Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Remembering B.B. King

B.B. King - Foothill College Gymnasium February 21, 1971
B. B. King and Jeff Beck - Arie Crown Theatre, Chicago 7/26/03

With B.B. King’s recent, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the two times I saw him play the blues. The first time I saw King was on a Sunday night in 1971 (Thanks to Lost Live Dead and JGMF for providing the correct date) at a venue not known for concerts, not to mention as being an ideal setting to hear  one of the world’s finest blues guitarists. Located in Los Altos Hills, a high-priced mid-peninsula zip code even at that early date, Foothill College was, and remains, one of the premier Community Colleges in the country, and somewhat of an architectural treasure to boot. Located atop a hill that is now directly adjacent to Highway 280 (which was built along its current right-of-way well after Foothill opened in 1965), the campus remains a masterpiece of mid-century architecture, with new additions blending seamlessly with the original buildings.

Although B.B. King was a regular visitor to the ballrooms in San Francisco, his appearance on a suburban college campus reflected the more widespread commercial success afforded by his two most recent albums, Completely Well (which included what was to become one of his signature tunes, “The Thrill is Gone”), and the more rock oriented Indianola Mississippi Seeds. That album,  produced by Bill Scymczyk (soon to become the preferred producer for the Eagles), was a successful attempt to make King more familiar to mainstream rock audiences. Scymczyk used Los Angeles session musicians rather than King’s band, and  paired the guitarist with mainstream rockers like Leon Russell and Joe Walsh.  At the time, Foothill did not book a lot of rock or blues shows, at least that I was aware of, but it gave me a rare chance to see a blues legend not too far from home. Foothill has a fine theatre, but I suspect that booking economics led to this show being held in the college gymnasium, as was the case for so many university gigs before events and performing arts centers became more commonplace later in the century.  We got reasonable seats (I think it was general admission) and, perhaps because it was a Sunday night, there was no opening act.

As was de rigueur  for King’s shows of the era, the concert began with a few instrumentals from his band. In striking contrast to most rock bands of that era, King’s group was decked out in matching slacks, blazers, and turtlenecks.
B.B. King and Band - Foothill College Gymnasium 2/21/71
 Photo: M. Parrish
 The band was tight, and capably performed their task of warming up the crowd for their boss. King came out and, if memory serves, he opened his set in customary fashion with “Every Day I Have the Blues.” King, dressed in a sharp cream colored suit, took command of the stage immediately. What made King such an icon among the blues performers of his era was his uncanny combination of skills – a master showman, an eloquent vocalist, and a remarkable player with an eloquent,  immediately recognizable instrumental voice. There have been many guitarists who played faster, indulged in more complicated chord progressions, or played louder, but what made King’s guitar sound so memorable was the emotion he squeezed out of every note. He had very strong hands, and could bend strings to elevate the notes played a whole step or more. Although this technique has become almost universal among blues-rock players, King, along with contemporaries like Albert King, Albert Collins, and Muddy Waters basically pioneered this style in the 1950s, and no one used it more effectively to wring emotion out of their solos. He also perfected the use of vibrato, something that was common among slide and steel guitarists but relatively rare among lead guitarists. King used these techniques individually or in tandem to generate his immensely appealing playing style.
B.B. King and Band - Foothill College Gymnasium 2/21/71
Photo M. Parrish

Equally important to both King’s music and his stage persona was his singing style. A smooth, engaging vocalist, King drew the audience in with his smooth baritone, and he blended humor and drama in his powerful vocal delivery. An imposing physical presence, King often used body language to appear larger than life and to lessen the barrier between him and the audience.

For King and his band, I suspect the Foothill gig was just another date on a long string of one nighters, but it left a lasting impression on me, as well as revealing where young white players like Michael Bloomfield and Harvey Mandel got inspiration and necessary parts of their instrumental took kits.

For whatever reason, I did not see King in concert again until 2003, when I reviewed a show at Chicago’s Arie Crown theatre featuring him and Jeff Beck for the Chicago Tribune. By this time, years of touring and advancing diabetes kept King confined to a chair for most of his set. He talked a lot between songs, let the band do a lot of the heavy lifting, but his playing sounded just fine. The contrast between Beck’s aggressive jazz-rock playing and King’s relatively laid-back, extroverted blues was striking, and the combination didn’t really jell as well as one might hope. Nonetheless, it was a fine evening of music, and I am glad that I got to see BB one more time.

King’s passing leaves yet another huge gap in the roster of the original artists who pioneered electric blues guitar in the 1950s. Although he spent his last few weeks under Hospice care, King toured tirelessly  until then, and he passed just a few months shy of his 90th birthday.

Monday, September 1, 2014

UCSC 1971, The Rhythm Dukes, and Oganookie

In the fall of 1971, I entered college at UC Santa Cruz. Although only an hour from home, Santa Cruz might as well have been a different planet. Much less populated and pretty much graffiti-free in 1971, the town nonetheless already had the funky, slightly shabby, beach town ambiance it retains today.

The campus, only six years old when I entered, was tiny compared to its present size, with only five functional colleges, with the original four clustered together at the top of the hill, and the arts based College Five set widely apart, near the exit of the perimeter road to Empire Grade.  I chose UCSC over the other UCs because of its academic excellence, small size, unique residential college organization, and because of the haunting beauty of the forests and meadows of its campus, set on a hill overlooking the town of Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay.  A friend’s father was one of the main UCSC architects, so I had visited the campus on numerous occasions when it was under construction.

