Thursday, November 7, 2013

April 17-19, 1970, Family Dog On The Great Highway: New Riders Of The Purple Sage/Charlie Musselwhite/Mickey Hart And The Heartbeats with Bobby Ace And The Cards Off The Bottom Of The Deck (Lost And Found Dead)

A flyer for the acoustic Grateful Dead show at the Family Dog On The Great Highway, on the weekend of Apri 17-19, 1970.
A blog that focuses on recontextualizing the history of obscure Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia performances generally depends on nostalgic curiosity and the incurable persistence of readers, since those without at least one or the other will find it hard to read thousands of words about a concert that took place 40 or so years ago. The concerts I write about it are typically only represented by curious fragments, like an advertisement in an old paper or an unverifiable comment in another blog. The weekend of performances by the acoustic Grateful Dead at the Family Dog On The Great Highway on April 17, 18 and 19, 1970 used to fall into this category. We had a poster and some songlists, and nothing else, and no idea if the shows were long or short or how many fans showed up.

The unexpected discovery and forthcoming release of the complete 80-minute, mostly acoustic performance by the Grateful Dead from April 18, 1970 has changed all that. Apparently discovered by Mountain Girl herself, in an old box of Jerry Garcia's personal effects, the recording makes the mysterious into a firm and real thing. We still don't know about attendance and crowd reaction, but the purpose of the shows can be discerned with some certainty. The existing setlists had suggested that these shows were warmups for the series of performances known as An Evening With The Grateful Dead that would commence on May 1, 1970. There seems no doubt of this now, and the existing tape and setlists give us a picture of what was planned and what really happened in the subsequent months on the road. This post will, as usual, put the April 1970 shows at The Family Dog by the acoustic Grateful Dead in their contemporary context, but soon you will actually be able to listen to some of the actual music from that weekend while you think about it.

Ralph Gleason's Ad Lib column from the April 17, 1970 SF Chronicle. Lots of good music that weekend.
Mickey Hart And The Heartbeats And Bobby Ace And The Cards Off The Bottom Of The Deck
The most peculiar aspect of the Grateful Dead's show at the Family Dog was the billing of the band. The name Mickey Hart And The Hartbeats had only been used a little bit at the Matrix in early 1969. At least one tape from 1969 (August 28) was labeled "Hartbeats" but there is no guarantee or even evidence that the name was used in publicity for the show, as there may have been no such publicity for that Thursday night event. So, perhaps, a few connected Dead Freaks recognized the name, but it would have been somewhat misleading since the music played had nothing to do with the electric jamming that the Hartbeats had usually played.

Bobby Ace And The Cards Off The Bottom Of The Deck was a "new" name that had not been used before, so it was probably included as a sort of joke. At the time, few Dead fans knew that Weir's nickname was "Ace," so it would have been an in-joke at that. The New Riders Of The Purple Sage had opened a few Dead shows in the Bay Area, and played some low key gigs in the Fall of 1969 at the Matrix and other places, but they would have been largely unknown as well. I am reliably told that a two-song proto-New Riders demo ("Garden Of Eden" and "Superman," ultimately released on the Relix lp Before Time Began) was played on KSAN, so fans may have had a little idea of what the Riders sounded like, but they too were still a mystery.

The important factor here was actually Bill Graham and The Fillmore West. The Dead were the headliners at the Fillmore West on the weekend of April 9-12, 1970. Their contract with Graham would have stipulated that the Dead could not play an advertised show within a certain distance and time of the Fillmore West shows. Since the Family Dog shows were just the next weekend, any advance publicity for the event could not mention the Dead by name. Thus only various locutions on the poster  could indicate that the members of the Grateful Dead would be present and playing, even if the format wasn't certain. I think the cryptical reference to "Bobby Ace" was a way of indicating that Weir would be present as well, a departure from the Hartbeats format at the Matrix.

