Thursday, April 7, 2011

October 31, 1986 Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, Oakland, CA: Jerry Garcia Band/Kingfish with Bob Weir

my notes from Oct 31 '86 Oakland
One of the remarkable things about Grateful Dead historiography is the startlingly high level of documentation. Thanks to Deadlists,, Deadbase, TheJerrySite, Weirworks, The PhilZone and numerous other sites, there are numerous links to tapes and very accurate setlists for most shows by the Dead and the various spin-off bands featuring Dead members. Once we get into the 1980s, there is very little that has not been taped and integrated into the various sites and databases. However, a peculiar side effect to the admirable effort to categorize all Grateful Dead knowledge is the tendency for tapes to become decontextualized. While this is inevitable, some concerts take on a different meaning when considered in their moment, independent of whatever fine music may have been preserved.

I was fortunate enough to attend the Jerry Garcia Band/Kingfish concert on Halloween 1986 at the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center in Oakland. The setlists and tapes circulate, and others do a better job of analyzing tapes, so I will generally step aside from the music and consider this unique event in the framework of its time. There are quite a number of things about this concert that set it apart from events at the time, and the post will allow me to consider some interesting aspects of this period that are rarely remarked upon today.

Backdrop: Jerry's Coma
In a typical year, the Grateful Dead were usually on tour during Halloween, often in the Northeast. Halloween equals skeletons, and skeletons equal the Grateful Dead, so the synergy has been self-evident since 1967. Once Jerry Garcia lapsed into a coma on July 8, 1986, the balance of the year became anything but typical. The Grateful Dead generated a lot of cash from touring, but touring was their only meaningful source of income in the mid-80s. With Garcia's health uncertain, all tour dates for the balance of 1986 were canceled. The various sound and lighting professionals who worked Dead tour scrambled to find other paying gigs, and some of the individual members of the band went on tour by themselves. The unique 'Ranch Rock '86' event, featuring multiple bands with Dead members, including a rare electric appearance by Robert Hunter, was one of the byproducts of Garcia's absence.

Although information was hard to come by in the pre-Internet era, there was a little bit of coverage by Joel Selvin in the San Francisco Chronicle as well as elsewhere. After several weeks it was clear that Garcia was going to recover, but the timing of his return to performing and the Dead's return to touring was still unsettled. The seminal event for Deadheads was the Jerry Garcia Band performance at The Stone in San Francisco, on October 4, 1986. A low-key JGB show at a familiar haunt was a lot less of an effort than a long, stressful Grateful Dead concert or tour, and it made perfect sense. I did not go, but I heard from various people that it was a joyous occasion, with a happy Garcia making good but not spectacular music, much to the relief of the entire community.

Surprisingly, however, Garcia's return to active duty did not presage a flurry of Dead shows. One of the admirable features of the Grateful Dead's self-definition was that every Grateful Dead show was planned as the maximum Grateful Dead experience, with a full complement of band members, sound equipment and lights. When the balance of the year's Dead tour had had to be canceled following Garcia's coma, the sound and light equipment and their accompanying crews had to commit to other rock tours. Thus the Grateful Dead would not have been able to play without their preferred sound and lighting rig, and the band implicitly refused to undermine their own credibility by doing otherwise.

As a result, the Jerry Garcia Band spent much of the Fall of 1986 playing The Stone in San Francisco. I have discussed Garcia's professional relationship with the Keystone family of clubs at great length elsewhere, but in general they were the easiest place for the Garcia Band to have a quick, profitable performance. Nothing could be more valuable to an operation whose principal source of income--Grateful Dead concerts--had been abruptly interrupted. By the end of 1986, however, the "Keystone Family" was down to just The Stone, since the Keystone Berkeley and Keystone Palo Alto had closed. Thus the Jerry Garcia Band played The Stone 9 times between October 4 and December 21, 1986.

In fact, prior to the Grateful Dead's return to performance on December 15, 1986, Garcia made 18 performances. While a few were benefit performances and personal favors, the Halloween show at the Henry J. Kaiser (capacity: 7,000) was far and away the biggest show that Garcia played in the Fall. From one point of view, it may seem surprising that Garcia played a large hall on October 31 show, just 27 days after his return to performing, and less than 4 months from the hospital. The presence of Bob Weir and Kingfish on the bill leads me to think that the purpose of the concert was to provide cash for Grateful Dead operations for the next few months, until regular touring revenue started to return.