What Santa Cruz was not known for at that time was a music scene. There were really no viable live music venues in Santa Cruz proper, and the relatively small population did not support too many local bands.  The biggest venue, the Santa Cruz Civic, was essentially off limits for rock concerts when I first arrived in Santa Cruz , although they did start permitting shows there by 1973. There were clubs in the Santa Cruz Mountains like the fabled Club Zayante and the even more storied Chateau Liberte, but there were few if any options in the city itself.  The original Catalyst was still in existence on Front Street, but it seemed to be more of a coffee house than a music venue at that juncture, prior to its purchase in 1973  by Randall Kane and move to larger quarters on Pacific Avenue where it emerged as the town’s flagship rock venue.

My principal knowledge of Santa Cruz musicians prior to arriving on campus in the fall of 1971 was the fact that Moby Grape, one of the best and most mercurial of the San Francisco Bands, had just recorded an album there, the marvelous and underrated 20 Granite Creek.  The Grape’s travails have been documented at length elsewhere, but in 1971 the original members got together in a rambling house in Santa Cruz to record a new album of original material with their original producer David Rubinson.  Moby Grape’s resident genius Alexander Spence had left the group abter being hospitalized for mental problems during the recording of their second album, Wow. For Granite Creek, Spence was back in the fold and accompanied by multi-inatrumentalist Gordon Stevens who apparently kind of watched over the volatile Spence as well.

At any rate, Moby Grape had imploded once again following a short tour including some high-profile but musically disastrous gigs at the Fillmore East in June of 71. Nonetheless, most of the Grape members stuck around Santa Cruz, and at least one, bassist Bob Mosley, still lived in nearby La Selva Beach last time I checked. The Grape reformed with various lineups over the next four decades, but I did not see them live until 1973, when a version of the group performed in the UCSC Quarry Amphitheatre.

However, my first Grape siting occurred fortuitously on the second night I was on campus. For most of my time at UCSC, the campus at night was bustling with energy. Each of the residential campuses had its own flavor but, between the dining halls, the dormitories, and coffee shops, each remained a hub of bustling activity well into the night. During orientation week, there were also a number of unadvertised dances and social events.  A group of new friends from my dorm and I were exploring the campus late that evening when we happened onto a dance concert at the spacious Cowell College Dining Hall, down the hill from my own new home at Crown College. Holding forth was a power trio that was billed as the Rhythm Dukes, featuring Grape lead guitarist Jerry Miller along with bassist John Barrett and, I presume, drummer John “Fuzzy”Oxendine.

The Rhythm Dukes were formed in 1969 following one of Moby Grape’s several breakups, when Miller and Grape drummer Don Stevenson  joined forces with Oxendine and Barrett in the Santa Cruz Mountains to hang out and form this new loose, jam-based ensemble. They routinely played the ballrooms and clubs in the Bay area through the summer, but Stevenson left the fold in the fall, with the band continuing as a trio. For most of 1970, the group was augmented by keyboardist/vocalist Bill Champlin, whose main band, the Sons of Champlin, had also broken up. Champlin left in late 1970 when the Sons reformed, and some additional Dukes, including guitarist Russell Dahneke, were recruited to round out the band. When The Grape reunited for 20 Granite Creek, the Dukes pretty much folded, although the show I saw and a couple of others demonstrated that the Dukes trio got together for a few fall 1971 gigs after Moby Grape had imploded once again. Those interested in the Rhythm Dukes should check out the band’s web site and Bruno Ceriotti’s extremely useful family tree and gig guide.
Rhythm Dukes 1970 Champlin, Oxendine, Miller, Barrett

The Dukes show at UCSC was my first exposure to Miller playing live, and his blend of speed and precision was, and remains, a marvel to behold. Details of the set are fuzzy, since I knew none of their material except for Miller’s “I’m The Kind Of Man That Baby You Can Trust,” which was one of the highlights of 20 Granite Creek, but there were blues standards, country-inflected workouts, and lots of extended jams. Not bad at all for a free, unadvertised orientation week concert.

Although the Dukes apparently folded soon after this gig, Miller was a steadfast presence in many different bands in the Santa Cruz area for the next several years, including the Original Haze (which featured future Call leader Michael Been on bass and vocals), the New Shreveport Homewreckers and many incarnations of Moby Grape.

A week or so later I had my first exposure to another peerless Santa Cruz Band, the eclectic quintet known as Oganookie. who were arguably the area’s best and most popular dance band. Oganookie got their start on the other coast during the height of psychedelia as a very different band called Federal Duck. Initially an informal aggregation of musically inclined students at suburban Philadelphia’s Haverford College that apparently at one time included humorist Dave Barry, the group, sans Barry, managed to get a recording contract with  Musicor Records and put out a single album in 1968 that was recorded by seven other musicians including bassist Bob Stern, drummer Tim Ackerman, lead guitarist George Stavis, and guitarist Jack Bowers. The band’s sound was a blend of Strawberry Alarm Clock style soft psychedelia with some harder-edged guitar workouts and just a taste of the bluegrass influences to come in their later incarnation.

By 1969, Stavis had flown the coop and secured a recording contract with Vanguard Records, for which he recorded the remarkable solo banjo recording Labyrinths. He also opened for the Grateful Dead at Purdue University on April 18 of that year, so apparently toured in support of that album.

1970 found the core of Federal Duck (Stavis, Ackerman, Stern, and decamped to a farm in the Santa Cruz mountains. They had added guitarist-vocalist Bruce Frye, and reinvented themselves as country-rock ensemble Oganookie.  Several of the musicians also switched instruments. In addition to playing bass, Stern proved to be a fine electric violin player.  Bowers moved to electric piano and became the group’s principal songwriter, whereas Stavis focused almost entirely on the electric banjo, sometimes switching to bass when Stern was fiddling. Another Duck member, keyboardist Ken Stover, also migrated to the Santa Cruz area, playing in bands including funksters Chameleon. 

