Sunday, October 9, 2011

December 5, 1977: Keystone Palo Alto, Palo Alto, CA Robert Hunter and Comfort (Alligator Moon-FM XIV))

KFAT, 94.5 FM in Giroy, CA--note the U. Utah Phillips reference
On December 5, 1977, Robert Hunter and Comfort played the Keystone Palo Alto, at 260 S. California Avenue in Palo Alto. The show is remarkable for the fact that the first set was broadcast on the legendary KFAT-fm, out of Gilroy, CA (94-oink-5 on your FM dial), and more remarkable in that the broadcast seems to have included the bulk of the new album that Hunter and Comfort were working on at the time, Alligator Moon. Since the Alligator Moon album was never released, the live version broadcast from Keystone Palo Alto seems to be the best evidence of what it was supposed to sound like. I think the "Alligator Moon" suite was Hunter's best songwriting for his own performance, and I have continually found it mystifying that the work has never been released. This post will talk about what little is actually known about the recording of the album and the December broadcast from Keystone Palo Alto, in the hopes of encouraging the powers-that-be to consider officially releasing the "Alligator Moon" suite in either its studio or live incarnation.

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
Although there is a tape for a Robert Hunter and Comfort show purportedly from May 77, the group does not start appearing regularly in Bay Area clubs until a July 29-30 booking at The Shady Grove in San Francisco. The band seems to have kept a fairly low profile throughout 1977, mostly playing some comfortable gigs in the Bay Area in clubs where Hunter had played before. I believe that the low-key activity was because the band began working on recording an album during the second half of 1977 and the beginning of 1978, and they planned to tour behind it starting in Spring 1978.

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)
In the end, only three recordings, "Promontory Rider," "Drunkard's Carol" and "Hooker's Ball" were released, on the 1984 Relix Records retrospective album Promontory Rider. "Jessie James" is known from the 1975 Barry Melton album The Fish (on United Artists) as well as many fine live versions, while "She Gives Me Love" remains unknown to me

[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 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."]
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.

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
Unanswered Questions
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

[McNees:
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.

12 comments:

  1. Not much to add except that I was at this show.

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  2. JGBP, there was a second set, wasn't there?

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  3. I recall that the song "Jesse James" was written in London. Although Robert Hunter wrote the song originally with Barry Melton, it was Joe McDonald who first released it - on 1974 "Country Joe" release. McDonald modified the lyrics and subsequently both Hunter and Melton performed the song using a mix of the original lyrics and those changed by Joe. Barry Melton performed the song in England as recently as 2010 with an alternate mix of lyrics. I recall Joe and Barry playing the song together as early as January 1975. Variants of the lyrics can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/6ekg8ad lists

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  4. I had no idea about the Joe McDonald connection to the song. Hunter and Melton must have written it considerably earlier than I thought. Perhaps they collaborated on it when Country Joe And The All-Star Band (with Barry) came through Europe in 1973-74?

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  5. It dates to the 73-74 window and Barry does have a story about it - but my brain is soft enough at the moment not to recall the story. I will make an effort to dig it up.

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  6. Well, I just discovered that Joe recorded the song in Summer 73, so it had to already have been written. I am trying to sort out the song over on Hooterollin, as I am interested in the recording history of The Fish album. It appears it was recorded twice, once in Novato with Bob and Betty, and then again (and released) in Rockfield with Dave Charles.

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  7. Corry,
    I have the 12/6/77 fm recording, on cassette, here's the setlist

    Robert Hunter and Comfort

    Jessie James
    Walkin The Block
    We Can Work It Out
    Rumrunners>
    Roses
    It's All The Same To Me
    Alligator Moon
    Promintory Rider

    encore
    Boys In The Barroom

    Can't recall what was played after that...I was also at the Keystone Palo Alto KFAT Fat Fry Peter Rowan and the Free Mexican Airforce with Ozzie Ahlers and David Bromberg fm live show, 10/1/79 and have that recording also.

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  8. I was fortunate enough to hear from former Comfort keyboard player Richard McNees, who had a variety of interesting insights. Most of them have now been inserted in the post above.

    The most fascinating detail was that the members of Comfort were on salary, with checks signed by the Grateful Dead. Many years later, Hunter grumbled to McNees about how much money he lost on Comfort, so the whole Comfort/Alligator Moon process was no lark, but a serious effort by Hunter to have conventional rock success. The music was there, as the Keystone tape attests,but the other pieces never fell into place.

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  9. Hunter discussed Comfort and Alligator Moon with Ken Hunt in his interview (part 3 of 3) in "Dark Star" Vol 25 p 43 from Dec 1980/Jan 1981. He certainly was serious about it but it seems we have Barry Melton to thank for its non-release.

    At the end of answering questions about his time with Roadhog and the Barry Melton Band, he says

    "... so I quit. I got out of the business for nine months or so. And then (resignedly), Rodney (Albin) 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."