If my thesis is correct, it implicitly suggests that the Dead were unwilling to have a Grateful Dead show without their full complement of lights and sound. I think their experiences with "outside" sound systems over the years were poor enough that they refused to consider it. It is also an interesting indicator of Garcia's commitment to the Grateful Dead that he played a high profile rock show so early in his recovery, apparently because the band needed the cash. It is easy to assert platitudes like "The Grateful Dead are like a family, man, and Garcia would never let down his brothers," but bands have broken up over lesser things. And while the Grateful Dead were (and are) like family, try borrowing several thousand dollars from your brother while he's recovering from an illness, and see how that goes. Garcia's commitment to the Dead was so integral that no one seems to have even commented on it.

Bob Weir And Kingfish
Kingfish had formed in 1974, and Bob Weir joined the group later in that year, performing and recording with them while the Dead were on hiatus. Although Weir had dropped out of the group in mid-1976, leader Matthew Kelly had kept the group going ever since, if somewhat intermittently. At various times in 1984, '85 and '86, Weir, Brent Mydland and Bill Kreutzmann had performed with Kingfish, although not usually at the same time. In late 1984, Weir had done a number of shows with Kingfish where they performed their own set, Weir had played solo and then joined Kingfish for a reprise of their older material. Kingfish had undergone various personnel changes over the years, but Weir returned for a few more shows with the band in early 1986.

When Garcia had lapsed into his coma, it might have seemed like a perfect idea for Weir to temporarily hitch his wagon to Kingfish, and perhaps it would have been. Unfortunately for Weir, however, he had injured his shoulder in a mountain biking accident, and his musical activities were limited to singing. Weir did perform at the Ranch Rock event as vocalist, and sang with a jazz group called Nightfood, featuring drummer Brian Melvin and bassist Jaco Pastorius, but in general Weir had had to lay low during Garcia's hiatus, which can not have helped his own or the Dead's cash flow. Thus when Weir and Kingfish were booked with the Jerry Garcia Band, it heralded Weir's return to active duty performing as well as Garcia's, even if it was fraught with considerably less tension.

Kaiser Convention Center, Oakland, CA, near Lake Merritt
Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, 10 Tenth Street, Oakland, CA
The Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center was the name of the newly remodeled Oakland Auditorium Arena near Lake Merritt. The Oakland Auditorium had been built in 1913. Strictly speaking, the Oakland Auditorium was a smaller, seated venue in the same complex, rarely used for rock shows, while the Arena had been used for trade shows, sports events and even a rodeo (Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, in the early 20th century) as well as major rock events. Nonetheless, by the 1980s just about everybody in the Bay Area called the Arena the "Oakland Auditorium." Although the Dead had played there a few times in the past, after Winterland closed the Arena became the Grateful Dead's new Bay Area home court. The Dead's first BGP promoted shows at the venue were on August 4-5, 1979.

The Oakland Auditorium looms large in Grateful Dead history, because the beginnings of a promoter-sanctioned camp out began in 1980, when BGP casually allowed numerous traveling Deadheads to put up tents on the lawn across from the Arena. The story is too long to go into here, but suffice to say that outdoor camping was perfectly viable in Oakland in December, and a new tradition was born literally overnight. By 1986, however, the neighborhood around the Auditorium did not appreciate the Deadhead invasion every time the band played a run there, and the band would soon graduate to the much larger Oakland Coliseum Arena few miles away. In Fall 1986, however, the Oakland Auditorium Arena was still the Grateful Dead's home court, and a concert there headlined by Garcia and Weir definitely counted as a home game.

Bill Graham Presents, The Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia
The Grateful Dead had had a long professional and personal relationship with Bill Graham. Whatever their earlier points of contention may have been, by the mid-80s the Grateful Dead and BGP had a close working partnership. It was both appropriate and lucrative for the last two intact survivors of the San Francisco 60s to depend on each other. However, although Jerry Garcia genuinely liked Bill Graham, he had a somewhat different professional relationship with BGP. As I have documented elsewhere, Jerry Garcia had his own set of loyalties for his performing aggregations. In particular, Garcia had worked regularly with the same club promoters since the 70s, particularly Freddie Herrera and the Keystone family. Garcia had played a fair share of shows for Bill Graham Presents, but only in cities such as San Rafael, where one of his favored clubs was not operating. There were very few exceptions to this practice (I will eventually address all the exceptions, but not in this post).

By 1986, however, Freddie Herrera's Keystone Berkeley had closed, so Garcia would not have been faced with a question of loyalty for booking a show with Bill Graham in Oakland. Given the need for money, would Garcia have played the Oakland show if Keystone Berkeley had been open? Its impossible to say. Nonetheless, with only the Stone remaining, I don't think its a coincidence that Garcia played an Oakland venue rather than a San Francisco one, even if the Oakland Auditorium was the best choice for a proxy Dead event in any case.

