Thursday, January 26, 2012

March 12, 1978: Suffolk Forum, Commack, NY: Jerry Garcia Band/NRPS/Robert Hunter and Comfort

An ad from the February 20, 1978 edition of the Village Voice, promoting the March 12, 1978 concert by the Jerry Garcia Band, the New Riders of The Purple Sage and Robert Hunter and Comfort
In about 1962, Jerry Garcia, David Nelson and Robert Hunter formed a bluegrass band. The little trio rehearsed in the Belmont, CA living room of David Nelson's parents, with Garcia on banjo, Nelson on mandolin, and Hunter on guitar or bass. Later, with the addition of Norm Van Maastricht on dobro, the group became the Black Mountain Boys and played around what few bohemian folk clubs there were in the Bay Area. The Black Mountain Boys soon evolved into other bluegrass ensembles, usually without Hunter, since his literary talents were far ahead of his musical ones. Nonetheless the trio of Black Mountain Boys that rehearsed in a living room were the first collective band that would slowly lead to the Grateful Dead and its sprawling madness. The 60s happened, and lots of water passed under the bridge, some of it slowly and some of it great torrents. Yet it came to pass 16 years later, in a concrete block of a hockey arena, that the old Black Mountain Boys had an unexpected reunion of sorts. On March 12, 1978, at the Suffolk Forum in Commack, NY, in Eastern Long Island, the Jerry Garcia Band, the New Riders of The Purple Sage with David Nelson, and Robert Hunter and his band Comfort all shared the bill.

By 1978, All three of the protagonists had certain degrees of rock stardom, but the arcs of their various bands were all in different states. The Jerry Garcia Band trailed the Grateful Dead in popularity, but it was beginning a steady climb to massive success on its own. The once-promising New Riders had already peaked, while Robert Hunter was just stepping forward in an effort to become a national rock star, an effort he would soon put aside. This post will look at the standing of the three bands at the time of the concert, considering the different paths the musical careers of the three Black Mountain Boys had taken up until this time.

The Suffolk Forum, Commack, NY
The Suffolk Forum in Commack, NY was a hockey and basketball arena that had opened in 1959. It was an old concrete block for the most part. Commack was in Suffolk County, about an hour due East of Manhattan, some ways out on Long Island. It mostly housed minor league hockey and basketball franchises, but it had hosted its share of rock concerts in the 1970s. The Grateful Dead never happened to have played there, but it was the sort of aging dump that could be relatively cheaply rented for concerts, since a bunch of rowdy hippies could hardly cause any meaningful damage to such a venue. Country Joe and The Fish had played there in 1970, Hot Tuna were regulars and many similar acts had come through over the years. The venue had had various names over the years. It had been built as the Long Island Arena, then it was called the Commack Arena, and by 1978 it was called The Suffolk Forum.

Long Island was booming from World War 2 onwards, of course, but the Suffolk Forum was largely passed by. In 1972, the huge Nassau Coliseum was built in Uniondale, one county nearer to Manhattan, and Suffolk Forum took a back seat. Suffolk Forum had a capacity of 4000 for hockey and 6500 for basketball, so the concert capacity was probably around 6000. Nassau Coliseum had a capacity of about 16,000, and with its proximity to the city, it became the primary concert venue. The New York Nets of the American Basketball Association and the New York Islanders of the National Hockey League were also housed in the Nassau Colisuem. The Nets had been housed in Commack for the 1968-69 season, but had moved to the Island Gardens prior to Nassau. By 1978, only the Long Island Ducks of the Eastern Basketball Association used Suffolk Forum as a home arena.

The Jerry Garcia Band, 1978 edition
The Grateful Dead had made their bones on the East Coast thanks to relentless touring. In the 1970-71 period, the Dead had played show after show at tiny college gyms and aging movie theaters, converting the audience to permanent deadhead status one show at a time. They had not played Commack Arena (as it was then known), but they had played the gymnasium at Stony Brook and the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, so there were plenty of fond flashbacks out on the Island. As a result, later in the 1970s, the Grateful Dead were huge on the East Coast, in many ways much more popular than they were out West. In the late 70s, the Dead played big places like Nassau Coliseum, and when they played smaller theaters, they were in Manhattan or Boston, not out in the suburbs, and the shows were instant sellouts.

