Thursday, February 9, 2012

Jerry Garcia Band Opening Acts, Greek Theater, UC Berkeley: 1987-1990

Jerry Garcia and Bonnie Raitt onstage at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, on August 30, 1987 (photo from The Jerry Site)
From 1971 to early 1987, the Jerry Garcia's principal performing venue was at a club in Freddie Herrera's Keystone family. Jerry Garcia performed over 400 times at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco, the Keystone Berkeley, Keystone Palo Alto and The Stone in San Francisco. Although Bill Graham Presents was the Grateful Dead's only promoter in the Bay Area, the Jerry Garcia Band had a long-standing relationship with the Keystone clubs, and Garcia was loyal above all else. However, by 1987, the Keystone clubs were closing and the Jerry Garcia Band had become bigger than ever. From mid-1987 onwards, Bill Graham Presents became the promoter for Jerry Garcia Band shows in the Bay Area.

Most Jerry Garcia Band shows for BGP were at The Warfield, where the casual environment and open bar could make the refurbished theater seem like a larger, cleaner version of the Keystones. However, Graham had the promotional heft to present the Garcia Band in regular concert settings as well. From 1987 through 1990, BGP presented the Jerry Garcia Band in a number of outdoor summer concerts in the Bay Area and Northern California. While the shows were complete sellouts, as far as I know, compared to the high profile events of Grateful Dead concert runs in the same venues, the Garcia Band summer shows seemed like a relaxed reminder of how the Grateful Dead used to be--just fun in the sun and no one onstage or off looking at the clock.

In the 1980s, the best Grateful Dead shows to see were the runs of shows at UC Berkeley's Greek Theater and Frost Amphitheater at Stanford. Since I lived in the East Bay then, that was particularly true for me. The Grateful Dead outgrew both venues, and the respective Universities became increasingly unhappy with the giant crowds that congregated outside the venues. However, when the Jerry Garcia Band played the Greek Theater, it was less of a destination and more of an afternoon, and way more fun for tired old me. One unique aspect of the Greek Theater shows featuring the Jerry Garcia Band from 1987 through 1990 was that they all featured opening acts, all approved if not hand-picked by Garcia himself.

East Coast shows in the late 1970s and early 1980s had featured opening acts. However, other than the Spring 1978 tour with Robert Hunter and Comfort on board, the openers were mostly acoustic solo acts. While some of those acts were good--I believe Peter Rowan and Rick Danko opened on occasion--they were just there to keep early arrivers entertained and sell some extra popcorn. The Greek Theater acts were different. These were performers you actually wanted to see, and Jerry wanted to see them also. We didn't imagine this--on three occasions, the opening performer actually came onstage to play with the Jerry Garcia Band, itself an all but unprecedented event before or since.

This post will consider the history and context of the opening acts at the Greek Theater shows from 1987 through 1990. While Garcia played some similar shows during this period, at Eel River and Squaw Valley, they did not include opening acts, so I have left them aside from this discussion. As a coda, I comment on the curious Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band show at Frost Amphitheater in 1988.

August 30, 1987: Greek Theater, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA: Jerry Garcia Band/Bonnie Raitt
The Keystone Berkeley had closed in 1984, and the Keystone Palo Alto in 1986. The Stone in San Francisco would remain open for a few more years under Herrera ownership, but Garcia had simply outgrown the venue, and his last show there was May 31, 1987. The migration by Garcia to the BGP empire can now be seen as significant, but at the time it just seemed practical. On Halloween 1986, the Jerry Garcia Band and Kingfish with Bob Weir had played the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, the first JGB concert in Keystone territory (San Francisco, Alameda County or Palo Alto) in a while. Now, of course, we can see it as the shape of things to come.

The Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band had played a benefit at the Fillmore on March 18, 1987. According to legend, this led to the conversation between Graham and Garcia where Jerry told Bill "take us to Broadway", and The Jerry Garcia Band ended up playing two weeks at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in October 1987. The Garcia Band debuted at The Warfield in November of that year, and from then on all Bay Area Garcia shows were BGP events. In August of 1987, the Jerry Garcia Band headlined the Greek Theater at UC Berkeley. Now, we can see it as part of a pattern of Bill Graham taking over the promotion of Garcia Band California shows. At the time, however, it just seemed like a welcome and cool event, and it certainly was that.

The Grateful Dead had been playing a three day weekend run at the Greek Theater since 1981, and the shows were one of the highlights of the Grateful Dead year. The Greek Theater and Frost Amphitheater are the two best venues in the Bay Area of any appreciable size, and by the late 1980s people would come from all over the country and the world for the Greek shows. Tickets were impossible, and the crowds outside the Greek were so large, that they would broadcast the shows on the local radio (KPFA-fm) in order to discourage people from coming to the venue. The Dead had played June 19-21, 1987 to the usual rapturous reception, but by that time I had given up on the whole ruckus and passed on going. Like many people, when I found out that there would be a single Garcia Band show, without all the out-of-towners, it seemed like an early Christmas gift.

Intriguingly, the 1987 Greek Theater show was going to be opened by Bonnie Raitt. I had many of her albums and had always wanted to see her, and here she was opening a show I was going to see anyway. It's interesting to consider the implications of Bonnie Raitt sharing the bill with Jerry Garcia. In Summer 1987, the 7500-capacity Greek Theater was a big step up for Garcia in the Bay Area. In the Bay Area, the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia had played so regularly, that there was no excitement associated with a JGB concert. I don't think that Bonnie Raitt's presence was necessarily selling more tickets to a Garcia show, per se, but her presence made a lot of people think "I should go to this Garcia show, even if I just saw the Dead or Jerry earlier this year." It worked, as the show was sold out as far as I know, and we were blessed with beautiful Sunday afternoon weather as well.

By 1987, Bonnie Raitt was in a down cycle in her career. She had been dropped by Warner Brothers Records a few years earlier, for whom she had been recording since 1971. Bonnie had sold some albums, had a following and got played on FM radio, but she hadn't crossed over into the promised land like Stevie Nicks, so Warners had simply dropped her. Without label support, Bonnie was making her money by touring, but she was only traveling with her bass player Johnnie Schell instead of with an entire band. Although one rarely associates Bonnie Raitt with the Grateful Dead, here she was in a comparable economic position to where the Dead had been on many occasions, with just touring revenues keeping them going.

Whatever her professional travails, Bonnie was absolutely terrific onstage at the Greek. Befitting her status, she played a full set of over an hour. Although she was just playing with a bass player (Schell), Bonnie's singing and smoking electric slide guitar filled up the pseudo-classical bowl very well. The crowd was extremely enthusiastic as Bonnie played many of her best known songs and a variety of other tunes. Of course, she was an experienced performer. At one point, Bonnie pointed at her yellow and purple clothes, striking in counterpoint to her truly spectacular red hair, and engagingly asked "hey, do you like my outfit?" The crowd roared its approval, and she drily commented "I heard you guys liked looking at different colors." We all ate it up.

The Jerry Garcia Band eventually came on and played a relaxed but excellent first set. After the requisite break, Jerry and the band returned with Bonnie, still resplendent in yellow and purple. There was a fair amount of knowledge circulating about the Garcia Band by this time, and the fact was that guests with the JGB were quite rare. The few guest appearances with the JGB that were known generally involved well-connected compadres like Bob Weir or Lee Oskar. The JGB wasn't designed as a jamming vehicle like the Garcia/Saunders band. Yet here was Garcia's opening act, not socially connected to Garcia at all, plugging in onstage. The Greek Theater show had now gone from a fun show to an actual event.

