|A backstage pass from the October 27, 1978 show at Eastern Washington University|
Yet quite the opposite was the case. The Jerry Garcia Band played around a thousand shows, and a very high percentage of them featured exceptional music. Quite a few of them were exceptional from beginning to end. Of course, much of the excellence of the Jerry Garcia Band's various performances has to do with Garcia himself. If Garcia was on, then even the 200th version of "How Sweet It Is" would be emotionally powerful and musically inventive. Was this random chance? I accept that even a stoned out player with no plan can have a good gig now and again, but hundreds of great shows over the course of twenty years? Garcia wasn't very forthcoming with his plans to his own bandmates, and he certainly had his problems with drugs, but I will make the case that he was a very good bandleader, and it was no accident at all.
|The cover to Miles Davis' groundbreaking 1969 album, In A Silent Way|
Jerry Garcia was benign where Miles was acerbic, and talkative where Miles was silent. Yet I think he consciously led the Jerry Garcia Band in a very similar way. Garcia assembled the different pieces of the Jerry Garcia Band, and chose and sang the songs. Yet he never really told most of the band members what he was striving for, and seems to have exerted little direction beyond counting off the songs at very slow tempos. Descriptions of what few rehearsals there were, from David Kemper at least, describe a charming, talkative Garcia, discussing absolutely everything but the music that they were actually playing.
Yet a close look at the timeline for Jerry Garcia in 1978 reveals some fascinating insights into how Garcia asserted his influence on his own band. It's true that John Kahn took care of most of the musical business of the band, and was probably privy to some or most of Garcia's concepts, yet Garcia's hand was firmly on the tiller. Garcia seems to have exerted a firm grip on who was in the band, and by definition selected the songs he wanted to play at his own slow tempos. Nonetheless, that was part of Garcia's quiet method--having chosen whom he felt to be the right musicians, he wanted them to participate as they saw fit, rather than take direction. This post will look at Garcia's timeline for 1978, and how it foretold the next dozen years of Garcia's music, even though his handprints could hardly be seen later.
|Jerry Garcia's 1978 Arista album Cats Under The Stars|
1978 was a transitional year for The Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia. The Dead had had high hopes for their first Arista album, Terrapin Station, released in 1977, but it had been somewhat of a disappointment. Still, the first tour of 1978 featured some fantastic music, even if the January and February swing through the West and Midwest may not have been a great financial success. Garcia and Bob Weir also had high hopes for their Arista solo albums, but both of those made little impact. The dominant event for the Grateful Dead that year was their historic trip to perform in front of the Egyptian Pyramids during an Eclipse, so 1978 was a memorable year in the annals of the Dead.
By the end of 1978, however, the Grateful Dead's music seemed to be in a stagnant state, a situation mostly blamed on piano player Keith Godchaux. Keith's piano playing had been brilliant when he first signed on with the Dead, and he had held down the same chair with the Jerry Garcia Band. Yet by 1978, Keith had serious health problems, and his marriage to Donna Godchaux was shaky as well. In retrospect, all the members of the Grateful Dead, Donna included, have said they were planning on Keith and Donna's departure, even if no one actually spoke about it. The Dead generally, and Garcia particularly, were notoriously non-confrontational over personal and financial issues, and the music of the Dead generally suffered throughout the balance of 1978, even if there were still some great shows on occasion.
I have written at length about a show in Portland, OR, on October 26, 1978, where the Bob Weir Band opened for the Jerry Garcia Band. That show was the first time that Garcia heard Brent Mydland play, and apparently after the show Garcia told Weir "this guy might work." Apparently unspoken was the context, that Keith and Donna would need to be replaced. In a certain way, the exchange between Garcia and Weir was a profound insight into the inner workings of the Grateful Dead. With a relentless touring schedule, the Dead were not going to undertake the messy business of forcing out Keith and Donna Godchaux without a batter in the on-deck circle.
