Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Buffalo Springfield Again - Bridge Benefit 10/24/10

In my first post of this blog, I bemoaned passing up the chance to see the Buffalo Springfield at our local high school (Palo Alto's Cubberley) in April, 1967. Forty three and a half years and a couple of aborted reunion attempts later, the three surviving members of the group united for a couple of shows at Shoreline Amphitheatre, a scant two miles from the site of the concert I missed back in 1967, so I determined not to miss them this time. Forgive my delving briefly into the present, but those who have expected this to be a purely chronological blog have had their expectations dashed already.

Shoreline Amphitheatre is the south bay version of the large outdoor concert shed, built by Bill Graham and his associates back in the late 1980s. It allowed Graham to stage his own large scale concerts during the spring through fall months, and had its own distinctly Northern California stamp, down to resembling a Grateful Deadish skull when viewed from the air.

The occasion was the twenty fourth annual benefit for the Hillsborough, CA Bridge School for children with severe physical and/or speech impairments hosted by Neil Young and his wife Pegi, who is on the school’s board. As is always the case, the two shows were each daylong events featuring a smorgasbord of rock, pop, and country acts, all playing acoustic instruments. For scheduling reasons, I was only able to attend the Sunday show, but it also turned out to have the more interesting lineup, at least to me.

Following a longstanding tradition, Neil opened the show with the same two songs, “Sugar Mountain” and “Comes a Time” that he always seems to pull out to get things underway. First up were two relatively young bands, Grizzly Bear and Modest Mouse (17 years and counting, so not so young, I guess). Both were interesting – the Grizzlies had the northwest Pendleton look down pat and some rich, throaty vocal harmonies. Modest Mouse seemed to bend over backwards to be eclectic and quirky, but the punky demeanor of lead singer Isaac Brock (the guy sitting next to me said “He seems like an Angry Mouse!”) was a stark contrast to the group’s densely layered horn, string, and percussion textures.

Kris Kristofferson was slated to appear with Merle Haggard, but Haggard had to cancel for medical reasons, so Kristofferson delivered a short, somewhat rusty set of his most familiar tunes, closing with the possibly appropriate “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”

The longest stretch of the show was given over to T. Bone Burnett’s Speaking Clock Revue, which has featured a different lineup of artists that have been produced by Burnett during its ongoing national tour. It was a somewhat stripped down revue for the Bridge show, with Elvis Costello, Jeff Bridges, Neko Case, Ralph Stanley, and the piano duo of Leon Russell and Elton John taking successive turns at center stage. High points were the short, rocking set by Costello and the considerably longer one by Russell and John, which featured the bulk of the material from their just released joint album, the Union. Jeff Bridges was a crowd pleaser as he sang two songs from Crazy Heart, including a winning version of “Fallin’ and Flyin’” with Burnett and Costello adding harmonies at a shared microphone.

Through numerous previous Bridge Benefit appearances, Pearl Jam has figured out how to convey the energy of their rock performances using acoustic instruments. Eddie Vedder’s powerfully craggy voice helps a lot, and the group drew on a seemingly unlikely string section for some added firepower that worked better than one would expect. Young joined the band for a powerful version of his “Walk With Me” from his recently released album, Le Noise.”

Six hours of music and a couple of hours of rain into the show, the headliners finally made their appearance. Reunions between Stills and Young have been fairly commonplace over the years, but the two Bridge shows (they also played the previous evening) marked the first time the original three guitar lineup of Stills, Young, and Furay have shared a stage since 1968. The energy of the trio was palpable, with the ebullient Furay leading the charge as the group went right into the original Springfield arrangement of “On the Way Home,” replete with its introductory round of “oo-ooh-ooh’s.” In what was obviously a well rehearsed set, the trio, augmented by Young’s regular bassist Rick Rosas and Stills’ preferred drummer Joe Vitale, proceeded to reprise ten of their most familiar tunes, all reasonably faithful to the arrangements on the original recorded versions, with the exception that the electric guitars were replaced by the trio’s acoustic instruments.

