Thursday, November 18, 2010

Robert Hunter and Roadhog: Performance History, May-October 1976

(a scan of a flyer for a Roadhog performance at a Round Records memorabilia sale on September 26, 1976)

In the modern Internet age it is difficult to explain how mysterious Robert Hunter was to Deadheads in the early 1970s. His name was listed as lyricist on most Dead albums, and occasionally there was a quote in Rolling Stone magazine attributed to him. He was reputed to be one of the figures on the cover of Workingman's Dead, and once in a while a picture had been published of him. Even if you had seen one, however, there was no way to easily access it, so he remained elusive. A few quotes from Jerry Garcia suggested that Hunter had played folk or bluegrass music with Garcia in the early days, but compared to even the late 1970s there was very little material circulating, so most people had never heard the 'Wildwood Boys" tape fragment that is in wide circulation today. By all accounts, a distant presence was all Robert Hunter desired to be during that period.

Thus it was a great surprise in June 1974 when Round Records released a Hunter solo album, Tales Of The Great Rum Runners. Abruptly it turned out that the Dead's poet could write music without the band, and sing and play as well. The album had a sort of demo tape feel, and Hunter has dismissed his vocal performances on the album (they sounded alright to me), but it was instantly fascinating to get a feel for what Hunter brought to a Hunter/Garcia song. Hunter's solo material lacked the musical expressiveness and melodic gift that Jerry Garcia brought to the music, but they had a lyrical density that the more terse Garcia apparently preferred to edit out.

Rum Runners was followed by an even better album, Tiger Rose, produced by Garcia and released (on Round) in March 1975. However, while Hunter the songwriter was made deeper and more tangible by two fine albums, the man himself remained a cipher. There were no pictures of him on either album, and no conventional music industry press where he gave interviews or posed for photos. During the 1974-76 period, the Grateful Dead proper stopped touring, only recording an album (Blues For Allah) and playing the occasional show. Thus they dropped out of the mainstream, and while the various members of the band played Bay Area clubs (and sometimes elsewhere) with regularity, there was very little coverage of the Dead's activities, even in the Bay Area. Thus it was with great astonishment that my friends and I discovered in mid-1976 that Robert Hunter was playing an obscure venue in San Francisco with a band called Roadhog. My friend and I had to go--only McGannahan Skjellyfetti would have been more exotic than this.

I saw Robert Hunter and Roadhog on a weeknight in May 1976, at a little place on Market Street in San Francisco, near the Civic Center. I will not bore anyone with college memories about how I am certain that it was in May and on a weeknight, but the chronology is clear. I'm not even sure how we found out about it, as the Green Earth Cafe did not advertise. I think we heard that Hunter had a band in Joel Selvin's Chronicle column, and then found a listing in BAM Magazine. I do recall my friend actually calling the Green Earth Cafe (hi Mitch) to insure that it really was Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead. None of our other Deadhead friends wanted to go, but to us it just seemed too exotic to pass up.

Roadhog was pretty good, in a bar band sort of way, but it honestly didn't matter, because Hunter was such a mystery that it transcended the show. It would be like going to a bookstore to hear Thomas Pynchon or B. Traven read--would you care what they read? Roadhog only lasted a few months, however, and then Hunter went off the radar for a while. He reappeared with the fine group Comfort, and then began his long career of intermittent solo touring, group appearances, book readings and other work, to the point where he became as familiar a face as any other member of the Dead. Very few people ever saw Roadhog, however, so this post will attempt to rectify that a little bit by publishing what little is known about the performance history of the band (thanks to Doug for re-posting his list, and indeed for keeping it in the first place).

Robert Hunter and Roadhog performing at the Beta Theta Pi Fraternity house at a "Beta Nooner" afternoon keg party in May 1976 (photo courtesy of and (c) Bill Kn)
Roadhog
  • Robert Hunter-vocals, acoustic guitar
  • Shelly Ralston-vocals
  • Jeffrey Dambrau-guitar
  • Ted Claire-guitar, vocals
  • Jim McPherson-electric piano
  • Rodney Albin-bass, violin
  • Bill Summers-drums
Ted Claire, Jeffrey Dambrau (sometimes spelled Dambreau) and Rodney Albin had been part of the South Bay folkscene in the early 1960s, from whence sprang Garcia, Hunter and others. Rod Albin had started a little folk club called The Boar's Head in San Carlos, which was among the first places that bohemian folkies could play back in '62. Albin had been an important part of the Haight Ashbury scene (his brother Peter was a founding member of Big Brother), but he had never found a specific musical home. When Albin switched to violin, other members of the band played bass, including (on one song) Robert Hunter.

