Sunday, November 21, 2010

Duke Ellington Orchestra, Herbie Hancock Sextet, Redd Foxx, and Smoke. Frost Amphitheatre 5/4/69

A few weeks before I got my dad to the Fillmore West to see Woody Herman and the Who, he took me to see another outstanding jazz concert closer to home, back at the Frost. We went to the second day of a weekend celebration of African American culture entitled “Two Days in May.” The first day, which we did not attend, featured mostly vocalists: O.C. Smith, Lette Mbulu, Oscar Brown Jr. and the Chicago Blues All Stars. The show we attended was a Sunday afternoon jazz affair headlined by Duke Ellington and also featuring Herbie Hancock’s sextet, and Bay Area contemporary jazz combo Smoke. Rashaan Roland Kirk was also advertised as part of the bill, but did not appear.

Although it was a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon, attendance was relatively light – a shame, given the calilber of the musicians. Activist comedian Dick Gregory was the planned emcee, but he was incarcerated at the time, so he was replaced by another popular comedian, Redd Foxx. Foxx, still three years away from his big career break in Sanford and Son, gave what were certainly the raunchiest monologues that my tender ears had heard up until that time during the course of the afternoon. Racy or not, he had the crowd rolling in the aisles.

The first act, Smoke, was a popular Palo Alto based quartet led by vibist Woody Webb that at the time also featured bassist Chris Cristy, sax player Kenny Washington, and drummer John Felder. No clear memories of their set, but I do remember them being very good, with some tuneful yet extended explorations. The original group released an eponymous album on Session Records in 1970, which my dad had and regrettably I no longer have. Webb and a different lineup released a second Smoke album, Smoke Everything,  on a different label, in 1974. Both are now extremely rare, and neither has been released on CD.

After touring with Miles Davis for five years, Herbie Hancock struck out on his own by putting together a sextet in 1968. The lineup at the Frost was the same group that recorded Hancock’s 1968 Blue Note album Speak Like a Child, comprising Johnny Coles (trumpet, flugelhorn), Garnett Brown (trombone), Joe Henderson (sax, flute), Buster Williams (bass), and Tootie Heath (drums). Hancock, who continued to do sessions with Miles until 1972, was used to using electronic keyboards with Davis, but his performance at the Frost was entirely on acoustic piano, with Williams also playing standup rather than electric bass. Their repertoire included material from Speak Like a Child, as well as a luminous, extended performance of Speak Like a Child. Contemporary jazz had really first caught my attention when my father picked up Davis’ revolutionary In a Silent Way, and the Hancock performance was close enough to the territory Miles (and Herbie) mined on that album to be particularly appealing to me.  Only months later, Hancock would be commissioned to write the soundtrack for the television cartoon series based on Bill Cosby’s character Fat Albert and the soundtrack from that show, Fat Albert Rotunda, would mark his shift into more electric jazz funk.

After some more blue humor from Foxx, we were treated to an exemplary performance by one of the giants of jazz, or, for that matter, any American music idiom. Duke Ellington came to the Bay Area days after celebrating his 70th birthday at the White House in a legendary celebration that included an incredible list of guests including Earl “Fatha” Hines, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and Richard Rogers. According to Ellington biographer A.H. Lawrence1, Ellington politely sat through some piano renditions of his compositions by Vice President Spiro Agnew before Ellington himself took the stand for a marathon jam session that included numerous other jazz luminaries including drummer Louie Bellson, pianists Dave Brubeck, Hines, Hank Jones, saxophonists Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan, bassist Milt Hinton, and guitarist Jim Hall. By the time the jam session was underway, President and Mrs. Nixon had retired to bed.

For the Frost show, Ellington’s orchestra consisted of trumpeters Cootie Williams, Cat Anderson, Rolf Ericson, Mercer Ellington, and Ray Nance, trombonists Lawrence Brown and Chuck Connors, a sax section comprising Paul Gonsalves, Johnny Hodges, Norris Turney, Harold Ashby, Harry Carney, and Russell Procope, second pianist Wild Bill Davis, bassist Victor Gaskin, drummer Rufus Jones, and vocalist Tony Watkins.  The Ellington band was in transition at this point. He retained loyal employees like Hodges, Carney, Williams, Procope, Brown, and Golsalves who had been with him (in some cases on and off) for 25 up to 40 years or more, but was working with a rhythm section and vocalist who were newcomers to the fold. His loyal composition partner and ‘deputy pianist’ Billy Strayhorn had passed away the previous year, and his position onstage was occupied by Davis, another relative newcomer.

