Thursday, May 24, 2012

January 9-10, 1976: Sophie's, Palo Alto, CA: The Jerry Garcia Band with James Booker

James Booker's 1976 album Junco Partner, released on producer Joe Boyd's Hannibal label
Diligent scholars of Jerry Garcia know that Jerry Garcia, John Kahn and Ron Tutt played two shows at Sophie's in Palo Alto with keyboardist James Booker on January 9 and 10, 1976. Tapes endure of both shows, along with rehearsal at Club Front two days earlier. The music on the tapes is ragged, and James Booker is fairly obscure, so most Deadheads have paid little attention to the shows. However, I have reflected for some time on the fact that the two Palo Alto shows with Booker were between Nicky Hopkins' departure from the Jerry Garcia Band and the beginning of Keith and Donna Godchaux's tenure with the band. Having heard and learned a little more about James Booker, I now think the brief experiment with Booker was a critical turning point in Garcia's solo career.

Booker was a certifiable musical genius, one of the few keyboard players who could transcend the great Nicky Hopkins, and so he would have seemed to be an ideal replacement. Yet after a brief fling with Booker, Garcia and Kahn took the prudent road with the talented but safe Keith Godchaux on piano, and the path for the Garcia Band was set for the next two decades. The reasons were probably as much commercial as musical, but the two shows with James Booker illustrate the ways in which Jerry Garcia's professional priorities had evolved by 1976.

The Jerry Garcia Band with Nicky Hopkins, 1975
The Grateful Dead had stopped touring in October of 1974, and Jerry Garcia immediately stepped up his performances with Merl Saunders. By the end of 1974, Garcia and Saunders were performing under the name Legion Of Mary, along with John Kahn, drummer Ron Tutt and saxophonist Martin Fierro. This appears to have been no casual arrangement--whenever Tutt was not available, and a different drummer sat in, the ensemble used the name 'Garcia-Saunders,' not Legion Of Mary. Nonetheless, by the middle of 1975, Garcia seemed to have wanted to move in a different direction, and stopped playing with Merl Saunders and Martin Fierro.

Garcia, Kahn and Tutt formed a band with legendary rock pianist Nicky Hopkins. Hopkins, due to ill health, had largely played sessions in London during the 60s rather than tour, and as a result had recorded with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks and numerous others. By the end of the 60s, Hopkins had set out on the road with the Jeff Beck Group, later touring with Quicksilver Messenger Service and The Rolling Stones as well. Music aside, one of the attractions of playing with Jerry Garcia for Hopkins and Tutt was that it would never be a full-time job, leaving them free for studio work and other touring opportunities (Tutt was Elvis's drummer).

By the middle of 1975, although the Grateful Dead were recording an album, they no longer had any income from touring. Furthermore, Garcia was driving the train on the Grateful Dead Movie, and that was an expensive project. Thus while Garcia was always anxious to perform live, he had a specific reason to maximize his concert revenue. Naming his group The Jerry Garcia Band was in contrast to his historic practices, but it seemed to be a prudent financial move. No doubt professionals like Kahn, Tutt and Hopkins recognized that naming the group after Garcia was a sound fiscal decision. Apparently, corporate papers exist which have the quartet as partners in the Jerry Garcia Band, an indicator that the band name was no casual choice.

The Jerry Garcia Band with Nicky Hopkins, as they were billed, played what I believe to be a fairly lucrative Eastern and Midwestern tour in the Fall of 1975. As a sign of Garcia's seriousness, he broke from previous practices, and performed a few of his own well-known numbers (like "Friend Of The Devil" and "Sugaree") to anchor the shows for the more casual fans. Hopkins piano was a distinct change from the funky organ of Merl Saunders, and Hopkins allowed Garcia to introduce a wider variety of American musical styles, including classic 50s and 60s R&B, rock and New Orleans tunes.