    KH "You recorded an album, Alligator Moon. Alligator Moon was on one side and for the other I've only got three tracks: Jesse James, Promontory Rider and Drunkard's Carol. Were there any others?"

    RH "Oh yeah. She Gives Me Love and Hooker's Ball - Walking The Block was the subtitle of that."

    KH "Why didn't it ever come out?"

    RH "The real reason is because Barry (Melton) came over after I'd spent all this time and money and the other half of my psyche in this thing. I played the record for him and he went to sleep! And I didn't put it out. It was as simple as that."

    KH "Are you sure he didn't go to sleep for other reasons?"

    RH "No, no, no. He was just sitting there like (leans head to one side)... and he's one of the people that I can use as a sounding board to see if I'm fooling myself about something like that. It put Barry to sleep, so I wasn't going to put it out."

    KH "Shame, because it means that people over here are never going to hear it."

    RH "I think I will release it at some point. I've got it tied up with terrible vocals right now. People are on about why don't I put some decent vocals on the thing? Maybe I could recoup some of the losses on that, I don't know. Christie was in it, we did ballet with it, fully choreographed. We did The Hooker's Ball and the whole Alligator Moon suite with the ballet. It was quite impressive! I hear there are video tapes of it somewhere, but I have to get a hold of them. We did it down at Santa Cruz Auditorium with the Jerry Garcia Band. We also did it at Marin Civic Centre and Ranch Nicasio. I guess we played it four times. That was some production. I had thirteen people in my crew, plus the three ballerinas. We were sixteen people and Daddy here was footing the bill for all of this. Daddy's record royalties for the next two years went down the tubes. Well spent, I might add."

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  10. More Hunter, this time on the song Jesse James, from part 1 of the same Ken Hunt interview (which was conducted shortly after The Venue, Victoria, London November 1979 shows) published in “Dark Star” Vol 23 p 29-30 for April 1980. After discussing Mickey Hart’s recordings and Fire On The Mountain (Hunter prefers the “the gutsy version that we’d done years and years before” to the Dead’s Shakedown version)…

    KH “Jesse James was supposed to be on that album (Fire On The Mountain), wasn’t it, if I recall?”

    RH “Oh, possibly… Maybe it was…”

    KH “Have the Dead ever done Jesse James?”

    RH “No, I wrote it around the time of Workingman’s Dead and my melody was different. I gave it to Barry (Melton) to work with. It used to be my best song with bands like Roadhog. I was able to get my best audience response with it and really throw myself into it, and then I finally retired it. I don’t do it any more. It wilted on me after a couple of years. I stopped investing myself so heavily in it. What I do is that I’ll have some song that I’m hotter about than any other one.”

    KH “Barry Melton played on some of those tracks (Fire On The Mountain) and he subsequently recorded Jesse James (on The Fish).”

    RH “It was about that time and I had just finished Rumrunners and we were just all fired in the studio. We just churned out stuff hand over fist! God! We stacked so many tracks away and Mickey’s got the vaults of all that stuff. It was a very, very creative time.”

    KH “It seems a shame that it never saw a release on, say, Round or something like that.”

    RH “He got the one out, but the sales weren’t too hot on it (Rolling Thunder). It got remaindered. You can get your chance, but you’ve got to sell well. He got the other one together, but he couldn’t get it out. He had to spend too much on it and he was on some kinda budget on it, something like that, and by the time, I think, the record company saw what he had in mind… it was a phenomenal record – they didn’t have faith in it!”

    KH “What else was going to be on it?”

    RH “Marshmallow Road and something like Night Of The Vampire, which Melton and I wrote together… I’m doing a memory feat here… there’s a lot I want to forget and some things I’d like to remember.”

    The topic then moves on to Pigpen. There’s no follow up questions on Hunter’s own studio version of Jesse James for Alligator Moon until it's mentioned much later in what I posted earlier but I hope you find it relevant none the less. You have to treat Hunter’s memory of dates with caution obviously.

    I think this is the first occasion I’ve seen the word vault used to describe old tapes but I could well be wrong.

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    1. guinness, this interview is completely fascinating in the context of the Dec 5 '77 show. Richard McNees more or less confirmed Hunter's version of the story from his end--Rodney brought in Hunter to a pre-existing band, Hunter financed it, but it didn't happen.

      Did we know that Hunter co-wrote "Night Of The Vampires?" Thanks also for identifying the Hunter shows in London--everyone seems to forget that he played there (did he play the Marquee also, or am I conflating that with "The Venue"?)

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    2. No, I don't think Hunter ever played the Marquee. The closest the Marquee ever got to the Dead milieu was a Kingfish show just after Bobby left. We turned up expecting him not knowing he'd left. That was a good show.

      The Marquee was a small, sweat running down the walls place. The Venue fancied itself as much more up market. There were tiers of tables with little candles on and you had to wait for a waitress (never a waiter) to occasionally come round before you could order an overpriced beer. It only lasted a few years but put on some good shows, Gil Scott-Heron and James Brown I remember impressing me. It might have lasted longer if they'd employed more waitresses.

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