All three musicians looked and sounded great, especially a slimmed down Stills, and Young broke out a fringed leather jacket as another nod to the good old days. The unplugged format precluded some of the sweet country licks on tunes like “Go and Say Goodbye” and the blazing guitar interplay on “Bluebird” that is evident on the few live recordings of the group in their heyday. Stills and, particularly, Young have maintained the highest profiles since the group disbanded, it was really Furay, taking the bulk of the lead vocals and bouncing around at center stage with a huge grin on his face, that was the secret ingredient that made this feel like a genuine Springfield reunion. Given that both members of the band’s original rhythm section, drummer Dewey Palmer and bassist Bruce Palmer, passed away recently, this is as close to a reunion as we will ever see.

Considering Furay’s full time gig as a pastor in a Colorado church and Young’s mercurial temperament, it remains to be seen whether this new Springfield chapter will extend beyond the Bridge concerts. Regardless of any future plans, it was a true delight to see the three singers and songwriters of the group come together one more time and to succeed so well in rekindling their old magic.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Dixieland Jazz in San Francisco


The first popular music concert I recall going to in California was a 1962 performance by Turk Murphy and his Dixieland jazz band at Murphy’s club, Earthquake McGoon’s on Clay Street in San Francisco.  Although Dixieland originated in New Orleans, and is inextricably tied to that city, it had a long tradition in San Francisco as well. Sometimes derided by those who were boosters of the modern jazz that became a vital part of the bay area music community by the 1950s, Murphy’s band and its evolutionary ancestor, Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena jazz band, were well established, very popular groups that included some ferocious players.

Cornet player Lucius “Lu” Watters was born in Santa Cruz in 1911 and spent time working in some conventional big bands before deciding to form a Dixieland ensemble, the 12 piece Yerba Buena Jazz Band, in 1939. The Watters band was unusual in that the musicians were all Caucasian, and none of them had worked in Dixieland bands in New Orleans. For the next eleven years, Watters and company held forth as the house band in two successive venues, first the Dawn Club,  at 20 Annie Street just south of Market, and later the legendary Hambone Kelly’s across the bay at 204 San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito. During World War II, Watters was drafted and led an army big band in the Navy. His band carried on without him in San Francisco, but Watters’ leadership was missed, and the Dawn Club was closed when he returned from the war and discovered that no one had been paying taxes for the club or the band.

Watters then opened Hambone Kelly’s in the basement of a place that had formerly been called the Hollywood Club, run by legendary fan dancer Sally Rand. Watters and band inherited a big club with a 100 foot bar, a large dance floor, and an extremely exotic décor.  The band members lived in apartments upstairs from the club, and it again became a very popular venue where the band could hold forth until dawn if they so desired. At the beginning of 1951, Kelly’s closed and Watters broke up the Yerba Buena band. He retired from music entirely in 1957, moved up to Marin County, and got a degree in Geology.

With the demise of the Yerba Buena band, bay area Dixieland continued a long run under the tutelage of Turk Murphy, who had been the trombonist in Watter’s ensemble.  Murphy was born in 1915 in rural Palermo, California, and was exposed early to traditional jazz by his father, who played both trumpet and drums. As a young musician, Murphy did yeoman’s duty as a trombone player in touring big bands, but ultimately ended up in the bay area, where he, along with clarinet player Bob Helm and trumpeter Byron Berry, started a traditional jazz band in 1937. Ultimately, all of these players were drafted into the Watters band, where they remained during the period described above.  Like Watters, Murphy served in the armed forces during World War II, when he worked as an aviation mechanic.

Earthquake McGoon's
on Broadway
When the Watters band broke up, Murphy freelanced for awhile, but ultimately assembled his own group and spent the rest of his career doing regular residencies at a variety of San Francisco venues, starting with the Italian Village at Columbus and Lombard. Murphy’s band was smaller than Watters, but included a number of colleagues from the earlier band, including Helm,  trumpet player Bob Scobey, pianist Burt Bales. Murphy’s band was typically a more manageable 6 piece, but its stock in trade remained the traditional New Orleans music that the Yerba Buena band had embraced. In 1960, the Murphy Band opened the first of several nightclubs named Earthquake McGoon’s after a character in Al Capp’s “Lil Abner” comic strip. The initial club was at 99 Broadway, in the middle of the nightclub district.