Of course, it appears that the Grateful Dead had no intention of doing their regular couple of hours of electric madness, so it was very much in their interests not to be billed as "The Grateful Dead." However, the restriction of the Fillmore West contract--which was standard--meant pretty much that the Dead couldn't be named. Now, if they had been named (for example, if the poster had said "featuring Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead), Graham wasn't going to have canceled the Fillmore West concerts, but Bill had ways of making people miserable. The Dead were quite broke in 1970, and needed the money they made from Fillmore West and East, so they wouldn't have been looking to make waves. All in all, using cryptical pseudonyms fulfilled the band's obligations as well as not giving the false impression that the show was going to end with "Dark Star">"St. Stephen">"Lovelight."

An Evening With The Grateful Dead
Starting on May 1, 1970, at Alfred College in Alfred, NY, the Grateful Dead billed most of their shows as An Evening With The Grateful Dead. In this format, the show opened with an acoustic set featuring Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia on acoustic guitars, Phil Lesh on bass and one or two of the drummers, sometimes joined by Pigpen playing harmonica, or by John Dawson and David Nelson singing harmonies. This set was followed by a New Riders set with Garcia on pedal steel and Hart on drums, and then two full electric Grateful Dead sets followed that. Deadheads are most familiar with this format from the famous broadcast of the second show of the tour, on May 2, 1970 at Harpur College in Binghampton, NY (now SUNY Binghamton). The show was recorded and broadcast in its entirety a few weeks later on KPFA in Berkeley and some other Pacifica stations (WBAI-fm in New York, for sure). The show was made into various bootleg lps, was widely circulated as a tape, and finally released as Dick's Pick's Volume 8.

At the time, typical rock concerts had two or three acts, if not more. Headliners would typically play no longer than an hour. So for the Dead to be the only act at a five or six hour event where they were performing on stage for something like four hours was truly unprecedented. The Dead's economic thinking at the time was that by providing a whole evening's entertainment, they could ask for higher fees, since the promoter did not have to supply an opening act. We don't really know if that was what actually happened, but certainly the Dead helped initiate a trend in rock music that enticed fans with a long concert by the headliners in place of a multi-act show.

However, in order to fulfill their goal of a four hour Grateful Dead concert with three different configurations, the band had to whip the pieces into shape. There was no problem with the electric Grateful Dead, as they were battle tested and road ready. The acoustic configuration and the New Riders were a different matter, however. The acoustic portion of the show, in particular, had very little precedent. For a few shows in December 1969 and January and February 1970, and not even all of them, Garcia and Weir had played some duets on acoustic guitars. Once or twice, Pigpen was even induced into playing a song or two. Apparently, however, both Garcia and Weir were unhappy with the amplification of acoustic instruments and the somewhat indifferent experiment had been dropped by the end of February of 1970.

Nonetheless, by April the Dead knew that their next album, Workingman's Dead, was going to be a distinctly more folkie record. Thus in the Spring of 1970 the band seems to have taken up the cue that Garcia had gotten from seeing the English band Pentangle open for the Dead at Fillmore West the previous year (February 27-March 2, 1969). Pentangle featured two acoustic guitars and a rhythm section, and with a good sound system it created a nice feel in concert. Thus the Dead's new folkie lineup featured Garcia and Weir on acoustic guitars, Phil Lesh on bass and either Bill Kreutzmann or Mickey Hart on drums (perhaps both--does anyone really know or recall who played drums for the acoustic '70 Dead shows?). Pigpen sometimes helped out on upright piano or harmonica, and David Nelson and John Dawson added some harmonies on some country gospel material.

However, almost none of the acoustic Dead material had been performed in front of an audience in that format. Many of the Workingman's Dead songs had been done in various electric configurations, and Garcia and Weir had done some covers as a duo, but the full acoustic band format was new. Although there was no publicity about it, the Dead obviously planned the three shows at the Family Dog in order to try out the "Acoustic Dead" format. I think it was particularly important for the group to actually play in a small concert hall, rather than a nightclub, because otherwise they couldn't test out their equipment. Amplifying acoustic instruments was a tricky business in those days, and the crew basically had one weekend to get it right. That may have been an even more important factor than the band's acoustic performances itself.