Upon further reflection, however, Garcia talent-spotting Brent Mydland in Weir's band turns out to be a hidden narrative of Jerry Garcia's 1978. Most of the shows that Jerry Garcia would play between 1979 and 1990 featured keyboard players in bands that opened for Jerry Garcia or the Grateful Dead in 1978. In that sense, Jerry Garcia defined some essential paths for his future music in 1978, even though it would not become obvious until later. What you think of those paths depends on how much you like the musical contributions of Ozzie Ahlers, Melvin Seals and Brent Mydland, but all of them were spotted by Garcia in 1978. In that sense, 1978 can be seen as a watershed year in the history of both Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. This post will look at how Garcia appears to have spotted and chosen his keyboard players throughout that year.
|Former JGB keyboard player Ozzie Ahlers with another great American|
Ozzie Ahlers was from the Woodstock, NY, area, and he had been in a band called Glory River. Ahlers relocated to Marin County partly for the opportunity to work with former Woodstock resident Van Morrison. The mercurial Morrison mixed and matched band members, and was uncomfortable in many performance contexts, so Ahlers probably didn't play that many shows with him. Ahlers also ended up being a regular in Jesse Colin Young's band, alternating tours and recording dates with Scott Lawrence. In early 1978, Ahlers joined Robert Hunter and Comfort, replacing Richard "Sunshine" McNeese.
At the time, Hunter and Comfort were planning to release an album called Alligator Moon, although in fact it was ultimately never released. Probably in anticipation of this effort, Hunter and Comfort were to join the Jerry Garcia Band on several dates on their March, 1978 Eastern tour. Both Comfort and the Garcia Band played some warmup gigs on the West Coast to get ready for the tour. In a break from normal practice, the Jerry Garcia Band headlined two small concerts in the Bay Area, instead of only playing the Keystones. Robert Hunter and Comfort opened both shows. I assume that one reason for the concerts was for the JGB/Comfort team to get road ready, with a concert sound system and equipment.
In any case, Robert Hunter and Comfort opened for the Garcia Band on Saturday, February 18, at the 1900-seat Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium in San Rafael. Even if Garcia had heard Ahlers in rehearsal with Hunter--unlikely--this would have been Garcia's first opportunity to see Ahlers in concert. Even if Garcia missed the set, it wouldn't have mattered, since the same bill played the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium the next night (Monday was President's Day, so Sunday night was like a weekend). While I don't think Garcia usually hung out backstage and watched other bands, the circumstances were a little different. Robert Hunter was one of Garcia's oldest and closest friends, and Garcia's opportunities to see him perform were rare, so there's every reason to think Garcia was hovering around with an open ear.
The Jerry Garcia Band opened their East Coast tour on March 9, 1978, in Cleveland. Hunter and Comfort were added to the bill in Long Island on March 12, and in the end Comfort opened for eight Garcia band shows (over six nights). Thus all told, Garcia had ten opportunities to hear Ozzie Ahlers play, and he must have liked what he heard. Keith and Donna Godchaux remained part of the Jerry Garcia Band through November, 1978, but Garcia put the JGB on hold after that. However, when the Jerry Garcia Band was re-established in September, 1979, Ahlers was in the keyboard chair.
No one inside the band has ever commented on Garcia's choice of Ahlers, to my knowledge. Based only on our knowledge of Garcia's comment to Weir, I have to think that Garcia and Kahn had some sort of moment where they listened to Ahlers and said to each other "this guy might work." Then they filed his name away. Ahlers didn't get a call until nearly 18 months later, but Garcia didn't get out much or socialize with outsiders, so there's scant chance that he bumped into Ahlers somewhere later, or checked him out at some local club. It appears that Ahlers played in Garcia's best friend's band, and as a result Garcia had confidence that Ahlers could be worth a phone call in the future.
