mary Microgram’) to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, where Jimi Hendrix extended an invite for Ace of Cups to open for The Jimi Hendrix Experience in June 1967. During an interview with London’s Melody Maker in December of that year, Hendrix name-checked Ace of Cups, citing the lead guitar prowess of Mary Ellen Simpson.

“I heard some groovy sounds last time in the States, like this girl group, Ace of Cups, who write their own songs and the lead guitarist is hell, really great,” Hendrix’s quote reads.

“It was the weekend after the Monterey Pop Festival when we opened for the Jimi Hendrix Experience at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco,” Kaufman remembered. “When we played, Jimi stood in front of us and took pictures, although we never saw those pictures. That would be fun (laughs). He was really wonderful. His band used our equipment during their set.”

As seen in D.A. Pennebaker’s “Monterey Pop,” Hendrix caused a seismic stir when he lit his Stratocaster on fire during a set-capping version of “Wild Thing.” Ace of Cups guitarist Mary Ellen Simpson was there and became terrified that her brand-new Fender Twin Reverb amp would meet the same fate at Golden Gate Park a week later.

“After using whatever we could find for gear and patching things together, we had finally just gotten some nice amps,” Kaufman told me. “Jimi assured Mary Ellen that he would take very good care of our equipment, and he did. He couldn’t have been sweeter.”

As word began to spread that Ace of Cups were finally going to record a studio album, some old friends soon offered assistance, including the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, Taj Majal, Buffy Sainte-Marie, David Frieberg of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Barry Melton of Country Joe & The Fish and actor, author and Haight-Ashbury veteran Peter Coyote, among others.

The second Ace of Cups volume due next spring will include contributions from Jackson Browne, Wavy Gravy, Sheila E. and Paul Simon’s bassist Bakithi Kumalo.

The strong foundation established by Ace of Cups’ musicianship and songwriting are the true stars of this record, which I tell Denise Kaufman, sounds like the work of a young band.

“I think so too when I listen to it,” she said. “Our spirit comes through.”

“Ace of Cups” has turned out to be one the biggest musical surprises of 2018. These women were part of rock’s original golden era and they’re an even better band today. Do yourself a favor - add this album to your collection and let it sink in before the next one is released. A note for vinyl fans: The vinyl version comes equipped with a 28-page booklet full of notes, rare photos and lyrics. Part two of my interview with Denise Kaufman will appear in a future issue of The Maine Edge.

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