Oganookie was a quintessential jam band a couple of decades before that term was coined. Their blend of rock and electrified bluegrass instrumentation and their tendency to play extended versions of  bluegrass tunes, notably their trademark pairing of Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” and “Orange Blossom Special” made them one of the most popular acts for dances on campus and in town.  They also epitomized the people’s band ethos, playing many benefits and extolling the virtues of the back-to-the-land lifestyle the group modeled.

Alas, Oganookie’s term as a band was relatively short-lived, as the group broke up by mid-1973. Before sailing off into music history for good, the band did reunite in 1975 for a pair of energetic and sold-out concerts at the Coconut Grove Ballroom at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and, apparently, once again in 1991. Bob Stern moved back east, became a dentist, and still plays the fiddle.  Stavis and Ackerman both enrolled in the History of Consciousness program at UCSC, and Stavis also appears to have moved back east. He recorded a new-agey banjo album for Aspen Records in 1986 entitled Morning Moods, and still gigs periodically. Both Frye and Ackerman’s current whereabouts are not easily discoverable on the net.

Jack Bowers, however, stayed in the Santa Cruz area. After Oganookie’s demise, he spent several years working with country rocker Jill Croston (AKA Lacy J. Dalton) and built a career working in the Arts program at nearby Soledad Prison.  I saw him at a career retrospective concert at Kuumbwa in Santa Cruz last March, and he remains a fine keyboard player and composer.

As the seventies ticked by, Santa Cruz became more and more of a rock and roll town. More later. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Grateful Dead, Sufi Choir, Whirling Dervish Dancers and Yogi Bhajan. Winterland, 3/24/71.

By March of 1971, it had been a good seven months since I had seen the Grateful Dead, and several months since I had been to any large concerts.  A mid-week trip to Discount Records produced a handbill that showed the Dead playing at Winterland that evening, along with a mysterious crew including Yogi Baijan, the Sufi Choir, and the Whirling Dervish Dancers.  Although it was the middle of a school week, and I had never driven to San Francisco by myself,  I entreated my parents to let me go, and they assented, provided I could find someone to go with me. I asked a school friend, Tom, who had never seen the Dead, if he wanted to go, and he miraculously got permission from his parents to go with me, and by 8 PM or so, we were off on 101 towards Winterland.

Walking into the already darkened hall, it became immediately evident that this would not be a typical concert. On the stage were a number of robed, bearded gentlemen chanting around a roaring fire that sent flames high into the air inside what was famously a huge wooden firetrap.   Decades later, taking Yoga classes in Chicago, I learned what a major cultural force Yogi Bhajan and his Kundalini Yoga movement had become.  I can’t identify Bhajan in the photos I took, and another bespectacled gentleman led the chanting, so it is possible that he was not even there. Regardless, the spectacle certainly made a strong impression at the time.
Ceremonial Fire Winterland 3.24.71 Photo: M. Parrish
One can guess that the fire marshalls were not in attendance at that point. We found seats in the balcony and listened to the ceremony which, being mostly in Sanskrit, didn’t mean much to me at the time.

Once the chanting was finished, the fires were quenched (whew!) and the stage cleared for the Sufi Choir.  This group, conducted by William Allaudin Mathieu, came together as a group of followers of spiritual mystic Samuel Lewis, whose followers called him Mursid. The group was a true choir, that persisted under Mathieu’s direction from 1969 until 1983.  After performing several beautiful pieces on their own, the choir was joined by Dead members Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, and Bill Kreutzmann for their last two pieces. The Dead members provided delicate droning chords below the choir’s angelic harmonies, with Garcia’s leads dancing around the choir’s melodies – a magical, all to
Dead and Sufi Choir 3.24.71
Photo: M. Parrish
brief collaboration.

Winterland was pretty full, especially for a Wednesday night for a show with limited advance promotion, but most of the floor was cleared for the next performance, by a group of Whirling Dervish Dancers, who spun very quickly in large arcs, forming intricate patterns. I believe the accompaniment was just recorded music, but can’t say for sure.
Dervish Dancers 3.24.71 Photo: M. Parrish

Grateful Dead 3.24.71 Photo: M. Parrish
It was quite late, close to 11, when the Dead finally came onstage for their regular set. (Contrary to Deadbase, the New Riders did not appear at this show).   I was surprised and saddened by the absence of Mickey Hart, which had not been reported in the local press, despite his having been on hiatus from the band since February.  At this juncture, the band’s music was markedly less psychedelic than it has been just a few months earlier, with a raft of shorter songs, including several new originals, having taken the place of some of the longer pieces, although a nice Truckin’>Other One emerged late in the first set.  

Other than the early Fillmore West shows that included both an early and late set by each band on the
Grateful Dead 3.24.71 Photo: M. Parrish
bill, this was the first electric Dead show I saw that included two separate sets (although the “Evening with the Dead” shows included breaks between the acoustic set, the New Riders, and the electric set.  The shift from one drummer to two was palpable in the music, with a much greater emphasis on rockers, starting with the pairing of an embryonic “Greatest Story Ever Told” and “Johnny B. Goode” that opened the show, and continuing with new tunes like “Bertha” and “Playing in the Band” (in its initial, concise incarnation).  The show wrapped up with something else that was new to me, but quickly became the standard closer for the next few years – the Not Fade Away sandwich with “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” as the filling, followed by a nice “Uncle John’s Band” encore as closing time approached.

