Thursday, January 6, 2011

May 19, 1979: The Old Waldorf, San Francisco, CA: Reconstruction/Horslips

Two recent posts had lengthy discussions about Jerry Garcia's dozen year commitment to playing the Keystone Berkeley and the outsize role the Keystone clubs had in Jerry Garcia's solo career. A stark contrast to Garcia's casual arrangement at the Keystone is illustrated by my experience at seeing Garcia with the band Reconstruction on May 19, 1979, the second night of a two night booking at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco. Garcia had played a benefit at the Old Waldorf the previous month (April 23, 1979), and it was Garcia's first performances at the Old Waldorf, then the Bay Area's premier rock nightclub. However, the May concerts were clearly not a comfortable event for the club nor Garcia, and he did not play the club again until Bill Graham took it over in January 1982. This post will take a closer look at the May 19, 1979 Reconstruction show from a commercial perspective rather than from a musical one.

Reconstruction
The version of the Jerry Garcia Band that featured Keith and Donna had ground to a halt at the end of 1978. With Garcia and Weir already having decided to replace Keith and Donna, it doesn't seem surprising that the Garcia Band would need to re-think itself, too. Heavy touring by the Grateful Dead, complicated by a late November illness for Garcia, insured that Garcia's extra-cirricular activites were all but non-existent during the end of 1978. Nonetheless, Garcia resurfaced rather unexpectedly at the end of January at his regular haunt, the Keystone Berkeley. Reconstruction debuted Jan 30-31, 1979.

John Kahn explained (in the Winter 1987 Golden Road interview) that he was the one who put together Reconstruction, with the idea of focusing on playing jazz music. Kahn had originally gone to the San Francisco Conservatory in Fall 1966 to become a professional jazz musician as an acoustic bassist, but he had become sidetracked. Thus Reconstruction was a return to his roots, in a manner of speaking. However, jazz trends in the late 1970s had a heavy funk orientation, so many Deadheads without much knowledge of contemporary jazz (including myself) tended to categorize Reconstruction as "funk music," a somewhat limiting assessment. The members of Reconstruction were
  • Jerry Garcia-guitar, vocals
  • Ron Stallings-tenor sax, vocals
  • Ed Neumeister-trombone
  • Merl Saunders-organ, keyboards, vocals
  • John Kahn-bass
  • Gaylord Birch-drums
Since Kahn never gave interviews--probably because no one asked him--the change in direction from the straight rock of JGB to Reconstruction's funky jazz was generally attributed to Merl Saunders. Garcia fans recognized Saunders, and remembered his funkier sound, so Reconstruction was perceived to be Merl's band. The idea seemed to be that Garcia was just another band member. He would sing a couple of songs each set, but so would Stallings and Saunders, the other vocalists, and there were a number of instrumentals, as well. Garcia did not perform the "standards" that we had come to expect in the Jerry Garcia Band, and limited himself to an entirely different set of songs.

As usual in the Bay Area, there was almost no press coverage of Reconstruction, nor of the demise of the Jerry Garcia Band. Joel Selvin in the San Francisco Chronicle and Blair Jackson in BAM probably made a few remarks, because I knew a little bit of what to expect when I saw them in May. However, I had not yet heard a tape, nor were tapes or eyewitnesses numerous. By May, Reconstruction had only played a few dozen shows at traditional Garcia haunts in the Bay Area, plus a three-night stand in Denver. Saunders and Kahn were well known to Garcia fans, of course, but the other players were new to us.
  • Ron Stallings (tenor sax, vocals) was an old friend of Kahn's. Stallings and Kahn had played in the strangely named T&A R&B Band in 1967-68, and Stallings had gone on to play with Mother Earth and Southern Comfort. He had extensive experience as a jazz and soul player around the Bay Area throughout the 1970s, but he was not well-known.
  • Ed Neumeister (trombone) in fact had already had a fascinating career as a jazz and classical trombonist (well worth reading about), but of course this was completely unknown to Deadheads at the time, since no one ever interviewed or even talked about the group. During 1979, Neumeister had a successful jazz quartet (with Mark Levine, Mike Formanek and Jerry Granelli) and was a member of the Circle Star Theater house orchestra.
  • Gaylord Birch (drums) was well-known on the Oakland funk scene, but better known professionally as a drummer for The Pointer Sisters, Herbie Hancock, Cold Blood and others (including Santana, briefly).
According to Kahn, the idea for the group was that it was supposed to exist separately from Jerry Garcia, giving Kahn something to do when the Dead were on tour. This may account for Garcia acting just as the lead guitarist and occasional singer, rather than as front man. Of course, all the bookings for the group prominently featured Garcia, so it was a difficult path for Reconstruction to carve out its own name.