Ellington, who served as an icon of one of the most successful and visible African American bandleaders, was also walking a political tightrope that required all of his charm and diplomacy. He graciously accepted the White House invitation, but provided a guest list that did not clearly align with the current administration’s politics. The day after the Stanford performance, Ellington performed at San Francisco State, where he fell short of denouncing the embattled President S.I. Hayakawa but did dedicate the concert to “those of us who are totally dedicated to developing the Black Studies Program.2

At Stanford, politics did not present themselves, but Ellington and orchestra did deliver a remarkable afternoon of music. This was my first exposure to one of the classic big bands, and it was remarkable to see them decked out in their suits and matching music stands. I was too new to this music to remember the entire set list, but Ellington did perform a good chunk of what was his second Sacred Concert, which he had recorded in New York and performed at a number of churches, including San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral the preceding year, along with classics like the inevitable “ Take the A Train.” As usual, Ellington premiered some new music as well possibly part of his Latin American Suite, but I regrettably can’t summon up any further details.

I was mightily impressed by Ellington’s music, and as much by his charisma and style, which were such a strong contrast to the earthier presence of many of the rock musicians to which I was being drawn. I do remember feeling that Ellington was impossibly old, but a current reality check is that both the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and Hancock celebrated their respective 70th birthdays this year, and I am only 13 years behind them. To his credit, Ellington stayed on the road playing one nighters until he was hospitalized with advanced cancer a couple of months shy of his 75th birthday, and he passed away less than a month after that milestone.

My father was ecstatic about the concert, but dismayed at the relatively sparse attendance at the event. It spurred him to write a letter to the Dean of Bay Area music critics, Ralph Gleason, bemoaning the apparent failure of the Stanford student body to get the word out about the show. Gleason’s short, hand typed reply to my father is one of my favorite musical mementos from the era.

1. Lawrence, A.H. 2001. Duke Ellington and His World, Routledge Press, New York. Pp. 377-380
2. Gleason, R.J. San Francisco Chronicle, 5/7/69.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Doors, Lonnie Mack, Elvin Bishop. Cow Palace, 7/25/69

When my cousins came in from the Midwest, they decided they would like to hear some rock music on a Friday night. We had the choice of going to the Fillmore to see Steve Miller and Albert King or going to the 15,000 capacity Cow Palace, in Daly City just south of San Francisco, to see the Doors, Lonnie Mack, and Elvin Bishop. In retrospect, it seems odd that the Who would play the Fillmore West while Bill Graham would need to rent the Cow Palace to handle the demand for the Doors.  The Los Angeles quartet were at the height of their popularity in 1967-68, and Jim Morrison’s infamous bust for public exposure in Miami in March did nothing to dent demand for the group, at least in California.  It did result in at least 24 of the spring Doors engagements being cancelled by the promoters in other parts of the country, and this was only the group’s ninth gig since the bust three months earlier.

The Cow Palace got its name from the cattle shows that used to be held there regularly. Hardly an ideal concert venue, it resembles a grossly oversized Quontset hut. Nonetheless, it hosted many high profile shows dating back to the mid Sixties when groups like the Beatles and the Stones had played there. I had been there many times previously to attend the Boat and Sports show held there each January, but this was my first concert experience there.

I can’t remember whether seats were reserved or not, but my cousins and I (one of them was of driving age, so my parents weren’t called on this time) got pretty nice seats on the risers on the east side of the arena pretty close to the stage. The hall was really full, but I don’t know whether it was sold out.

Elvin Bishop Group
7/25/69 Photo: M. Parrish
The opening act was blues guitarist Elvin Bishop and his relatively new group. Bishop has played on a bit of a cornpone image since being given the nickname “Pigboy Crabshaw” during his days in the Butterfield Blues Band, but he was no slouch intellectually, having attended the University of Chicago as a physics major in the early 1960s. It was there that he started frequenting the amazing blues clubs nearby and met blues harmonica player-vocalist Butterfield, initially performing as a duo with Butterfield and then becoming the lead guitarist in the original incarnation of the Butterfield Blues Band. In 1965, the group was augmented by the prodigious Michael Bloomfield on lead and slide guitar, and the group recorded two extraordinary albums for Elektra including the classic East-West, which featured some remarkable extended improvisational duels between the two guitarists that presaged similar workouts by groups like the Allman Brothers, Cream, and the Dead. Bloomfield left in 1967 to form the Electric Flag, and Bishop carried on for another year or so, recording two more albums as Butterfield gradually moved the band in a jazz direction, adding a full horn section. During 1968, Bishop spent more and more time in San Francisco, jamming with folks like Jerry Garcia and Steve Miller, and he ultimately moved there permanently by mid year, subsequently forming his own group that was one of the first acts signed to Bill Graham’s fledgling Fillmore Record Label.