The drive home was interesting, given that I had been through a full day of school before taking off on this evening adventure. It had been a splendid evening, full of surprises, and a great introduction to the leaner, more rock oriented Grateful Dead of 1971. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

My Season with Kingfish Part Three

After giving my phone number to Tim Hovey at the Keystone Berkeley, I don’t think I really expected to hear from him. Imagine my surprise a couple of weeks later when I got a phone call from Richard Hundgen, Kingfish’s manager at the time. Richard there at the beginning of the in the Haight Ashbury music scene, a member of the original inner circle of Big Brother and the Holding Company and a good friend of Janis Joplin’s.  Turns out he had an open date, and we actually began talking about bringing Kingfish to UCSC on March 7. Since it was already early February, that didn’t provide a lot of lead time.

At the time, I was a member of Gotterdammerung, the group at UCSC’s Crown College that screened films in the college’s dining hall every Saturday night. As such, getting access to the dining hall wasn’t too big a problem. A bigger problem was how to sell tickets and deal with expenses, principally paying the band. Because it was technically a university function, all of the funds had to flow through the events office, which also sold tickets for the event, and they would only issue a check for the performers – a situation that understandably did not sit well with the band. It took a lot of finagling, and at least one promoter-to-manager phone shouting match, to get everything settled, but amazingly, it all came together. My colleagues in the film group were amazing, working out details like lighting, security, and publicity.  The event poster was drawn by Judy, by then my fianc√©, and copies were put up mainly just on campus.
Crown College Dining Hall entrance today.
The dining hall proper is to the left

During this period, we saw several other Kingfish shows, including a second one at the Keystone Berkeley where I met up with Richard face to face after the show. He invited me back to the Keystone Green Room, which looked exactly like it does in the inside gatefold of the Garcia-Saunders live album, minus the nun, and with a different cast of characters. 

As the date of the show approached, tickets were selling briskly, and things were looking up. In talking with Richard, we had broached the idea of hosting a dinner for the band before the show. He initially declined, saying that the band usually ate by themselves, but later accepted the invitation on behalf of the band and crew. At that time, Crown College had a small conference facility near its parking lot in a secluded building that now houses radio station KZSC.  We ended up serving dinner to the band and crew down there. People came and went as they set up for the show in the dining hall up the hill. The crew that night was Tim Hovey and Rex Jackson, and Richard was there to tend to business.

If memory serves, we served them baked chicken, rice, and some dolmas that Judy scared up in downtown Santa Cruz. Although there was plenty to do, we managed some face time with the band during dinner. Oddly enough, the main topic of conversation among the group was the Karen Black TV movie “Trilogy of Terror,” which had aired earlier that week. The most significant music related bit of information I gleaned from the session was a confirmation by Weir that the Dead had indeed plotted to do a free show at UCSC’s gorgeous quarry amphitheatre in the late sixties. They ultimately abandoned the plan when it became apparent that it would be pretty much impossible to make the logistics work without ending up with a Santa Cruz version of Altamont. Still, it was nice to have that urban legend confirmed firsthand.

Quarry Amphitheater UCSC

The band, who had been playing several nights a week in clubs, had a relatively minimal setup, although they did bring their own PA. We handled the lights from the projection booth near the top of the dining hall’s elevated ceiling. As the show approached, I was tasked with doing a lot that glamorous promoter stuff – finding Mr. Kelly some decongestant, guiding Mr. Weir to a secluded restroom, cleaning up after dinner… you get the drift.

With little more than on-campus publicity, the show handily sold out, and there were a few people listening outside, but the numbers were completely manageable. If I remember correctly, the show started more or less on time, and the band played the three one-hour sets specified in the contract. As I noted in the previous entries, Kingfish was a stellar live act in 1975, and their show that night did not disappoint, although promoter duties distracted me from giving it my full attention. The audience, mostly UCSC students who had not yet heard Kingfish, gave the band a rousing reception.

I did get some significant karma payback that night. The previous year, I had been part of a group of Crown students that smuggled a large number of marshmallows into Winterland for the 2/23/74 Dead show. This was inspired by tales from Bob R., the preceptor of our dorm, who had first seen the Dead on 4/14/71 when they played at his undergraduate alma mater, Bucknell College in Lewisburg, PA. Apparently a group of Bucknell students had similarly smuggled in marshmallows, and Bob and his friends were participants in a ferocious marshmallow fight. He waxed poetic about how much fun it was to throw the marshmallows around, and how it was harmless and good clean fun.

Doing the same thing in the spacious confines of Winterland proved fun, but certainly not clean and, unfortunately, a good number of the squishy missiles made their way onto the stage, prompting Phil Lesh to admonish the crowd to “share the marshmallows with your friends rather than throwing them up on stage.”

At any rate, some of the same miscreants decided it would be fun to recreate this event one more time,
Ticket stub from the 3/7/75 show
at the UCSC Kingfish show. A marshmallow war did occur, brief in duration but lasting in impact, as I and my colleagues learned as we spent well over an hour scrubbing the sticky dining hall floor after the show. Meanwhile, the band packed up their gear and prepared to hit the road. I got surprisingly warm thanks from the band, and especially from Hovey and Jackson.

After the Kingfish show, I got a call from John McIntire, who was managing Keith and Donna at the time, asking if we wanted to promote a show with them a few weeks later. At that point, though, I was looking at a wedding in May, and had a round of chemistry and biology classes to finish up before graduating in June. That show did go on, but with a different group of student promoters and at the somewhat roomier Kresge Town Hall.  All in all, I am glad I had the experience of promoting a show, and it gives me a great appreciation of all that goes into making such events run smoothly. Furthermore, I believe this was still the only time that any of the original core members of the Dead have performed on the campus that now houses the Grateful Dead’s Archive.