The setlists for the weekend have always been known, thanks to a long-ago Deadhead named Judy Dawson (no relation to John "Marmaduke" Dawson as far as I know). I believe Dennis McNally discovered her. In any case, she wrote down setlists for the shows she attended, including very obscure events like this one. The unexpected discovery of the April 18, 1970 confirms her accuracy.

It seems clear that the music the band played on the three nights indicates what they expected to play in their acoustic sets. In typical Grateful Dead fashion, some songs remained staples of the acoustic set, some "went electric" fairly quickly like "I Know You Rider" and others, like "Cathy's Clown" simply disappeared. The most interesting lost material is the several numbers by Pigpen on Saturday (April 18) and Sunday (April 19). Members of the Dead often talked about Pig's facility as a solo performer, and they must have hoped to share that with the world. However, after April 19, Pigpen has no major role in the acoustic show, never playing anywhere near six songs by himself. I have to also note that he plays no songs on April 17--was he even there?--and the Dead must have really had to push him onstage.

An ad for Mandrakes from The Berkeley Tribe, a local underground paper. Lots of cool bands playing Mandrake's that week.
The New Riders Of The Purple Sage
Of course, the New Riders played this weekend also. I am fairly certain that April 17, 1970 was Dave Torbert's debut as the New Riders bass player. The Riders had played a fair number of shows through December 1969, and then simply stopped playing. A few shows were booked, but the March 1970 ones were canceled. It is possible they played a benefit in Berkeley on January 19, 1970, but we haven't been able to confirm that. The apparent reason for the dearth of New Riders shows was that Phil Lesh was no longer interested in being their bass player. Sometime-temporary-bassist Bob Matthews would have been too busy making Workingman's Dead, so the Riders seem not to have gigged at all for the Winter of 1970.

Jerry Garcia and Mountain Girl lived in Larkspur in the beginning of 1970, just across the creek from Janis Joplin. John Dawson lived in a house across the street from them. Robert Hunter stayed with Garcia, as did David Nelson, so Nelson, Dawson and Garcia hung out plenty. Thus the New Riders continued to exist even if they did not perform. When Nelson and Dawson brought back Torbert, their old pal from the New Delhi River Band, the Riders were good to go. However, they too needed to work on material, and they played a few other shows besides. The New Riders played Tuesday and Wednesday (April 21-22) at Mandrake's in Berkeley, and then one more show the next week at Peninsula School on Tuesday, April 28. There is a tape from the Matrix purportedly from April 30, but JGMF thinks the music is from June, and I find it implausible that the Riders and their equipment were playing a show the night before a show in a part of New York State far from a major airport.

Nonetheless, Torbert had at least six shows to figure out performing with the New Riders. The Family Dog shows would have been a good test of the equipment, and the six shows would have given him a chance to work with Garcia, Hart and Dawson (Torbert had played plenty with Nelson). Many people, not least of all me, hope that there might be a New Riders show amongst any lost Family Dog artifacts, but I don't think there are any.

Most of our Dead tapes from the 1968-70 period come from Owsley, and bless him for that. Owsley was the soundman for the Family Dog in the Spring of 1970, since he could no longer travel with the Dead after the February bust in New Orleans. I'm sure Owsley taped the April 18 Dead set, and I fervently hope that April 17 and April 19 are around somewhere. However, the truth is that I think that Owsley didn't like the New Riders. I think the two early New Riders tapes that circulate (August 6 '69 from the Matrix and Sep 18 '69 from Cotati) come from Owsley, and I don't think there are any others. Owsley would have been free to tape anything of Garcia's that he wanted to during the '69-70 period, and the complete absence of any other New Riders tapes suggests to me that he didn't particularly like the band at the time.