October 31, 1986
The Kaiser Convention Center Arena was full on Halloween, though I am not certain that the show was actually sold out. The atmosphere was extremely positive, as you might expect, but it was different than a regular Dead show for any number of reasons. For one thing, there seemed to be almost no one from out of town. Most runs at the Kaiser had been filled with people making the trek from wherever to see the Dead "at home," and it made the Kaiser crowds among the most interesting to query (if you were me, and the internet hadn't yet
been invented). Also, I think a lot of Deadheads who rarely went to Garcia shows because they saved their money and time for the Grateful Dead made an exception for this show. Finally, a lot of people were not able to go The Stone either because it was a nightclub or because the late night hours of the club made it an ordeal. In my own case, I had to be at work at 6:00am in those days, so even a weekend event that went until 2am was very difficult for me. All in all, everybody was happy to be in Oakland that night, no doubt starting with Jerry and Bob.

Although BGP had provided their usual full, professional sound system, the stage was generally bereft of the paraphernalia of a Dead show. The elaborate backdrops and painted amplifiers were nowhere to be found, and the "backline" of equipment was considerably smaller as well. There was a pro lighting rig--it was BGP, after all--but it wasn't the multi-faceted extravaganza that was par for the course at a Grateful Dead concert. I am never late, but that isn't true of all Deadheads (or members of the Grateful Dead, I might add). Mine was a fortunate habit, however, since there was no opening act and a quick glance at the equipment on stage made it clear that the Jerry Garcia Band would be opening the show.

I had seen the Jerry Garcia Band and Kingfish at concerts twice before, on October 17 and December 19, 1975. While that was 11 years prior to the Oakland show, 11 years isn't much in Jerry time, so I wasn't surprised to see that Garcia was preceding Kingfish. In both previous shows, after some opening acts (Clover and Keith and Donna), Garcia had played his usual show, without an encore, leaving the harder rocking Kingfish the duty of getting the crowds to let it all hang out. I do know that when the Jerry Garcia Band had toured the East with Bobby And The Midnites in 1982, the bands had alternated closing sets. This may have had something to do with the load-out, but in any case Garcia was rare among rock stars in that he had no stake in closing the show even though he was the headliner (does anyone know if Garcia closed the June 8, 1975 Garcia/Kingfish show in Palo Alto? Amazingly, I didn't go).

The Jerry Garcia Band played one extended set on Halloween at the Kaiser, to a rapturous reception. My impression was that much of the crowd mainly felt relieved, although perhaps I was just projecting. There was nothing particularly special about his choice of songs or Garcia's soloing, but he played with a lot of feeling if not with stunning dexterity, and that was enough. Garcia never played encores at the Keystones, and sometimes didn't play encores even at concerts, but there was no way he was getting away with that on this night. After thunderous applause, the Garcia Band returned with "Werewolves Of London." It wasn't a special version, and indeed it was more of a fun song than an interesting song, but in any case it was a Halloween encore celebrating Jerry's return--"A Day Of The Dead" indeed. Jerry said nothing to the crowd, as per his practice, but there was no need, not on this night. I saw Jerry Garcia on Halloween, and his hair was perfect.

After the usual "short break," Kingfish came on stage, without Weir. Really, this had to be quite daunting. It's tough to follow the headline act in any case, but to follow Jerry Garcia returning from a coma, on Halloween? Very difficult indeed. Over the years, Kingfish had had various members, with Matthew Kelly as the only constant. The band had a consistent sound, but its personnel changed over time. Keyboardist Barry Flast was Kelly's main partner, singing many of the lead vocals. Flast was from Boston, and had been in a group (with Billy Squier) called The Tom Swift Electric Band. It's likely that the Tom Swift Electric Band had opened for the Grateful Dead in 1967 at Boston's Psychedelic Supermarket. Other vocals were handled by Anna Rizzo, formerly of the Berkeley groups Sky Blue, Grootna and Country Joe's All Star Band. The lead guitarist was Steve Kimock, a relatively new addition to the Bay Area scene. Bass and drums were handled solidly by Steve Evans and Jimmy Sanchez, respectively.

