Thursday, December 22, 2011

December 31, 1982: Oakland Auditorium Arena, Oakland, CA: The Dinosaurs

My notes from the Dinosaurs' performance in Oakland on December 31, 1982
The December 31, 1982 Grateful Dead show is usually recalled for a variety of reasons. Most prominent of those reasons is the third set, when Etta James and the Tower Of Power horns joined the Dead for a high-energy R&B set that harkened back to the Pigpen era. The 1982 New Year's Eve show was also the last Dead show at the old Oakland Auditorium Arena, before it was upgraded to become the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center. One fact of the show that usually gets overlooked, however, was that it was the only Grateful Dead show where Robert Hunter performed as the opening act. Hunter performed as part of his then-new group The Dinosaurs, which featured veterans of bands that had been the Grateful Dead's peers and rivals in 60s San Francisco. An old arena, an old band, and what was left of their old friends: at the time, enjoyable as the show was, it was a nostalgic look back that in itself would not be repeated. This post will look at Robert Hunter and The Dinosaurs opening set on New Year's Eve 1982/83, in the context of the Grateful Dead's history.

Robert Hunter and The Dinosaurs
Robert Hunter had returned to live performance in late 1975. He had had two bands, Roadhog in 1975 and '76, and Comfort in 1977 and '78. Hunter then scaled back to tour as a duo with bassist Larry Klein, and from 1979 he had toured as a solo artist, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. Comfort, a fine live band, had opened some Jerry Garcia Band shows in the Spring of 1978, and Hunter had opened some Jerry Garcia Band shows as a solo act in 1980. On a 1980 swing through the East Coast, Hunter had not only opened for Garcia, but each night he joined the Garcia Band for two of his own numbers, "Tiger Rose" and "Promontory Rider." Yet Hunter had never performed with or even performed on the same stage as the Grateful Dead. Given that the Grateful Dead didn't have many opening acts in the 1975-82 period, perhaps that is not at all surprising.

In July of 1982, Barry "The Fish" Melton, formerly of Country Joe and The Fish, invited former Big Brother and The Holding Company bassist Peter Albin to play a one-off gig in Marin County. In response to some kind of good natured heckling from the crowd, Melton remarked from the stage that the band was just "a bunch of old Dinosaurs." Although both Melton and Albin were under 40, they felt a long way from the Avalon and Woodstock, when their bands headlined and their albums were bestsellers. This inspired Melton to form a group of players from that era to play occasional gigs in the style that brought them to fame in the first place. Their first show was August 13, 1982, at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco. The initial lineup of The Dinosaurs was
  • Barry Melton-lead guitar, vocals (ex-Country Joe and The Fish)
  • John Cippolina-lead guitar (ex-Quicksilver)
  • Peter Albin-bass (ex-Big Brother)
  • Spencer Dryden-drums (ex-Jefferson Airplane)
The band was joined by a variety of guests of similar vintage. Stepping on stage at The Old Waldorf for a number or two were ex-Charlatan guitarist Michael Wilhelm, ex-Stained Glass (and High Noon) organist Jim McPherson and ex-Quicksilver drummer Greg Elmore. Robert Hunter was apparently enticed on stage to join Melton in singing their joint collaboration "Jesse James." The band played another well-received gig in Southern California, at The Roxy on September 18, but I don't think they had any guests, since all their old friends mostly lived up North. Nevertheless, At the time, psychedelic rock seemed all but extinct, so calling a collection of original Fillmore guys "Dinosaurs" seemed appropriate. More shows were booked.

By December, Robert Hunter had returned from a solo tour of the East Coast, and he threw in his lot with The Dinosaurs. Hunter's presence gave the Dinosaurs a connection to perhaps the five most iconic San Francisco bands of the 60s. The Dinosaurs played another show on November 21, at the Inn Of The Beginning in Cotati. I don't know if or how many friends dropped by, but Cotati was a nice safe place to figure out what they were doing.  The Dinosaurs "re-debuted" with two shows on December 10 at The Old Waldorf, then San Francisco's most high profile rock club.

Since many of the older San Francisco musicians were hardly working anymore, it turned out that they were very available for guest appearances. One of the perhaps unexpected dynamics of The Dinosaurs was that the concept was a perfect platform for old friends to get together on stage, since the fan base of all those groups was by now largely the same. Although the five Dinosaurs, now including Hunter, were the core group, both Old Waldorf shows featured numerous guests who each sat in for a number: Merl Saunders, Country Joe McDonald, Mickey Hart, David Nelson, Greg Elmore, Dave Getz (Big Brother drummer), Sam Andrews (ex BB guitarist, now playing saxophone) and Michael Wilhelm. Nicky Hopkins sat in on piano for the entire late show. Old friend Dan Hicks (an ex-Charlatan himself) opened the shows. Given that almost none of the band members or guests had record contracts or current albums at the time, there was a fair amount of attention given to The Dinosaurs. When it was announced that The Dinosaurs would open for the Grateful Dead on New Year's Eve, for some Deadheads at least, certainly including me, there was a fair amount of interest. It was also a strangely appropriate throwback to the New Year's Eve concerts of the 1960s.