In 1962, the club relocated to the Financial District, at 630 Clay Street, in what had formerly been the William Tell Hotel. The new club had a kitchen and apparently, in order to maintain their liquor license, the place also had to serve food. It was here, a few weeks after the second McGoon’s opened, that my entire family ventured out to hear some live Dixieland jazz. I don’t recall whether my parents had heard Murphy’s band live previously, but the fact that the new venue did serve food meant that we, as minors, could attend. I remember a Friday evening drive into what then was an unfamiliar part of the city, and entering the ornate, Barbary Coast style place. We arrived early for dinner and, at the time, were about the only patrons in the place. Our order was taken by Murphy himself, and he also did the cooking. According to one online source, he did the cooking for several years, and would make a great show of getting off the bandstand and stomping into the kitchen if some hapless patron would order some food once the band had started playing.  From what I can remember, he was cordial enough to us, but the steaks he brought us were horrible.  A few years later, a fan Murphy met in Japan apparently took over kitchen duties, presumably to the bandleader’s relief.

As time went on, the room filled up, and Murphy and company delivered a rousing evening of traditional New Orleans jazz. I don’t remember a lot of details (after all, I was nine years old at the time), but the entire event made quite an impression on me.

Regrettably, that evening in 1962 was the only time I saw Murphy perform. He kept the Clay Street version of McGoon’s going for some 16 years, and then relocated two more times, first to a club off the Embarcadero, and then to tourist destination Pier 39, finally closing up for good in 1984. Murphy then played regularly at the Fairmont Hotel’s aptly named New Orleans room before passing away in 1987.

Murphy’s delving into New Orleans traditional music was, ironically, derided by some modern jazz critics and aficionados as being too conservative and/or too commercial. However, the pursuit by Murphy, Watters, and their colleagues of a traditional music form that was relatively obscure at the time was commendable, and the arranging skills and chops of the musicians were commendable. Over time, Dixieland became an integral part of the San Francisco artistic scene, and Murphy became a sufficiently heralded city figure to have a tiny street running between Broadway and Vallejo, not far from the original McGoon’s location, named Turk Murphy Lane in his honor. The San Francisco Dixieland musicians also made a number of economic and artistic decisions that were embraced by the pioneers of the burgeoning rock community a few years later, such as communal living and owning their own venues so that they could play as long and as often as they wished – not to mention co-opting a traditional American music form into a more contemporary context.

Real New Orleans Dixieland music was also popular in the Bay Area, and I saw the touring version of the house band of that city’s Preservation Hall on a number of occasions in the 1960s, including a gig at the newly erected events center at my high school, Cubberley, during my time at the school. Preservation Hall, which opened in 1961 remains a vital center for traditional New Orleans music. 

Monday, October 18, 2010

Finally – the Grateful Dead (Fillmore West 3/1/69: Grateful Dead, Pentangle, Frumious Bandersnatch)

Although the Grateful Dead got their start in the Palo Alto/Menlo Park area, they went a very long time (1967 to 1973) without getting onto a stage together in the mid-peninsula. Although some fantastic musicians did come within striking distance in 1968, I really wanted to see the Dead, and I wanted to see them in one of the ballrooms in San Francisco. 

Another group I had become particularly enamored of was UK acoustic quintet the Pentangle. Although I was not to enter a major British folk rock phase until some decades later, the Pentangle’s combination of the acoustic guitar wizardry of Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, Jacqui McShee’s exquisitely ethereal vocals, and the jazz influenced rhythm section of standup bassist Danny Thompson and percussionist Tony Cox was unlike anything else on the radio at the time, and I picked up their sophomore release, the double LP Sweet Child, as an import when it first came out at the end of 1968.

When Bill Graham booked these two groups together, along with the horn-heavy San Francisco version of Doug Sahm’s Sir Douglas Quintet, for a four day weekend at the Fillmore West, I made a sufficiently good case to my parents that they had to let me go to one of the shows. This was a major concession and, as things turned out, quite an imposition on them (they spent a couple of hours caught in Chinese New Year’s traffic), but I have been forever grateful to them for the opportunity. The way we worked it out was that they drove me and my friend Llew up to the city the Saturday night of the run, let us out at Market and Van Ness, and arranged to pick us up in front of the Fillmore West at midnight. 

