Monday, May 30, 2016

Neil Young discovers Santa Cruz - 3/10/73 - Neil Young and the Stray Gators, Linda Ronstadt and her band. Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium

My apologies to the reader who asked for me to write about this show some time ago. GV, this one is for you.

The Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium is a fine place to hear music. Located a couple of blocks off of the town’s main drag, Pacific Avenue, it is a splendid old art deco edifice that can seat just over 2000 patrons. Paradoxically, it was not used for popular music concerts much, if at all, during the first 18 months I went to UCSC, and not for several years prior to that. I do remember seeing a sign for a Doobie Brothers dance concert maybe in late 1972, but I’m not sure how the promoters got around the ban on such events that had more-or-less held since May 28, 1966, when a Jefferson Airplane concert was held there, discussed at length in the wonderful Rock Prosopography 101 and linked here. Rock shows had previously been banned in the hall in 1956, when rioting ensued following a concert by Chuck Higgins and his Orchestra, best known for their single “Pachuko Hop.”

At any rate, it was big news in town when it was announced that the Civic would host Neil Young in March of 1973. As far as I can tell, this show was the start of Young’s long relationship with the beach town, where he famously relocated for several months in the summer of 1977 as a member of short lived supergroup the Ducks.  In the spring of 1973, Young was riding a crest of unparalleled popularity following the release a year earlier of his most commercial album, Harvest, which held the distinction of the best selling album of 1972. Ironically, he was not able to tour behind that album around the time of its release because of a back injury he sustained in 1971. Instead, he confined his live appearances to a few stealth appearances with his friends, including a marvelous Crosby Nash acoustic show that I attended on 10/17/71 at De Anza College’s Flint Center in Cupertono. At that show, Young joined his once and future bandmates for a few tunes including “Helpless” and “Ohio.”   

However, by the beginning of 1972, Young was fit enough to venture out on the road with a new band, the Stray Gators, for what was a hybrid acoustic/electric tour.  The travails of this tour have been famously documented in several books about Young – band personnel issues, Young’s continuing back issues, and just the length of the tour and size of most of the arenas made it a challenging few months for him.  However, his relatively unexpected stop in the Santa Cruz Civic, which was probably the smallest venue on the tour, seemed to have been a relative high point.

There was quite a line of students and townies queued up at the Civic when tickets went on sale, and they sold out quickly, but it seemed like everyone I knew who wanted to go got tickets. It was my first venture into the Civic, a tidy little auditorium that, like many of its larger cousins, has fixed raised seating ringing the floor, but folding chairs set out on the floor for concerts, allowing for flexible use of the floor for events such as the town’s popular Derby Girls, who hold their home games in the Civic. My friends and I positioned ourselves in the stands halfway back on stage right. 

The first surprise of the evening was an unbilled opening set by Linda Ronstadt and her current touring band. Up to that point, Ronstadt had had a moderately successful career as lead singer of the Stone Ponies and as a solo artist on Capital but, newly signed to David Geffen’s Asylum Records, she was about to be elevated to major stardom. Her brief opening sets on Young’s tour did much to raise her visibility, and I was certainly impressed with her and her crack country rock ensemble, which probably included Richard and Mike Bowden, but further details, including the set list, did not register at the time. I do recall that she did a ripping version of “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” as well as what had up to that time been her biggest hit single “Long Long Time” from her Stone Pony days.

Neil came out in a good mood, opening with a brief solo acoustic set. Unfortunately, I did not keep a set list, and no audience tapes of the show have surfaced, but I know he did a “Sugar Mountain” and a few Harvest tunes, incliding “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man.” He then brought out his band, comprising pianist Jack Nitzsche, bassist Tim Drummond, drummer Johnny Barbata, and steel player Ben Keith, opening with a pumped up version of “The Loner.” Most of the remainder of the set consisted of new material, much darker and more electric than the gentle sounds he had cooked up on his previous album. In an avuncular mood, Young provided lengthy introductions to most of the material, pretty much all of which was released on Time Fades Away and Tonight’s the Night. At the time, it was a remarkable new body of work, not so easy to digest on first hearing, but one that grew in significance as time went on. Again, the exact order is unclear, but the band did a whole string of new songs, including “Time Fades Away,” “Lookout Joe,” “New Mama,” and Young’s powerful autobiographical tune, “Don’t Be Denied” in a row. Midway through the electric set, he introduced Crosby and Nash, who entered, both wielding electric guitars, to thunderous applause. They harmonized on a few tunes that were regular in the CSNY repertoire, “Alabama,” “Southern Man,” and “Cinnamon Girl” as well as another new piece, “Yonder Stands the Sinner,” largely maintaining the downbeat tone of the other new tunes. The set closed with a long, raucous version of Young’s “Last Dance,” which featured a seemingly endless coda with the three vocalists singing “Come on, turn out the lights,” over and over to grating instrumental accompaniment, the usually gentle strains of Keith’s pedal steel transformed into a sweeping electronic wail.  As the song finished the lights, indeed, came on and left the audience rather stunned, although they did coax the band back for a quick encore of yet another new tune, “Are You Ready For the Country.”