Jerry and Bonnie opened with a powerful version of Jimmy McCracklin's "Think" ("What would we do later on/Just in case we both were wrong"). It was a cool, obscure song, relatively, perfect for Bonnie but absolutely hip. Bonnie sang along on the choruses and played some nice slide counterpoint to Jerry's lead. This wasn't token. Even if they hadn't rehearsed--I'd be stunned if they actually had--they had at least discussed what to play and come up with something cool. Bonnie and Jerry followed with a version of Bob Dylan's "Knocking On Heaven's Door," certainly a classic, but not a song whose arrangement I liked, since even I found the tempo just too slow. Still, it was a good choice for Bonnie and Jerry to sing and trade licks, and both of them were clearly enjoying themselves. Bonnie left the stage after that, but it really made the concert special, setting it apart from all those nights at the Keystone Berkeley.

July 10, 1988: Greek Theater, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA: Jerry Garcia Band/Bob Weir/Brent Mydland
The Jerry Garcia Band returned to the Greek Theatre the next year. This year the opening acts would be solo performances by Bob Weir and Brent Mydland. This wasn't totally unprecedented, as Bob and Brent had played solo sets prior to a Garcia and Kahn set at a benefit in Marin earlier in the year (April 26 '88). I was aware that Bob Weir had at in with the Garcia Band a number of times--probably, in retrospect, more than any other musician--so it seemed likely that he would do so at the Greek. To me, it was more interesting to see whether Brent would join the JGB on keyboards for any songs.

On a personal level, I was happy to be seeing Bob and Brent solo. The truth was, it was unlikely I would ever make the effort to see either of them perform solo, even in a smaller place. Since I was looking forward to seeing the Garcia Band at the Greek anyway, however, it was a chance to check out the other two on their own. In retrospect, Brent's performance was the most interesting, since solo performances by him were so rare. He performed 8 songs on the electric piano. Per my notes, they were
Far From Me
I Will Take You Home
Maybe You Know
Gentlemen, Start Your Engines
(song unknown to me)
Devil With The Blue Dress>
 Good Golly Miss Molly
Brent was talented, and the songs were fine ("Musician" was from the Silver album). However, what struck me was how, despite his skills, Brent just wasn't a solo performer. Brent was self-effacing on stage, and he needed a band or at least a partner. I enjoyed his set, but he was no Bruce Hornsby.

After Brent's half-hour set ended, Bob Weir walked on stage with his acoustic guitar. I can't recall if Brent had left the stage, or if Weir simply walked on. In any case, Brent sang "Hey Jude," accompanied by Weir. It was a nice coda to Brent's set. Afterwards, Brent walked off to restrained but sincere applause. Weir continued his set, and played eight more songs. Weir had distinctly more stage presence than Brent, something that was very noticeable for a solo performer in the fairly large Greek, At the end of Weir's set, Brent returned to harmonize on The Beatles "Blackbird." All told, Weir and Brent's set had taken up about an hour.

The Jerry Garcia Band came on later and played two fine, relaxed sets, another fine memory of a great show that I saw at the Greek Theater. Much to my surprise, however, Weir never came onstage to join Garcia, much less Brent. For all I know, Weir and Brent were home watching television by the time Garcia's set ended.

Jimmy Cliff singing 'The Harder They Come"  onstage with the Jerry Garcia Band at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley on August 26, 1989 (photo from The Jerry Site)
August 26, 1989: Greek Theater, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA: Jerry Garcia Band/Jimmy Cliff And The Oneness Band
Come the next year at the Greek, the open question for me was which year had been the anomaly. Garcia had invited Bonnie Raitt on stage, but Bob Weir hadn't made an appearance the next year. What would happen with Jimmy Cliff opening for him?

Jimmy Cliff And The Oneness Band played a pretty good and enthusiastically well received, opening set. The tip-off for me, however, and anyone else who was paying attention, was that amidst all the numerous hits that Cliff performed, he didn't play "The Harder They Come." He did a bunch of others: "You Can Get It If You Really Want," "Rivers Of Babylon," "Many Rivers To Cross," "Wonderful World, Beautiful People" and "Johnny Too Bad" were the ones I recognized in my notes. But when Cliff didn't do his best known song, we knew what was coming.

