Thursday, September 20, 2012

Jerry Garcia>1978>Keyboards (Jerry Garcia-Bandleader)

A backstage pass from the October 27, 1978 show at Eastern Washington University
It is a conventional trope of Jerry Garcia scholarship that he deferred any responsibility for leading the Jerry Garcia Band. By the time the JGB was formed in 1975, Garcia was already a famous rock star, if in fact a famous rock star with a serious cash flow problem. After some brief flirtations with difficult geniuses like Nicky Hopkins and James Booker, Garcia seems to have spent the next twenty years working with low-key professionals who did not challenge the strange hegemony of Garcia and John Kahn's lucrative but part-time enterprise. It fits a certain narrative to say that Garcia was both compulsive and passive, wanting to play all the time, but seemingly refusing to exert any influence upon the band that bore his name. From that point of view, it would seem that it was remarkable that the Jerry Garcia Band was worth listening to at all.

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
Miles Davis, about whom I can make a very good case for being the greatest bandleader of improvised music in North American history, was a famously difficult bandleader from the point of view of his band. Miles typically had the greatest players in modern jazz history, and yet he always made things extraordinarily difficult on them. One famous Miles trick was to give sheet music only to the piano player, and to force the other musicians to simply guess what the guy was improvising off of, and thus have to struggle to make music out of it. Miles thrived on the tension, and he felt the lack of certainty added to the creative process, allowing him to achieve the collaborative synergy he was seeking. Yet his own band had mixed feelings, at least until afterwards, when they heard the tapes played back of the fine music that they had made.

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
Jerry Garcia 1978
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: February 18, 1978: Marin Veteran's Memorial Auditorium, San Rafael, CA: Jerry Garcia Band/Robert Hunter and Comfort
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
Merl Saunders: October 2-3, 1978: The Shady Grove, San Francisco, CA: Merl Saunders And Friends
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.


  1. I don't know if you've addressed this before on this blog, but does anyone know why Jerry chose Melvin instead of Merl as his side-band keyboardist in the 80's?

  2. Great post. I know you've written at length about Jimmy Warren, but that whole scenario will always be one big mystery to me. The concept of what they were trying to do made sense, but yeah, I just don't know how that went on for a year and a half.

  3. This is a groundbreaking piece that puts Garcia in a new light, as far as keyboard players go. Rather than putting all the hiring choices in Kahn's hands, it now looks like Garcia was quite actively choosing his future keyboard partners - even if he chose to do so 'behind the scenes.'
    (Although, there's still a hint of laziness in the fact that all these players were in opening bands he'd seen. Reminiscent of Godchaux just showing up at the Keystone in 1971 - for whatever reason, Garcia never had to look far.)
    Looking ahead, in 1990 Garcia personally asked Hornsby to play with the Dead - showing that at least in one area, he was still willing to be 'bandleader.'

    (As for other players, James Booker was Kahn's initiative - but Garcia apparently picked Jimmy Warren himself. I don't think I've ever read any account of how Nicky Hopkins got selected; but Garcia would have known him from years earlier.)

    It is ironic that on the very JGB tour where Garcia spotted Mydland, Godchaux is said to have been playing some of his finest work with the JGB. (Including that out-of-nowhere So What at the last show.)
    It's never been explained why Godchaux would be playing so differently in Garcia's two bands... At any rate, he didn't live long enough to talk about it to interviewers.

    In the '80s Garcia may have picked Seals rather than going back to Saunders for any number of reasons....perhaps he just wanted to try someone new; or Saunders was with another band at the time; or the two just drifted apart for a while. (Remember, Garcia had also dropped Saunders back in '75, in search of a change. Saunders, like Pigpen, had the experience of Garcia replacing him twice!)
    In Jackson's bio, Saunders hinted that Reconstruction ended in '79 partly because people didn't want Garcia to play with him: "It was sabotaged... Shortly after that, he and John started a different group and I sort of lost touch with him."