The Stray Gators tour was largely written out of Young’s recorded history by virtue of the live album from the tour, “Time Fades Away,” being long out of print on vinyl and never released on CD. Like Young’s Santa Cruz performance, it’s not a pleasant listen, with the band charged with adrenaline and Young’s voice a hoarse remnant of the one that had made him such an easy listening success a couple of years earlier.  Much like “Tonight’s the Night,” which he recorded with an entirely different band save for sole holdover Ben Keith later that year, the album is still a riveting listen, a no-holds-barred diary of a relatively dark time in Young’s life. The good news for Santa Cruz was the show marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship, which continued with his periodic stealth appearances at places like Margarita’s, the Coconut Grove and, most often, the Catalyst for decades to come.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Winterland 3/18-20/77

1977 was one of several career high points for the Grateful Dead, characterized by consistently strong playing, along with the introduction of several of their most challenging and enduring original compositions. While praise has been heaped on the band’s May 8th outing at Cornell University’s Barton Hall, for me that year will always be about two venues – Winterland and the relatively off-the-beaten track Chick Evans Field House at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.
The Dead played Winterland more times in 1977 than any other year, with ten shows beating out the eight in 1974 and six in both 1972 and 1978. I’m both proud and embarrassed to say I went to all of the 1977 Winterland shows, despite relocating to Chicago for graduate school in the fall of that year.

Their first show of that impressive run, on Friday, March 18th, essentially introduced yet another manifestation of the band to the old skating rink. The show started pretty conventionally, with a bunch of familiar songs like “Promised Land” and “It’s All Over Now.” What was different was the intensity of the band’s playing. When the Dead returned from hiatus the previous summer, their tempos had been relatively languid, the jams generally concise, and the playing more focused than inspired – kind of a chamber ensemble incarnation of the fire breathing beast of a few years earlier.  During the latter part of 1976, as the musicians regained comfort and confidence, their energy levels began to ramp up and they began to take more chances with the pathways they charted between songs.  

A mid-set highlight was “Sugaree.” When the song emerged mid-1971, it ran a relatively brief six minutes and change. Sugaree’s duration had gradually expanded over the years but, that night at Winterland, it emerged as a full-blown showcase for Garcia’s extravagant soloing, clocking in at nearly a quarter hour, with Lesh clearly egging the guitarist to pile one soloed chorus atop another. Besides just being long, the song was deftly orchestrated, steadily building in intensity before coming back to earth on the final line. The set concluded with what by now was a fairly standard piece of the repertoire, “Scarlet Begonias” which led through a long coda with wordless vocalizations by Donna into something new – a shuffling groove shifting between B and E chords that evolved into the first live Grateful Dead version of “Fire on the Mountain.” However, this wasn’t exactly the song’s debut. Mickey Hart and Robert Hunter penned the tune some in the early 1970s and Hart recorded a few versions of the tune for several unreleased albums between 1972 and 1974. It was to be the title tune of his second solo album, which was rejected by Warner Brothers. A bit later, on 5/30/75, Jerry Garcia and David Freiberg joined Mickey Hart’s Diga Rhythm band in Golden Gate Park for a beautiful instrumental version of the song. Although it appeared on the sole Diga album as “Happiness is Drumming,” it was clearly introduced by Diga percussionist  Zakir Hussain as “Fire On the Mountain”.  The Winterland debut of the song, now sung by Garcia, was a scorcher, with Garcia really letting loose with the now-signature power wah from his Mutron effects pedal. Quite a way to wrap up an outstanding first set.  As I ventured out into Winterland’s lobby during the break, a girl nearby was joyfully singing the new song’s chorus.