Jerry Garcia had begun to tour the East Coast in earnest when the Grateful Dead had gone on hiatus in 1974. He had toured with Garcia-Saunders, then the Legion of Mary and then the Jerry Garcia Band. Even though the Grateful Dead had returned to touring in 1976, the Jerry Garcia Band had toured the East Coast again in December 1977. Garcia had just finished the Cats Under The Stars album, although it would not be released until April of 1978. By the end of 1977, the Garcia Band was playing the same types of smaller venues in the suburbs, smaller cities or colleges that the Dead had played in the early 70s. In a few cases, Garcia actually played the same venues, like The Palace Theater in Waterbury, CT. For younger Deadheads, or people who lived a long way from Manhattan or Boston, seeing the Garcia Band in a nearby county or college was a way to get a Dead fix in between tours.

The Garcia Band had booked a big Eastern tour in March of 1978. Probably this tour was intended to support Cats Under The Stars, but for whatever reason the album had not been released yet. Whether there was a practical reason for this or not has never been clear to me. However, since Garcia Band tours were profitable on their own terms, the fact that the record had not yet been released was not catastrophic, even if it was poor marketing. The Garcia Band had played a few warmup gigs in February in the Bay Area, a good sampling of which can be heard on the official Garcia release Bay Area 1978. The national tour began on March 9, 1978 at the Cleveland Music Hall in Cleveland, OH. Suffolk Forum was Garcia's fourth date on the tour.

The 1978 edition of the Jerry Garcia Band included regulars John Kahn and Keith and Donna Godchaux, along with new drummer Buzz Buchanan. Maria Muldaur shared harmonies with Donna, and was considered a regular member of the band. However, Maria's presence was not advertised. In the parlance of the time, if her name was in the ads, it would have been expected that she would be singing "Midnight At The Oasis" and the like, and that wasn't the plan (not that it would have been a bad thing, mind you).  Thanks to the newly completed Cats album, the 1978 JGB was the first lineup of the Garcia Band that performed a fair amount of original material along with the traditional cover material that Garcia had always played. Garcia had steadily become a bigger concert attraction each year, just as the Dead had done, and in fact that rise would continue more or less throughout his entire career. Since Suffolk Forum probably had a concert capacity around 6000 it was perhaps the biggest played Garcia had played so far on the East Coast up to that point.

Robert Hunter and Comfort
By 1978, Jerry Garcia's bands were hardly strangers on the East Coast. The real surprise to Easterners would have been the presence of Robert Hunter and his band Comfort. All Deadheads had been surprised when Hunter emerged from the shadows to release two solo albums in 1974 and '75. Bay Area fans had had the opportunity to see Hunter perform with his bands Roadhog (1976) and Comfort (1977), but they had never gone on the road. Hunter had spent the Fall of 1977 working on a studio album with Comfort called Alligator Moon, but for various reasons that project appeared to have been shelved. Nonetheless, taking a band on a true road trip was an expensive proposition, and the ever-loyal Garcia arranged to have Comfort open a number of his East Coast shows, assuring that Hunter and his band could arrive in style. The Suffolk Forum show was the first East Coast show where Hunter and Comfort would open for Garcia.

I have dealt with Comfort's history at length, both in performance and with respect to what little is known about the recording of Alligator Moon, so I will not recap it all here. Unlike on the West Coast, however, where Hunter was, by now at least, an accessible figure to those Deadheads who were curious, conversely, on the East Coast Jerry Garcia's writing partner had never performed in person. In fact, Hunter and Comfort's East Coast debut had been a few days before the Suffolk Forum show, when they headlined a pair of nights at My Father's Place in Roslyn, NY, also in Long Island, on March 9 and 10. So the Deadheads who were most excited to see Hunter in person would have already seen him, but even so, for most of the several thousand attendees at Suffolk Forum, Robert Hunter and Comfort were largely a mystery. Since there had been no pictures of him on his two Round Records solo albums, even Hunter's appearance may have been unknown to most Deadheads.

The ad in the Village Voice (up top) just mentions the Garcia Band and the New Riders, so many patrons may have been quite surprised to find that Robert Hunter himself was opening the show. Indeed, the extant tape of the Comfort show begins with an unknown stage announcer saying (approximately) "we'd like to open with someone who's very dear to us back in San Francisco, Robert Hunter and his band Comfort." This wasn't precisely Hunter's Eastern debut, since that had taken place a few days earlier, but it was certainly Hunter's coming out party in the East.