    I've seen Seals interviews where he said he didn't even know who Garcia was at his first rehearsal. It seems strange, considering he must've noticed Elvin Bishop's group was opening for the Dead back in '78 - not to mention that Garcia came out, played with Bishop, and talked to Seals after that show! But perhaps the Dead were outside his interest at the time & he just forgot about any rate, he seems to have no memory of opening for the Dead & meeting Garcia then.

  4. Seals had an amusing comment in this interview -
    "I've always heard that people thought I was Merl for a long time. [They'd yell], ‘Hi Merl!' [and I'd respond], ‘Hi! How ya doin'?' I didn't bother to tell them. Jerry didn't really introduce the band very much so they just couldn't tell. So I went on as Merl for awhile."

    He also talked a bit about the music and how Garcia 'led' the band:
    "It was very different because with Jerry [there was] a certain looseness with the music. He didn't want it too tight. He didn't want it too orchestrated or too arranged. He wanted it to just flow. [He wanted you to] use your heart and your mind instead of trying to be technical. And I came from the element of R&B music [where] things are very technical and very precise.
    So, I'm playing and thinking, ‘you guys are messing up all over the place.' But I had to learn, that's a feel. That's the way they want it because they don't want it tight. And I had to learn to adapt to that... They didn't tell me what to play. They gave me some charts with the guidelines and just let me do my own thing. That was really nice."

    Also here:
    "When I first got into it with the Jerry Garcia band, we had very few rehearsals. Jerry liked it raw. He didn’t want you to know it too well. He didn’t want to define things in rehearsal and pin down parts. All he really wanted to do was give me the structure of the chords and how it goes. He never once told me what to play.
    In fact, he didn’t want me to hear keyboard players that had played with him previously, Merl Saunders and others. When I first came around, one of the first things I said was “let me hear some of that.” He didn’t want me to hear one thing; wanted me to improvise... And he was right. If I heard somebody else, I’d probably want to adapt what they were doing.
    In rehearsal, he gave me a chord chart, showed me the choruses, the ending. I just had to play what that song meant to me. If I would have rehearsed a lot, I might have over-thought what I would do on the song. The way we did it, it was pretty much open every night. I didn’t know what I was going to do.
    When we’d go to introduce a new song, we’d learn that song at soundcheck. We’d piece together some parts, then we’d play it that night. That’s how fresh it was!"

  5. And, for the record, Seals also shared Saunders' suspiciousness of the Dead:
    “They [the Grateful Dead camp] did everything in their power to keep us from working...they even offered Jerry more money to drop the band entirely. We sold out the same venues that they were selling out and were getting some great reviews. They knew the fans were responding and they didn’t want to see that.”
    "Those guys never really liked the Jerry Garcia Band. It's no secret. They didn't like us because towards the latter five years, we rained on their parade, you might say. A lot of folks was saying that they didn't like them as much, and were liking us better, and they knew this. We were doing venues that they were doing and they didn't like that. Madison Square Garden and Nassau Coliseum were being filled by JGB. So they didn't like the members of our band and tried a number of ways to get Jerry to drop the band."

    Saunders has also mentioned the "professional jealousy" of the Dead, and how they felt threatened by him, and somehow worked to get Garcia away from him. Hard to believe, but two of Garcia's sidemen say the same thing...
    Even Steve Parish said, "There was an underlying current in both bands against each other. In other words, if we were doing too much Garcia stuff, the guys in the Grateful Dead would say, 'No, you can't do this, we gotta do this.' The schedules would get too conflicting, and if there was too much Grateful Dead stuff, there was nothing but complaints from the guys in the Garcia Band."

    What Garcia ever said about any of that, if anything, is unknown...

  6. LIA, thanks so much for your great comments and quotes. Your command of all the material is truly amazing.

    As to the tension between "the Grateful Dead camp" and the Garcia Band, I have to think that it largely served Garcia's interests. Garcia didn't like confrontation, but he did like getting his own way. With the JGB as a financial success, Garcia was the only member of the band whose economic well-being didn't depend on the Grateful Dead. Thus band members, band management and anyone else kind of had to accede to Garcia's demands, even if they were unstated.

    Garcia, for all his outward graciousness, seems to have thrived on tension. He forced his band to guess what they were going to play, and he kept both the JGB and the Dead in a state of stress over his preferences. Since Garcia worked that way for decades, we can't say it was an accident.