The meat of the show was in the second set, which opened conventionally with energetic versions of “Samson and Delilah,” “Brown-Eyed Women,” and “Ship of Fools,” which was delivered at a much brisker tempo than usual. Next came the hometown debut of the band’s other two new songs.  This was long before the advent of online songlists, not to mention streaming, but one moderately timely pipeline to information on the Dead was a column in the monthly free music paper BAM, which featured a regular column entitled “Dead Ahead” that was penned by various authors, but mainly by future GD Hour Host and Dead scholar David Gans. In what I believe would have been the March iteration of the column, Gans described the band’s two new songs, which had first been played at a pair of concerts down south, the first in San Bernadino on Feb. 26 followed by a show at UC Santa Barbara the following night. Gans intimated that these songs, particularly the magnum opus “Terrapin Station” were something special, and boy was he right.

“Estimated Prophet,” a Weir-Barlow collaboration, featured a reggae beat and lyrics that recounted what must have been a common occurrence for Weir – a meeting with a drug casualty with a Messiah complex. At that time, Weir had an ornery affection for  the 7/4 time signature (some would say 7/8), a counterintuitive meter that was earlier used in his“Lazy Lightning” and even earlier in the rarely performed Dead instrumental workout that has been accurately and informally dubbed “The Seven.” Estimated Prophet” features slow, slightly ominous sounding verses and a soaring chorus that portrays California as the narrator’s promised land. All in all, somewhat of a musical mongrel, but one that is both haunting and surprisingly danceable.

So much has been written about “Terrapin Station” that I can’t add much here. Robert Hunter’s brilliant epic poem may have been severely edited by Garcia, but it was still arguably the most complex and lengthy song (as opposed to an open-ended improvisational vehicle like “Dark Star”) that the band ever performed. Unlike that tune and much of the Dead’s jammed-out repertoire, “Terrapin Station” is composed fairly literally, and did not vary much in instrumental structure from performance to performance. However, it did move through several distinct phases, both lyrically and instrumentally, starting with the familiar folk tale of the soldier, the sailor, and the lady with a fan, and then moving somewhat abruptly into the land of Terrapin, where a headlong train seems headed for the same dire fate that befell Casey Jones.

Hunter’s narrative went well beyond the portion that the Dead performed, and the song’s Winterland debut was unique in the band’s performance history in including an extended instrumental coda that appeared, with lyrics and all kinds of baroque embellishments, on the studio version of the tune on the Terrapin Station album later that year. This section, which apparently was dubbed “Alhambra” by one of the audience tapers of the era, was a brief but exquisite instrumental rendition of the portion of the Terrapin suite that appeared on the album as “At a Siding.” Without the lyrics and dominated by some lovely slide guitar from Garcia, this brief interlude was one of the high points of the second set. In their frequently contrary fashion, the band for some reason elected to never play this section again. I’m just guessing, but it may have been a dynamic consideration – to end the tune with a bang (as they did on the 3/20 encore version) rather than fading into the more intimate “At a Siding-Alhambra” passage.

A brief drumfest ensued, and led into another show highlight. Generally the sets of “show highlights” and versions of “Not Fade Away” do not overlap, particularly in later years where it became a signal to end the second set. However, in this version, the longest of 1977 at nearly 20 minutes, the length was equaled by the quality of the playing, particularly from Mr. Garcia.  As the drum duel ended, the two drummers shifted into the Bo Diddley beat for awhile before the rest of the band chimed in. With Phil playing driving things with some aggressive octaves, the rest of the band noodled somewhat placidly in E for the first six minutes or so before breaking into the two verses. With the vocals out of the way, Jerry really got down to business around the 9 minute mark, soloing first with some kind of overdrive for a couple of minutes and then dropping back around 10:30 while the drummers laid down some off-beat thumps and then switching to some other distortion effect for some more furious soloing around the 12 minute mark, playing behind and in front of the beat, with the drummers, Phil and Keith all in synch. Power chord and percussion pandemonium ensues around 14 minutes before everyone falls back into the Bo Diddley beat for the long, mellow vocal denouement.