The Fillmore West was located upstairs above the Waters Buick dealership and you entered mid-block up a tall narrow stairway after buying your tickets at the ground level (If I remember correctly, we in fact did pick up our tickets at the door rather than in advance). At the top of the stairs was a long hallway parallel to Market which housed the coat check room where those attending a Sunday night show could pick up free posters for the next week’s show. Just inside the ballroom proper was a refreshment stand that sold cokes and snacks, and, just beyond, the ballroom itself. It was a long, rather narrow room with the stage backing up to the Van Ness Avenue side. At the opposite end was the elevated platform where the light shows worked their magic. Most of the floor was just that, a big wooden dance floor left over from the hall’s earlier incarnations as a big band and Irish dance hall. Along the south wall, opposite the entrance, was a raised area where one could stand and get a good view of the stage, which was a surprisingly low affair that afforded those in the front of the hall an unusually intimate connection with the bands. Near the light show platform in the back were several well worn but cozy sofas. I have been unable to get a precise estimate of the Fillmore West’s capacity, but I would estimate its legal capacity at somewhere just above 1000 people, an incredibly small venue by today’s standards. The funky accoutrements, the light show, and the elbow room afforded by the full-but-not oversold room made for a concert experience that simply could not be duplicated in today’s market. Llew and I found a spot on the floor maybe 1/3 of the way back, which was close enough for me to get some photos, although the combination of low light and the required slow shutter speeds made for some less-than-stellar results.

Frumious Bandersnatch
3/1/69 Photo: M. Parrish
The evening began with a disappointment, as illness caused the slated Sir Douglas Quintet to be a no-show on Saturday (they played at least one of the other nights). In their place was Frumious Bandersnatch, who again delivered a solid set of straight rock and roll. As was the convention up until sometime in 1969, the show’s format called for all three bands to play twice, so the opening set was less than an hour in length.

Next up was the Pentangle. The stage was largely cleared, save for Terry Cox’s modest drum kit, two chairs for the guitarists, and a stool for vocalist McShee. Because of the small size of the Fillmore West, the extremely attentive audience, and the hall’s remarkable sound system, the group’s delicate music came across perfectly. I do not recall the entire set list, but they did draw heavily on Sweet Child, starting, as did the album, with the evocative group composition “Market Song.”

Jacqui Mcshee and Bert Jansch
3/1/69 Photo: M. Parrish 
The group’s strongest draw was probably guitarists Jansch and Renbourn, both of whom had very successful careers as solo jazz-folk pickers before teaming up in Pentangle. Whether trading solos or weaving together remarkable instrumental harmonies, the pair were ably supported by Cox and Thompson, whose extensive experience in acoustic jazz combos was perfect training for the group’s complex harmonies and time signatures. McShee has one of those high, silky voices that was a welcome counterpart to Renbourn’s gruff pipes and Jansch’s plaintive midrange vocals. Simply a superb group, the Pentangle carried on until 1973, when they disbanded. Today, McShee continues to lead a version of the group, and the original lineup has reunited successfully a couple of times, most notably a 2008 40th Anniversary outing that found them able to successfully recapture past glories. It has been postulated that the gigs with the Pentangle were at least one factor that led the Grateful Dead, eight months later, to begin including a few numbers, and then an entire acoustic set, into many of their 1970 shows. However, the Dead were already experimenting with acoustic guitars onstage, and in fact would use them for the first two songs of their second set later that evening.

The Grateful Dead 3/1/69
Photo: M. Parrish
After another short break, Bill Graham announced the headliners with one of his inimitable introductions: “The American Version of the Japanese film Magnificent Seven – the Grateful Dead!” At that point, my chief point of reference for the Dead was Anthem of the Sun, and I was particularly taken with the first side’s swirling psychedelic suite “That’s It for the Other One/New Potato Caboose.” Thus I felt richly rewarded when Jerry Garcia counted out “One, Two, Three, Four!” and led his comrades into a long, intense version of the bulk of that opus, which had actually become a rarity in their concerts by that time.

Those who only saw the Dead in the 90s, 80s, or even 70s might have difficulty envisioning the intensity and aggression that characterized their playing that evening. Garcia and bassist Phil Lesh paired up dramatically at the top and bottom of the music, respectively, with Bob Weir and keyboardist Tom Constanten providing swirling midrange color. From our vantage point, the three standing guitarists and the two drummers were the visual focal point, with Ron “Pigpen” Mckernan and Constanten largely invisible back in the shadows. The aural intensity was mirrored by the onstage stances of the musicians, with Garcia, Lesh, and Weir forming a tight circle as they stretched the instrumental passages of “The Other One” far beyond its length on the album. 