However, as we all know, despite Hopkins' musical fluency, he was simply not equipped for the hard touring that Garcia, Kahn and Tutt were comfortable with. By the end of the year, the perpetually unstable Hopkins was erratic on stage, due to problems with various substances and his own poor health. Although the Garcia Band played out their scheduled dates with Hopkins through New Year's Eve, it is plain in retrospect that they must have been planning to replace Hopkins for some time. Hopkins had a lucrative session career, so if anything he would have actually made more money after being pushed aside. In any case, after a New Year's Eve show at Keystone Berkeley on December 31, 1975, Hopkins was out of the Jerry Garcia Band. It appears that his projected replacement was James Booker.

Who Was James Booker?
New Orleans is a city of music, and as such it is a city of legendary piano players. The list is long and stellar: Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino and Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) are just a few of the greater names amongst New Orleans pianists. James Booker (1939-1982), obscure though he is, ranks just as highly in the pantheon of New Orleans pianists as those names, at least amongst experts and his fellow musicians. His "career" is so strange that its a sign of his amazing talent that he is even known at all.

Booker was classically schooled in piano, played organ in the church, loved jazz and honky tonked at night, so even as a teenager he could play all styles brilliantly. He made his recording debut in 1954, at age 15, with a few singles. The music industry was very different in the 1950s, particularly in New Orleans. Records were just marketing devices to get musicians on the road, and the musicians themselves made little from recording, even if their record companies did. The young but prodigiously talented Booker became known as a player who could play in anybody's style, as well or better than the originals. Thus Booker recorded the piano parts for many classic sides by the likes of Fats Domino, Huey "Piano" Smith and Lloyd Price, while those musicians were touring. Booker's role was well-known amongst New Orleans musicians, but of course obscure to the general public.

Thus many classic New Orleans players were best known for records on which James Booker had played. That isn't to say that the likes of Domino, Smith, Price and others didn't invent their own styles, which they certainly did. It's just that Booker was so talented he could embrace and enlarge any other pianist's work, and so in many ways Booker embodied the New Orleans rock and roll era. In the early 60s, Booker started to tour a little bit, including some steady touring with Roy Hamilton, most famous for the hit "Don't Let Go." However, various problems got the better of Booker, and he ended up in the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana.

You know the lyrics to "Viola Lee Blues," when Jerry, Phil and Bob sing "some got six months/some got one solid year"? When James Booker does his 'theme song' "Junco Partner," about Angola Prison, and sings "six months ain't no sentence/one year ain't no time," it's a different thing entirely. Booker did time in Angola, and he knew those guys "doing 99." Booker got out of Angola in 1970, much the worse for wear, and music had moved away from New Orleans. Booker struggled along, mostly living with his mother and having various brushes with the law. He had become an underground legend amongst musicians and record collectors, but most thought he was still in jail or dead.

Booker began to surface in the early 70s.  With some of his problems under control, Booker started to play some sessions and gigs, and musicians absolutely raved about him. In late 1975, legendary producer Joe Boyd (of Fairport Convention fame) heard him at a session and asked if he knew "Junco Partner." Booker's ad hoc performance was so impressive that Boyd and his engineer signed him on the spot, and Booker recorded his first album in February 1976. It was Booker's first true album, as far as I know, and his first recording under his own name in about 15 years. The Junco Partner album was released on Boyd's Hannibal label late in 1976, and it's a remarkable record. Booker plays piano, organ and sings, he puts out so much music that he needs no other band members.

How Booker actually ended up playing with Jerry Garcia is anyone's guess, but I think Ron Tutt was the likely culprit. Booker was playing sessions of various sorts in the South, and Tutt was well connected in Memphis and Dallas, so he must have heard the legends from other musicians, since Boyd had not yet recorded the album. Booker had apparently recorded in Los Angeles with Dr. John's band in Los Angeles in 1973, and Tutt may have heard about that. Hopkins had been a brilliant musician who could improvise across a broad palette of American piano styles, but Booker was a guy who had helped invent those styles. Since the Jerry Garcia Band didn't rehearse much and was not really a full time engagement, the attraction of an underground legend must have been too much to resist. Since Booker's rehearsal was on January 7, 1976, and he must have had to fly out to California, his arrival had to have been planned well  before the last show with Hopkins.

