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 book 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-vocals, acoustic guitar
- Shelly Ralston-vocals
- Jeffrey Dambrau-guitar
- Ted Claire-guitar, vocals
- Jim McPherson-electric piano
- Rodney Albin-bass, violin
- Bill Summers-drums
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. 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."June 4-5, 1976: Green Earth Cafe, San Francisco, CA: Roadhog
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.
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 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.
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.