Saturday, April 27, 2013

My Season with Kingfish Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Corry342 said...

As always, this is completely amazing, and the attention to detail is much appreciated (I have updated my Kingfish histories on LLD accordingly). It's particularly fascinating to read about the fact that Tim Hovey was Kingfish's soundman, since he dates back to the Horses project.

Forthcoming I will have the complete story-with pictures!--of Shango and Horses. Not that there has exactly been a clamorous demand for it, but I felt it was time to sort it out. The Tim Hovey detail explains a lot--he must have hooked up with Torbert in the Horses days, and remained a friend.

I have reason to think that Hovey is a more interesting piece of the Kingfish puzzle than it may first appear, but even the fact that he was still around as soundman in 1974 is intriguing. According to the liner notes of the Horses cd (rerelased 2003), Hovey died of a drug overdose some time ago.

cryptdev said...

Hovey was Kingfish's soundman throughout the Weir era, and possibly as long as Torbert was in the group. He passed away of a drug overdose in 1989.

Nessa said...

I have a curiosity ... Can you tell if Frankie Weir is alive?

cryptdev said...

Nessa - I sent out inquiries today, and apparently Frankie Weir passed away several years ago. I don't know much about her after early 1975.