Musical skill aside, I think there's another factor in the Garcia Band that made choosing people from shared concert bills desirable. By 1978, although Jerry Garcia was not the icon he would become, he was still a figure that radiated an immense gravitational pull backstage at his own shows. There was also a weird, insular history to the Grateful Dead that could be difficult to penetrate. Even if Garcia had very little direct contact with Ahlers backstage, after an East Coast tour he would have known that Ahlers was not overwhelmed by Garcia's presence, and that he had a personality that suited Garcia. If Ahlers had been personally difficult, Garcia would have heard about it from Hunter.
In a BAM Magazine interview in 1978 (by either David Gans, Blair Jackson or both), Garcia said that his band and the Dead had different personalities. Garcia said that (to paraphrase) "the Dead were about dissonance, and his own band was about consonance." The key members of the Dead were great musicians, but they were opinionated and forthright, to the point of being difficult. Certainly the strong personalities of Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart were what made the Dead so vibrant. The Jerry Garcia Band, however--including Garcia--was historically full of fine players who had a reputation amongst other musicians for being a pleasure to work with: John Kahn, Ron Tutt, Maria Muldaur, and so on. This seems to have been borne out in interviews over the years.
Thus the Jerry Garcia Band not only had a musical profile, but a personality profile as well. Someone like David Crosby would have made a plausible member of the Grateful Dead, but he was too forthright for the low-key Garcia Band. After giving an ear to Ahlers' tasteful playing with Hunter, Garcia and Kahn would have also had a chance to see that Ahlers was a low mainenance band member, and that would have counted for a lot.
The Jerry Garcia Band had had episodes with Nicky Hopkins and James Booker, where they chose genius over professionalism, and they regretted it. Indeed, from one point of view, it appears that Garcia's frustration with Keith Godchaux in the Garcia Band seemed to have as much to do with Keith having become high maintenance, rather than direct criticism of his playing. It's also worth noting that when the JGB flirted with genius by hiring Hopkins and Booker, Garcia wasn't touring with the Grateful Dead. Yet Garcia seems to have realize that he could only have one band of jagged edges. As one scholar has observed, given how much Garcia had accomplished with the Dead, and how much effort Garcia still put into the Garcia Band, its not at all surprising that he wanted compatible band members as a prerequisite.
In this 1977 episode of The Midnight Special, Melvin Seals can be seen playing some funky piano as Van Morrison leads Mickey Thomas, Reni Slais and the rest of the Elvin Bishop Group through "Domino"
Melvin Seals: June 4, 1978: County Stadium, Santa Barbara, CA: Grateful Dead/Elvin Bishop Group/Wha-Koo
Even if Terrapin Station hadn't been a big success, the Grateful Dead nonetheless had become a bigger live attraction than ever. In the early Summer of 1978, they headlined an outdoor show in Santa Barbara. I believe that the approximately 20,000-capacity stadium would have been the biggest venue that the Dead had ever headlined in Southern California up through that time. To fill out the bill, however, and sell a few more tickets, the Dead were supported by their old friends The Elvin Bishop Group. The Elvin Bishop Group had a much higher profile than they had ever had, thanks to a big 1976 hit called "Fooled Around And Fell In Love," featuring vocalist Mickey Thomas. After that hit, Bishop expanded his group to a much larger ensemble.
Deadheads remember Elvin Bishop's performance in Santa Barbara mainly because Jerry Garcia came out and played a little bit, taking a solo on the song "Fishing Blues." As a result of being invited onstage to jam, which had to have been planned (for logistical reasons), we know that Garcia was hovering around the stage. In a 1991 interview with Scott Muni, Garcia recalled
;.... somewhere there in the '70s the Grateful Dead did a show with Elvin Bishop. I was standing behind this guy on the stage. He was the second keyboard player in Elvin's band. This big guy, he was just playing a Fender Rhodes. But he was playing so tasty, I'm just standing behind him. It's a pretty thick band, so figuring out just how to get in there was, I thought, the work of a good musician. He was just playing the tastiest little stuff. I thought, 'This guy is just too much!'