I saw Kingfish a number of times after the UCSC show, but the frequency dropped as other commitments (graduating, marriage, graduate school) took more and more of my time.  The last really memorable shows I can think of were in June, 1975. On June 8, Kingfish preceded Garcia and Saunders on a warm Sunday afternoon in Palo Alto’s El Camino Park, where I had attended a couple of Midpeninsula Free University Be-Ins several years earlier. Kingfish played their usual tight set. After the show, Judy and I walked back across the street to Stanford Shopping Center’s parking lot with Dave Torbert and his partner Patty. Nine days later, Kingfish played a two set show at the sprawling Winterland benefit for poster artist Bob Fried that culminated in an epic “Garcia and Friends” set that was actually the Dead’s first full show since their hiatus from touring the previous October.

Kingfish in its original incarnation carried on for about another year, at which point Bob Weir chose to devote his energies once again to touring with the Dead. Kingfish carried on, but the original lineup splintered, leaving Torbert and Kelly with a changing crew of guitarists and drummers over the next several years.  Torbert passed away, way too early, in 1982, but Kelly carried on with the Kingfish name until well into the 1990s, occasionally reuniting with Weir, most notably during a 1986 tour that also featured Steve Kimock on lead guitar. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

My Season with Kingfish Part 2

After their first show at the Chateau, Kingfish started gigging relatively regularly around the Bay Area, but more or less established a weekend residency back at the Chateau for much of the winter.  Confirmed dates were December 13,14; January 3,4; and 1/26; but I believe they played some other dates in the intervening weeks as well. I went to at least one night of each run with Judy, and got to hear the group developing their sound and their repertoire. One novelty during the mid-December run was a single version of Johnny B. Goode, which failed to make it into the band’s regular repertoire. 

I also started seeing the group at the Keystone Berkeley. The first show of theirs I attended there was Sunday December 29, which was notable for a couple of reasons. First, it was the first time I saw the group change up their instrumental lineup for a few songs. Torbert switched to guitar and Kelly took up the bass for a trio of tunes, all sung by Torbert. “California Day” was one of Torbert’s most memorable originals from his days in the New Riders, a gorgeous ballad evoking the mystique of the northern California coastline. He also sang “Lonesome Fugitive,” one of Merl Haggard’s many songs about outlaws. The third tune in this mini-set was a bouncy, uptempo version of Hank Cochran’s honky tonk lament “A-11,” which was best known from Buck Owens’ 1964 version. Another notable aspect of the show was that Weir’s bandmate Phil Lesh was in attendance, and actually watched part of the show from a chair on the side of the relatively tiny Keystone stage, but did not play.  Incidentally, contrary to the Lost Live Dead tour history, James and the Mercedes did not open this particular show, although they appeared with Kingfish a few times in early 1975.  

By the mid seventies New Year’s Eve was already a big night for music in the bay area. Although the Dead themselves had not played a show that night since 12/31/72, Garcia and Bill Kreutzmann had brought in the previous new years jamming with the Allman Brothers at the Cow Palace. Thus it was a welcome surprise to learn that Kingfish had been booked to play a show near most of the band’s old stomping grounds, at the Stanford movie theatre in downtown Palo Alto.

I had been going to the Stanford theatre since our family moved to Palo Alto at the end of 1960. I remember going to summer double features there for a dime in my pre-teen years and had seen many a movie there in subsequent years. By the mid-seventies, the movie palace had fallen on hard times, and the Kingfish show was an early attempt to transform the theatre to a venue for live performances. The theatre’s heyday as a live venue is chronicled in  one-time promoter Andrew Bernstein’s immensely entertaining memoir California Slim: The Music, the Madness, and the Magic. Miraculously, the increasingly decrepit theatre was rescued from giving way to another franchise store by the generosity of film buff David Packard Jr., who  convinced the David and Lucille Packard Foundation to spare no expense in restoring the theatre, now an archival film showcase, to its former glory. 

Back at the close of 1974, the theatre was not in great shape, but it was a fine, relatively intimate place to spend New Year’s Eve with Weir, Torbert, and friends.  You can find an extensive discussion of this show here.

Opening the evening was another band with a strong Dead connection. Osiris was a Palo Alto based blues-rock band whose keyboard player, Kevin McKernan, was the younger brother of the Dead’s late singer and keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. Their lineup was very  Dead-like with two guitars, bass, keyboards, and two drummers, and I believe they used some equipment salvaged from the Wall of Sound.  The most vivid memory of their set was an amazing version of “Hard to Handle” with Kevin McKernan, who bore an eerie physical resemblance to his sibling, channeling Pigpen’s trademark delivery of the song.

           Kingfish played two sets, with no real surprises to those of us who had already seen them a few times. They had started to work a number of other tunes into their repertoire by this time. Weir’s contributions included a really nice uptempo version of Dolly Parton’s “My Blue Tears” and a snazzy arrangement of “Saturday Night” with some twin lead guitar from Weir and Hoddinott. Over the next several weeks, they worked in a number of other tunes – classic soul tunes including “Shop Around,” “Roadrunner,” a rock arrangement of Bill Monroe’s “Muleskinner Blues” that was often paired with Torbert’s version of “Mystery Train,” Bo Diddley’s “Mona” and the blues standard “C.C. Rider” (these latter two found their way into the Dead’s post-hiatus repertoires).  Torbert added “I Hear You Knocking,” “Carol” and a few cover tunes he did with the New Riders, including “School Days,” “Willie and the Hand Jive” and “Sea Cruise,” as well as his own “Groupie.”

Because Kingfish had been playing such small venues, and spending considerable time in the Santa Cruz mountains, I got it in my head that it might be possible to convince them to come play at UC Santa Cruz. Having never promoted a show in my life, I nonetheless thought it was something worth pursuing. I was a member of Gotterdammerung, a student group that showed films every Saturday night in the Crown College Dining Hall, so I figured we could get use of the Dining Hall for a show if we could pull it off.   So, at the next Kingfish show we attended,  January 25 at the Keystone Berkeley,  I approached Kingfish sound man Tim Hovey during the break to float the idea of their coming to UCSC. Since, as noted above, I had no promotion experience, and they knew nothing of the venue,  he seemed somewhat dubious, but he took my name and number and said they might be in touch. I didn’t really expect much to come of it.