After the vocals, the volume dropped way down, and the band moved stealthily into the opening bars of a gorgeous rendition of “St. Stephen.” At the band’s previous gig in Santa Barbara, they broke with recent tradition by playing the original arrangement of the St. Stephen bridge, but the revised, waltz time version was back for the Winterland shows. As the final line of “Stephen” crashed to a close, the drummers were starting back into a “NFA” reprise, but Weir took command, instead driving the train straight into “Around and Around,” a tune which was, all too often, relatively rote in its delivery.  In this case, though, the energy of the rest of the set carried over into what was arguably one of the most energetic versions of this tune on record. Garcia was MVP again, starting with some Chuck Berry inspired licks between verses, and then stretching out further on both sides of the modulation preceding the the final verse and then driving Keith and Phil to a power chord embellished frenzy before and during the vocal passage, ending the tune with an extended orgasmic instrumental release.

For the sole encore, the band brought things back down to earth with a soulful version of “Uncle John’s Band,” which nonetheless contained some energetic instrumental thrashing prior to the acapella bridge. A fine way to wrap up what remains what I consider one I consider one of the best Dead shows I ever attended.

The remaining two nights of the March run were fine, and I know at least one of my colleagues actually prefers the next night, which included a long first set medley of “Terrapin”>Playing in the Band”>”Samson and Delilah”>Playing in the Band” and it is hard to beat the perfiously mentioned run-closing “Terrapin” encore on Sunday. This was a weekend full of repeats. Besides “Terrapin” and “Estimated” being played all three nights, “St. Stephen,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Peggy-O,” “Cassidy,” “Promised Land,” “Around and Around,” and “Samson and Delilah” were each played twice, and “Scarlet” returned to end the first set on Sunday without being paired with “Fire on the Mountain.” The level of musicianship and audience engagement was consistently strong all three nights, so you really can’t go wrong with any of the three shows, which set the tone for the remainder of the remarkable year that followed.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Grateful Dead – May to August, 1971

I'm sorry it’s been so long since I have written anything here – hopefully posts will become more regular now.  For this and a few subsequent contributions, I will turn my attention to several Grateful Dead shows that I attended within a given calendar year where I did not take any photographs, starting with 1971. When I graduated from high school, I no longer had regular access to a darkroom for some time, which served to limit, but not completely curtail, my taking pictures at shows.

Winterland 5/30/71. As noted in an earlier post, the Dead show scheduled for Friday 5/28/71 was postponed two days because of Garcia’s illness. He was well enough to play the next night, a show I did not attend, but lives in some infamy as the night scores of audience members were unwittingly and heavily dosed by electric Kool-Aid. Given the ruckus that this caused on the streets of San Francisco after the show, I was not too sorry to miss this one.

There was no Kool-Aid in evidence the following night, which comprised a long show starting with Bay Area folk-rock ensemble RJ Fox, followed by the New Riders and the Dead. James and the Good Brothers, who were advertised as opening the shows, did not perform on the 30th.

The Dead’s two sets were characteristic of the band’s consistently high level of playing in that era, peppered liberally with the new tunes (“Bertha”, “Playing in the Band”, “Loser”, “Deal”) that they had rolled out in early 1971.  Other highlights were a rare first set “Morning Dew” and the west coast debut of the band’s electric revival of Pig’s playful rendition of Lightning Hopkins’ “The Rub.” The one thing this show lacked was an extended improvisational segment, with the second set jam consisting of a fairly standard “Truckin” that led right into a “Lovelight” that featured a memorably raunchy rap from McKernan. The show wrapped up with a nice pairing  of “Uncle John’s Band” and “Casey Jones,” followed by an encore of “Johnny B. Goode.”The second set of this show was given an official release on vinyl by Grateful Dead Records in 2012.

Fillmore West 7/2/71. In late Spring 1971, Bill Graham announced plans to close down both the Fillmores East and West. For the last hurrah of the San Francisco ballroom, Graham scheduled a week’s worth of shows featuring many of the musicians that put San Francisco on the musical map in the late 1960s. When KSAN announced their plans to broadcast all of the concerts, I chose to stay home and tape the shows off of the radio. As it turned out, most of the shows that week were relatively disappointing, with groups like Quicksilver Messenger Service, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and It’s a Beautiful Day having lost much of the magic of their glory days a few years (or in Creedence’s case, only a few months) earlier.  The notable exceptions were a sizzling Sunday night set by Santana (for which the band chose not to allow a broadcast), and a dazzling evening of music on Friday night that saw Jerry Garcia onstage for at least six hours with three different bands.