Although Kingfish personnel had changed dramatically over the years, to Matt Kelly's credit their sound remained consistent. Kingfish had a spare, rocking sound with just enough extended soloing to keep Deadheads engaged. They played their usual mixture of covers and originals. At the time, I was very interested in hearing Steve Kimock play, since I recognized his name as a hot new player in the area (he was from Pennsylvania, I think), but I had not yet heard him. Ironically, I though Kimock was the weakest link for Kingfish. Kimock, at least at the time, was already a very fluid, melodic player, but he lacked the stinging drive that had been provided by his predecessors Garth Webber and Robbie Hoddinott. The rest of Kingfish didn't really "space out" very well, as it wasn't their sound, so Kimock's solos seemed out of place to me. Kimock could probably fit in well with the band now, not that he has any need for that, but at the time he sounded like a mismatch to me. Of course, he was coming on right after Garcia, so that was a pretty high bar to jump over.

After about 40 minutes of Kingfish, Bob Weir joined the band. At some club shows, Weir had played a solo acoustic set, but this wouldn't have been good night for that. Weir jumped right into it with "Festival," and then "Winners." Weir always insisted on keeping his solo material separate from the Grateful Dead, but by the same token his original material outside of the Dead wasn't always that strong. Then Weir and Kingfish played some classics from their old Kingfish days, like "Youngblood" and "Battle Of New Orleans" (sung by Weir, per my notes, whereas previously it had been sung by the late Dave Torbert), and then a few other numbers.

I recall enjoying Weir and Kingfish well enough, but I can tell by my own notation (the down arrow on the last song) that I actually left before it was over. It was Friday night, probably past 1:00 am by that point, and I would have been up since 5:00 am or so. Although it wasn't options expiration, I had probably had a fairly intense day at work (for those who care, I think I was the Sell Clerk at the X15/AMI pit) and I was probably simply wiped out.

Some searching today reveals what I missed for the last few numbers. It was probably nice, but I was happier to have taken the quick drive around Lake Merritt and gone home. In any case, I can tell from my last note, listing "Minglewood" as the last song before I left, that I wasn't paying attention at that point, since it seems Kingfish didn't actually play it. Jerry was back in black, the Garcia Band had played a nice show and I had seen my share of Weir shows over the years, so it was definitely time to call it a night.


  1. Awesome. I am working on a post of an early 1990 show that has the same thrust of setting context, and it touches on some of the same issues. Thanks for this!

  2. This show made it into Billboard box office list (November 14, 1986, p. 30, accessible via Google Books), with a 7,900 ticket sellout grossing $116,722. Nice payday all around, I am sure.

  3. Great piece, but I do have to question one part. The individual band members' side bands were totally separate business entities from the Grateful Dead. A JGB / Weir show would have directed cash only to Garcia, Weir, and their bands' direct employees (sidemen and tech crew). Grateful Dead Productions - the office staff, management, other GD band members, other road crew, etc - wouldn't have seen any money from this show, so it wouldn't have reflected JG's commitment to the Dead.

  4. I was actually thinking about that, too. Of course, there's lots of overlap in the personnel. Sue Stephens and Harry Popick and Parrish and others would have benefited from JGB activity, I suppose, though you're right that doesn't give any inferential leverage on GD commitments.

    I wonder how the "Go Ahead" guys --everyone but Weir-- felt about not getting a pay day out of this.

  5. That last sentence was poorly constructed. I meant everyone but Weir, including (but not limited to) the Go Ahead guys.

  6. The question of business entities is a very excellent point, and one that I did not make at all clear. The important issue was that the Grateful Dead was a business that had high cash flow and high expenses, and they had to be in a dire situation. There seems to be some evidence that the JGB entity helped finance some Dead operations at various times, and I think this is one such instance.

    As a practical matter, either the JGB loaned cash to the Dead for a month or two, before receipts came in for concerts in December, or else the JGB/Kingfish show provided a cash cushion that was never used (ie borrowed).

    My general point was that Garcia could have just played The Stone, but he played a much bigger show. I can't imagine it wasn't some kind of necessity.

  7. This is such a beautifully layered post on such an important set of topics. Thanks for sharing. I have a lot to say, but no time to say it.

  8. Excellent review and explanation of the context.

    On another note, I'd like to learn a lot more about John Kahn. As far as I know, he was the only bass player Garcia ever collaborated with aside from Phil. Kahn was a constant for maybe two decades, but he's not well documented.

    1. Turner, thank you very much for the kind words.

      John Kahn will probably always be underdocumented, but I have done my best:

      Be warned that I don't do short.

  9. Currently Halloween 2020...seems a million years ago. I was fortunate to be at this show as well. I stood outside the Stone when Jerry returned, foolishly thinking I may get in. A beautiful show on Halloween. Not bad for a midwestern boy stationed in Alameda with the Navy.

  10. Interesting that JGB opened the show as they're (literally) the bigger name on the ticket. Also, watching the video of the set right now and Jer's still in red. He hadn't quite taken the black again yet.