The Hayward Daily Review listing for Sophie's in Palo Alto, on 260 S. Calfornia Avenue, from Dec 26, 1975. The Garcia Brothers were a local blues/rock band, and featured neither Tiff nor Jerry
Sophie's, 260 S. California Avenue, Palo Alto, CA
Sophie's was a former Purity Supermarket in Palo Alto's "old" downtown. Prior to Stanford University, California Avenue was the main street of the town of Mayfield, notorious for its saloons. When Leland Stanford purchased the land for the University, he offered to let Mayfield become the 'college town' on the condition it close its saloons. The town refused, and Stanford and his partner Timothy Hopkins purchased a large tract of land just North of Mayfield, and the saloon-less town of Palo Alto was born in 1892. When Prohibition came, Mayfield had little choice but to merge with Palo Alto, but there was always a little bit of rivalry between the two parts of town.

In 1975, there were still no bars in downtown Palo Alto--the ghost of Leland Stanford would have been proud--so it's not surprising that the new club was in the former Mayfield area. Sophie's opened in late 1975. I have never found out who owned or operated the club. In 1975, Palo Alto was still just a college town suburb, well-to-do perhaps, but not wealthy. Silicon Valley had begun sprouting, but while the seeds of Apple Computer and the like were forming, at the time neither Palo Alto nor the South Bay was exceptionally expensive. As a result, Sophie's was used by Jerry Garcia and others as a club where he could try out a new band lineup quietly. The first booked gig with Hopkins was scheduled at Sophie's (September 18, 1975), though I'm not certain it was played.

In any case, The Jerry Garcia Band played a few shows at Sophie's in 1975 and '76, and then it was sold to Freddie Herrera and Bobby Corona, and it became The Keystone Palo Alto. The reign of Keystone Palo Alto (1977-86) was during the period when Palo Alto and Silicon Valley were booming. Entertainment in the South Bay started to become big business, and Palo Alto was harder to use for trying out new bands. The Catalyst in Santa Cruz, further South, took over the role of the out-of-town club that had been filled by Sophie's. In early 1976, however, Garcia could try out a new band lineup very discreetly. I do not know how the January 9-10 shows were booked, whether they were billed as the Jerry Garcia Band with James Booker, or James Booker with Jerry Garcia and Friends, or anything else. I know of no reviews of the shows nor eyewitness accounts, but fortunately we do have tapes of the rehearsal and both shows, and they are very revealing.

The Jerry Garcia Band with James Booker, January 9-10, 1976
Although extremely ragged, the Garcia/Booker shows are fascinating in light of the period of transition that they established for the Garcia Band. It goes without saying that the band was under-rehearsed, but Garcia himself  would probably not have seen that as a negative. More interestingly, Booker and Garcia share the lead vocal duties equally. Had this lineup been an ongoing proposition, it would have been a real band, regardless of Jerry Garcia's name on the marquee. While there are a couple of Garcia standards, his songs seem to be chosen to capitalize on Booker's musical strengths. Songs like "Tore Up Over You," "All By Myself" and "Let It Rock" seem well chosen for a band with a New Orleans piano legend.

The problem with Booker and the Garcia Band, ironically enough, is that Booker simply dominates the sound. Booker's left hand is so powerful that there is hardly room for Kahn, and his right hand is golden, so Garcia has a difficult time finding space to play. Booker had probably been playing by himself for so long that he had stopped leaving room for other musicians, but it's very rare that a piano player can simply step all over both Jerry Garcia and John Kahn. Now, granted, the music is very ragged, but the sound simply comes pouring out of Booker's piano. Booker plays fine organ, too, although in a style very far from Merl Saunders. On organ, Booker sounds like Art Neville of the Funky Meters. This isn't surprising, since Booker had ghosted for Neville on many of his early 60s singles while Art was on the road.