The Old Waldorf
The Old Waldorf was at 444 Battery Street, on the second floor of a building in the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, a shopping mall and office complex near Downtown. It was opened in early 1976 by Jeffrey Pollack, who had extensive experience in the restaurant business. It became the premier rock club in the Bay Area almost immediately after it opened, because Pollack shrewdly anticipated the marketplace that was to come.

San Francisco rock was founded by a bunch of hippies, and all of the initial venues emphasized the values of the Fillmore and the Avalon: a relaxed atmosphere, plenty of room to dance and an assumption that if a party was bigger and longer, it had to be better. Rock music had become big business, and concerts had moved from the intimate Fillmore to the larger Fillmore West to the even larger Winterland, and finally to the Oakland Coliseum and Cow Palace, the Bay Area's biggest venues.

However, rock fans had--by definition--gotten older as time passed, and some of them had even gotten jobs. As a result, there were a lot of people in the Bay Area who were willing to pay a little extra to see good bands and more than willing to buy a few drinks along the way, but they didn't want to battle hordes of goofballs in the parking lot of some giant arena. At the same time, record companies backed by large corporations had a vested interest in promoting up and coming rock bands, since the rewards for a hit album greatly outweighed the expenses of recording or promoting up-and-coming bands.

Pollack correctly anticipated that many rock fans who lived, worked or amused themselves in San Francisco were ready to spend some money at a rock club that had hip bands in an intimate setting. San Franciscans love to say they saw a hot band in some tiny place on the way up, but they didn't want to go to some dump in Berkeley where it was impossible to park and there was sawdust on the floor. The parking lot for the Embarcadero Center offices served nicely to insure that parking was always available, as long as you had a few bucks to pay for it. The bathrooms were always clean at the Old Waldorf, everybody had their own seat, you could get a mixed drink, and the cover charge kept out weird riffraff.

At the same time, record companies liked sending their bands into the Old Waldorf. In the early 70s, the key to success was FM airplay, and the trick was to get radio staff and other professionals to see new bands. Radio pros much preferred The Old Waldorf to any other club, for the parking alone. One way that record companies could serve all their needs was by comping drinks for invited guests: radio people and other saw the band, they all all had a good time, and the club sold a lot of drinks that they billed the record company for. The bar at the Old Waldorf always had some hipoisie working on a tab, clearly people who had not paid to get in, hanging out in order to see and be seen or network. All in all, The Old Waldorf was an institution of the Peak 70s.

Greenpeace Benefit, Old Waldorf, April 23, 1979
Reconstruction had played The Old Waldorf before, for a Greenpeace Benefit on April 23, 1979. Tapes of both the early and late shows have survived. I have to assume that the Greenpeace shows were well attended, since the Old Waldorf booked Reconstruction to headline two weekend nights a month later (Friday and Saturday May 18-19). Without knowing a single person who attended the Greenpeace shows in April, I am suspecting that since Greenpeace was then a new, exciting cause--the Bay Area loves things that are new and exciting--the Benefit audience included some people who were not typical of the Deadhead/Garcia audience. I have to assume that, since the Old Waldorf show I attended in May seemed to be neither a success nor anything likely to succeed, and it was not repeated.