Phil Lesh and Bob Weir 3/1/69
Photo: M. Parrish
After reaching a dramatic crescendo, the group dialed way back energetically for the slow, mellow “Cryptical Envelopment Reprise” with dueling arpeggios that led into another long terminal crescendo, with Lesh’s booming bass leading the charge this time, eventually dissolving into Garcia playing the slow, languid strains that open the Lesh/Robert Peterson composition “New Potato Caboose." Although the vocal harmonies were a bit ragged, this was another spellbinding performance, highlighted by a long Lesh bass solo and a dramatic arpeggiated middle passage in which Lesh’s bass had fallen painfully out of tune.  As on the album, the tune concluded with a long, lyrical Garcia solo that builds to a huge final D chord. Ironically, this was to be one of the last few live performances of NPC by the Grateful Dead proper, although it has been resurrected by several of the subsequent ensembles led by Dead alums Weir and Lesh. 

Instead of leading into Bob Weir’s punky “Born Crosseyed” as on the album, the band charged into a pair of new tunes that they were recording at the time in the studio for their next album, Aoxomoxoa. “Doin’ That Rag,” with its playfully modal chord structure, was an early harbinger of Robert Hunter’s recycling of lyrical motifs from the traditional American music in which he, Garcia, and Weir had immersed themselves before going electric. Not yet fully formed, the Fillmore version had some rough edges, but it has a lot of heart and Garcia’s voice, yet to be ground down by decades of cigarettes, was a high, playful delight.

Grateful Dead 3/1/69
Photo: M. Parrish
Without taking a breath, the group launched into “Cosmic Charlie” rendered at the breakneck tempo employed in the first studio versions of the song and as performed by Garcia the previous October 8 with Mickey Hart and the Hartbeats, a far cry from the mellow shuffle it became on the album. Screaming banshee guitars led into a ferocious guitar and bass boogie with Garcia and Weir singing the bulk of the song in unison, Lesh lending some high harmonies towards the end. The song ended with another batch of banshee power chords, an instrumental chorus, and a final round of “Go on home, your mama’s calling you” to round out the set. As the group headed offstage, Weir promised they would be back for “Another Set – a long one.”

Unfortunately for us, the midnight hour was approaching, and we had to head outside to meet my folks after hearing a few songs of the second Bandersnatch set. It would be another ten years before I finally heard a primitive audience tape of the second set, which consisted of two more Aoxomoxoa tunes (“Dupree’s Diamond Blues” and “Mountains of the Moon” leading into the familiar Live Dead suite of “Dark Star,” St. Stephen, “The Eleven,” and “Turn on Your Lovelight,” concluding with a very ragged Pigpen sung version of "Hey Jude" for the encore. 

Over time, this show has been regarded as one of the classic Dead performances, and it, along with the other three nights of the run, were released as a deluxe 10 CD set by Grateful Dead records back in 2005. It certainly was a great introduction to the Fillmore West, which I still consider by far the finest rock venue of the many I have attended over the years.  

Friday, October 8, 2010

Cream/The Collectors/It’s a Beautiful Day. Oakland Coliseum Arena 10/4/68

I was completely captivated by Cream’s Wheels of Fire when it came out in the summer of 1968. In particular, I played the live disc over and over, probably much to the dismay of our long suffering next door neighbors. I had actually received Disraeli Gears as a present at Christmas the year before, but my father was much more of a fan of it at the time than I was, although it certainly grew on my by the time Wheels of Fire came out. When Cream’s farewell tour was announced in late summer 1968, we got tickets. Ironically, this was still not to get me to the fabled ballrooms in San Francisco. Instead, the concert was to be held at the nearly new Oakland Coliseum Arena (now Oracle Arena), just off of the Nimitz Freeway (now Hwy 880) in Oakland. The giant Arena, developed in conjunction with the adjacent outdoor Oakland Coliseum, opened in 1966 as an urban alternative to the aging and cavernous Cow Palace across the bay in Daly City.