Jim McPherson had been a South Bay musician, too, but he was part of the thriving San Jose rock scene. He had recorded a couple of 60s albums with a group called Stained Glass, a heavy rock band in which McPherson played bass and organ as well as singing and writing. In the early '70s, McPherson had worked with John Cipollina in the group Copperhead. Hunter had apparently not known McPherson prior to Roadhog, but somebody--probably Mickey Hart--had recommended him for the group.

Shelley Ralston's and Bill Summer's backgrounds are not known to me. Googlers should be warned that this Bill Summers was not the guy who played with Herbie Hancock.

When I saw Roadhog at the Green Earth Cafe, they played three sets. It was a school night, so we only saw the first two sets. Hunter was clearly the main fulcrum of the group, but they were very much a group. They performed many songs from both of Hunter's albums, some unrecognizable songs and a few interesting covers. Shelley Ralston had a prominent role in the vocals, singing Donna Godchaux's parts from the record (even now I recall she was great on "That Train") and no doubt giving the rusty Hunter some confidence on the choruses. She also did a great cover of Patsy Cline's "I Fall To Pieces."

There were no Grateful Dead covers. Other members of the group sang a few numbers, although I couldn't identify them. Rodney Albin played electric violin and led the band through Doug Kershaw's country cajun classic "Louisiana Man." The only cover I recall hearing Hunter singing was country singer Tom T. Hall's hit "The Night Clayton Delaney Died." While the Grateful Dead and others were proud country rockers by 1976, their style was more oriented towards Buck Owens and the Bakersfield sound, epitomized by Merle Haggard. More conventional Nashville fare, like Tom T. Hall, was not part of the rock repertoire, and at the time it was fascinating to see Hunter pull off a convincing version of the song. For a band of San Francisco hippies, Roadhog had a more traditional country/honky tonk sound, a little more Centrist than the Western Swing style of groups like Commander Cody.

Roadhog Performance History, May-October 1976

May 1976: Green Earth Cafe, San Francisco, CA: Roadhog
The Green Earth Cafe was on Market Street, near the Civic Center, somewhat past the Warfield (the Warfield is near 6th Street, and the Civic is on 9th). I don't know the exact address [JGMF figured it out: 1806 Market Street]. It served food and beer and wine, but it wasn't a bar. Roadhog seems to have played every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in May, 1976. There was no cover charge. Roadhog may have started as early as April, and may have creeped into early June. Word seems to have gotten out, however, and their Summer performances at The Green Earth were on weekends and received at least a minimum of publicity. The stint in May seems to have been as much to get Hunter and the band used to performing as anything.

An interview in BAM in January 1978 (I think by David Gans) was the first real conversation Hunter had with the press, to my knowledge. In that interview, Hunter referred to initially playing as 'Lefty Banks' in order to perform without pressure. While I have never seen a Lefty Banks booking (I'm still looking), Hunter alluded online to playing as Lefty Banks with Roadhog, so perhaps he started earlier than I realized at the Green Earth Cafe, and word only leaked out later that it was Hunter. For now, however, I am leaving this entry as May 1976.

Update: some advanced scholarship suggests that Robert Hunter was making stealth appearances with Roadhog as early as October 1975. A Commenter looked at the English magazine Dark Star, written in the October/November 1975 period (h/t JGMF):

The "Weather Report" column, p. 5, has this: "Barry [Melton]'s most recent appearance was at the Klamath potato festival ... also at the destival [sic] was the bluegrass unit Road Hog, featuring Bob Hunter on mandolin."

I am guessing this is the Klamath Basin Potato Festival around Merrill, OR. This is a harvest season event, it seems, usually mid-October by what I have seen.

So, if this is right, for now it might be a 10/??/75 Klamath Basin Potato Festival entry.

