|KFAT, 94.5 FM in Giroy, CA--note the U. Utah Phillips reference|
Robert Hunter and Comfort
I have written about the live performance history of Robert Hunter and Comfort at some length elsewhere, so I will only recap it briefly here. Robert Hunter had returned to performing in late 1975 with the band Roadhog, mostly made up of old friends from his folkie days in the early '60s. They were an enjoyable aggregation, but Hunter seemed to be mainly getting his feet back on the ground as a performer, and Hunter stopped playing with Roadhog about Halloween 1976. In mid-1977, Hunter joined Comfort, who appear to have already existed, and brought along his old friend Rodney Albin from Roadhog. The 1977 lineup of Comfort was
- Robert Hunter-vocals, guitar
- Kevin Morgenstern-lead guitar
- Rodney Albin-violin, mandolin
- Richard "Sunshine" McNees-keyboards
- Larry Klein-six string bass
- Pat Lorenzano-drums
- Marlene Molle-vocals
- Kathleen Klein-vocals
The Alligator Moon Album Project
As far as is known, the Alligator Moon album would have consisted of five regular tracks and then an entire "Alligator Moon" suite of six songs. I assume that the regular tracks would have been on side one of the LP (remember those?) and the title suite would have been on side two, following the music industry practices of the time. The indispensable Deaddisc site lists the proposed tracks for Alligator Moon, albeit with the six songs in the Alligator Moon suite listed first:
- Mesa Linda (Hunter)
- Domino, Cigarette and Melina (Hunter / Morgenstern)
- Domino (Hunter / Morgenstern)
- Blue Note (Hunter / McNeese)
- New East St. Louis Blue (Hunter / McNeese)
- Cigarette (Hunter / McNeese)
- She Gives Me Love (Hunter)
- Drunkard's Carole (Hunter)
- Hooker's Ball (Hunter)
- Jesse James (Hunter / Melton)
- Promontory Rider (Hunter)
[I was fortunate enough to hear recently from former Comfort keyboard player Richard McNees, who had numerous insights. With respect to "She Give Me Love," he pointed me to comments he made on the excellent Grateful Dead song finder site:
"When we were doing the collaboration, I think the deal was Kevin [Morgenstern] and I each would write three songs. I submitted three songs based on Bob's [Hunter] pretty random poetry that he had given to me to work from. He then took the songs and molded the lyrics and story. He only used two of the three, which became "Blue Note" and "New East St. Louis Blue". None of the final lyrics were the ones I selected from his poetry. It is a wonderful example of his genius as a writer that he could do that - populate what was mostly abstract thoughts and images with characters, romance, adventure and a stroke of drama. Pretty exciting stuff.The key to the album was the linked suite of six songs that made up the "Alligator Moon" suite itself. To my ears, the live version from December 5, 1977 represents Hunter at his best, evocative without being too specific, contemporary yet timeless and steeped in Americana of all sorts. Comfort are more like solid musicians than virtuosos, but that is appropriate to Hunter's voice and music, as he generally left the peculiar chords and 5/4 rhythms to Garcia. "Alligator Moon" was written for Hunter to perform in his own unique style, and by 1977 Hunter had enough experience under his belt that he could really pull it off. Music for five of the six songs in the suite were written by members of Comfort, so it was a true group effort.
"The third song, which I called "Shades and Shadows" (from the raw poetry) was never done by him, although Kathleen Klein and I performed it a few times in a small venue on our own. He might referring that song as "Cigarette" as it was written for but not used in the suite. And the reason there are no words is it did not get reworked by him or appear in the final version.
"The song was closer to jazz, and was also in a 6/8 time signature, like New East St Louis, though more ethereal. And it was tailored in my mind for Kathleen's voice. I may want to use that one some day as I think it is a good song, particularly for jazz, and the lyrics are quite good and are unfiltered by reworking - more like poetry which goes real good with jazz."]
According to the never-reliable Relix liner notes for Promontory Rider, the Alligator Moon album material was produced by Bob Matthews and engineered by Betty Cantor at Front Street studios, and this has been generally confirmed by Betty Cantor in an interview. The interesting part about this is that Alligator Moon would have been the second album recorded at Front Street, right on the heels of Cats Under The Stars. Indeed, Le Club Front was originally the Jerry Garcia Band rehearsal space, and it got turned into a recording studio to facilitate Cats. Eventually the Grateful Dead took over the studio space, but in late '77/early '78 it was still Garcia Band property, so that means that Garcia was at least indirectly sponsoring the recording of the album. What happened to the record?
|The back cover to Robert Hunter's 1984 album Promontory Rider, which included three songs from Alligator Moon|
According to Hunter, he was never satisfied with the studio recording of the "Alligator Moon" suite. He did allude to the fact that some live versions of the suite did a better job of capturing what he was intending. I can't help but think that one of those versions must have been the December 5, 1977 show, as Betty Cantor herself was mixing from the remote truck, along with Bob Matthews. We know this for a fact, because Hunter name-checks them from the stage during the broadcast ("we've got Bob and Betty doing our sound tonight") and nobody does a better live mix than Betty.