Elvin Bishop Group
7/25/69 Photo: M. Parrish
Bishop’s debut album, The Elvin Bishop Group was released in 1969, but I’m not sure if it had come out yet by the time of the Cow Palace gig. His band was pretty much the same lineup featured on the album, comprising keyboard player Stephen Miller (not to be confused with guitarist Steve Miller), bassist Art Stavros, drummer John Chambers and harmonica player Applejack, and the set consisted mostly of that material as well. From what I can remember, Bishop took all the lead vocals, despite the fact that Miller is an excellent blues-rock vocalist who took the bulk of lead vocals in his other band, Linn County – another top flight, but largely unheralded bay area blues rock group. Miller appears to have played in both groups simultaneously from 1968-70. Although Bishop’s vocal range was limited, his aw-shucks stage patter and, particularly, the band’s dynamic ensemble playing and his stinging lead guitar, won the large crowd over.

Lonnie Mack 7/25/69
Photo: M. Parrish
Second on the bill was Indiana blues rock icon Lonnie Mack. Mack, who had a major hit in 1963 with a blistering instrumental version of “Memphis,” was enjoying his first of several high profile comebacks of his career, having recently been signed to Elektra records where he had just released the first of three albums for that label, Glad I’m In the Band. Largely unknown on the West Coast, Mack had come to the attention of Elektra and west coast music fans when Rolling Stone published a piece in late 1968 extolling the virtues of Mack’s revolutionary blues guitar technique, which brought country/bluegrass picking techniques into a blues/rock context, so his appearance, which I believe was his first bay area gig since the Stone article, was eagerly anticipated. 

Lonnie Mack 7/25/69
Photo: M. Parrish
Like Bishop, Mack proved a master showman, making good use of his guitar wizardry through his trademark Gibson “Flying V” guitar and also working the crowd with his rich, gospel-tinged vocals. In addition to sharing a bill and a label with the Doors, Mack subsequently guested on their next studio album, 1970’s Morrison Hotel, taking the memorable guitar break on “Roadhouse Blues.” Mack’s strong set at the Cow Palace was politely received by the crowd, but it was clear that the audience was impatient for the headliners. In a precursor to the big business model of rock shows soon to come, the show at the Cow Palace had a much less intimate feel than those in the friendly confines of the Fillmore West. It also seemed that there was a lot more alcohol in evidence, and thus it was no surprise that the audience was more rowdy as well.

The mood of the patrons was not improved by the lengthy break that ensued between the end of Mack’s set and the time the Doors took the stage perhaps an hour later. Jim Morrison’s erratic onstage antics have been well documented elsewhere, most vividly in Greg Shaw’s excellent (but sadly out of print) book The Doors On the Road. Until now, little has been written about their Cow Palace performance, probably because no tapes circulate of that show. 

The Doors had just come off of a very successful two night stand at the Aquarius Theater in Los Angeles which subsequently formed the basis of their Absolutely Live album and were subsequently released in their entirety on the Doors Bright Moonlight label. For those shows, the Doors focused on earlier material, some of Morrison’s extended poetry pieces, and blues-rock covers like “Little Red Rooster” and “Who Do You Love?.” Therefore, this was the first real gig that the band performed since the release of their fourth album The Soft Parade, a month before. Possibly for this reason, the group attempted a more generous chunk of the album than they did before or since. Unfortunately, things did not go all that well.

Doors 7/25/69
Photo: M. Parrish
An obviously well lubricated Morrison took the stage and kicked things off with, I believe, “Five to One.” (Note: I do not have a setlist for this show, so any remembrances of order and even material performed are based on 41 year old memories. If anyone out there knows more specifics, please chime in). As can be seen from the photos,  Morrison’s metamorphosis from sex symbol to beefy, hirsute Irish poet was well underway, and his heavy beard and baggy clothes emphasized his new image. 

