Sunday, February 27, 2011

Pepperland - then and now

The music hall called Pepperland is somewhat of a legend in Marin County lore. Although it was open, on and off, for less than three years, and fully operational for less than a year, it played host to a pretty amazing and diverse roster of international talent, including Pink Floyd, Captain Beefheart, Chuck Berry, and many others.  I got up to Pepperland two times, once to see what was billed as the Acoustic Grateful Dead and another time to see a dynamite quadruple bill of Grootna, Lamb,  Boz Scaggs, and Taj Mahal’s tuba band.  Pepperland has been discussed recently on a couple of the Bay Area related music blogs, so I thought I would deviate again from a chronological diary of shows to talk about this funky little venue.

Bermuda Palms 1950s? Image courtesy of Rebecca David.
(Check out her great book, Mid-Century By the Bay
The Aliens performing at Bermuda Palms, early 1960s. This is clearly the same stage setup used when the hall became Pepperland. 
Pepperland had its origins as part of a motel/restaurant complex called the Bermuda Palms which was built in the 1930s by a San Rafael builder/entrepreneur named Whitey Litchfield.  Located in downtown  San Rafael at 737 E. Francisco Blvd., just off of Highway 101, the club was readily accessible from Sonoma, San Francisco, and the East Bay, yet it was far enough away from those centers to have a distinctly laid-back Marin County vibe.

Poster from the Janis/Big Brother/Gold Hell's Angel's
Party 5/21/70
The layout of the Palms is shown nicely in the 1967 postcard shown above (the cars in the parking lot suggest that the picture was taken much earlier). The ballroom, adorned with the large Litchfield's sign, was located on the front of the property and the W-shaped motel was behind the hall and between Francisco Blvd. and Front Street. A photo taken at an Aliens gig in shows what the hall looked like in the mid-1960s (read more about the Aliens here). A Bermuda Palms poster shows a bill featuring the Sons of Champlin, as does the poster for the infamous Hell’s Angel’s party in the club on May 22, 1970 featuring Janis Joplin and Full Tilt Boogie, Big Brother, and Gold (admission $1!) still had the site identified as the Palms.

By late June of 1970,  the dance hall at Litchfield’s was renamed  Euphoria, and had a brief, but storied,  stint that included gigs by Big Brother as well as two nights featuring the Grateful Dead, the New Riders, and Rubber Duck. David Crosby participated in the Dead’s acoustic set the first night and, at the second,  Janjs Joplin appeared again to trade boozy sexual innuendos with Pigpen on “Lovelight.”

The Glyph sound system at Pepperland circa 1970-71

At the end of July, the club closed its doors while it underwent an extensive facelift, emerging in mid September as Pepperland, a Beatles-themed hall that featured a quadraphonic sound system that was one of the earliest projects for sound engineer John Meyer, who  later founded Meyer Sound, the East Bay company that started out building custom PA systems for the Dead and others, and has developed into one of the world’s premier sound reinforcement developers and manufacturers.

To complement the psychedelic décor, the support girders for the hall’s roof were adorned with painted portholes that mimicked the designs present in the fanciful craft piloted by the Beatles in their 1968 cartoon movie Yellow Submarine.  Even the sound system blended into the décor, with the speakers molded into huge conical fiberglass structures as shown above.What appears to have been Pepperland’s grand opening featured an eclectic triple bill of Hot Tuna, Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, and jazz flute maestro Charles Lloyd. From then well into 1971, the club offered really interesting triple bills of acts that would normally be Bill Graham’s stock in trade in the city. Notable among these was a legendary Pink Floyd gig in which the band needed to use the ballroom floor to accommodate  all of their gear, and one of the shows was plagued by power failures as Floyd’s massive sound system taxed the club’s electrical capacity.  The relatively Pepperland portion of the gig list below was culled largely from the web site of Universalightforms, a site run by Bob Pulum, founder of legendary light show crew the Brotherhood of Light, who became the house visual artists at the club beginning with the club’s second gig with Frank Zappa and the Mothers.  According to Pulum’s site,  Pepperland’s first incarnation lasted from that initial show until an April 11, 1971 bill with Quicksilver,  Hot Tuna, and Lizard, after which the promoters allegedly split with the proceeds of that show.  Pepperland reopened in September with some of the original employees, including the BOL, in place, but the new venue seems to have only stayed open a few months, closing for good in January, 1972.  A nice selection of poster images from Pepperland and Euphoria can be found in this page at the great Chicken on a Unicycle web site.