Fascinating as the sound of Booker and the Garcia might have been, however, there's no way to get around the fact that the ensemble doesn't work. Garcia ends up backing up James Booker on most numbers, and Booker kind of dominates Garcia even when Garcia is leading the song. According to Joe Boyd's liner notes for Junco Partner, while Booker was a very nice man, he was extremely erratic and hard to work with, and after the Hopkins experience, I think Garcia and Kahn decided that they had had enough of geniuses. Thus it seems that Garcia, Kahn and Tutt had toyed with replacing the legendary Nicky Hopkins with an even greater legend, who might arguably have been a better player, but Booker's instability would have been trying and financially unsound. Thus, after the quiet Sophie's gigs, Keith and Donna Godchaux joined the Jerry Garcia Band, debuting at the Keystone Berkeley on January 26, 1976.

Aftermath
James Booker recorded his Junco Partner album with Joe Boyd in February of 1976. It was released in November of that year. It's a remarkable album, because Booker simply does not need a band, even a great one. Booker made one more album, and was on a few recordings, but he couldn't get past his many problems and he died in 1982. However, thanks to Boyd, Booker's legend rose to the surface and there is recorded evidence of his talent, so his legacy was resurrected, as it should be. However, almost all accounts of Booker's history leave out the flirtation with Garcia. I wouldn't be surprised if the well-connected Boyd had had a hand in connecting Booker with Garcia as well, but it's a peculiar episode in Garcia's history that deserves greater reflection.

Garcia and Kahn turned to Keith and Donna Godchaux. I can recall being in the dorms in Berkeley back in Jnauary 1976, when the Jerry Garcia Band was booked at Keystone Berkeley, and my friends with fake IDs attended the show. The shows were barely advertised, and in fact I think we only knew about them from seeing it on the marquee. We knew nothing about the Booker shows, and there was never any mention of the Garcia Band in the press, so until Keith and Donna walked on stage with Garcia, they had no idea who was going to fill the keyboard chair. Although the 1976-78 Jerry Garcia Band made some fine music, many Deadheads, myself included, found it frustrating that Keith Godchaux was the piano player for both the Dead and the JGB. He could handle both chairs, but it meant that Garcia's range of musical canvases was going to be shrunk.

I think Garcia wanted stability in the Jerry Garcia Band, and stability that made economic sense as well. Garcia and Kahn had tried genius twice, with Hopkins and Booker, and they seemed to have given in to reality and chosen reliability. As a fan, I wished even at the time that he had chosen a reliable pro who wasn't in the Dead, just for variety--Mark Naftalin, Bill Payne and Larry Knechtel all come to mind--but Garcia needed an easier road in order to keep all his many balls safely in the air. It's telling also that Keith could play in a very jazzy style, as he had the previous year when Garcia sat in with Keith and Donna, playing 20 minute jazz songs and the like. Now, Keith and Donna were playing in a more New Orleans/Honky Tonk style that had been laid out by Hopkins and Booker, which Godchaux handled reliably.

One other overlooked attraction of the Godchauxs to Garcia was actually Donna Godchaux. We tend to dismiss her, it being a boys club and all, but in fact from 1976 onwards Garcia had female vocalists in the band the majority of the time. Donna's vocals added a lot to the sound of the Garcia Band, allowing Jerry to take on certain numbers that wouldn't have worked as well with him as the sole vocalist. So it may be that Garcia was looking to get Donna into the band as much as Keith, but in any case after two strikes at genius, Garcia seemed interested in swinging at a safer pitch. The two-date James Booker experiment remains as a curiously forgotten fork in the Jerry Garcia Band, a final ride down the Genius Highway before a U-Turn back towards more conventional territory.

23 comments:

  1. The Sophies shows with Booker were simply booked as the Jerry Garcia Band. Since the last Hopkins show had been on 12/31/75, there had still been no official word of Nicky's departure, at least in the press I was aware of at the time. I went to the 2/9 show, and it was one of the wildest and weirdest Garcia shows I ever saw. Basically Booker took over and the rest of the band was doing their best to keep up with whatever poured out of his keyboard. Booker was clearly very lubricated with something(s) and spent the break at the bar imbibing prodigiously. Jerry did get in a few tunes from his usual repertoire at the time, but clearly with some difficulty. If I remember correctly (probably from one of your posts) Kahn took responsibility for bringing Booker to the band, with some chagrin. I missed the first couple of Keith and Donna shows, but saw a bunch of them in late February once John Wasserman had let on that the band now included Keith and Donna.