The New Riders Of The Purple Sage
The New Riders of The Purple Sage had always sold a lot more concert tickets on the East Coast than in the West. The first five New Riders albums had sold a lot of copies and the band had toured up and down the Eastern seaboard. By the mid-70s, however, the New Riders fortunes seemed to have faded. The commercial promise of hippie country rock in the early 70s had been eclipsed by, of all things, actual country music. 'Outlaw Country' of the sort performed by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings was more in the public ear than the New Riders and their ilk, and the Riders status had declined accordingly.

Also, after the departure of Dave Torbert in late 1973, the subsequent New Riders albums (Brujo and Oh What A Might Time) had been letdowns. Torbert's replacement, Skip Battin, was a solid musician, but he lacked Torbert's appeal and songwriting depth. In 1976, Battin had left to join the re-formed Flying Burrito Brothers, and he had been replaced by Stephen Love. Love helped revitalize the New Riders with two pretty good albums (Who Are Those Guys? and Marin County Line), so the band was playing well even if they weren't as successful.

In February, 1978, however, for reasons unknown, Stephen Love and pedal steel guitarist Buddy Cage had left the New Riders. The Riders had dates to fulfill, but lacked a quorum, with only John Dawson and David Nelson, the two original members, still on board, along with drummer Patrick Shanahan. Emblematic of the status of original country rock bands at the time, the Flying Burrito Brothers were also in a poor state as well, so for about six weeks in Spring 1978, the two bands joined forces. The three members of the New Riders were joined by the three remaining members of the Flying Burrito Brothers, who included a former Rider (Battin), and they played some shows as the New Riders of The Purple Sage. For March of 1978, the New Riders lineup was
John Dawson-vocals, guitar
David Nelson-lead guitar, vocals
Gib Gilbeau-violin, guitar, vocals
Sneeky Pete-pedal steel guitar
Skip Battin-bass, vocals
Patrick Shanahn-drums
Although from one point of view this lineup was a country rock All-Star team, from another point of view it was an indication that two of the pioneer country rock bands of the late 60s did not even have enough members to field full lineups anymore. However, the Suffolk Forum show in March was the first time that the New Riders had opened for the Jerry Garcia Band, and the payday for opening a show at a 6000-capacity arena ($7.50 a ticket) had to be pretty good, so the  the Flying Burritos of The Purple Sage teamed up to make it happen.

The odd interval of the merger of the New Riders and the Burritos in 1978 has left no musical evidence. To my knowledge, not even a setlist has survived, much less a tape. Somebody made a nice audience tape of the Comfort set (thank you, whoever you were), and I think there was a JGB tape as well. I have to assume that the '78 Riders played a few NRPS classics along with some Burrito staples, and presumably some covers that both bands shared, like "Six Days On The Road." I'd love to hear Sneeky Pete let it fly on "Glendale Train," since I'm convinced his steel playing on the Avalon sound system encouraged Garcia to get a pedal steel guitar so he could hear himself. It would be fun to hear Nelson and Dawson picking and singing on some songs like "Devil In Disguise,' as well, just for the variety.

Ironically, presumably one of the end results of the Flying Riders was that some lesser known NRPS songs weren't likely to have been performed. If a setlist does appear, however, I hope that either "Kick In The Head" or "Crooked Judge" made the list, however unlikely that may have been. The appeal to me would be that all three bands would then have played custom written songs, not covers, with lyrics by Robert Hunter, which in itself would have been a first time event (Update; Commenter rb1229 reports that Buddy Cage and Stephen Love were still in the band at this time, so the "Flying Riders" period must have been a bit later. He also reports that the Riders played "Crooked Judge," so all three bands did indeed play custom-written Robert Hunter songs).