Although all of the Cream appearances in San Francisco had been held at the Fillmore Auditorium or Winterland, under the aegis of Bill Graham’s organization, the Oakland show was put on by a different promoter, Concert Associates, Inc. Graham had booked Cream for two extended engagements at Fillmore/Winterland, one in August-September 1967, and the second in March, 1968, but apparently Graham refused to come up with the fees demanded by Cream manager Robert Stigwood so Cream had bypassed San Francisco on their June, 1968 tour (playing instead at the San Jose Civic Auditorium) and did not book the Farewell tour show in Oakland. Also, Graham had yet to try to build a market for shows at the huge Coliseum Arena (original concert capacity ca. 15000, expanded in 1997 to 20000), although he would promote the Rolling Stones there in November of 1969 and he would start using it regularly starting in 1973. In 1968, the two biggest touring rock acts were Cream and Jimi Hendrix, so it is not that surprising that they were two of the earliest rock acts to play the Arena.

As originally booked, the Oakland Cream show was a British rock dream pairing of Cream and Traffic. However, by the time the show rolled around, Traffic was off the bill, presumably because Dave Mason’s second departure ground their tour plans to a halt. By show time, Traffic had been replaced by two acts with less commercial clout, Canadian band the Collectors and rising San Francisco band It’s A Beautiful Day.  Both had made a few 2nd and 3rd bill gigs at the Family Dog and Fillmore by that time, but neither was a headliner by any means.

Oakland Coliseum Arena
BALLPARKS © 1996-2001 by Munsey & Suppes
I vividly remember the drive over to Oakland that Friday night. It was the first time I had gone over the new, spacious span of the San Mateo Bridge, which had opened the previous year, and it was a somewhat surreal experience being that high over the bay. Because my father was driving, I had plenty of opportunity to gape. Although it seems pretty conventional by today’s standards, the Coliseum Arena also had a somewhat space age appeal at the time with its cylindrical shape, its vast expanses of glass, and curving promenades both indoors and outside.  Despite a major indoor makeover that added an additional 5000 seats, the external appearance of the arena today is largely unchanged.

We had decent seats, on the low risers on the right side of the stage maybe 1/3 of the way back. Unlike the rock shows in San Francisco at the time, there was no light show, just conventional spots.  The show was my first experiment in shooting an indoor concert, and dealing with low light always proved to be a challenge under those circumstances. What I generally did was to use Tri-X film chemically pushed to 3X its normal ASA value, which sort of worked. Today, with the aid of Photoshop, it is possible to recover a lot more detail from these negatives than I could at the time. Still, these are far from magazine quality shots, although they do have some historical significance.

It's A Beautiful Day 10/4/68 Photo: M. Parrish
It’s a Beautiful Day was a relative newcomer to the Bay Area music scene.  Although violinist David LaFlamme had earlier been part of the infamous Orkustra with Manson family member Bobby Beausoleil, IABD itself was basically put together by infamous manager Matthew Katz, who asked David and Linda Laflamme to join the group he was crafting as a vehicle for 18 year old singer Patty Santos. Relationships with Katz did not go well, and the group split from his management in early 1968, after they felt he was not able to get them either gigs or a major label recording contract. Katz maintained that he owned the group name, and has subsequently spent decades in legal tussles over ownership of materials by IABD, Moby Grape, and even the Jefferson Airplane.   By spring of 1968, the group had started played some gigs at both the Avalon and the Fillmore, but the opening gig for Cream at the Oakland Arena was by far the biggest break the group had received to date – remarkable for a group whose debut album would not appear for another six months or so. 

It’s a Beautiful Day played a remarkable set that evening, consisting of material that would appear on their eponymous debut album in 1969, including extended versions of "Bombay Calling" and "Time Is," as well as a great version of what would become their signature piece, "White Bird." The chemistry between David LaFlamme and Santos was dynamic, and their soaring vocals and LaFlamme’s searing violin playing easily filled the gigantic room.

The Collectors 10/4/68 Photo: M. Parrish

 Next up were the Collectors, an eclectic quintet from British Columbia whose dark, swirling music was a sharp contrast to IABD’s bright, sunny vibe. The hall was literally dark for their set, which is why the pictures I took of them evaded clarification even through the magic of Photoshop. The group’s debut album evoked strongly polarized opinions, but it’s magnum opus, the stark 19 minute What Love (Suite) was in heavy rotation on KSAN at the time, and was the centerpiece of their set that evening. Multi-instrumentalist Claire Lawrence played everything in sight including (as pictured) the trombone.