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  2. I'm embarrassed by the little yip of joy I let out upon seeing a new post.

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  3. crypt, its remarkable to hear an eyewitness account. Interesting also to hear that Kahn took responsibility (or blame) for bringing Booker in (my blog wasn't the source, its the first I'm hearing of it).

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  4. clap clap clap clap clap. Fantastic. I think you lay down every essential point, and I agree with everything you say. I want to echo your musical analysis (and crypt's), too: Booker just produced so damn much music, and was such an untameable guy, that it just couldn't work in a band. You're right: Garcia is mostly reduced to comping behind the Bayou Maharajah, The Emperor of the Ivories, the Piano Prince of New Orleans, on most tunes.

    Booker is so damn brilliant, I find the precious few hours of tape we have to be essential listening. "Junco Partner" is pure genius.

    A few thoughts. First, I notice that JB is credited on Waitress in a Donut Shop, and I also list some crossing with Geoff Muldaur. Combined with Kahn claiming credit (See below), I'd say Kahn, not Tutt, brought him in.

    Blair Jackson's cutting room floor, which is just an incredibly wonderful resource, says this:

    http://www.blairjackson.com/chapter_fourteen_additions.htm:

    "Booker was my idea," Kahn said with an embarrassed chuckle. "I knew him from doing sessions in L.A. He came to my house in Mill Valley a couple of days before the gigs [at Sophie's in Palo Alto]. First he didn't show up until 5 in the morning. Me and Jerry were there and we're getting calls from his grandmother and his priest — Booker had gotten lost en route somehow; they'd lost track of him. Finally I got a call and it was Booker himself. He was calling from Dan's Greenhouse, a liquor store. He was in front of there at 5 in the morning with an overcoat and no socks and a hat bag; that was it — no clothes. He had about 30 eye patches and eight or nine wigs.

    "The shows were really cool. But he wouldn't learn any of our songs. We tried to teach him songs and he refused. He was a little crazed, so we ended up doing mostly his songs. He did half a set of solo piano and it was great; you could hear a pin drop. And he played things like the "Minute Waltz"; it was incredible. He could still play great. He could switch between piano and organ really easily and it would sound amazing. But he was out of his mind. He was watching cars go by and was checking out license plates and talking about the CIA. He saw a Louisiana license plate and then John Kennedy's name somewhere and that freaked him out. He saw bad omens everywhere and he was getting really weird. I didn't know he was that crazy, so I might have had delusions that we'd stay together longer."

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    1. WOw.

      whatta sight J.C.Booker must've been.

      Allegedly he walked with a limp.
      The limp combined with the Glass Eye/Patch, the lack of socks, and a "hat bag".

      Its fun to imagine what John & Jerry's face would've looked like. ...i can see them looking at each other with the big eyes.

      (Btw, What is a Hat Bag?)

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  5. JGMF:

    Blair's outtake was the source I was thinking of. I guess he did the so piano stuff the night I didn't go. Booker was indeed a genius, albeit an out of control one!

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  6. Garcia needed JGB to be a regular source of personal income which would explain why Nicky Hopkins didn't work out, he was too unreliable. Same would go for Booker, and also I just can't hear him getting into contributing to the really long jams, one of the reasons people came to see Jerry.

    One thing I always wondered, possibly a subject for further investigation: how the hell was Ronnie Tutt able to hold down his gig with Elvis' touring drummer, which I assume was fairly regular, while at the same time working around Jerry's Dead schedule in order to be his fulltime drummer in the Garcia band? And why did Tutt STOP being Garcia's touring drummer the very same month that Elvis died, and the same month JGB completed their excellent Arista debut album on which he played?