  7. Another point that I left out of the post--how long do you want it to be, after all?--was that both Nicky Hopkins and Bruce Hornsby seem to have attracted Garcia's attention by opening for the Grateful Dead as well. Although Garcia probably knew Hopkins from around the way, in February 1970, Hopkins was in Quicksilver when they opened several dates for the Dead, so Garcia probably got a chance to hear Hopkins play.

    Hornsby, of course, opened for the Dead at Laguna Seca, so Garcia had a chance to hear him there. It does seem to have been a pattern with keyboard players, with the usual mysterious exception of Jimmy Warren.

  8. Garcia also kept up to date in many ways. In the case of Hornsby, I'm sure he was also aware of Hornsby's hits but also his extensive work with other musicans, including a number I am sure he admired. here is how Wikipedia describes Hornsby's role as a sideman in the period before he joined the band. "During the late 1980s and early 1990s Hornsby worked extensively as a producer and sideman, notably producing a comeback album for Leon Russell, an idol of Hornsby's.[8] In 1989 Hornsby co-wrote and played piano on Don Henley's hit "The End of the Innocence", and in 1991 played piano on Bonnie Raitt's hit "I Can't Make You Love Me". Bruce continues to feature both of these songs in his own concerts. He also appeared on albums by Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Crosby Stills and Nash, Stevie Nicks and Squeeze.

    "During this era he slowly began to slip jazz and bluegrass elements into his music, first in live performance settings and later on studio work.[12] In 1989, he first performed at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. He also reworked his hit "The Valley Road" with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for their album Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Volume Two. The song won at the 1990 Grammy Awards for Best Bluegrass Recording."

    Garcia also played on his 1990 album A Night on the Town which was presumably done before he was asked to join the band in August.

    Hornsby is surely the only Keyboard player in the group above who actually played in a GD cover band, Bobby Hi-Test and the Octane Kids (during his college days.

  9. I do get the sense that the Godchauxs were "let go" from the JGB for personal rather than musical reasons. BJ's Garcia bio quotes Kahn: "Jerry caught him stealing something inside his briefcase; his drugs or something … He was inside Jerry's briefcase and then he was gone [from the JGB] right after that. I'm sure he would have been gone anyway. It was in the works that they were going to split up. But Keith would burn me and Jerry for drugs all the time. He made Jerry mad for a period of time and it culminated in that." Besides, listening to Keith's playing on some of those Oct 78 shows certainly doesn't give the sense that the guy had lost his powers (unlike numerous examples from contemporary GD shows).

    Re: Melvin; it makes sense to me that Melvin wouldn't have recalled meeting Garcia in 78. Melvin apparently had next to no knowledge of the Dead, and I'm sure Jerry just played it cool and didn't make a big deal (or possibly even introduce himself!) when he got Melvin's name after the Elvin Bishop set -- just another furry dude with a guitar! Here's a recent interview with Melvin where he elaborates more on his career pre-Garcia and that first rehearsal (audio, no text). It's a good story: He makes some interesting comments about working with Jimmy Warren, too.

    Re: Merl; well, Jerry hiring Merl for the JGB would probably involve some sort of obligation or pressure to do some of Merl's numbers, since the guy had a considerable repertoire of his own. It seems clear that Jerry wanted a sideman, not a co-leader.

    I also think it makes sense why Garcia seemed to consistently draw from players who were outside the immediate Bay Area scene. This is pure speculation, but I would guess that picking someone from an "outer circle" of local keyboardists probably would have been more hassle for Garcia than to silently take note of other non-local gigging musicians, then to have Kahn to do the legwork. As a guy who seemed to do everything possible to avoid confrontation or social drama, it was probably much easier for Garcia to deal with musicians outside the Bay Area circle where Garcia probably already knew everybody in passing -- or at least where everybody certainly already knew him.

  10. Nick, thanks for your interesting comments. The Kahn quote you found sums up my impression of Garcia's approach to the JGB: he could accommodate a player in a slump, but not if there was a bunch of grief associated with it.