Indeed, after five songs in the first set, Cliff came out to huge applause. The Garcia Band launched into "Harder They Come" and Cliff stepped up and sang the hell out of it. Given how often Garcia had performed that song, I was very conscious, as many others must have been, of what an historic moment this was going to be. My general understanding was that Cliff and Garcia had met out on the road various times, but had never had a chance to perform together.

However, historic as Jimmy Cliff singing "The Harder They Come" with the Jerry Garcia Band may have been, I'm pretty sure Garcia and Cliff didn't rehearse it. Cliff flowed easily with the Garcia Band, as the band swirled around his vocals. Garcia started to build his solo, ably supported by Melvin Seals, John Kahn and David Kemper. As they got to the first pass through the chorus, Garcia was starting to find his groove, and I for one was ready for Jerry to climb the mountain and play a great solo in honor of the time that Jimmy Cliff sang his own song with him.

Unfortunately, no one seems to have mentioned to Jimmy Cliff that Garcia was going to solo through the chorus. So when the chorus came around, pro that he is, Cliff stepped up to the mike and did the "oh yeah, alright" part that sets up the next chorus. I swear I saw a frustrated flinch of Jerry's shoulders, but maybe I was projecting. Still, there was no question that Garcia was planning to solo through two choruses, and Cliff was either never told or missed a signal. Either way, it turned what could have been a truly classic moment into a merely historic one. Oh well--I was still glad I saw it. After the song, Cliff left the stage and Garcia made a rare comment: "I've always wanted to do that," a sign that it meant a lot to him as well.

August 5, 1990: Greek Theater, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA: Jerry Garcia Band/Bela Fleck and The Flecktones
The Grateful Dead's last performances at the Greek Theater had been in 1989. The band had simply become too large for the 7500-capacity venue. The parking situation was impossible on the best day there, and when the Grateful Dead played it was well beyond that. However, BGP managed to have one more Garcia show at the Greek, before he too sized out of the place.

When 1990's show rolled around, I just assumed that the opening act was picked for or by Jerry in order to provide an interesting guest star. Bela Fleck was a leading modern banjo player, comparable in some ways to David Grisman as a mandolinist. Fleck could play banjo in all the traditional styles, and he had been in the Grisman Quintet as well. He specialized in putting the banjo in new and imaginative settings. Fleck was one of those players that I had heard about, but had hardly heard.

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones were a four-piece band. Besides Fleck on banjo, the band featured Howard Levy on electric piano and harmonica, Victor Wooten on bass and "Futureman" (so he was called) on percussion. Futureman had a body suit with percussion synthesizers somehow embedded in it. He played hand drums on himself, literally, and it sounded alternately like traps and various other percussion instruments. All of the musicians seemed to be the type of well-trained pros who could play in any key or time signature.

Unfortunately, while the Flecktones were conceived as a unique amalgamation of influences, they were boring. There was nothing wrong with the all-instrumental music they were playing, which sounded like jazz played on very non-standard instruments, but they just weren't interesting. They sounded like one of those music student bands that was all cleverness and nothing listenable. Every member of the group, particularly Fleck, could really play, but I found myself staring out at the bay rather than listening. Fleck's weakness wasn't his banjo playing; he was great, playing in a unique style that separated him from almost any banjo player who had preceded him. His weakness was as a bandleader. The group didn't have good tunes, jazz or not, and they couldn't keep my interest. They were well received, more or less, but it seemed more pleasant than enthusiastic.

Fleck's guest turn with the Garcia Band was really revealing. It is often forgotten that Garcia was a great bandleader. Even if he rarely articulated his musical vision, even to his own band members, Garcia had a clear concept of what he was trying to accomplish on stage. Once Garcia was the bandleader, then Fleck's talents were in play. Garcia invited Fleck out for "The Harder They Come," which struck me as possibly the worst choice for an amplified banjo solo. Was I wrong--I guess that's why it was Jerry's band.

