Sunday, January 20, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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