Tim Hovey has a significant role in Kingfish/Horses history. He was co-writer, with Torbert, of “Important Exporting Man” on the third New Riders album, and “Wild Northland” on the first Kingfish album, and the pair wrote another Kingfish mainstay, “Goodbye Yer Honor” with Matthew Kelly. Earlier, he had collaborated with John Carter, Scott Quigley, and Tim Gilbert on “Jump for Joy” which had appeared on the Horses album and became a mainstay of the Kingfish repertoire. Earlier, Hovey had been a child actor who appeared in a number of 1950s television shows. Hovey was a friendly chap, and seemingly a good soundman, as I recall all of the Kingfish shows of that era having a bright, clear mix.

Opening that Keystone show was another interesting band with Dead connections. On the 1970
Festival Express tour, the band members met up with a Canadian folk-rock ensemble called James and the Good Brothers, comprising singer-songwriter James Ackroyd and .twins Bruce and Brian Good.  James and the Good Brothers subsequently made it out to California, and eventually recorded a fine eponymous album for Columbia that was produced by Betty Cantor and included contributions by Bill Kreutzmann and an uncredited Jerry Garcia. There has been much speculation at Lost Live Dead and Jerry Garcia’s Middle Finger about the politics and economics of some of the Dead-related signings by other labels. Columbia, then run by Clive Davis, seem to have signed several loss leaders from other labels during the early seventies, including the Rowan Brothers, James and the Good Brothers and even the original incarnation of the New Riders of the Purple Sage.  In Davis’ recently published autobiography, he indicates that he was courting the Dead as early as 1969, and these signings could have been part of that effort, which ultimately resulted in the Dead signing with Davis’s subsequent label. Arista, after Grateful Dead records folded in 1976.  At any rate, James and the Good Brothers splintered after their album failed to generate much interest, with the Goods split back to Canada, where they recruited younger sibling Larry and became (and remain) one of Canada’s more popular country acts. As an aside, Bruce Good’s sons Travis and Dallas are mainstays of Toronto’s remarkable alt-country ensemble the Sadies.

Back in California, Ackroyd had assembled a rock group, which he dubbed James and the Mercedes that comprised a second guitarist, bass player, drummer, and two female vocalists, one of whom was Frankie Weir, Bob’s partner at the time. We saw this group on two consecutive nights, at the Keystone and then the Chateau, and they were enjoyable if not particularly memorable.  These were the only bookings I remember for this particular ensemble, whch probably broke up after a rather public separation of the Weirs shortly after the two shows with Kingfish. Ackroyd seems to vanish from the musical radar around this time, and the Good Brothers website indicates that he has passed away.
Kingfish Chateau Liberte 1/26/75 From left to right:
Hoddinott, Weir, Herold, Kelly, Torbert
Photo: M. Parrish

The next night, Kingfish was back at the Chateau, and I believe this was their last gig there. I took some photos at that show, but the very dark ambience of the good ol’ Chateau rendered them pretty sketchy, even with the assistance of photoshop. As noted, James and the Mercedes opened, and about the only person visible in the shots of that group is Ms. Weir. That show was memorable because I did speak with Hovey again and, more significantly, was introduced to the group’s imposing road manager, Rex Jackson. Jackson, a tall, muscular fellow who clearly could take on any of the Chateau’s bikers, was a bit brusque on our first meeting, but turned out to be a really nice guy. 
James and the Mercedes Chateau Liberte 1/26/75
Frankie Weir in spotlight. Photo: M. Parrish

I did not keep Kingfish set lists, but I think this may have been the first show at which I heard Weir sing “All I Need is Time,” the  Bud Reneau ballad that had previously been a hit for both Gladys Knight and the Pips and Roy Orbison. Kingfish’s arrangement was one of the highlights of their shows during that era, with Weir doing his best crooning and the band, especially Hoddinott displaying a beautiful combination of chops and restraint.

Well, this has gone on long enough. I will wrap this up in Part 3, hopefully more quickly than I got this piece done. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Cryptical Reviews

Sorry it's been so long since my last post. I'm working on a long one that I hope to have up soon. In the meantime, I have started a second music blog focusing on reviews of recordings, books, and shows:
www.crypt-rev.blogspot.com. I hope to add to this weekly.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Chateau Liberte and a Season with Kingfish and Garcia/Saunders– Part One

The retirement of the Grateful Dead from touring in October 1974 came as a blow to fans who had gotten used to seeing them several times a year, particularly in their bay area home base. Other than Jerry Garcia, who performed regularly with Merl Saunders, the remaining band members kept a low profile – rarely, if ever, venturing out as performers outside of the context of the Dead.  Even Garcia’s solo ventures had, up to that point, mostly focused on San Francisco, Berkeley, and Marin, which presented a conundrum for me as a student at UC Santa Cruz without ready access to transportation. To add insult to figurative injury, almost all of Garcia’s performances at the time were in bars that weren’t accessible to me as a 20 year old. Thus, it was a miracle of timing and geography that the Dead’s two guitarists discovered the legendary Chateau Libert√©, located back in the woods of the Santa Cruz mountains not far from the summit of Highway 17. The Chateau, easily a two hour drive from Marin County, was a favored hangout for some of the alums of Moby Grape (notably Skip Spence, who played a pivotal role in the formation of Chateau regulars the Doobie Brothers), and Hot Tuna had also used the club for woodshedding, and recorded their second album, First Pull Up and Then Pull Down, at the club.