March 12, 1978: The Suffolk Forum, Commack, NY
The Suffolk Forum may have been an old dump, but the members of the Grateful Dead always played very well in run-down old ice rinks, and the Suffolk Forum seems to have been no exception. The show seems to have run from 8:00 pm until well after 5 in the morning. Hunter and Comfort played a full set, the New Riders got their licks in, and the Jerry Garcia Band probably came on sometime after midnight and let it all hang down with two full sets and an encore. An eyewitness recalls--somewhat vaguely, of course--
We arrived at 2:30, gates opened at 7:30. The coolest crowd in the parking lot - no line or rush to the door, even though it was general admission with an open floor (no seats) - we got right up front. Robert Hunter Band, New Riders, then JGB with Keith and Donna, Bill drumming and also Maria Muldaur singing with ... See MoreDonna. We left at around 3:30 AM and I think the show went on until about 4:00ish. My first "Dead show", I was a H.S. sopohmore - what were our parents thinking?
Another says
I was a HS freshman, managed to get tickets and went with a good friend and 2 girls...one of the girls older sister took us and got us seated in the press box (I have no idea how). I remember venturing down to the floor and hanging right in front of the stage for a while, then back up to the press box...no trouble at all, an amazing crowd. As I recall, NR's played until around midnight, then Jerry came on....we left the show around 3:30-4:00 am, and I recall hearing it went on until around 5:30 but not sure ... 
To residents in the distant part of Long Island, a trip into Manhattan to see the Grateful Dead, even if they could get tickets, might have been very difficult indeed. But a trip down the road to spend all night with a couple of members of the Grateful Dead, the New Riders and the mysterious Robert Hunter? Yeah baby.  I think precisely because Suffolk Forum was an old venue, there was little concern about letting a bunch of hippies loose until 5:00 in the morning. It wasn't like they were going to be any harder on the place than hockey fans. It was shows like these that put Jerry Garcia in the hearts and minds of the East Coast, making people into Deadheads for life, just as the band itself had done in Port Chester or Stony Brook in the previous decade.

The Wildwood Boys, 16 Years On
In 1962, the three Wildwood Boys were barely in their twenties, with no meaningful employment history and fewer prospects. They had a desire to be musicians or artists, but in choosing bluegrass they would have selected one of the least profitable forms of professional music. As they rehearsed in the Nelson living room, it must have seemed quixotic indeed that the trio would ever make any kind of living from actually playing music.

By the time the Jerry Garcia Band, the New Riders and Comfort convened at the Suffolk Forum in March of 1978, by my count the trio had cumulatively released 31 albums and sold literally millions of records. And the 31 albums doesn't count guest appearances--including on a #1 single--, production credits, Best Of albums and other professional by-products. While Robert Hunter had only released two of those albums, he had written the lyrics for literally dozens of songs, not all of them by the Grateful Dead. Many of those songs had been staples of FM radio for much of the 1970s, and phrases from Hunter's pen, like "what a long strange trip its been" or "driving that train, high on cocaine" were steadily passing into the American vernacular. Nelson was a rock star himself, if not a major one, while Garcia was more and more recognized by a single name, one of the true marks of American celebrity.

On the night of March 12, 1978, the Garcia Band had played the night before in Providence, RI. Hunter and Comfort would have had the previous night off, and had been playing elsewhere in Long Island. I'm not sure exactly where the New Riders were coming from, but they were definitely on the road. The three bands would have convened on the Suffolk Forum in the afternoon sometime, and the crews would have set about their business, leaving time for the musicians to relax and hang out.

The Jerry Garcia Band had never played with the New Riders per se, but since NRPS had opened for the Dead so many times, Garcia and Nelson had shared the backstage many times. Hunter wasn't unknown at Grateful Dead shows, so they had all been in the dressing room before. Nonetheless, the New Riders did not open for the Grateful Dead as often as they had used to.  Garcia, Nelson and Hunter were probably all backstage at New Year's Eve in Winterland on December 31, 1977, but that would have been like a giant office party, where nothing personal probably happened. Prior to Commack, Hunter would have been just a guest, if an honored one: this time, he was on the bill. Other than the crews and the odd visitor, the three Wildwood Boys would have had far fewer distractions than in San Francisco or Manhattan.

The road is a strange place, and musicians and regular folk often think about mundane things like how to get some food rather than historicity. Still, Providence isn't far from Long Island, so Garcia must have got there pretty early in the afternoon. Did Garcia, Nelson and Hunter think about rehearsing bluegrass tunes in a South Bay living room long ago? 16 years earlier, they had been hoping they could actually get paid to do what they were going to do for fun anyway. Here the three were, household names in different ways, as their traveling circuses met up at a hockey arena in Eastern Long Island, a long way from Belmont, CA. It had been a long strange trip indeed, but I wonder if they even noticed.