Faced with the strange challenge of playing banjo on an uptempo reggae song, Fleck had to use all his skills, and he had a lot of them. While Melvin Seals organ swirled along and Jerry comped the rhythm, Fleck emphasized the rhythmic power of the banjo, playing a weird off-beat counterpoint to the usual rolling rhythm that Kemper and Kahn were laying down. I'd say it was the best electric banjo solo on an uptempo reggae song ever, but it was also probably the only one. In any case, it was great. When Jerry was leading the band, Bela was really special, which told me a lot about both of them. There was a lot more to the Jerry Garcia Band than the by now introspective Garcia usually acknowledged. The late 80s Greek Theatre shows were a rare insight into how Garcia saw his own music, and what interested him about performing.

Appendix: Frost Amphitheater
July 9, 1988: Frost Amphitheater, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA: Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band/Hot Tuna
Looking backwards, with the benefit of hindsight, since Bill Graham Presents was booking a Garcia Band show at the Greek Theater each Summer, it would have seemed logical to have a Frost Amphitheater show paired with it, to make a weekend out of it. However, this only happened once, in 1988. The Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band played Frost Amphitheater on a Saturday afternoon (July 9), and the JGB proper played the Greek Theater on Sunday afternoon (July 10). Since "Acoustic Hot Tuna" opened the Frost show, it fits the context of this post. The Frost show was the only other outdoor Summer BGP Garcia Band show that had an outside opening act, so it's worthy of note.

Everybody forgets about the 1988 JGAB Frost show. I certainly forgot about it. At the time, I would only have been able to manage one show in a weekend, so I chose the electric show nearer my house. I had seen the JGAB the year before, and while I enjoyed them, I didn't have a big urgency to see them so soon. Little did we know that it was the last Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band show. The JGAB had stopped performing at the end of 1987, with shows in San Francisco (The Warfield) and Los Angeles (The Wiltern). However, they played one last show at Frost, which has largely been ignored (the Jerry Site lists the show, but doesn't mention that it was the last JGAB show). The JGAB played as the original quartet (Garcia/Nelson/Rothman/Kahn), just as they had begun at the Fillmore 16 months earlier. Kemper was presumably not in town yet, and Kenny Kosek would not have been flown in for a one-off.

Much as I and everybody would have liked to see Garcia play with Jack and Jorma in an acoustic setting, it didn't happen. In fact, I'm fairly certain it never happened, ever. Garcia, Casady and Jorma had played together many times up through about 1970, but always in an electric context, as far as I know. Thus, we'll never know whose arrangement of "I Know You Rider" they would have done. Garcia had shared a booking with Jack and Jorma many times, and as recently as April 26, 1988 in Marin, but they never sat in together. I honestly think the reason for the absence of a sit-in was the lack of novelty. By 1988, Garcia only seemed interested in playing with people with whom he had never had the opportunity, but he had jammed with Hot Tuna many times back in the day, so he probably felt no real imperative. More's the pity.

As to the odd booking of the JGAB at Frost, eight months after the band was seemingly put to bed, I think that had to do with Stanford University. Both Frost and the Greek were very desirable outdoor venues, and very hard to use due to their University affiliations. I know for a fact, for example, that UC Berkeley only allowed rock concerts at the Greek on weekends that were not finals week, Summer School included. Parking was crowded up there on a normal day, and rock concerts, particularly Grateful Dead concerts, magnified the difficulty enormously. However, despite the restrictions, UC Berkeley was ultimately a state institution, and within certain parameters had a formal obligation to allow its facilities to be used, so BGP could wedge the shows into the venue. The Dead only left the venue when not only had complaints magnified 100-fold, but the return for playing Shoreline Amphitheater was infinitely higher, so it was easier to just depart for Mountain View.