The first Dead related performance at the Chateau that I am aware was also my first visit there, for a Jerry Garcia/Merl Saunders performance on October 11. Why Jerry was playing at a tiny club in the Santa Cruz mountains five days before beginning the farewell Dead shows at Winterland that became the Grateful Dead movie speaks volumes about his attitude towards playing and the music business. Don H., one of my college dorm friends, a fine musician himself, had a large van, and a bunch of us piled in the back for the trip up the mountain to the Chateau. Traveling Hwy 17 in the back of a Dodge van can be a disorienting experience, but it was even more eerie pulling off onto Summit Road and then Old Santa Cruz Highway in pitch blackness. Fortunately, Don had been to the Chateau before, so he had no trouble finding the way. Out of the darkness, a jumble of cars, motorcycles and people appeared surrounding a small shack-like structure that seemed impossibly small to be hosting a Garcia show. We paid our three bucks to the formidable doorman and made our way into the dimly lit club. Close to showtime, the Chateau was comfortably full but not so crowded that a fire marshall would be concerned (assuming s/he could find his way there).

Not having accurate figures of capacity, I would venture that the Chateau held at most half the people that could fit in the Keystones in Berkeley or Palo Alto. The main concert room was the size of a large living room, and the building was divided in half by a two sided bar parallel to the stage. On the other side of the bar was another, smaller room that held the pool tables, which were always in use, even when the musicians were onstage.

Although this was the fourth time I had seen Jerry and Merl, it was really the first full two set show I heard them play, and it was one of the most memorable of the many shows I heard them play over the next eight months. The ensemble was rounded out by John Kahn on bass, Martin Fierro on sax, flute and percussion, and LA session veteran Paul Humphrey on drums. At this stage in their musical partnership, Fierro played much more of a support role than he did during the Legion of Mary era in 1975, when his continued full bodied roar on sax could get overwhelming. Instead, this was a delicately played, very jazzy show, full of subtle nuances that could be seen as well as heard by the rapt and attentive audience (at least those of us in the front room). I attribute some of the magic of this iteration of Garcia and Saunders’ band to the presence of Humphrey, whose tasteful playing was more restrained than that of the group’s more rock-oriented drummers of the era such as Bill Kreutzmann, Bill Vitt, and Ron Tutt. All of those guys could certainly swing in a jazzy vein, but Humphrey brought something unique to the mix that took the band’s sound in a different, more understated direction that was unique to the shows during his tenure in the group.

My friends and I positioned ourselves by the soundboard, which, although in the back of the room, probably wasn’t more than 20 feet from the stage. I wasn’t keeping setlists at that time, and the Garcia-Saunders songbook of the day was sufficiently eclectic and often obscure that the names of many of the tunes were not pinned down by Garcia researchers until the last few years. Although rockers like “I’m a Road Runner” and “Mystery Train” were played, the bulk of the show was lush instrumentals and mood pieces like Saunders’ take on “Wondering Why,” which featured some beautiful flute work from Fierro. The transcendent point of the show for me occurred late in the second set, with a long, gorgeous version of Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo,” which had just entered the group’s repertoire a couple of months previously. All in all, I couldn’t have hoped for a better initiation into seeing Dead related ensembles in clubs.

Another opportunity was afforded just three weeks later, when a tiny ad appeared in the pre-Thanksgiving edition of Santa Cruz weekly Sundaz announcing back to back shows by Garcia and Saunders on Saturday and, on the preceding evening, a hitherto-unknown group called Kingfish that featured Bob Weir and bassist David Torbert, who had left the New Riders of the Purple Sage a few months previously.  For reasons that elude me now, the second Garcia show wasn’t workable for me, but I did end up going to the Kingfish show, curious to see what this new group had to offer.

The early history of Kingfish has been detailed in depth elsewhere, but the players other than Weir and lead guitarist Robbie Hoddinott that comprised this lineup had intertwining histories that went back to the mid-sixties. Torbert, drummer Chris Herold, and New Riders guitarist David Nelson were core members of the legendary New Delhi River Band,who played regularly in the Santa Cruz mountains and the south bay from 1966-69. Late in the band’s tenure, Kingfish harmonica and guitar player Matthew Kelly, who had led another group (St. Matthew’s Blues Band) that often opened for the NDRB, apparently joined the group as a full time member following Nelson’s departure (For a comprehensive history of the NDRB, go here). Kelly, Torbert, and Kelly subsequently moved into another band, named Shango, and ultimately to a recording 1969 recording project released under the name Horses, which was the brainchild of the Los Angeles songwriting team of Tim Gilbert and John Carter, and which included future TV star Don Johnson as lead singer-guitarist. Whether this group displaced Shango or was solely a recording project is unclear. Regardless, Kelly, Torbert, and Herold went their separate ways by early 1970, with Torbert becoming permanent bassist for the New Riders when they began touring regularly with the Dead and Kelly moving to the UK to play with blues rock band Gospel Oak.  By 1973, Kelly was back in the US and began playing with Herold and pianist Mick Ward in a primarily instrumental group called Lonesome Janet, back in the South Bay-Santa Cruz mountains axis. When Torbert quit the New Riders in near the end of 1973, he hooked up with his old cronies and hot young guitarist Robbie Hoddinott to form the first version of Kingfish. Ward died in a car accident in mid-1974, leaving a void that Weir stepped into when the Dead’s hiatus began.

I was home in Palo Alto for Thanksgiving, but ended up going to the show with a few friends from school who lived on the peninsula, including my roommate Chuck and his sister Judy. Strangely, the Chateau seemed more packed than it had been for the Garcia show a few weeks earlier, possibly because this show was promoted more broadly. Nonetheless, we had no trouble getting in, and finding a good vantage point near the stage. Any doubts that this Kingfish thing was a scam evaporated when we saw Bob Weir onstage a few feet away fiddling with his equipment.