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    1. "why did Tutt STOP being Garcia's touring drummer the very same month that Elvis died"

      That is strange timing. Maybe Elvis' death and Jerry's hard-living caused him to quit drugs or find Jeezus. I Googled him and he's still alive and still plays, so maybe someone knows the answer.

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    2. "why did Tutt STOP being Garcia's touring drummer... the same month JGB completed their excellent Arista debut album on which he played?"

      This is not correct. They had barely started recording Cats Under The Stars in August 1977, when Tutt stopped touring. They were working on the album into 1978, probably right up to the departure for the March 1978 tour.

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  7. The Jerry Garcia Band had to coordinate its touring schedule with both the Grateful Dead and Elvis Presley. Once in a while, Garcia or Elvis used a sub (Gregg Errico sat in for JGB on Dec 31 '75, and Larry Londin subbed for Tutt a few times with Elvis).

    Elvis played a fair number of live shows, but compared to hard touring '70s bands like the Grateful Dead, Foghat or Marshall Tucker, they didn't play that much. There is an excellent Elvis concert history for comparison (http://www.elvisconcerts.com/concerts/dbsearch.php). Thus there was a fair amount of room for Tutt to play with Jerry.

    Tutt is still around, and touring with Neil Diamond, but he has been fairly silent about his feelings about working with Garcia. Tutt always praises Garcia's music, but he is circumspect about what else may have gone down.

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  8. I always heard that Booker was the one who got Garcia into heroin. Anyone know if that is true?

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  9. Jerry was responsible for Jerry's bad habits. As to possible enablers, James Booker is the least likely suspect.

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  10. I never heard of this ... just let me say long lives James Booker!

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  11. I heard it was some guy named "the sufi" who turned him on to persian. booker doesn't look very sufi to me!

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  12. I never to my recollection saw James Booker at Mandrake's, but I wasn't there all the time. Pinetop Perkins stopped by and played a few songs once, and that was beyond phenomenal! Charlie Musselwhite sat at a table and gave me a satisfied little smile, like he had pulled off a small miracle. Charlie loved to pull off a good surprise, and we all were the direct beneficiaries of his musical largess!

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  13. Booker appears on Maria Muldaur's 1976 effort, Sweet Harmony. Perhaps Muldaur is the conneciton that brought Booker and Garcia together?

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  14. Brad, that may indeed be the connection. Kahn takes the blame for trying to bring Booker into the band--given the '76 release of Maria's album, that may be where Kahn first heard Booker. The producer was the great Joe Boyd, who was largely responsible for Booker's resurrection, and he must have brought Booker to the session.

    Kahn must have been hanging out, or heard it from Maria, or a similar connection. A very sharp-eyed find, thanks.

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  15. Jerome "Stump" Monroe deputized for Ronnie Tutt on at least three occasions:

    Monday, November 8, 1971 - Philadelphia, PA [Tutt = flu]
    Sunday, December 7, 1975 - Las Vegas, NV [Tutt = wife having baby]
    Friday, June 24, 1977 - Madison, WI [Tutt = family emergency]

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  16. Unfortunately, i only possess one of those shows, and it must be mislabeled then: It says 01/07/76?

    Set List:
    Tico Tico
    Don't Try To Be Your Brother's Keeper
    Something You've Got
    Just A Closer Walk With Thee
    Irene Goodnight
    United, Our Thing Will Stand
    Cassified
    Right Back Together (Intro, where Booker stops the band to correct them "its not a straight beat. It's [a] choppy thing. Real Choppy Funk"
    Right Back Together (Despite being Ragged, Track Is FIRE!)

    Could you, please, help me correctly label this show. Which of the two nights do you have this one listed as?

    Thanks.

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    1. that's the rehearsal. it's the best listen, imho.

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    2. Yes, the Jan 7 '76 tape is the rehearsal, and it appears that it was held at John Kahn's house. I had thought it was at Club Front (20 Front St), but I believe that the Garcia Band did not have the use of that until several months later.

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  17. thanks for writing this it was great to read, I have to admit I didn't know that

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