After the Grateful Dead re-introduced their acoustic lineup at the Fox-Warfield Theater in September, 1980, they realized the more streamlined acoustic configuration was a more viable lineup for benefits. Less equipment and more modest expectations made the show less of an event, while still capitalizing on the Dead’s drawing power. Keeping with their Bay Area policy, whenever they were billed as other than “The Grateful Dead”, fans expected something different and less dramatic than a full Grateful Dead electric extravaganza.
After a low-key SEVA benefit at Berkeley Community Theater, on April 25, 1981, featuring only Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir on acoustic guitars, John Kahn on stand-up bass and Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart on drums, the band had a somewhat higher profile event at the Fox-Warfield (the theatre, at 982 Market Street, did not change its name to The Warfield until a few years later). An anti-nuclear power (No Nukes) benefit was held, with “Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart” as the headline act. There were a number of interesting aspects about this show that remain unreported, since it was not a high-profile show outside of the immediate Bay Area (and there being no internet and all). Specifically, there was a one-time Grateful Dead configuration, and the first and best appearance of a band later known as High Noon.
To dispense quickly with the Grateful Dead part: the band came on last, introduced by Wavy Gravy as “Captain JerryBobKreutzHart,” taking care not to call them the Grateful Dead. Brent Mydland was on board playing acoustic piano, but John Kahn remained on acoustic bass. Of course, this was a West Coast perception, as between the two acoustic benefit performances there had been an entire East Coast tour, but for most people in the Bay Area John Kahn had been on bass the last time we saw the Dead.
Some time later I asked Dennis McNally why Phil hadn’t played those shows, and Phil had apparently told Dennis “because no one asked me.” Thus this show and the April 25 BCT show have to stand as Grateful Dead shows without Phil Lesh, making them unique indeed. The actual performances were quite good (you can decide for yourself), but the fact that Kahn played bass instead of Phil seems somewhat forgotten—certainly it isn’t noted on Deadlists or Archives.
Country Joe McDonald, always a willing hand at Bay Area benefits, was the third performer, and “Norton Buffalo and Merl Saunders” were set to go fourth up. Country Joe played 4 numbers by himself, and then rather unexpectedly was joined by a band. The backup band featured the aforementioned Saunders and Buffalo, but they simply walked on stage, and began to back Joe.
The band was:
Country Joe McDonald-vocals, acoustic guitar
Mike Hinton-electric guitar
Jim McPherson-acoustic guitar
Norton Buffalo-harmonica, vocals
Merl Saunders-grand piano, vocals
Bobby Vega-electric bass
Joe continued his set—my notes say “Breakfast For Two”, “Save The Whales” “one more” (which means I didn’t know the title) and “Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die Rag.” The semi-acoustic backing of the musicians was tasteful and funky, and Joe sounded great, a little more soulful than the more folk oriented sound he typically aimed for.
Joe’s “electric” set was enthusiastically received, as all of the songs named were well known in the Bay Area, and Joe knew how to maximize the skills of the group. The lineup was full of surprises—I had never heard Merl Saunders play grand piano, I had never heard Mickey Hart as the sole drummer in a group, and while I had seen Mike Hinton’s name on various albums (like Diga Rhythm Devils), it was as a percussionist not a guitarist. Jim McPherson had been in the San Jose band Stained Glass and then in Copperhead, but had mostly played bass.
When Joe finished his set, much to my surprise the band continued to play on, with Joe on board as rhythm guitarist. My notes show the following songs
High Heeled Sneakers [vocals Buffalo and Saunders]
The Fever [vocals Saunders]
Take A Chance [vocals Buffalo]
You Move Me [vocals Saunders]
The whole set (including Joe’s part) was about 45 minutes, and it was tremendous. The band had a very laid back rhythm and blues feel, but done acoustically it did not fall into funk clichés. The solos from Merl, Norton and Mike Hinton were relaxed, but they did not fall into the “deedle-dee” soloing common of bands who like to jam. For a one-time band put together for a benefit, it was a very well thought out and atypical configuration.
A few months later, all of the band members except Joe McDonald started playing local clubs as “High Noon with Mickey Hart.” I saw them open for Jerry Garcia Band, and I was very let down—the band played electric, every song was too long and the solos were not good enough to justify their endless length. They were an OK club band, actually, but the magic of the first show seemed to be dissipated. Most of the club shows featured Joan Baez, but she was considerably less effective as a frontperson than Joe McDonald.
A few brief comments about the other acts, just for completism: comedian Darryl Henriques was poorly received, Kate Wolf and her guitarist, Nina Gerber, were enthusiastically received, and singer/songwriter Holly Near (with Vicki Randle on congas) was competent but unspectacular.
For a list of High Noon shows, see here.