I asked him what his name was. He said, 'Melvin Seals'. Melvin Seals. So years later I got Melvin. I don't remember exactly when he started playing with us, but right around the late '70s, early '80s, Melvin started playing with us, and he was just a monster. He's turned out to be the guy that we were looking for all along.It seems pretty clear that the June 4, 1978 show in Santa Barbara has to be where Garcia heard Seals. Garcia had the foresight to ask Melvin's name. There has always been a tendency to think of Garcia as this sort of stoned genius, who let other people handle everything for him. That may have been true with respect to his personal life and finances, but Garcia was his own man as a musician. He heard a guy he liked, and knew he'd be looking for a keyboard player some day soon, so he filed the name away, even if Melvin Seals would not play with Garcia until 1981. Once again, it appears that the restless Garcia was looking for keyboard players where he could find them.
Intriguingly, Seals has a different memory
I did some gigs with Maria Muldaur. Her boyfriend at the time was John Kahn. He [came to] the gigs, and he admired what I was doing so he asked me if I'd be interested in jamming with another band sometime. He never really went into the details of what it was. Nobody even told me he played with [Jerry].
[Kahn] called me up one day [and said] we're trying to put some rehearsals together to get some gigs. I went up to the address and there's Jerry Garcia and John Kahn and all these other musicians. I didn't even know what was going on. Really, it still didn't hit me until the end of the rehearsal.I have to presume that Seals was playing with Maria Muldaur in 1979 or 1980, and got scouted by Kahn (Seals was in the Elvin Bishop Group until at least mid-1979). In fact, Garcia may have already given Kahn the heads-up, who passed the name to Maria. In any case, Seals' little story hints at the dynamic between Garcia and Kahn. Garcia finds a likely candidate, and the low-profile Kahn is able to check out prospects without attracting attention.
|Merl Saunders 1979 album Do I Move You, on Crystal Clear Records, recorded Direct-to-Disc in early 1979|
I realize that the two guest appearances by Jerry Garcia with Merl Saunders at a tiny Haight Street club don't quite fit the narrative here. Ahlers, Seals and Mydland were all new to Garcia, while Saunders was an old pal. Garcia was present at the other shows, and simply listened to his opening acts, whereas Garcia made a conscious effort to drop in twice to sit in with Merl. However, Merl Saunders had been an active working musician since Garcia had stopped working with him in 1975. Garcia could have sat in at any time--why October of 1978, at a club where Garcia had no direct connection, and was nowhere particularly convenient? And why two nights?
In the context of this analysis, it seems pretty clear that Garcia knew he had to find replacements for Keith and Donna Godchaux, even if he was personally dreading any actual confrontation. Garcia, unlike the rest of the Dead, had to find two replacements for two bands, not just one. Of course, it would be theoretically possible for Garcia not to have a second band, or to only play acoustic, or something, but that clearly wasn't Garcia's plan. It seems that Garcia went to some effort to play some funky jazz for two nights with Merl Saunders to see if it was still musically viable. It clearly was, as John Kahn put together the Reconstruction band, and Garcia debuted with them on January 30, 1979.
From what we know, John Kahn had put together Reconstruction with the idea that it would be a working jazz band with or without Garcia. Garcia was almost always booked as a "special guest" with Reconstruction for this reason. Thus when Kahn and Garcia re-activated the Jerry Garcia Band in late 1979, it was originally with the idea that it would be parallel to Reconstruction, rather than replacing it. The reality didn't work out that way, more's the pity. From Garcia's point of view in 1978, however, the jams with Merl made it clear to him that Saunders was still a good interim partner, even if the longer range plans didn't work out. Once again, the seemingly casual Garcia was merely taciturn, and appears to have a much more organized plan for his bands than anyone gave him credit for.