The Doors 7/25/69
Photo: M. Parrish
In the body of the show came “Break on Through,”  "When the Music's Over," "Alabama Song," “Touch Me,” and, I’m pretty sure, a rare version of “Tell All the People,” along with some other standard fare of the day. Morrison hung on the microphone, slurred his words at times, and certainly didn’t move around as much as he did in previous years. The rest of the band played well, and Krieger's guitar work was particularly memorable. 

The Doors 7/25/69
Photo: M. Parrish
One positive was that Morrison did not get into any verbal or physical spars with the audience, but he did fail to heed a request from the promoter to wrap things up for curfew.  Morrison tried to lead the band into the “Soft Parade” medley, got as far as the spoken “Seminary School” monologue before the emcee (I think it was Jerry Pompili) called time from an offstage mic. At this point, Morrison got belligerent and egged the crowd on to demand that the band be allowed to keep playing. With the stage lights off, Morrison continued to rant and the crowd got more and more insistent. A standoff continued for a long time, maybe 20 minutes, and finally the band won out, although the overtime union fees probably came out of their proceeds for the evening. From what I remember, they then ran through the full “Soft Parade” and wrapped things up with a speedy, but pretty energetic, run through “Light My Fire.”

One might think that such behavior at a Bill Graham venue would prompt permanent banishment, but the Doors were back at Winterland for two nights the next February, their last gigs in Northern California before Morrison retired to write in Paris.

Compared to other Doors gigs of the era, things could have been worse. No one in the band or the audience were injured, and no arrests were made. In retrospect, it was a pretty satisfying evening of music, with some classic Jim Morrison psychodrama thrown in for good measure.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Who, Woody Herman’s Herd, A.B. Skhy – Fillmore West 6/19/69

I finally conned my father into going to the Fillmore West with me in June. His teen years paralleled mine in that he was a kid from the suburbs who spent a lot of time in the theatres and ballrooms in Chicago hearing the big bands that were such a part of the pre-war era.  At that time, as now, Chicago was one of the epicenters of the popular music world, so all of the best big bands were frequent visitors – Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington – and Woody Herman’s Herd.  When I told him that the Herman band was being billed with the Who, he took the bait. We bought some tickets at Discount Records, and off we went.

Even though the Who were touring behind Tommy, which was by far their biggest commercial success to date,  the Fillmore West was by no means oversold. It shows how much the music industry has changed that groups like the Who and the Dead could play a roughly 1000 seat hall in 1969-70 and not sell it out.  I remember that we parked on Van Ness just around the corner from the Fillmore West entrance, got in line, and were in within a few minutes.

Dennis Geyer and Jim Marcotte of
A.B. Skhy 6/16/69 Photo: M. Parrish
The show was opened by A.B. Skhy, one of a cluster of very good blues-rock bands plying their craft in San Francisco at the time. At this time, A.B. Skhy comprised the quartet that recorded the group’s first album on MGM – guitarist Dennis Geyer, bassist Jim Marcotte, drummer Terry Anderson and Hammond B-3 organist Howard Wales. 

Their sound was defined by Geyer’s soulful vocals and Wales’ swirling jazz-influenced chops. Today, the group is probably most often remembered for the presence of Wales, who shortly thereafter forged a musical partnership with Jerry Garcia that resulted in one very fine jazz rock album Hooteroll as well as a myriad of local club gigs, mostly at the Matrix.

Howard Wales 6/19/69
Photo: M. Parrish
A.B. Skhy recorded two albums for MGM,. Their first eponymous release featured a full horn section backing the quartet, and its material formed the basis of their live shows the few times I saw them,  including their swaggering cover of B.B. King’s “You Upset Me Baby” and Wales’ instrumental showpiece,”Camelback.” The second A.B. Skhy album, “Ramblin’ On” featured a different lineup. Wales and Anderson were gone, replaced by drummer Rick Jaeger and guitarist James Curley Cooke, who was all over the San Francisco blues rock scene,  starting with the original lineup of the Steve Miller Band and later fronting his own Hurdy Gurdy Band and gigging with pianist Ben Sidran. The album was produced by noted LA Scenester Kim Fowley, and it was more polished, but the raw energy that fueled the Wales iteration of the group was missing, although it was definitely in evidence that evening at the Fillmore West.