Stanford University was a private school, however, and a wealthy one at that. Although Stanford liked to claim that concerts at Frost, particularly Dead concerts, were "a hassle," that is an exaggeration. Nobody lived anywhere near Frost Amphitheater, and there was plenty of parking, in complete contrast to the Greek. Stanford had consistently resisted concerts at Frost Amphitheater since the advent of rock music, and only allowed them grudgingly. By 1988, Stanford was very unhappy with the annual Grateful Dead weekend. I have a suspicion that Graham managed to  persuade Stanford to agree to a Garcia concert in 1988, but Stanford got cold feet. I think an acoustic Garcia show was a compromise, but all parties seemed to have backed away from it by the next year. In any case, the Dead's run of Frost shows ended in 1989 as well, so there was no point in a futile struggle. Stanford has generally minimized rock concerts at Frost ever since.


  1. Ahh ... some of my favorite shows. A few quick comments.

    First: "The Keystone Palo Alto had closed in 1984, and the Keystone Palo Alto in 1986. The Stone in San Francisco would remain open for a few more years under Herrera ownership, but Garcia had simply outgrown the venue, and his last show there was May 28, 1987."

    Of course the first sentence has a typo, and the last has an error. I don't know the precise closing dates of the clubs, but Garcia's last gigs were 3/22/84 (KB) 5/19/86 (KPA) and 5/31/87 (Stone). Garcia's four nights at the Stone in May '87 always struck me as his farewell to Freddie.

    Second: "In July of 1987, the Jerry Garcia Band headlined the Greek Theater at UC Berkeley" Another typo, should be 1988.

    Now, onto the important stuff.

    First/third: It tickles me that we saw some of the same shows. I was at the Saturday night acoustic/electric at the Warfield in November '87 (11/28/87), and at the '87 and '89 JGB shows you discuss in the post. (I believe the 8/26/89 picture was snapped by Marcus Buick, by the way.)

    Second/fourth: these are indeed some wonderful shows. I agree that the HTC with Jimmy was a little bit bungled. But the shows were great, as were the "days" overall. I don't know why I missed the '88 JGB show. I suspect I had no money, since I was seeing the GD three nights the next week and then three more nights in Monterey at the end of the month. But a listen to the tape reveals this to be nothing short of wonderful, with all of the sunny, relaxed feel you might expect from a JGB Greek show of this vintage.

    Third/fifth: I have a hypothesis that Garcia's health can be measured, inter alia, by his engagement with other artists. In this sense, the '86-'90 period is especially wonderful. If we look at his various Guest and Host roles during this period, they probably outstrip all of the meaningful ones from '78-'86. Now, I am quite persuaded that Garcia was no longer "clean" by August 1989, and almost certainly not by 8/5/90, but it seems likely to me that he still was (mostly) in '87 and '88. And I think these guest shots, and the overall joyful and carefree feel of these shows, reflect that.

    Fouth/sixth/finally: I am not sure I buy your argument about Jorma/Jack, but I am quite sure I don't have a better one. It's surprising to me that they didn't play together (publicly) on these (or other) occasions. Your hypothesis is unobjectionable, but it just feels like a stretch. Perhaps I just don't think it was a very conscious thing - it just "didn't happen".

  2. Thanks for the editorial fixes.

    Garcia played with Jack and Jorma many times over the years, it can't have been a coincidence. But I think the real social connection was Bob and Jorma. Jack was friends with everybody, but he wasn't the sort of person to ask to come on stage. I suspect that Jack, Jorma and Jerry exchanged some gossip and gripes backstage, but its like inviting your neighbor over to dinner--he's always there, so you never think to do it.

    In retrospect, I see these shows and this period as something that could have been, a healthyish Garcia (for a 45 year old chain smoker) playing with multiple bands, and having high profile shows with musicians he wanted to share the stage with. Not to be, as it happened, but at least it was once for a little while.