Aftermath
I can only think of one other instance where Garcia, Nelson and Hunter played on the same bill, and it was a more somber occasion, if a fine concert. On August 28, 1984, at Wolfgang's in San Francisco, all three played at a memorial for Rodney Albin, a close friend of all of them from back in the day, and a member of Comfort. Garcia and John Kahn headlined the show, Nelson played with a one-off bluegrass group and Hunter played his last show with the Dinosaurs. The benefit for Rodney Albin's family made for a fine memorial, but when you see your old friends because somebody passed away, it's not what you think of when you are younger. The Albin event was full of old friends and well wishers, too, making it an oddly less personal event than just hanging out in a hockey arena on the East Coast. I don't know if Hunter and Nelson even remember the Suffolk Forum, but I like to think that at some point each of the Wildwood Boys at least recalled how far they'd managed to get by picking, singing and writing.

5 comments:

  1. Ahhhh ... what a beautiful post. So much insight here. I just love the devastating question of whether they even noticed. Probably. I think so. But who the hell knows. Might have been hard to hear each other over the rattling sinuses.

    But I do think so. These guys were amateur (and insofar as they got payed for playing old-timey music, professional) folklorists. Each in his own way. All three were deeply aware of the American (and older, and other) traditions that they had soaked up, that crossed through them. They had memory of all of that, were very conscious about it all, I think.

    In fact, one premise of our blogs, that so much of our history comes from memory, and we need to triangulate, where possible, with other sources, may reflect the very fact that people were living in a way that was reasonably conscious, such that memory actually survived.

    I am not saying people weren't zonked out and superficial and indifferent in the same measure, on any given night in, say, March 1978, as anyone else --any "normal person"-- would have been. I just think that they had spent so much time consciously soaking up these traditions, doing so together, in the formative, powerful-young-man years of their lives, that the convergence wouldn't have gone unnoticed.

    Who the hell knows?

    One of the things I'd like to learn more about is patterns of who was backstage over the years. My relentlessly modern mind hopes the Archive might turn up logs of that sort of thing, -- !ha! -- But anyway, however we might try to construct it, it'd be fun data to see. As far as I know, Nelson was there every night he was in the same town. Dawson, too. I doubt it, but we just don't know.

    Anyway, I'll respond to more about the 3/12/78 show if I can. There is a breathtakingly good, but unattributed, audience recording of the Garcia Band show. It reveals a powerfully good (if characteristically flawed) show. I suspect more tapes were made. I'd be stunned if a tape of the NRPS set didn't walk out of the arena that night. Whether any survives to this day, and whether, further, it could be accessed, remains completely unknown to me.

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  2. Need to clarify your take on the New Riders at this concert. It was not the lineup with the guys from the Burrito Brothers. That didn't happen until May of 1978. Buddy Cage and Steve Love were indeed still in the band and were in fact at this concert. I was there, was a diehard NRPS follower, and had seen several shows the week prior at the Capitol in Passaic and elsewhere. In fact, this was the last time I would see this lineup with Buddy and Steve Love. They played great versions of Portland Women and Crooked Judge at this show.

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  3. rb, thanks so much for this detail. Its great to find out that Cage and Love were still there, and that the Riders played "Crooked Judge." I updated the post accordingly.

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  4. Thanks much for the detailed review of what was only the second concert I ever attended. I was 14. We got there at 730 or so, and there was definitely a rush when the doors opened. I remember one of the security guards telling us to mellow out and to think of Pigpen. I don't have any idea what Pig had to do with it, other than I guess making us feel guilty about a member of the Dead who had only died a few years earlier.
    The show is a pretty vague memory, although I do have the tape of Jerry's set. I do recall buying a beer at the concession (another first) and staying until the encore, which I recall being a song I'd never heard before but the title stuck with me, Rhapsody in Red. The show did indeed end at 5am. I got home at 6am and my mom let me stay home from school the next day.

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    1. nyctaper, thanks for the eyewitness account.

      Grateful Dead history tends to focus on high-profile shows at the Fillmores or Madison Square Garden, and perhaps rightly so. Nonetheless, I think shows where the Dead or Jerry Garcia or Kingfish came to a suburban town or sleepy little city and raised the roof all night long played a huge part in making fans for life.

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