The Litchfield’s motel appears to have been open during this entire time and developed somewhat of a shady reputation in the 1970s. This reputation is supported indirectly by the Grateful Dead tune "Shakedown Street," which was written  in 1978 about the neighborhood surrounding the band’s Front Street studios, which were directly across the street from the rear of the Litchfield’s complex.

Today the site houses a somewhat gentrified Motel 6. In front of the motel is a large building that recently housed the Zebra sofa store, and which was clearly the original Euphoria/Pepperland building. In 2008, the historic Litchfield’s sign was restored on the building through the efforts of Perry Litchfield, Marin County lawyer and Whitey’s son.

Jerry Garcia and David Crosby
Pepperland 12/21/70 Photo: M. Parrish
When I visited Pepperland in 1970 and 1971, it seemed like quite a trek up to the wilds of Marin from Palo Alto, but at least the hall was easy to find once in San Rafael,  located as it was on a frontage road right off of 101. What was immediately impressive about the hall was its modest size. Although it competed directly with the Fillmore West for headliners, Pepperland seemed to have been, by the most generous estimate, no more than half the size of the F. West/Carousel, which was already relatively tiny by today’s concert hall standards. As you can see from the photos, it had less-than-optimum dimensions for a music hall, a long, low building with exposed horizontal girders supporting the wide A-framed roof.  In its Pepperland makeover, these became girders of the enormous submarine one was supposedly inside within the hall. An interesting concept, but not an entirely convincing fantasy.  However,  combined with the exotic Meyer sound sculptures and the light show (it appears that none was operational at the 1970 gig, but Brotherhood of Light was very evident at the Mahal show) made for a fairly exotic interior setting, particularly when contrasted with the utilitarian trappings that surrounded the building.

George Marsh and Jerry Hahn Pepperland 12/21/70
Photo : M. Parrish
The 12/21/70 concert has been written about at length elsewhere, most recently in a lengthy blog post by Jerry Garcia’s Middle Finger. The photos I took at this gig are truly terrible as I was unable to adjust for the very low light conditions, but I was able to adjust the images using photoshop, and share a few of them here to give a bit of visual record from the event. These first two images just came to light a few weeks ago when I found a fragment of negatives from the first part of this show. What proved to be a marathon evening of music got underway with a spectacular set by the Jerry Hahn Brotherhood, one of the Bay Area’s most amazing, but generally unheralded, musical aggregations of the era. The group, comprising jazz guitarist Hahn, blues-rock keyboardist and vocalist Michael Finnegan, and the superb rhythm section of drummer George Marsh and bassist Mel Graves, had a relatively short lifespan, disbanding soon after the show I attended. Rocking hard, armed with a splendid set of songs mostly penned by non-member Lane Tietgen, this short lived quartet was very much akin to a Bay Area version of The Band.  They did release one fabulous, eponymous album on Columbia, but never achieved the popularity they richly deserved. This was the only time I got to see them, and I believe the group broke up shortly thereafter. I will write much more about this great group at a later date.

Mystery Musicians Pepperland 12/21/70
Photo: M. Parrish
What happened next is not entirely clear. I know that John Kahn played an unbilled set as (I believe) just a duo with a blues guitarist whose name I do not remember (none of the usual suspects like Bloomfield. Gravenites, Bishop, or the like) but I seem to have no photo record of this set. On the other hand, I do have this enigmatic photo of a jazz guitarist and drummer that was positioned chronologically on the film between shots of Hahn and the New Riders. As noted in the jgmf post and the attached poster, Howard Wales was billed in the advance posters. In a response to jgmf, I indicated that Wales had not played, but it is conceivable that he did play and I did not remember it. It was a very long evening of music, and an additional set by Wales and company would perhaps get the headliners coming on as late as they in fact did appear. What I believe I expected was for Garcia to play with Wales, which did not happen. At the time, seeing Wales himself would have been no big deal, as I had seen him a number of times with A.B. Skhy. So either this photo is of the guys who played with Kahn or perhaps part of Wales' band. Neither of the more familiar musicians are visible, so this is likely to remain a mystery unless more information is forthcoming. The guitarist looks somewhat like Terry Haggerty, but I am pretty confident that it is someone else.