New Years Eve at The Fillmore and The Avalon
On December 31, 1966, the first full year of psychedelic rock in San Francisco, Bill Graham Presents had put on a legendary show at the Fillmore, featuring the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service. The poster bragged that the event would run from 9pm until 9am, including breakfast. A dozen blocks away, at the Avalon, Chet Helms held a similar extravaganza, featuring Country Joe And The Fish, Moby Grape and Lee Michaels. Big Brother and The Holding Company put on their own New Year's Eve concert at the Kezar Pavilion in Golden Gate Park. New Year's Eve was thus established as a night when the psychedelic crowd raved all night, all over town, or so it seemed.

Of course, not a soul remembers a thing about any of these New Year's concerts. There is a brief tape fragment of a jam from the Fillmore, but other than that I know of no tape, no review and no first-hand eyewitness account of any sixties New Year's show in San Francisco, save a Hot Tuna tape from 1969. Once I was at an Avalon reunion, in April of 1994, and Barry Melton and Jerry Miller led the Dinosaurs through a great version of Moby Grape's "Murder In My Heart For The Judge." After the song, Melton fondly reminisced from the stage, "I remember doing about a 63-minute version of that with Moby Grape one New Year's Eve." After pausing to let that sink in, Melton wryly added, "it as probably about 4 minutes, but it seemed like 63." All the participants seemed sure they had a good time, even if they are not certain what it actually consisted of.

Although the action had moved to Winterland by 1967, there was always a blowout show in San Francisco on New Year's Eve, headlined by a couple of major bands: the Airplane, Big Brother and Quicksilver in 1967, the Dead and Quicksilver in '68, the Airplane and Quicksilver in '70, with appropriate supporting acts. No one remembers anything about any of those shows either. By 1970, the New Year's Eve franchise was effectively bequeathed to the Grateful Dead, and in some form or another the Grateful Dead or Jerry Garcia had performed on New Year's Eve in the Bay Area ever since.

By 1982, The Grateful Dead were the last of San Francisco's psychedelic squadrons still riding the range. Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother were gone, and after a brief and interesting reunion in 1978, Country Joe and The Fish were emeritus as well. Jefferson Airplane had morphed into the Jefferson Starship, but although a few old Airplaners were still on board (Grace Slick, Paul Kantner and David Freiberg), the music that Starship was very far from anything that used to get played at the Fillmore. That left the Dead, still exploring the path they set out for themselves 17 years earlier, long after their peers had faded away or stepped off. In that respect, the Dead were very much like a coelacanth, a prehistoric fossil still living in modern times, so it was appropriate that the Dinosaurs were opening for the Fillmore's only non-fossilized life.

The Dinosaurs
The Dinosaurs were a fun, lively band. Melton and Cipollina were both excellent lead guitarists, and Albin and Dryden were a solid rhythm section. Hunter and Melton shared most of the lead vocals, with Cipollina and Albin taking an occasional turn. The Dinosaurs made no specific effort to have a 60s San Francisco sound, because they didn't need to. They just played their music, and it just so happened to remind you of the Fillmore and the Avalon. Given that the New Year's Eve concert with the Dead was the highest profile the band had ever (or would ever) play, they invited a few of their friends to join in. Of course, those friends had pedigrees as well, but that too was simply a byproduct.

As far as I know, the Oakland New Year's Eve show was the Dinosaurs fifth booked date, although some of the dates had featured early and late shows. Now, saying it was their fifth show is slightly misleading, since all of the band members except Dryden and Hunter had other ensembles, and sometimes they played together, so some members had played together many times. As a result, given the standards of psychedelic blues in general, the band members were pretty comfortable with their material. While a few connected tapers had heard some recordings (it's not impossible that I had, too, by that time), in general the experience of hearing the Dinosaurs was quite new to the audience.The Dinosaurs came on stage some time after 8:00pm and played about an hour.