At the top of the bill was Barry Melton's band featuring Peter Albin and David LaFlamme.
[update] Commenter and Scholar JGMF has found some dates from the Green Earth Cafe that pre-date the public admission that Robert Hunter was playing with Roadhog
April 2-3, 1976 Green Earth Cafe, San Francisco, CA: Roadhog
April 16-17, 1976 Green Earth Cafe, San Francisco, CA: Roadhog
Both of these booking were Friday>Saturday weekend shows.
May 6-8, 1976 Green Earth Cafe, San Francisco, CA: Roadhog
May 20-22, 1976 Green Earth Cafe, San Francisco, CA: Roadhog
Both of these bookings were Thursday>Saturday weekend shows. I must have seen one of the Thursday shows, most likely the May 20 show.

Robert Hunter and Roadhog performing at the Beta Theta Pi Fraternity house at a "Beta Nooner" afternoon keg party in May 1976 (photo courtesy of and (c) Bill Kn)
May 1976: Beta Theta Pi Fraternity House, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA: Roadhog
Roadhog was invited to perform at a noontime outdoor concert at a Fraternity House in Stanford. Resident Bill K (who not only kept his photos all those years, he very kindly gave me permission to post them) reported:
It came about this way.  A friend of mine was a serious Deadhead and somehow learned about Robert Hunter and RoadHog performing in San Francisco.  He drove us all up to The City to catch the show and negotiated a performance of the Band to highlight a traditional spring party held on the lawn of the Beta Theta Pi house at Stanford.  The event was called the Beta Nooner.  A live band, kegs of free beer and, as the name implies, the show started at noon and went on for most of the afternoon.

At the time, there was a ban on Grateful Dead performances at Stanford, so we felt all revolutionary to sneak in a performance by this band.  I can’t tell you what they played, but it was a great concert.  I can’t even tell you the specific date, but  it was probably in April, or maybe May of 1976.  Sorry I can’t be more precise with the dates, but memories fade after so many years.
I asked about the mysterious "ban" on the Grateful Dead, and Bill reported
Of course, the actual facts mutated into the legend.  My fraternity brothers and I were not really rock promoters, but did have to get some kind of permission from some authority figure to put on this outdoor concert.  I did not make that appeal.  We did get permission, but I remember being told that, “The Dead were banned from playing at Stanford.”  Oooh, cool.  As is so frequently the case, the rumors overran the truth.
June 4-5, 1976: Green Earth Cafe, San Francisco, CA: Roadhog
Doug Aldridge was attempting to track Hunter's performances at one point, and his site was inaccessible, but now it's back on line. It remains the only source for Roadhog dates.

In any case, Hunter and Roadhog played a weekend show at the Green Earth in June. I believe this was sort of a "coming out" party, announcing the mysterious Robert Hunter's accessibility to the wider world.

June 9, 1976: The Omnibus, San Francisco, CA: Roadhog
I don't know anything about the venue.

June 11-12, 1976: Green Earth Cafe, San Francisco, CA: Roadhog
[update[JGMF confirmed these from BAM listings.

June 15, 1976: Shady Grove, San Francisco, CA: Roadhog
The Shady Grove was at 1538 Haight Street, between Ashbury and Clayton. The Shady Grove wasn't large, but it was larger than the Green Earth.

While the Shady Grove was within walking distance of 710 Ashbury, it's worth recalling that Hunter never lived in 710 with the Dead, and hardly lived in San Francisco at all, so it would have had less personal significance for him than it might have for others.

June 16, 1976: The Omnibus, San Francisco, CA: Roadhog

July ?, 1976: Rio Theater, Rodeo, CA: Roadhog
An uncertain date from a list, provenance unknown.

Summer 1976: Barney Steele's, Redwood City, CA: Roadhog
The most intriguing note I have on a Roadhog performance is a performance at a Redwood City saloon named Barney Steele's. Barney Steele's was basically a pickup joint, with a cover charge to keep out riffraff. The purpose of the band was to keep the patrons dancing, so they would get hot and buy beer. One of the bar managers was one Norm Van Maastricht, whom some readers may recall was a member of the Wildwood Boys along with Garcia, Hunter and David Nelson.

Maastricht, who still played guitar, apparently joined Roadhog on stage for at least a few numbers, a funny coda for the former Wildwood Boys.

July 15, 1976: Shady Grove, San Francisco, CA: Roadhog
 I have a brief (5-song) audience tape of a Roadhog performance with this date. It seems like a plausible date, since it's a Thursday.