Spencer Dryden and David Nelson of NRPS
Pepperland 12/21/70 Photo: M. Parrish
After Kahn and friend(s) came the New Riders of the Purple Sage. I'd seen them many times in 1970, but this was the first time I had seen them with Spencer Dryden on the drum kit instead of Mickey Hart. They played a nice long set, with no real surprises except for the switch in drummers, and finished up well after 1 AM.

Jerry Garcia's nose and David Crosby
Note: Garcia playing an SG and Crosby a Gretsch 6 String
Pepperland 12/21/70 Photo: M. Parrish
The headliners were billed as the "Acoustic Dead" but the group that took the stage was an impromptu quartet comprising Garcia, Lesh, Kreutzmann, and David Crosby. Two tapes of this ensemble (it remains an open question whether Mickey Hart substituted for Kreutzmann in the earlier gigs) from the Matrix a few days earlier (the exact date(s) of those tapes are debated) circulate widely, but their tenure was short lived, and this may have been the last time the quartet performed. I was only able to hear part of their set, which opened with "Alabama Bound" and also included "Deep Elum Blues," "Motherless Children" and "Triad." Clearly they played a lot more (which, based on the tapes from the Matrix show, would have included primal versions of "Bertha" and "Bird Song"), but at that point I was dragged out by my father, who had to go to work the next morning. As noted elsewhere, at least Weir and Pigpen could be seen wandering around backstage, so it is likely that the Dead did indeed play later.

There seemed to be nothing like a curfew at Pepperland, and the musicians were clearly in no hurry to get anywhere.

Crosby, Kreutzmann, Lesh Pepperland 12/21/70
Photo M. Parrish
An interesting question begged by this show's billing, as well as that for the 12/31/70 New Year's show, was the specific timing of the demise of the Dead's 1969-70 acoustic sets. Both of these shows advertised the Dead playing acoustically, but it appears that this did not come to pass at either gig. The last shows at which acoustic sets are verified are the 11/5-8/70 Capitol Theatre shows, and a plethora of subsequent November (11/16, 11/20, 11/29) and December (12/12, 12/26-28, 31) shows are known that do not include acoustic sets. The reasoning for the abandonment of these sets is unclear. The amplification of the acoustic sets was always problematic, and Mickey Hart's imminent departure may have also figured into the issue. Whatever the reason, there is no documented record of the band stepping onstage with acoustic guitars until the 11/17/78 Hunger Week benefit in Chicago (which I got to attend, and will write about another day).

The issue of the drummer for this ensemble has been a source of some confusion. When the tapes of the Matrix show first circulated in the mid-1970s, the tape notations listed Mickey Hart as the drummer. During the Dead's acoustic sets in 1970, who provided percussion seemed to be almost random. Either Kreutzmann or Hart would generally be the principal drummer (except on the many occasions when only Garcia, Weir, and Lesh performed without percussion), so seeing a sole drummer onstage was no big deal. When I was recently able to scan the negatives from this show, it became clear that the drummer this evening was Kreutzmann, not Hart, so it seems equally likely that this was the case at the Matrix show/rehearsal earlier in the week. As discussed over at JGMF, I do not recall seeing Hart in the hall (and only one drum kit was onstage), so he most likely did not perform that evening at all.