However, before Kingfish was to take the stage, an opening set was provided by Santa Cruz Mountains stalwarts Timbercreek, a five piece psychedelic country rock band that owed more than a passing debt to the Dead, the New Riders and their ilk. I had heard Timbercreek several months earlier at the Boulder Creek Theater, co-billed with one of the earliest public screenings of Sunshine Daydream, a professionally shot (and still officially unreleased) film of the Dead’s 8/27/72 performance at the Springfield, Oregon Creamery. Timbercreek released one album, Hellbound Highway, in 1975, and played the Chateau frequently, but rarely ventured out of the Santa Cruz mountains. I remember them sounding good on both occasions, tight instrumentally and with some good originals, but can’t provide a lot of additional detail about their sets. A few decades ahead of their time, Timbercreek would have found a comfortable niche in today’s jam band scene.

Kingfish’s gig at the Chateau appears to have been their third or fourth show with the new lineup, and Bob Weir was still finding space within the band’s instrumental mix and repertoire. Weir had really never played outside of the context of the Dead (other than a handful of appearances as Bobby Ace doing C&W and folk covers in 69-70), so the audience literally had no idea of what material the band would play.

What they delivered was two fine sets of surprisingly polished music that showed them realizing their potential right at the outset. Torbert took the lion’s share of the lead vocals, opening with a slow, funky version of “Next Time You See Me,” the Junior Parker blues tune that was a mainstay of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s repertoire with the Dead. Torbert’s slippery, melodic bass work was a key element of Kingfish’s sound. Equally distinctive was the truly remarkable telecaster picking by twentysomething lead guitarist Robbie Hoddinott, who had seemingly come out of nowhere as a fully formed Danny Gatton-style guitar hero. Matthew Kelly alternated between rhythm guitar and gritty blues harmonica. Weir initially played more rhythm than lead, but gradually worked more of his trademark arpeggiated embellishments into the band’s sound as his time in the band progressed.

The Horses Circa 1969 Torbert (l) and Herold (r)
in the second row, and Kelly back row (l)
Many of the other Torbert-sung tunes that were the core of the Kingfish repertoire came from the Carter-Gilbert tunes penned for the Horses album, where they were sung by Johnson. However, they were by and large a great fit for the Kingfish bassist, and the band quickly made them their own. These included the soaring “Jump for Joy” (titled “Run Rabbit Run” on Horses, and the oddly syncopated and exotic “Asia Minor,” which was written by the duo in conjunction with Quigley and Tim Hovey, who had a long association with the Kingfish core and we’ll get to in part 2.  A couple of tunes faked us out as potential Dead covers. Torbert and Kelly’s “Hypnotize begins with an AM7 riff that sounded just like the intro to “Eyes of the World” and Kingfish’s funky take on “Battle of New Orleans” started out with a slow shuffle that sounded like the intro to “Sugar Magnolia” on quaaludes. The group’s sole instrumental was a cover of Little Walter’s “Juke” which had shown up on the Horses album with the unlikely title Horseradish (and a Carter-Gilbert writing credit). For most of the band’s career, Hoddinott sang a single tune – a cover of Junior Walker’s hit “Shake and Fingerpop” (Hoddinott also sang another Walker single “Peace and Understanding” with Kingfish on occasion).

For most of the first year of his tenure in the band, Weir sang only covers (except for his own "One More Saturday Night"), and only a very small number of tunes he did with the Dead – initially only two Chuck Berry tunes – Promised Land and Around and Around, which closed the first set and the show, respectively. For his other tunes, Weir went back to El Paso composer Marty Robbins for another gunfighter ballad, “Big Iron,” referenced Bill Monroe with “Muleskinner Blues,” Bobby Womack with “It’s All Over Now,” and Bo Diddley with “Mona.” Although Weir would later add these latter two tunes to the Dead’s repertoire, this was the first place he played them, at least in a rock band context. Torbert dug deep into the R&B repertoire for Rufus Thomas’ “Jump Back,” the Lieber and Stoller classic “Young Blood,” Dave Bartholomew’s “I Hear You Knockin’” and Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train.”

Kingfish at the Chateau Liberte 2/24/75
Photo: M. Parrish
Thus Kingfish’s repertoire, at the outset, was fundamentally different than those of the famous bands the two lead singers hailed from. They clearly dug deep into their mutual love of all kinds of roots music to fashion a repertoire that established Kingfish as its own entity. Although they added a number of other covers and originals throughout the 1974-76 tenure of the original band, the songs they played that night at the Chateau remained the lion’s share of Kingfish’s repertoire during their time together, and in the several reunions that followed later in the century.

From the outset, Kingfish was a ferocious live ensemble that had clearly spent a lot of time woodshedding before playing out. Torbert, whose skills and prominence as a lead vocalist and songwriter had increased dramatically the last two years he was in the New Riders, seemed confident and relaxed as putative leader of Kingfish, and Weir clearly relished the challenge of moving into a more traditional rock/R&B ensemble. The band dug deep into their collective musical tastes to develop a distinctive repertoire that drew little from either the Dead or NRPS songbooks. The group also never took on the Dead’s penchants for extended improvisation, focusing instead on vocals and tight instrumental arrangements that gave Hoddinott plenty of leash to display his flashy and virtuosic licks. The assembled throng of mountain folks and Deadheads enthusiastically embraced the group’s style and repertoire. Over the next couple of months, the Chateau became somewhat of a home away from home for the quintet as they continued to hone their chops, and I will delve more into their residency there in a subsequent post.