A number of practices set the Old Waldorf apart from other rock clubs in the Bay Area. In the first place, all Old Waldorf shows were advertised as having two shows, usually at 8:00pm and 11:00 pm. However, the club generally let people stay for both shows, unless the late show was completely sold out. The significance of the "two show" setup was manifold, however. For one thing, people who worked downtown could see a full show (headliner and opener) and still be out the door by 11:00pm, important for an audience that included people with jobs. For another thing, it allowed the club to kind of have it both ways: if the show was casually attended, the club could sell drinks to people who were willing to stay through both shows, but if the band was a breakout hit, the club could sell double the tickets. Finally, the setup allowed the club to enforce a two drink minimum for each show, so if you wanted to stay for both sets you had to buy four drinks instead of two.

Like most California rock clubs at the time, the Old Waldorf was considered a restaurant. I don't know if the food was any good, but since they served an "after-work" audience at the 8:00 shows, food service probably wasn't a complete prop. As a result of its restaurant status, the Old Waldorf allowed people over 18 but under 21. Other clubs, like the Keystones, probably could have done that too, but I think they didn't because of the risk of getting busted for serving under 21s. The Old Waldorf was much more organized than the Keystones, however, and the sophisticated urban waitresses (they were probably 23, but they seemed like exotic older women to me) knew how to manage tricky situations. At the time, I was still under 21 so the Old Waldorf was an option for me in a way that the Keystones were not (I refused to get a fake ID). Knowing what I know now, I realize the real purpose of the 18-and-over rule was so that 20-something men could bring younger dates, but I was oblivious to that at the time.

May 19, 1979 The Old Waldorf, San Francisco: Reconstruction/Horslips
I had a friend who worked at KALX, the Berkeley college radio station. At the time, all college stations played "non-commercial" music, but the whole alternative "left-of-the-dial" thing hadn't become ossified, so the station still played a wide variety of music. Horslips was an excellent Irish rock group, kind of like an Irish Fairport Convention, using Irish melodies while still playing melodic, exciting electric rock. Their record company was pushing their West Coast tour, and they were handing out free tickets to the forward looking side of the local music scene. However, since Horslips were opening for Jerry Garcia at the Old Waldorf, a lot of KALX types didn't want the tickets (not that many of them had heard of Horslips, anyway). My friend liked Horslips, however, and he knew I did, so we got free tickets to see Horslips and Reconstruction at the Old Waldorf.

My friend and I arrived at about 7:30 for the early show, looking to get good seats. The Old Waldorf had rows of tables at a 90 degree angle from the stage. There was an open dance floor, but it was off to the side with poor sightlines. The Old Waldorf was laid out to favor the drinkers. Of course, my friend and I were completely broke college students. Just because we were under 21 didn't exempt us from the two-drink minimums (I no longer recall if the waitress let us buy beer), but it seemed worth the effort. We were quite surprised to find the place almost deserted. Sometimes at the Old Waldorf you could get away with not buying a drink when the waitresses were super busy, but there was no way around it now.

People trickled in. Sometime after 8:00pm, a contingent arrived from Rather Ripped Records, Berkeley's coolest record store. Since I was their most faithful customer, they all recognized me (for old RRR habitues, it was Russ, Doug, Paul and maybe Ray). They were there to see Horslips--being a Deadhead was definitely so last-decade at Rather Ripped. My friend and I inquired about the late start, and the store owner (Russ) told us that the night before (May 18) Horslips had played a short half hour set at 8:00pm, the standard arrangement at the Old Waldorf, and then Garcia's group had not come until nearly eleven. Reconstruction then played so long that there was no time for Horslip's late set. The Rather Ripped people implicitly blamed Reconstruction's behavior on Garcia being a stoned hippie.

Even at the time, it sounded more like a misunderstanding to me, but who knows what really happened. In any case, the deal for our Saturday night show was that Horslips would play a single extended set, and then Reconstruction would play two sets. Since there seemed to be no chance of a sellout, the idea that it "two shows" was only a fiction maintained for the purpose of selling drinks. In any case, by accident or design the setup at the Old Waldorf was now similar to Garcia's general run at the Keystone, except with prettier waitresses and table service: an opening act, then a late start with two sets.