    I also think you are correct that Garcia didn't introduce himself to Melvin after the Elvin Bishop set, or if he did, Melvin didn't recognize him in any case. Garcia seems to have been determined to be low-key and avoid drama no matter what.

    I also like your formulation of an "outer circle" of local musicians, guys who Garcia could see live but who weren't part of the old Fillmore crowd, or rock stars in their own right. Hiring Hopkins and Booker seem to have been attempts to hire a Fillmore guy and an outsider, respectively, as keyboard players, and it just didn't work out. Garcia had good luck with "outsider" drummers, but that seems not to have worked on the keys.

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  12. Jake Feinberg interviewed Ozzie Ahlers for his most recent show -
    The second half of the interview is mostly Garcia-focused, and there are are many points of interest in it. For instance, Ahlers had actually met Kahn & Merl Saunders years before, when they were playing with the Butterfield band in Woodstock. He talks about how he got into Comfort - Hunter was dissatisfied with the last keyboard player and said, "I want a pro!"

    Lots of interesting Garcia, Kahn & DeFoncesca personal talk as well, but the REALLY interesting point for this post, is that when Ahlers was in Comfort opening for the JGB in '78, he says he subbed for Keith in the JGB at two shows when Keith "wasn't feeling well" - a benefit in Sebastopol?, & somewhere in southern CA/Santa Cruz?

    I don't know if the tapes bear this out so he may have the locations wrong, but it may be something to investigate...

    1. yeah, I spotted this too when I listened to the interview (which I highly recommend). Ozzie refers to a "show in Sebastopol" which kind of points to March 22 '78. I listened to the tape, but it was inconclusive. Since Ozzie would have been playing Keith's equipment, it's hard to say for sure--maybe a piano player could tell.

      The other possibility is a show in Rohnert Park (Sonoma) on Oct 5 '78, about which we know little, and don't (to my knowledge) have a tape.

      Ozzie said he subbed for Keith twice, and the second time was "Santa Cruz or Southern California." The Garcia Band played neither during the back half of '78, so I'm thinking it must have been Keystone Palo Alto.

      I agree, however, this is intriguing on any number of levels.

    2. I can't comment on who played keys, but I have learned a little bit about the Rohnert Park gig. "The local Hell's Angels threw a benefit dance last Friday night in Rohnert Park for the family of Eric Hamlin, their associate who died last summer of cancer." Party was a sellout at $5 per head. Local po-po say it drew "about 400 people and no trouble at all." Note that this dating would put the show on Friday 10/6. (! ref: LeBaron, Gaye. 1978. Insight. Press-Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), October 12, 1978, p. 10B.)

  13. Teeny tiny observation. I have just made a little post on Ahlers's first show, 10/7/79: There was an ex post mention of the show in BAM's "Newsreels" column. I don't know if David Gans was still writing it.

    Again, teeny tiny: but given the Deadhead focus of the column (it had earlier, at least, been written by David G.), one might have thought he'd locate Ahlers to Hunter and Comfort, rather than Peter Rowan and the Free Mexican Air Force. (Granted, the latter was not far from Deadheads' radar, either!) But it seems that the temporal proximity trumps the social tie: more recent trumps deeper. I wonder, on average, which type of information we process more efficiently?

    1. I think very few people were aware that Ozzie had been the keyboard player for Comfort. It's hard to understate how little coverage Dead spinoff bands received in the Bay Area. Most Deadheads were only dimly aware of Comfort, much less the names of band members.

  14. Awesome post. I am learning more and more about the Grateful Dead from posts like these. I like how you focused on the main points of what the band was going through through the years of their career.

  15. I am reading a review of the 10/28/78 show in the Everett Herald, and it identifies "keyboardist Red Nichols" from Bob's band. Thoughts?

    1. Full quote?
      It sounds like the reviewer's mixup, or someone pulling his leg. I knew the Dead could work miracles, but I didn't know summoning cornet players from the dead to play keyboards was among them.

  16. Maybe that was his hotel name, like Clifton Hanger.

    Redhead, likes nickel bags of dope = Red Nichols? :)