Taj Mahal Tuba Band at Pepperland 4/2-4/71
Photo: Dr. Che
The only other time I made it to Pepperland was the next March, for a great bill of three hometown acts and headliner Taj Mahal with his unique four tuba band. As noted earlier, the Brotherhood of Light did provide visuals for that show, which was one of the last under the sponsorship of the original Pepperland booking agents. This show opened with an unbilled set by Grootna. Although this group did perform during the closing week of the Fillmore West, and recorded a single, eponymous album for Columbia produced by the Airplane's Marty Balin, they never really broke nationally, or even achieved headline status in the Bay Area. Grootna consisted of vocalist Anna Rizzo, guitarists Slim Chance and Vic Smith, bassist Kelly Bryan, and drummer Greg Dewey,  who had played at Woodstock in the final incarnation of Country Joe and the Fish and went by the nom de plume of Dewey DaGreeze in Grootna. The group's tight blues-rock set probably consisted principally of material from their single album.

Next up was Lamb, which had originated as an acoustic duo consisting of guitarist-vocalist Barbara Mauritz and guitarist-keyboard player Bob Swanson. By the time of this show, they had expanded to an electric quartet, which included bassist David Hayes and a percussionist. The group's eclectic material was jazz influenced, and driven by Mauritz' powerful, hypnotic vocals. Their second album, Cross Between, featured Jerry Garcia on three cuts.

During 1970 and 1971, one of the Bay Area's best bands was the octet led by by Boz Scaggs. After departing the Steve Miller Band at the end of 1968, Scaggs took a year or so off from performing, but cut a legendary, eponymous album in Muscle Shoals with a lot of help from Duane Allman. When that album garnered a lot of airplay. Scaggs went ahead and assembled a band to, as much as possible, capture the tight big band sound he had captured on the album. The new group featured drummer George Rains (late of Mother Earth and the Sir Douglas Quintet), bassist David Brown, jazz keyboard player Jymm Joachim Young, guitarist Doug Simril, and a horn section comprising sax player Mel Martin, trombonist Patrick O'Hara, and trumpeter Bill Atwood (replaced at some point by Tom Poole). The group's diverse sets were drawn mostly from the Atlantic Scaggs album and the band's first Columbia album, Moments, both of which featured a blend of rockers and soulful ballads that were very different than the disco material that brought Scaggs his greatest commercial success in the late 1970s and 1980s. A high point of their sets as the time was a long, spacy version of "Baby's Calling Me Home" which Scaggs had contributed to the first Steve Miller Band album, Children of the Future.

Taj Mahal was ubiquitous in the Bay Area during the era, but this was the first time, to my knowledge, that he performed locally with the remarkable band he assembled for a couple of tours that was documented in The Real Thing. Taj was always staking out new musical territory, but the so called "Tuba band" was perhaps his most audacious (and probably expensive) experiment. Comprising first call musicians like guitarist John Hall (later leader of Orleans), one-time Hendrix bassist Billy Rich, pianist John Simon, drummer Greg Thomas, and conga player Kwasi "Rocky" DziDzournou, the group's most startiing element was the quartet of tuba players led by Howard Johnson and also featuring Bob Stewart, Joseph Daley, and Earl McIntyre.

Few vocalist-guitarists have enough presence not to be upstaged by a quartet of tubas, but the combination worked remarkably well. Taj used the tubas mostly to provide a tremendous bottom to tunes like "Sweet Mama Janisse" and the extended "You Ain't No Street Walker Mama, But Honey I Love the Way You Strut Your Stuff." After doing a couple of songs solo, Taj brought the rest of the musicians out for a slow, breezy version of "Ain't Gwine To Whistle Dixie (Anymo') highlighted by both exclamations from the tuba section and Hall's jazzy guitar. It was a great set and, given that it was a Saturday night, we stayed until the end. 