July 30-31, 1976: Green Earth Cafe, San Francisco, CA: Roadhog
The July 30 show was immortalized by a fine Jerry Moore audience tape. The tape gives a good idea of the band's sound, although it lacks some of the cover versions of when I had seen them earlier. Perhaps as Hunter's name became more prominent, the focus was more on his songs.

This was a weekend booking (Friday and Saturday).

August 6, 1976: Shady Grove, San Francisco, CA: Roadhog

September 3-4, 1976: Green Earth Cafe, San Francisco, CA: Roadhog

September 17-18, 1976: Shady Grove, San Francisco, CA: Roadhog

September 26, 1976: Record Factory Parking Lot, San Rafael, CA: Roadhog
Round Records, in a state of financial distress held an afternoon "memorabilia sale" in the parking lot of a Marin record store--can you imagine what eBay treasures must have been available for a pittance?--and Roadhog were the featured performers.

David Gans was present and had the foresight to take photos of Robert Hunter and Roadhog, which are accessible on Gans's Flickr site, and well worth a look. I know of no other photos of Roadhog in action, or even at rest. A tape apparently endures, and the setlist says that Roadhog played "Friend Of The Devil" and "Kick In The Head," a sign that Hunter was beginning to acknowledge his status in the Grateful Dead universe.

October 2, 1976: West Dakota, Berkeley, CA: Roadhog
West Dakota, at 1505 San Pablo Avenue, was at the former site of The New Orleans House.

October 10, 1976: Keystone Berkeley, Berkeley, CA: Roadhog
The Keystone Berkeley was one of the Bay Area's major rock clubs, and certainly well known to Deadheads, as Jerry Garcia and Kingfish had played there regularly.

October 29-31, 1976: Keystone Berkeley, Berkeley, CA: Roadhog with Robert Hunter
What seems to be Roadhog's most high profile show also seems to be their last, or the last that I could find anyway.  This was a three-day weekend booking (the clip is from the Hayward Daily Review of October 31, 1976), and Sunday night was Halloween, so plenty of people planned to go out. Still, whatever transpired on this Halloween in Berkeley, this seems to be the last trace of Roadhog. 

Hunter and Rodney Albin went on to form Comfort in 1977, another fine band. Hunter largely went solo after that, and Rodney Albin unfortunately died too soon in 1984. In 1981, Jim McPherson worked with Mickey Hart in his band High Noon, but he too left unfinished business when he died in 1985 (to some extent rectified by the recent cd release of his studio work, A Promise Kept). The musical activities of Jeffrey Dambrau, Ted Claire, Shelly Ralston and Bill Summers after Roadhog are unknown to me.

Roadhog seems to have left a very small imprint, surprisingly so given the intensity of interest in all things Grateful Dead. I think the group's penchant for playing San Francisco saloons means that many who saw them may have had little idea who they were seeing, particularly if Hunter was initially using the name Lefty Banks. Nonetheless, I have to think many people may recall seeing the group somewhere around the Bay Area in 1976, or may have some obscure artifacts, so I am hoping that this post can be continually updated as new information comes to light.

Update: A flyer has surfaced (h/t Yellow Shark) advertising a Roadhog show at the Shady Grove for the weekend of March 4-5, 1977, well after the band's presumed "last" show in 1976. However, since Robert Hunter's name isn't mentioned on the calendar, it's clear he wasn't a member of the band by that time. Whether Rodney Albin was still a member, and how many other shows Roadhog played after Hunter's departure, remains a mystery.

31 comments:

  1. It just so happens that I put the Hunter site back online just the other day...
    http://hunter.dfresh.org/
    It hasn't been updated in at least a decade, although I've been saving every Hunter torrent, setlist and date that's come my way for some eventual theoretical update. Anyway, there are a slew of '76 Roadhog dates in there that were sent my way back in the early days of the Hunter site.

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  2. Thanks so much! I will add back all the dates.

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  3. Holy moley, what an amazing resource.

    You know what we need? We need BAM to be digitized and text-searchable back to the beginning. That's what we need.

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  4. I couldn't agree more about digitizing BAM. Good thing we have a limitless budget and a small army of Research Assistants...