Cream 10/4/68 Photo: M. Parrish

After a longish break, it was finally time for Cream to play. This was the opening night of the band’s Farewell tour, and the group had not performed together, or even been in the same room, for nearly four months. They apparently spent the afternoon rehearsing, and it was reportedly not the happiest of reunions. Nonetheless, they came out with figurative guns blazing for a dramatic, if musically erratic, 65 minute set. They opened with their then-current FM hit “White Room,” and it was undoubtedly the loudest thing I had heard up to that point. Both Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce were playing through two Marshall stacks, and Ginger Baker did not seem to have any trouble matching their volume, through sheer physical stamina (and some well amplified drums). Clapton’s extravagant wah-wah filigrees washed over Bruce’s sturdily rumbling bass lines, although the two did not always sound in synch. Bruce and Peter Brown’s lumbering blues “Politician” was next, with an over-the-top vocal by Bruce.  Crossroads had a new intro and was performed at the kind of laid-back tempo that Clapton has favored in recent years, although his and Bruce’s rapid fire soloing offered a sharp contrast to the song’s lumbering pace. Announced as “our last single,” the group offered a perfunctory reading of “Sunshine of Your Love” highlighted by emotive shared vocals by Bruce and Clapton and Baker’s thunderous drum fills.

Cream 10/4/68 Photo: M. Parrish
One of the highlights of Wheels of Fire was the extended cover of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful.” At the Oakland show, this seventeen minute extravaganza found Clapton and Bruce both wailing away with fury but considerably less substance than the recorded version, relying largely on the same riffs played over and over again for much of the song while Bruce injected a lot of vocal scats and Baker attempted to ground the proceedings with jazzy fills. It finally ground to a somewhat anticlimactic halt – not one of their finest quarter hours.

Next, the group played a couple of very unusual numbers at the show that indicated their intention to showcase a bit of an expanded repertoire for their last tour. Supposedly the plan was to release a double album made up, as was Wheels of Fire, of a live disc and a studio disc, so perhaps they were hoping to capture performances of songs beyond their admittedly limited live repertoire at the time (ultimately the final album Goodbye had three tracks from the 10/19 Forum gig as well as three final studio tracks). Whatever the motivation, the attempts to expand beyond the familiar were seemingly abandoned after the Oakland gig, resulting in a couple of unique performances.  “Deserted Cities of the Heart” was a somewhat experimental Bruce-Brown composition from the last album that was a harbinger of some of the interesting directions Bruce would take in his solo career. What seems to be the only live performance of the song ended up (along with "White Room" and "Politician") on both Live Cream Volume 2 and the box set Those Were the Days. It’s a spirited but perfunctory performance, with both Bruce and Baker pushing the tempo, and Clapton taking a fiery solo between the verses.

Ginger Baker 10/4/68 Photo: M. Parrish
The next number has been identified on bootlegs as “Passing the Time” and also by the mysterious name “Scattafragus.” It indeed begins with the intro to “Passing the Time” from Wheels of Fire, but that song’s lyrics are gone, replaced by a short bit of very off key scat singing by the three musicians that led into a bit of trio jamming and then into the inevitable Baker drum solo. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how they would have been able to deliver the delicate, cello-ornamented lyric section early in the song in a live power trio context. The drummer acquitted himself admirably, playing with both substance and fury before the two guitarists joined in for a very ragged finish. I was enamored of “Toad” at the time, and found this a mysterious replacement, although it remains an interesting artifact.

The show ended with an equally ragged, but energetic version of “I’m So Glad,” and no encore was forthcoming.  Listening to the excellent stereo soundboard of this show that circulates today, it is easy to be critical of one of the group’s less than stellar performances. However, I consider myself lucky to have been able to see Cream, warts and all. To juxtapose two overused but entirely appropriate rock critic clichés, they truly were an elemental force of nature onstage, and the strength of the three personalities (and those Marshall stacks) made for a larger than life performance. 