The Interior of the Pepperland Building Circa 2/2011
The stage was located back by the flat Screen TV and
the exercise balls. Photo: M. Parrish
The Bermuda Palms/Euphoria/Pepperland Building
Circa 2/2011 Photo M. Parrish
Curiosity about the current state of the building and the Litchfield’s site led to a Cryptical Road Trip to sunny San Rafael, Taking the exit off of 101 that leads to the Richmond San Rafael Bridge onramp, a sudden sharp left turn leads to Francisco Blvd., a high volume frontage road that parallels 101 on its eastern side. A few blocks northward,  the Litchfield’s property loomed, replete with the large, restored sign. Emerging from my car I discovered that the building has been carved up into a few retail areas,  one of which is currently occupied by a Fitness Warehouse. Comparing the interior photo to the best shot I could find of Pepperland in its prime (a great shot by Dr. Ché from the interior of Taj Mahal’s Real Thing album, which  was not recorded at Pepperland, but at the Fillmore East), it appears that the stage area was located just about where the exercise balls now reside. Needless to say, the submarine trappings are long gone, as is the Meyer-built Glyph sound system. The proprietors of the store had no idea of the building’s illustrious past, but also didn’t seem all that interested.

The former site of Le Club Front as of 2/2011
Photo: M. Parrish
Being in the neighborhood, I popped around the corner to pay my respects to the former site of Le Club Front. The warehouse, which most recently housed a plumbing supply store, is currently unoccupied. I got out to take some photos, but beat a hasty retreat when a truck pulled up to the curb and what looked like some clandestine transaction got underway.  It was clearly time to bid adieu to shakedown street,  and a memorable bit of Marin County rock history.

Gig Lists

Bermuda Palms

7/28/67             Sons of Champlin, Baltimore Steam Packet,  Thursday’s Island, Mieville Square,  The IV Kings.

5/21/70            Hell’s Angels Party with Janis Joplin and Full Tilt Boogie (billed as Main Squeeze, but they had broken up by then), Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Gold.


7/3,4,5/70  Big Brother and the Holding Company, A.B. Skhy, Joy of Cooking

7/14, 16/70 Grateful Dead, NRPS, Rubber Duck

7/20/70  Country Joe and the Fish, Southern Comfort

7/24,25,26  Chambers Brothers, Boz Scaggs, Southern Comfort


9/18,19/70 - Pepperland Ballroom Hot Tuna, Capt. Beefheart, Charles Lloyd

9/25,26/70 - Pepperland NBL Productions - Frank Zappa & Mothers, Tim Buckley, Kindred

10/16,17/70 - Pink Floyd, Kimberly, Osceola

10/24,25/70 - Steve Miller, Jerry Hahn, Dan Hicks & Hot Licks

11/13,14/70 - Incredible String Band, Doug Kershaw, Joy Of Cooking

11/28/70 - Leon Russell, Capt. Beefheart, Clover, Truk

12/18,19/70 - Chuck Berry, Sir Douglas (or Edward’s Hand?) , Boz Scaggs

12/20/70 - Joan Baez

12/21/70 – Grateful Dead?, Crosby/Garcia/Lesh/Kreutzmann, John Kahn and Terry Haggerty, NRPS, Jerry Hahn Brotherhood

1/22,23/71 - Youngbloods, Sea Train, John Fahey

1/29,30/71 - Cold Blood, Boz Scaggs, Stoneground

2/5,6/71 - Elvin Bishop, PG&E, Tower Of Power

2/20,21/71- Big Brother, The Sons, Clover

2/26,27/71- Spencer Davis, Dan Hicks&Hot Licks, Country Weather

3/5,6/71- Steve Miller, John Lee Hooker, Bronze Hog

3/12,13/71- Lee Michaels, Joy Of Cooking, Fourth Way

3/11/71 - Linda Ronstadt, Clover, Little John, Chris Darrow

3/19,20/71 – It’s A Beautiful Day, Odetta, Victoria

4/2-4/71 - Taj Mahal, Boz Scaggs, Lamb, Grootna

4/11/71 - Quicksilver, Hot Tuna, Lizard
Last NBL show

9/9-11/71 - Steve Miller, Yogi Phlegm, Nazgul, Clover

9/24,25/71 - Mike Bloomfield, Stoneground, Clover

11/13/71- Tower Of Power, Cold Blood, Norman Greenbaum

12/4/71 - Boz Scaggs, Earthquake, Staton Bros.

12/11/71- Joy Of Cooking, Commander Cody, Crossfire

1/22/72-  Tower Of Power, Redwing, Roger Collins