    In all seriousness, I would happily settle for just the BAM Calendar listings (who was playing where) for the first two years, 1975-77. Ironically, once the magazine started to become successful, they did not have as much space for all the quirky listings, or feature articles about relatively minor SF bands.

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  5. I was just talking about Roadhog the other night. I saw them once, at the Backroom of the now defunct New Riverside Szechwan restaurant in Santa Cruz. It was also a three set show, and ended with Hunter dancing on one of the front tables. I'll try to dig up the precise date at some point.

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  6. Here's one for you. Just picked up a copy of the first issue of the British West Coast Music mag Dark Star. The copyright is 1975, it contains a show review from 9/28/75, but definitely feels like October or November of 1975 to me. The "Weather Report" column, p. 5, has this: "Barry [Melton]'s most recent appearance was at the Klamath potato festival ... also at the destival [sic] was the bluegrass unit Road Hog, featuring Bob Hunter on mandolin."

    I am guessing this is the Klamath Basin Potato Festival around Merrill, OR. This is a harvest season event, it seems, usually mid-October by what I have seen.

    So, if this is right, for now it might be a 10/??/75 Klamath Basin Potato Festival entry.

    At the top of the bill was Barry Melton's band featuring Peter Alvin and David LaFlamme.

    This would be the earliest public Hunter performance known to me in the Grateful Dead era, but I am certainly no expert on that sort of thing.

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  7. Well, I'm an expert, if a somewhat self-appointed one, and I'll call it the first known public performance by Hunter in the Grateful Dead era. It makes sense...Hunter had alluded to playing some stealth gigs to get his performing legs under him, and playing a Harvest Festival in rural Oregon seems like a nice out-of-the-way place. He had also implied that Roadhog sort of existed before him, so that piece fits as well.

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  8. Cool. Don't recall hearing about him playing mandolin, but then again I probably haven't been paying attention.

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  9. I'm not so bothered by the mandolin bit. Either Hunter doubled on the instrument on a song or two (possible), or its just a long-distance transcription error. The sighting in rural Oregon is what interests me. Note that Peter Albin and Barry Melton are headlining, so its not hard to imagine how Hunter and Rodney Albin got on the bill too.

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    1. From memory, the first Dinosaurs gig (booked as a Barry Melton show) was July 5 '82. The first show booked as The Dinosaurs was Aug 13 '82. Hunter was not a "member" of The Dinosaurs but came onstage to do a few numbers. By September '82, Hunter was an advertised member.

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  10. Right. And there are so many Oregon connections. Isn't Trist along this way, more in Southern OR?

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  11. One thing you might want to reconsider is the proposition that Road Hog was short-lived. I just found this in the September 1974 flyer put out by the Inn of the Beginning, regarding a September 20-21, 1974 second billing of Road Hog there.

    "Roadhog ... play country-rock and bluegrass with original tunes by Robert Hunter (lyricist for the Grateful Dead)."

    Hunter was in London with the GD at this time, but this pretty clearly dates the band (and its connection with Hunter) to September '74. If they continued through '76, that'd give Road Hog nearly the longevity of Comfort, or even more!

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  12. Fascinating...certainly Hunter had been friends with Rodney Albin, Ted Claire and Jeffrey Dambreau for at least a decade by 1974. Also, Hunter and Garcia must have been conceiving a plan for Hunter to record albums as early as 1973, so the project may go back even further.

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    1. The idea for a Hunter album goes back to the start of Round Records in the Spring of 73

      Here's an announcement from the Deadheads newsletter #10 from May 73 page 5

      "Robert Hunter has written the material for his own album and recorded it with Liberty, a Bay Area band. To be released."

      http://www.dead.net/archives/1973/clippings/gd-newsletter-10-page-5

      I have never come across another mention of a band called Liberty and suspect this was actually Rodney Albin and friends. His early 60s band was the Liberty Hill Aristocrats and my theory is he was still using a variant of the name.