Monday, October 4, 2010

40 Years Ago Today - Three Bands for Three Dollars at Winterland

I’m going to deviate from a strict chronological narrative in order to tip my hat to the 40th anniversary of an eventful, if not necessarily uplifting, hallmark in the history of San Francisco music. For the evenings of October 4th and 5th, 1970, the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service leased Winterland from Bill Graham for two shows billed as “Three Bands for Three Dollars.” By this time, it was very traditional for this ‘big three’ groups to share billings, but getting all of them on one bill was becoming difficult, and indeed this was the last time even any two of the groups would appear together (not counting the two dual Dead-Jefferson Starship billings in GG Park on 3/23/75 and 9/28/75). In honor of the occasion, radio stations KSAN and KQED, along with KQED TV partnered to deliver a live broadcast of the show on TV with Quadraphonic sound. In honor of this occasion, I created an ad-hoc media center in our living room with my own little stereo tuned to KQED, the family stereo on KSAN, and the TV from the family room.

The broadcast began awhile after the show began, and reputedly there was a set by the New Riders before the broadcast began, with just a snippet of “Truckin’” as a check of the broadcast gear, which at the time I believe consisted of phone lines from the hall to the radio studios. The broadcast began in earnest with a very energetic version of the Hunter/Garcia tune “Till the Morning Comes” which did a nice job of separating out the drum kits of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. The rest of the Dead’s shortish set was well played, heavy on tunes from both Workingmans Dead and the soon-to-be released American Beauty. However, exploratory pieces like “The Other One” and “Dark Star” were not played, possibly because of time restrictions. The sole stretched out part of the set was a rousing “Good Lovin,’” which included two extended percussion breaks before and after the first verse. The set was also notable because Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who had returned to playing keyboards when Tom Constanten left the band the previous January, ended up playing tambourine for the set because the Dead’s organ was mistakenly left back at the studio.

During the set break, word came through that Janis Joplin had passed away from a heroin overdose down in Los Angeles. Understandably, this put a damper on the proceedings, but the musicians carried on as best they could. Next up was the Jefferson Airplane, whose set opened with their recent single “Have You Seen the Saucers.” The Airplane’s set was relatively well played, but dissention among the ranks was visible on TV. New drummer Joey Covington sang a couple of clunky rockers, “Whatever the Old Man Wants” and “The Man (Bludgeon for a Bluecoat,” and Marty Balin’s contributions were “Up and Down,” “Emergency,” and “You Wear Your Dresses Too Short.” Otherwise, the set was dominated by Grace Slick and Paul Kantner, who had largely assumed leadership of the group by this time. At the end of an explosive medley of “We Can Be Together” and “Volunteers,” Balin shouted “ I need a new band!” slammed his microphone back into the stand, and walked off stage. As far as I know, it would be the last time he performed with the Airplane proper until their 1989 reunion. The next night was the debut of fiddler Papa John Creach, whose bluesy electric violin veered the band even further away from its folk-rock roots.

After a longish break, a radically retooled Quicksilver Messenger Service took the stage, with singer Dino Valenti clearly calling the shots. For the first time, the band included a horn section, including the ubiquitous Martin Fierro on saxophone, and was also augmented by electric pianist Mark Naftalin. The group’s set was very short, just about 40 minutes, and consisted entirely of Valenti tunes including “Fresh Air,” “Subway,” and “What About Me?” Tempos were sluggish, the horn section ill-rehearsed, and the hour late, so their set wound up just about 2 AM anticlimactically with another Valenti dirge “Call on Me.”  This would prove to be guitar icon John Cipollina’s last regular gig with QMS, although he returned briefly to play with the group for their New Year’s Eve performance a few blocks away at the Kabuki Theatre. It is clear from some onstage bickering audible on the recording from this show that this short lived attempt at détente made for another  tense evening.

The broadcast terminated at that point, so I do not know if any intra-band jamming took place afterwards. It is possible that stalwarts like Garcia, Kaukonen, and Cipollina could have done so but, given the dark tone of the evening, I doubt it. Ironically, what was scheduled as a celebration of the best of San Francisco music ended with the death of one of its brightest stars and the loss of key members to two of the three groups on the bill. Audio tapes of these shows circulate, taken from one or the other halves of the quadraphonic mix, but apparently no video from the broadcast exists.