Opening the show were the Rowan Brothers, Chris and Lorin, who had recently moved from the east coast to Marin, and were in the process of recording their debut album for Columbia. For the Fillmore set, the duo were augmented by a group of heavy hitters comprising Garcia on pedal steel, Phil Lesh on Bass, David Grisman on mandolin, and Bill Kreutzmann on drums. Their brief set fit right in with the evening’s laid back country-rock vibe. For those interested, the bulk of the 7/2/71 Rowans set is available on the duo’s fine 2004 double CD Now and Then.

By this time, the New Riders had toured almost constantly with the Dead for over a year. Although Garcia’s days in the pedal steel chair were numbered, his command of the instrument was at its peak, and these mid to late 1971 NRPS sets were some of the band’s best, mixing material from their as-yet unreleased 1st LP with great covers like “Down in the Boondocks,” “Lodi,” and “Six Days on the Road.”

Although the band only had two songs in the Last Days of Fillmore movie, their entire set was widely circulated in trading circles and through a number of early bootleg records. The band was in exceptionally fine form that evening and, although their set was fairly standard for the era, it included a number of memorable moments, including the ferocious “Bertha” opener, a stand-alone version of “That’s It For the Other One” dedicated by Phil Lesh to Owlsley Stanley, and, as a final encore, a version of “Johnny B. Goode” for the ages introduced by Garcia as “Here’s the one it’s all about.” All in all, a really fine way to bid farewell to the venerable old ballroom where the Dead played so many gigs.

8/14/71 Berkeley Community Theater. Up to these shows, I had only seen the Dead in Bill Graham’s grungy ballrooms, so it was a bit unsettling to see them in this relatively genteel concert hall across the bay. At 3500 seats, the BCT could hold more people than the Fillmore West but far fewer than Winterland, and its configuration, a wide concert hall wide rows of reserved seats and a spacious balcony, made it seem much more intimate and upscale. As was true with most 1971 shows, the New Riders opened with a generous set including both “Garden of Eden” and “Superman,” the two tunes that comprised the original 1969 demo by the proto-New Riders, then going by the moniker Marmaduke and Friends. As was often the case, the Riders set wrapped up with their plaintive cover of the Band tune, “The Weight” with Garcia chiming in on vocals for the last line of the chorus.

The Dead’s set featured two of songs that were new as of the summer tour - Garcia’s “Sugaree” and Pig’s “Mr. Charlie,” both collaborations with lyricist Robert Hunter.  In its early incarnations, “Sugaree” weighed in at a perfunctory 6 minutes, although it soon thereafter became a vehicle for Garcia’s extended soloing.  The rest of the show was relatively standard for that era. One unusual fashion note was that Bob Weir was wearing a tie-dyed tank top very similar to the one he sported in the closing of the Fillmore movie. Another mystery that I couldn’t solve until decades later was the presence of a guest keyboard player who, starting with the Truckin’/The  Other One jam,” shared the bench with Pigpen and played some decidedly more adventurous organ lines than what we had come to expect from Mr. McKernan. The rangy, long haired keyboardist’s identity came to light when Ned Lagin revealed his secret history of sitting in with the Dead in the 1970s (for full details, see Ihor Slabicky’s exhaustive web archive, Nedbase).  The jam itself is distinctive, with a powerful drum solo bridging the two tunes and a beautiful extended jam that departs far from the home base of “The Other One,” led by some particularly assertive bass and lyrical Garcia guitar extrapolations before circling back to the main theme. The show concluded with a chorus of “Happy Birthday” directed at band colleague David Crosby, followed by a double encore of “Johnny B. Goode” and “Uncle John’s Band.”

The Fall of 1971 saw some dramatic changes, with McKernan going on sick leave and replaced on the fall tour by new keyboardist Keith Godchaux, and Garcia-Hunter and even Weir coming up with a strong batch of new songs. I already wrote about the single show I saw with this lineup (11/7/71 at the Harding Theater). Pigpen returned to the fold for a December tour, and I will get to the last show I saw that year, New Year’s at Winterland, in due time.

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.