Dinosaurs Setlist, Oakland Auditorium Arena, December 31, 1982
"Who Makes The Moves"-Melton and Hunter shared vocals on this original song.
"One Way Out"-Hunter sang lead on this venerable blues song, made famous by the Allman Brothers. Hunter didn't really have the voice for it, but that didn't really matter. For this song, the Dinosaurs were joined by Nicky Hopkins, looking healthy and playing a Yamaha electric grand piano, similar to the kind Keith used to play (no mirror for Nicky this time). Hopkins was living at least part time in the Bay Area, and playing regularly with John Cipollina in one of his many bands. Hopkins, too, had played New Year's Eve in San Francisco (in 1969 with Quicksilver). Hopkins played throughout the rest of the show.
"Love"-This was an old Barry Melton song from the Country Joe and The Fish days, I believe from their debut album.
"Promontory Rider"-Hunter sang one of his more recognizable electric songs, recognizable not least because he had performed it with the Jerry Garcia Band in 1980.
"I Can't Dance"-Melton sang another old song from his own career. Melton in particular said later that he never had any intention of writing new songs for the Dinosaurs.
"Save The Whales"-Country Joe McDonald came on stage to sing his biggest solo hit.
"Street Life"--Hunter sang a song that would turn up on his Amagamalin Street album a few years later. Hunter, unlike Melton, used the Dinosaurs to try out all sorts of new songs.
"Level With Me"-Melton sang this one. I'm not sure of its provenance.
"St. Louis Blues"-Hunter sang this blues song. I think it was a traditional blues tune that was lyrically modified by Hunter, but I'm not sure.
"How Blue Can You Get?"-Kathi McDonald, one of the lead singers for Big Brother and The Holding Company in the early 1970s (after Janis), came out and belted out this standard to close the show. McDonald was very high energy, and with both lead guitarists wailing away, it was an appropriately high octane ending to the set. For this song and the encores, the band was joined by Steve "Teenage" Douglas on tenor sax, a legendary session man who had played on many Phil Spector hits.

encores
"San Francisco"-Melton sang lead on this high energy boogie celebrating San Francisco music.
"D.I.N.O.S.A.U.R.S."-Hunter sang the Dinosaurs sort of theme song, which he had written. It was a slow, ironic ballad that ended the set on a suitably nostalgic note, given that it was a band of a bunch of old guys opening for the last of the breed.

Although there was a conscious element of nostalgia applying to the Dinosaurs opening for the Grateful Dead, the music was energetic and enjoyable. There was no effort expended to make the music "modern" or "relevant," To some extent it reminded me of seeing traditional music in its native habitat, like seeing The Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans. Even though the Dinosaurs were an amalgamation of members of bands who had once been booked themselves for New Year's Eve in San Francisco, they were proud representatives of a past musical style, rather than apologetic or bitter.

Robert Hunter was making his first New Year's Eve live appearance ever, as far as I knew. Other members of the Dinosaurs, however, had appeared many times on December 31. Just limiting myself to the sixties, John Cipollina had played New Year's Eve all four years from 1966 to '69 with Quicksilver (first at Fillmore, then three at Winterland). Barry Melton and Joe McDonald had headlined New Year's Eve shows at the Avalon in 1966 and '67. Peter Albin, as a member of Big Brother, had played New Year's Eve in 1966 at Kezar Pavilion and '67 at Winterland. Spencer Dryden, as a member of the Jefferson Airplane, had headlined New Year's Eve shows in 1966 (at the Fillmore), '67 and '69 (at Winterland). The Dinosaurs's appearance on New Year's Eve with the Grateful Dead was a true encore, when a quorum of Veterans of the Ballroom Wars gathered together to stand with the regular forces of the Grateful Dead.

Aftermath
Robert Hunter continued to perform with the Dinosaurs for another year-and-a-half. He wrote and performed a number of interesting songs with the band, while continuing his solo career. However, Hunter found himself at friendly odds with Melton and the others, as the sole songwriter in a band full of jammers. Hunter stepped aside, and Merl Saunders took his place from late 1984 onwards. The Dinosaurs continued in various forms until the mid-90s, including membership and numerous guest appearances by many of the band's peers and friends from the good old days. Hunter participated in the Dinosaurs's studio album, released in 1988. However, Hunter never opened for the Grateful Dead again, making New Year's Eve 1982 a singular event.

3 comments:

  1. Fantastic. I have always liked the Dinosaurs. They played well.

    Lots of Dinosours dates are available at the Live Music Archive. If we buy the datings, it looks like their first attributed gig was at the Marin County Fair on July 5, 1982.

    Listening to 11/21/82 at Cotati now: http://www.archive.org/details/Dinosaurs1982-11-21.cabaret.rick.c.easy.ed.sbd.matrix.flac.16
    "Who Makes the Moves" is a really good representation of this band. Cipollina, one of my favorites, gets that distinctive sound that you know is him the second you hear it. Nice stuff.

    Thanks!

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  2. BTW, according to a contemporary review, Hunter's last show with the Dinosaurs was the Rodney Albin Memorial at Wolfgang's, 8/28/84 ("Deadline," Golden Road no. 04 (Fall 1984), pp. 6-7).

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  3. I had flown in from New Orleans to Oakland to do some business when I saw Pink Floyd was playing Oakland on 4/22/88. Immediately after the show a club owner who I was doing business with invited me to his club where "Fish & Chips" were playing (The Dinosaurs). I'm trying to remember the name of the club. Any clue?

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