Keith And Donna Godchaux
Although the exact details are hard to uncover from this distance, the Dead were unhappy with Keith Godchaux's playing in 1978, and Keith and Donna Godchaux themselves were unhappy with what the Dead's endless touring was doing to their personal and family life. At some point in the late fall--I have never been able to determine exactly when--Keith and Donna announced at a band meeting that they were quitting the band. It was clear that they would have been pushed out if they hadn't left of their own accord, but they seem to have left under relatively graceful circumstances. Keith's tragic death in an automobile accident on July 23, 1980 put a pall over his departure. By all accounts, he was a shy, nice person and no Dead members were much interested in publicly discussing in detail their musical frustrations with him, not wanting to speak ill of the dead.
Nonetheless, in 1978 the Dead's frustration with Keith's playing seems to have centered around his unwillingness to play any keyboard with some sustain. His rare forays on electric piano and Hammond organ in the early 1970s were always provocative, but Keith seemed to have little interest in pursuing those keyboards. Weir admitted that his penchant for playing slide guitar in 1978 stemmed from frustration at Keith's unwillingness to play organ, and Weir tried to make up for it with the slide. My own opinion is that the return of Mickey Hart changed the rhythmic emphasis of the band, and it implicitly required the keyboard to fulfill a different role than when there was only one drummer. With only Bill Kreutzmann at the traps, the grand piano had room to be a secondary percussion instrument, but Mickey Hart took up all that room. Garcia and Weir must have assumed that Keith would emphasize more melody and sustain on a different keyboard, but he seems to have simply refused.
Keith's unwillingness to play organ or synthesizer seems to have built up a lot of musical frustration for the rest of the band, particularly Garcia and Weir. If Garcia was considering Brent Mydland as a possible Keith substitute, then it means Garcia and Weir had at least implicitly been discussing the subject for some time (does anyone know when Weir "debuted" as a slide player with the Dead?).
Soon after the Grateful Dead signed to Arista Records in late 1976, both Garcia and Weir agreed to make solo albums for the label. I assume the solo deals were part of the Dead's Arista contract. Weir's solo album Heaven Help The Fool was released by Arista in January 1978. The album was produced by Keith Olsen, producer of both Terrapin Station and the hugely popular Rumors, by Fleetwood Mac. The album was consciously conceived as a radio friendly, non-Grateful Dead album. Weir was the most photogenic of the Dead, and the professional cover photo (above) is typical of 70s rock albums, not at all the implied psychedelia of an elaborate Kelly/Mouse album cover.
Weir was trying to mine the sort of vein of players like Boz Scaggs and Steve Miller, who had been hip San Francisco rockers in the day, but had achieved great success by producing streamlined versions of the bluesy music that they had first played at the Fillmore. There were no "jams" on Heaven Help The Fool, and all of the 8 songs had pretty conventional structures. All of the musicians on the album were established Los Angeles session men with substantial credits, such as members of Toto. The only familiar name to Dead fans was singer Bill Champlin, but at that time he too was a Los Angeles session man, providing backing vocals for many hit albums.
To promote the album, Weir formed a band and did modest tour in February and March 1978. It was called The Bob Weir Band and received direct support from Arista, in distinct contrast to the casual gigs of bands like Kingfish or the Legion Of Mary. Also, rather than simply play out of the way Bay Area dives like the Keystone Berkeley, the Bob Weir Band debuted in Los Angeles at The Roxy, playing a three night stand from February 17-19. The Roxy was primarily used to showcase bands to the rest of the record industry. The balance of the tour was mostly in major cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia. While there were a few out of the way colleges thrown in for good measure, the general purpose of the tour was to create a buzz that would inspire radio airplay, rather than just encouraging the Grateful Dead faithful.
The five week tour of The Bob Weir Band ended with a show at The Old Waldorf in San Francisco on March 25, 1978. The Old Waldorf was the premier rock club in the Bay Area, and the prime showcase for record companies promoting new rock bands. Neither Jerry Garcia nor any other member of the Dead had ever played there, and it was very much outside of the Deadhead orbit. The fact that the Bob Weir Band played the Old Waldorf instead of the Keystone Berkeley was a clear sign that Arista was supporting Weir's album in an attempt to break it outside the Deadhead universe. It also meant that since Weir was not playing regular Deadhead stops, there had been no shows with the Jerry Garcia Band.
The Bob Weir Band
The initial lineup of The Bob Weir Band was
- Bob Weir-guitar, vocals
- Bobby Cochran-lead guitar, vocals
- Brent Mydland-Hammond organ, electric piano, harmony vocals
- Rick Carlos-bass
- John Mauceri-drums
Weir apparently had called multi-instumentalist David Lindley about playing on tour with him (wouldn't that have been something!), but while Lindley was unavailable, he recommended drummer John Mauceri. Mauceri had regularly played with bassist Rick Carlos, so I assume they came as a pair. I actually saw Mauceri and Carlos playing as part of David Blue's band in August 1973 (along with guitarist Don Felder, pre-Eagles). Mauceri and Carlos seem to have gotten together as the rhythm section for the touring band of a duo called Batdorf and Rodney, who released three albums in the early 1970s.
John Batdorf and Mark Rodney were singing guitarists who toured with Carlos and Mauceri as part of their band. At some point around 1974 or '75, near the end of the duo's tenure, Brent Mydland joined them as keyboard player. I'm not certain whether or if Carlos or Mauceri were still in the band at the time Mydland joined, but that seems to have been the connection between them and Brent Mydland. When Batdorf and Rodney split up, John Batdorf, Brent Mydland and some others formed a group called Silver, who released an album on Arista in 1976, but Silver also split up.