[Richard McNees sheds some light:
on hearing it recently for the first time in many years, I think there needed to be corrections to everyone's vocals and can understand that it wasn't possible. After hearing the live version it is so much better. Only thing is there is hole at the end of "The Blue Note" where the tone of the piece really shifts]One question that has never seemed to have been asked, however, much less answered, was what label was Alligator Moon supposed to have been released on? I would have to think that Arista Records would have been the most likely candidate, but that is not necessarily a sure thing. Of course, Arista were releasing albums by Garcia (Cats) and Bob Weir (Heaven Help The Fool) during this period, so a Hunter album isn't farfetched, but I don't think there was a contract. It seems like Garcia was willing to finance the album on spec, a lot cheaper proposition if it was recorded at Club Front by Betty than at a regular studio, and they probably intended to sell it to a record company afterwards, a common enough industry practice. Since Comfort stayed home, for the most part, they could record when the Garcia Band wasn't using the facility, because the Dead were on tour, so the project made financial sense
I'm not sure about the financing, but the band was salaried (Very nice touch) and the checks came from the Dead. And the final destination label was never discussed with me. I sorta thought "if we build it they will come."
Bob Matthews summoned me to a Dead concert in 1987 and told me Alligator Moon was his favorite thing he had done (up til then). Quite a compliment]If Hunter was unhappy with the studio recording, and Garcia had financed the project, Hunter would have been more free to shelve the project. I don't know exactly when the album was recorded, but I suspect it was late 1977 and early 1978. They may have booked their March-to-May 1978 tour in anticipation of supporting the album, or at least creating some buzz about its impending release, but once the album was on the shelf, it was just another rock tour. Ozzie Ahlers replaced Richard McNeese on keyboards in early 1978 , and given that McNees wrote some of the music, I wonder what that had to do with it. Perhaps McNeese was expecting to be working in a band with an album forthcoming, and once Hunter shelved the record McNeese may have had less reason to stay.
[I was close, but didn't have it quite right. McNees:
the band which was once a writer's collective performing each other's work, to a backup band. I am primarily a writer and I wanted to write. That's why I liked Bob, Kevin and Marleen in the first place. So I had to go]The KFAT Fat Fry
The Keystone Palo Alto broadcast a live show every Monday night back in the late 70s and early 80s, as part of an institution known as The Fat Fry. There was a legendary psychedelic country station called KFAT in then-tiny Gilroy, CA (pre-Cisco Systems), whose story is too bizarre to believe (read it and weep--radio was like this once, but only once). Every Monday night a local live attraction would play the Keystone Palo Alto and their first set would be broadcast on KFAT, audible all over the South Bay, and even in Berkeley if you were lucky. To some extent, this was to advertise the bands themselves, and to some extent this was to promote the Keystone Palo Alto.
On the piece of the live tape that I have, Hunter cheerily name checks all his friends and family listening in the radio audience and jokes about the junior high in Palo Alto that he attended in the 1950s (Wilbur). At the end of the set, he encourages all the listeners to come down to the Keystone Palo Alto for the second set. This was a serious plea--the Fat Fry broadcast generally ended about 11:00, but there was always plenty of music left, and if you lived in the South Bay dropping by was very plausible.
I recognize that if Hunter was unhappy with the studio recording of "Alligator Moon", and that since there was no deep-pocketed record company to finance a re-recording, the album needed to be shelved. A lot of time has passed, however--why not release the album now? Since no record company ever owned it, shouldn't Hunter control the rights? [Richard McNees says that Ice Nine control the rights, which is good to hear.] Of course, Comfort's partnership agreement may have not made it so easy to release the album once the band had broken up, but usually any frustrations or wounds heal after a few decades. My solution is even better--why not release the first set of the show from Keystone Palo Alto on December 5, 1977, with Bob and Betty doing the sound and the complete "Alligator Moon" suite? Of course, we don't know that anything resembling the original tape still exists, since Hunter tapes weren't guarded with the care that Garcia or Grateful Dead tapes were, but it sure would be nice to hear "Alligator Moon" the way Hunter, Comfort, Bob and Betty intended it, even if just for one Monday night in Palo Alto.