Brent Mydland: October 26, 1978: Paramount Northwest Theater, Portland, OR: Jerry Garcia Band/Bob Weir Band
When Jerry Garcia saw Brent Mydland play and sing with the Bob Weir Band, his remark to Weir that "this guy might work," turns out not to have come out of the blue. We can see that Garcia was filing away keyboard players for future reference, but Mydland was finally the one he needed to allow the band to move past Keith and Donna Godchaux. Interestingly, I think it was Brent's harmony vocals that helped put him over the top, since he could replace both Keith and Donna, which Ahlers, Seals and Saunders could not have.
Once Keith's replacement was lined up, the Godchauxs could be moved out of the band, and touring could continue accordingly. Garcia had some candidates lined up for his own bands as well, so to the extent Garcia ever wanted any kind of confrontation, he would have been finally willing to take such a step. Fate intervened, however, when Garcia fell ill in November, 1978, canceling a slate of Grateful Dead shows. Those shows were re-scheduled for January and February 1979, so the Godchauxs had to remain in the band. After a tour that was apparently very difficult personally but produced some fine music, the Godchauxs simply resigned at a band meeting on March 1. They may have seen the inevitable coming--Garcia had already started playing with Reconstruction--but it hardly mattered, as they needed out. It was unfortunate that having taken some control of his life, Keith Godchaux died in an auto accident in 1980.
Jerry Garcia's Other Choices
While it's fascinating to note that Garcia picked most of his future keyboard players from some opening acts in 1978, its important to at least think about what other alternatives Garcia may have been able to consider. For one thing, while the Grateful Dead were a pretty popular touring act after 1976, they generally headlined shows without having an opening act in support. The band played long enough for promoters to avoid having to have an opener to fill time, but the group was big enough to not need another band to help sell tickets. The Marin show with Comfort and the Northwest shows with Weir were consciously promoted as double bills featuring two Dead spinoff acts.
The June, 1978 show in Santa Barbara was one of the very few shows after 1976 where the Dead played with an opening act. Among those few were a number of bands without keyboard players (The Who, the New Riders and Marshal Tucker, for example), so the universe of players for Garcia to observe from backstage was pretty small. The only ones I can find would be Tom Coster (Santana, Cow Palace 1976), John Farey (Soundhole, Cow Palace 1976), Bill Slais (Elvin Bishop's other keyboard player, 1978) and Bobbye Nelson (Willie's sister, Giants Stadium, 1978). So while Garcia made some good musical choices, he didn't get a chance to observe a lot of players live.
On the other hand, Garcia knew a lot of keyboard players from the Bay Area, such as Mark Naftalin, Bill Champlin or Geoff Palmer, all of whom were quality musicians who would have been available for the long-term part-time employment of the Garcia Band. And Garcia would have known or been able to find out who was low-maintenance and who was difficult. Yet he passed on all the locals. John Kahn and Maria Muldaur knew their way around the Los Angeles studio scene, and Garcia had always done well with studio guys like Ron Tutt, Paul Humphrey and Larry Knechtel. In many ways, the Garcia Band was ideal for a Hollywood session guy: total freedom in an inherently half-time gig, leaving them free to make real money and live their life in Los Angeles. Yet Garcia made no effort that we know of, via Kahn or anyone else, to find an LA player.
So even if Garcia stuck to some players he had seen from backstage, and he hadn't seen many other candidates, Garcia wasn't completely boxed in. By 1978, the Jerry Garcia Band made good money, and it had a schedule that suited a lot of pros. Garcia's penchant for not rehearsing was generally a convenience for experienced musicians, too, as they didn't need the rehearsal nor have time for it. Yet Garcia passed on any old San Francisco hands or Hollywood studio regulars, and chose who he wanted.
For all the problems the Grateful Dead had in 1978, and there were a few, Garcia seems to have spent the year thinking about how he was going to move forward musically, even if he did it in his typical insular style that made no sense at the time.The fine music made in ensuing years by Reconstruction and the Jerry Garcia Band--not to mention the Grateful Dead--was hardly some kind of happy accident.