Bob Weir Band, Fall 1978
After the tour in early 1978 (February 17-March 25), I only know of one other date, where the Bob Weir Band opened two shows for the Jefferson Starship on June 9 and 10, 1978 at Nassau Coliseum. Although Heaven Help The Fool was not a success, Weir must have enjoyed the group since he reconstituted them for the Fall of '78. However, the limited performances of the group indicate that they were not getting the full support of Arista this time around. The band played a show at Rancho Nicasio in Marin on October 16, and also shows at Keystone Berkeley and Keystone Palo Alto right around then, although I have not been able to identify the exact dates.
The local Bay Area dates seem to have been warmups for the higher profile "tour" where the Jerry Garcia Band and The Bob Weir Band played medium sized halls in the Pacific Northwest. There was one change to the group, as Dee Murray replaced Rick Carlos on bass. Dee Murray was an established session man, who had played on Heaven Help The Fool. Murray (1945-92) had been an original part of Elton John's band, and had played on every Elton John album up through Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy. When John replaced Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, they had remained in LA playing sessions. The Pacific Northwest dates for The Jerry Garcia Band/Bob Weir Band were:
- October 26, 1978: Paramount Theater, Portland, OR
- October 27, 1978: Special Events Pavilion, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA
- October 28, 1978: Paramount Theater NW, Seattle, WA (early and late show)
Brent Mydland And The Grateful Dead
I do not know the exact timing of the band meeting where Keith and Donna Godchaux quit the Grateful Dead, but I think it was in December of 1978 or January of 1979. Their final tours with the Dead were excellent, and Keith played wonderfully. I saw Keith and Donna's last show with the Dead, at the Oakland Coliseum on February 17, 1979, and the band played fantastically well, pulling many old songs out of the hat (I had been waiting for years to hear "Big Railroad Blues," for example). Although there were odd rumors out in the crowd, without an Internet no one knew that it was Keith and Donna's last show, and nothing was said about it from the stage.
Keith and Donna's departure was leaked out somewhat casually, I think in an announcement in Joel Selvin's Chronicle column. There were no articles or information about who might replace him. The Dead booked a show for April 22, 1979 at Spartan Stadium in San Jose, but there was no public discussion of who would play keyboards. All of my friends and I made up fantastic rumors about Bill Champlin, Merl Saunders or the return of Tom Constanten, but it turns out that the Grateful Dead knew all along that Brent would replace Keith and Donna. To my knowledge, no other player was rehearsed or even discussed. Until Brent walked on stage at San Jose, the crowd had no idea who was going to be in the Dead. My friend said "hey, it's the guy who played with Weir at The Roxy" and that was that. But it all seems to have been decided in Portland and Washington the previous October, when Garcia heard Brent Mydland playing live.
Some Jerry Garcia Band Notes
Over the years, Dennis McNally, Blair Jackson and others have discussed Brent Mydland replacing Keith and Donna in the Grateful Dead, but no one really talks about their departure from the Jerry Garcia Band. Keith and Donna's final appearance with the JGB was November 4, 1978 at the Keystone Palo Alto. It seems obvious that John Kahn and Garcia had been plotting to form Reconstruction, a big change in musical direction. Keith and Donna's departure made the timing of the transition simple. While Garcia's illness in late November may have delayed Reconstruction's debut slightly, in that the Dead didn't normally tour much in January, Garcia and Kahn must have been thinking about it for some time.
However, the manner in which Garcia and Weir decided on replacing Keith Godchaux suggests something about Garcia's isolation. By 1978, Garcia toured relentlessly with both the Dead and his own group, and by that time he seems to have almost never to have gone outside his home, hotel or studio otherwise, as he was increasingly recognizable. When it came to replacing Keith Godchaux, Garcia must have been correctly concerned with finding a keyboard player who could play organ and sing in a live format, but the fact is Garcia probably had few opportunities to hear other players. The Dead no longer played rock festivals and were very rarely billed with any other acts whatsoever, so he simply may not have heard anyone.
My reasoning here actually has to do with the Jerry Garcia Band after the Keith and Donna era. When Garcia and Kahn reactivated the JGB in October, 1979 the keyboard player was electric pianist Ozzie Ahlers. Ahlers had played in Robert Hunter's band Comfort throughout early 1978, and the band had opened for the JGB in a number of shows. Garcia had heard Ahlers play live, and must have liked what he heard. When Ahlers left after mid-1980, he was replaced by Melvin Seals. According to Garcia, he first heard Melvin Seals playing Fender Rhodes electric piano with Elvin Bishop, when Bishop was opening for the Dead, and he kept Seals in mind.
Elvin Bishop opened for the Grateful Dead in Santa Barbara on June 4, 1978, and that must have been when Garcia noticed Seals. We know that Garcia was listening, since he came out to jam with Bishop, a very rare occurrence for Garcia in that decade. One way of looking at this information is to say that Garcia's primary keyboard players from 1979 to 1990 were all in bands that opened for him in 1978. Ahlers had played in Comfort in February and March 1978 when they opened for JGB, Seals with Elvin Bishop opening for the Dead on June 4, and Brent Mydland in the Bob Weir Band on October 26-28, 1978, and Ahlers, Mydland and Sears anchored the Dead and the JGB keyboard chairs for the next twelve years (this doesn't account for Jimmy Warren, but he wasn't the primary keyboard player, and in any case he is a mystery in his own right). Thus if the Bob Weir Band had not opened for the Garcia Band in Portland and Washington, Garcia may never have heard Brent, and the history of the Grateful Dead would have taken some other course.