      And here’s Hunter discussing Roadhog from the third and final part of a Ken Hunt interview in late 1979 published in Dark Star No 25 p 43

      KH: How did you come to get involved with Roadhog? As far as I can tell, they were an existing band.
      RH: Well, I had played with the band that became Roadhog, oh, ten or twelve years ago. They used to be called the Liberty Hall (sic) Aristocrats. It was Rodney Albin’s band. He just kept the band together for years and years and years. He was always inviting me to stop by and play with them. And I did. I went under the name of Lefty Banks, ‘cause I knew I had a reputation that I didn’t want to destroy at that point – until I got good enough as a performer to use my real name. So I had to join the band to learn how to play electric music. It’s funny, I used to be very at ease on stage playing along, but then after all those years when I got in with Roadhog, I was having shaky legs. I was terrified. There was one time we were playing a fraternity party over in Berkeley and Rodney said, ‘Now Lefty’s going to sing a Robert Hunter tune for you,’ and I did “Must Have Been The Roses”. There was some kid there and he said, ‘Gosh! That sounds just like Robert Hunter!’ That was a great masquerade.

      After discussing his spell with the Barry Melton Band including smashing his guitar at the Starwood (presumably November 26 or 27 1976), Hunter continues

      RH: …I got out of the business for nine months or so. And then (resignedly), Rodney had another band after a while, Comfort, and they were such a good band. He told me that they were going to break up unless I joined them, ‘cause they couldn’t afford to stay together any longer. So back to a life of music.

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    2. guiness, thank you so much for this. I had figured out bits and pieces of the story, but the news that Roadhog was a straight line from the Liberty Hill Aristocrats is truly amazing. Thanks for holding on to your press releases and Dark Star magazine for so long.

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  13. As far as I can tell, Roadhog auditioned at the Inn of the Beginning on July 24, 1974. That'd be the first sign of the band that I can find. First gig there was a month later, 8/24/74.

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  14. There's something even weirder about the 10/30/76 Road Hog show at Keystone Berkeley. Guess who was second billed, according to the Keystone monthly calendar? Comfort. Hm.

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  15. There's a thirty minute tape of the 9/26/76 Road Hog set up at Lossless Legs, which gives this (incomplete) setlist:

    01. ...Jesse James
    02. Wild Night
    03. ? (instrumental)
    04. Ariel
    05. Charlene
    06. Arizona Lightning
    07. Tiger Rose
    08. --band announcements--

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  16. This is awesome, Shelley Ralston is my mom, so it is nice to finally see some of her stories down in writing.

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  17. cdfsih, thanks for the kind words. If your Mom recalls any lost gigs or venues, I'm always interested.

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  18. I will ask her and see if she can fill in any blanks.

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  19. Correspondent Alex has some fascinating information here
    http://www.whitegum.com/introjs.htm?/livedate/huntunti.htm
    The copyright publishing dates of some of Hunter's songs strongly suggest that an attempt to record a Roadhog album occurred in late 1973 (tapes do circulate). It seems that project evolved into Tales Of The Great Rum Runners.

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  20. Old Palo Alto pal of Jerry and Bob and them, Norman van Maastricht, wrote up some Jerry recollections, which I cite below.

    He says that in 1976 he started working at a place called Barney Steel’s Bar and Grill (not sure the city). He says "Amazingly, one of the first bands I saw at Barney Steel’s was Bob Hunters’ “Road Hog” band. ... I sat in with them as a matter of fact at Barney’s and another local club and had a good time."

    Probably not precisely dateable, but who knows?

    Van Maastricht, Norm. 2009. Reflections on the Garcia—One man’s string of memories made upon the passing of a friend … Manuscript, revised 9/12/2009.

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  21. Reader Bill not only recalled a long-lost Roadhog show from May 1976 at Stanford University, he sent in photos to prove it. I added both his photos to the post.

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  22. https://scontent-b.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ash3/1381932_10151936559322603_1970743163_n.jpg

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  23. While it is not on your list, I do have a distinct memory of Hunter and Comfort playing another Beta Nooner at Stanford when I was a student there. It must have been Spring 1978 if they disbanded later that year....

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  24. Also June 11-12, 1976 at Green Earth. I made an earlier post that seems not to be showing - address is 1810 Market.

    Other dates: April 2-3 and April 16-17, same venue.

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    1. Great research. I merged these details into the main body of the text.

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  25. Comments acting weird.

    Also, June 9 and 16, Omnibus Cafe, 1821 Haight. From June 1976 BAM listings.

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  26. I just found a listing for a Roadhog gig at the Sleeping Lady in Fairfax, August 8, 1974, maybe my earliest one now.

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