Horslips played about a 50 minute set, and they were really good. This was during the tour for their album The Man Who Built America, and they were a terrific band in any case, but I won't dwell on them here. There were maybe 100 people in the club to see them, maybe less. Many of the people who saw Horslips promptly left, including all the Rather Ripped crew. This wasn't surprising--The Old Waldorf was a club that featured what was new and cool, and familiar old Jerry Garcia didn't count as that in Bay Area 1979.

My friend and I nursed our drinks, and eventually Reconstruction came onstage, probably about 10:00pm. More people had come in by that time, but not a huge number. Off the top of my head, I'd say there were between 100 and 200 people there, but it was hard to tell in the dark. Many of the Deadhead types preferred the dance floor to the tables, not surprisingly, but that didn't put them in place to buy a lot of drinks. The tables were pretty sparse and my friend and I had plenty of room.

I sort of knew Reconstruction would be "funky," but I didn't know what to expect otherwise. I do recall that the group played about an hour long set of 7 songs. Ron Stallings sang at least two, including "Telling My Friends," Merl sang "Do I Move You," there were a couple of instrumentals (one of which sounded like the Doobie Brothers "Long Train Running") and Jerry sang two songs. Garcia sang about the 3rd and 6th numbers, neither the first nor last song. He was very much framing himself as just another band member. Much to my surprise, Garcia took the lead on "When The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game" and "Struggling Man."

Given that I knew little about Reconstruction going in, I was very pleased to hear such unexpected songs. As a listener, I liked jazz, but I hadn't really graduated to appreciating how you could play jazz on top of a funk beat, so I didn't really comprehend the density of what Reconstruction was doing. On the other hand, I had already seen the Garcia Band four times by that point, so I appreciated that it was worth seeing something different.

Ironically, however, my friend and I were both really broke. It's possible I actually had money in my pocket, but I couldn't afford to spend it. My friend liked the Dead a little bit, but he wasn't a huge fan and had little interest in sticking around for the second set. It was also the end of the quarter and we probably both had homework to do the next day, so a late night we couldn't afford wasn't in order. So we left before the second set, in order to avoid having to pay for two more drinks each.

At this great remove it may seem shocking that I didn't do everything in my power to stay for the second set. However, although I would have really enjoyed it, even for a serious Deadhead like me Garcia was just "around," and in any case since I would turn 21 soon I was convinced I would then see Garcia as much as I wanted to. It didn't really turn out that way, and Reconstruction had broken up by the end of that Summer, so I missed any other chances to see them. The tape that circulates is clearly from the late set.

I don't know how many people showed up after we left, but I suspect it wasn't that many. The Old Waldorf was outside of many Deadhead's orbit, and the intimidatingly pretty waitresses can not have been pleased at what foggy hippies were there, buying the occasional grudging beer. Reconstruction and the newly reconstituted Jerry Garcia Band promptly returned to the Keystones, where they belonged. The Jerry Garcia Band did play the Old Waldorf twice when Bill Graham bought it (January 11 and 13, 1982) but that too was not repeated.

When the Grateful Dead became huge in the late 80s, there was a tendency to assume that all Garcia appearances had always been an event. While Garcia had built a reliable audience at the Keystone Berkeley, allowing him to play what he wanted in a relaxed environment, the Keystone experience did not translate well to other venues. Despite the central location of The Old Waldorf, and Garcia's undeniable fame, it was plain that the conditions that made the Keystone viable was very difficult to export.

3 comments:

  1. I started to reply, but it turned into a post.

    BTW, Doris Dynamite? Why not just call her Snowy Snort and get it over with, or am I missing something?

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  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  3. Reading this over, I realize that I missed the JGB's Jan 27 '81 performance at the Old Waldorf. It doesn't change my general point, that the Old Waldorf was not a preferred location for Garcia, but I want to be completist about it.

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