The show turned out to be a funny hybrid between the format that Bill Graham had been using previously with two sets per group each night and the one he went to shortly thereafter with each band only playing once. Although the other two bands each played two sets, the centerpiece of the show (between the first sets by AB Skhy and Woody Herman) being one long set by the Who. The reason for the single set and their early position on the bill was that the band had to catch a redeye to New York City after their set, where Townshend had to stand trial for an event that had occurred at the Fillmore East the previous month. They were in the middle of their set when a plain clothes policeman commandeered the microphone to announce that a fire had broken out in the adjacent building. Townshend, not realizing what the policeman was up to, assumed he was some tripping audience member trying to take over his stage and kicked him off the stage. Needless to say, New York’s finest did not take this kindly, and Townshend was arrested. At his court appearance, he ultimately was assessed a $30 fine for his infraction. There is a great reminiscence of that show here.

The Who 6/19/69 Photo: M. Parrish
What this meant for us was a single long set by the Who, a bit road weary from a long tour, but still firing on all cylinders. In a format that was familiar for them at the time,  they opened with a string of short tunes, starting with perennial set openers “Heaven and Hell” and “Can’t Explain.” At this point, I had all of their albums, but was not fully prepared for the sonic and visual assault that was the Who in their prime. Like Clapton, Townshend had twin Marshall stacks that seemed a lot louder in the friendly confines of the Fillmore West than they did in a big hall like the Oakland Arena. Townshend’s jumps and windmills were a revelation in that era before concert videos, as was Keith Moon’s hyperkinetic drumming. It was a surprise to see vocalist Roger Daltrey, who had sported a Beatlish bob on previous album covers, with what subsequently became his trademark mop of curls. I think their overall presence was probably quite a culture shock for my dad, as were the dense clouds of non-tobacco smoke wafting about, but he took it all in stride, and certainly appreciated the Who’s chops as well as their showmanship.

After a quicker than usual run through Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues” the Who played the bulk of Tommy in an abridged version that ran just under an hour. Again, a plethora of archival video and audio releases have made the remarkable vehicle that was the concert version of Tommy familiar, but at the time it was a remarkable, and very energized alternative to the album version. Eschewing the overture,  the group plowed directly into the rock opera’s plot following a verbal synopsis from Townshend.  The more remarkable parts were the blazing “Sparks” with taciturn bassist John Entwhistle leading the charge, an uptempo version of “Eyesight to the Blind,” a charged version of their single of the time “Pinball Wizard. The larger than life finale “See Me Feel Me” had not yet worn out its welcome, and provided a dazzling climax to the rock opera.

With Tommy under their belt and an eye on the clock, the group closed with a speedy medley starting with Entwhistle’s  macabre “Boris the Spider” followed in quick succession by “Summertime Blues,” “Shakin’ All Over” and an extended “Magic Bus.” Much to the crowd’s dismay, they took their leave without an encore or even a guitar-smashing “My Generation” finale – but they had a good excuse, and apparently made their 1130 flight without any trouble.  A very good audience recording of this performance exists among collectors, and it is regarded as one of their finer shows of the era by Who aficionados.

No one except possibly Jimi Hendrix should have had the task of following the Who at that point in their career, but that was the daunting task that faced Woody Herman and the Herd. However, Herman knew a thing or two about whipping a crowd into a frenzy, and had the raw power of his horn heavy big band to do so. Herman had been courting a rock audience in recent years,  and his recent album had featured covers of both “Light My Fire” and Richard Harris’ schmaltzy “MacArthur Park.”Being ignorant of their repertoire at the time, I can’t offer many details of their set, but they did indeed succeed in winning the crowd over.  A year or so later, Herman went even further into the rock arena by cutting an album, Brand New, that was a collaboration with bay area guitar icon Michael Bloomfield. We left after the first Herman set – it was a Thursday night and I’m pretty sure my father had to go to work the next day.

The Who 6/16/69 Photo: M. Parrish

Woody Herman's Herd 6/19/69 Photo M. Parrish

 My experience of the audiences at the Fillmore West was that they were open to anything, and Bill Graham had a long tradition of diverse bills that brought jazz, blues or salsa veterans together with the headliner rock acts of the era. Unfortunately, this tradition fell by the wayside,  even for Bill Graham’s bookings, as popular music became more of a big business.  In its day, it made for some fine, eclectic shows, and this one was certainly a highly memorable one for me.