I think Owsley liked jazz, rock and roll and folk music, but I don't think he was a big fan of country music. I actually have a reliable eyewitness who recalls Owsley attending a show at Mandrake's (she was a waitress there, and knew who Owsley was), but he doesn't seemed to have stayed around that night, much less taped it. We have dates for New Riders performances throughout the balance of 1969, but we know exactly nothing about those shows after September 18 (the Cotati tape). When the Dead went on tour in May, Bob Matthews was inclined to tape the Riders if he could, as he was a former band member (of sorts) and liked the music, but I don't think Owsley like the band until later.

Charlie Musselwhite's Takin' My Time lp (Arhoolie 1056), recorded live in the studio at Sierra Sound in Berkeley in January and February 1971, with guitarist Robben Ford
Charlie Musselwhite
One thing that has been consistently absent from any discussion of the Dead's shows at The Family Dog in April of 1970 was any contemplation as to why Charlie Musselwhite was on the bill. Now, Musselwhite was a fine blues harmonica player and singer,  and a popular local club draw. Born in Mississippi in 1944, he learned music growing up in Memphis, and moved to Chicago in the late '50s, where he learned harmonica from the blues masters themselves. Musselwhite, along with Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield and a few others, was one of the core of younger white musicians in Chicago who played blues in both white folk clubs and black blues joints.

Musselwhite was a successful blues musician in Chicago, and in 1967 he released the excellent Stand Back album on Vanguard. The story goes that he was offered a month's work in San Francisco in August 1967, so he took a month off from his day job and stayed for 30 years. Although that is mostly true, it is also true that Musselwhite recognized that he would be one of the best blues players in San Francisco, whereas in Chicago he was just another harmonica player. In any case, Musselwhite gigged around regularly, playing all the clubs as well as the Fillmore and the Avalon. It remains to ponder, however, why Musselwhite was on the bill at all.

Although the Dead were famous or infamous in 1970, they weren't hugely popular like the Airplane. Thus the ability of a "psuedo-Dead" to fill three nights at the Family Dog after four nights at the Fillmore West and one at Winterland (April 15) may have been in question. Its not that Musselwhite himself would draw so many fans, since he could be seen regularly around the Bay Area. I think his presence was more of a guarantee that there would be something fun and danceable, no matter what the Dead did.

Given the naming on the poster, it's entirely possible that the Dead just said to Chet Helms "bill us as Mickey And The Heartbeats and Bobby Ace And The Cards Off The Bottom and we'll come and have some fun." Helms may have had no idea what he was going to get, and indeed maybe he might have had reason to expect some spacey Hartbeats power noodling. If so, it would have made for a better evening to have some hard-rocking blues as a counterpoint to non-linear jams, but in fact that was not the case. Still, if the Dead were playing acoustic, and the New Riders played country, Musselwhite may have provided a nice contrast in any case.

Musselwhite always had good bands. By January of 1971, he had Ukiah, CA guitarist Robben Ford as his primary counterpoint. I do not know if Ford had joined Musselwhite's band as early as April 1970, but its distinctly possible. Ford's work with Musselwhite can be heard on the Arhoolie album Takin' My Time (recorded January and February 1971 at Sierra Sound in Berkeley). It gives a good idea of what Musselwhite's group would have sounded like those nights, even if Ford had not yet joined.

One other interesting feature of The Family Dog On The Great Highway was that it had two stages, on opposite ends of the hall. This was how the venue could manage to have five or six bands booked on one night, since one band could be playing while the next one was setting up. Thus it's very possible that the New Riders played, and then Musselwhite played on a stage on the opposite side of the room. This would have allowed the Dead to change over their set at their leisure while Musselwhite performed. Unless we can find an actual eyewitness, we'll still have to wonder if that's how the show was run.

The Family Dog On The Great Highway, 660 Great Highway, San Francisco, CA
Chet Helms had been instrumental in defining the modern rock concert as we know it today. Bill Graham, however, had a firmer grip on the economics of the modern rock concert, and as a result Graham's Fillmore empire had broadened and expanded while The Family Dog had foundered. Helms had given up his lease on the Avalon Ballroom in December 1968, beset by a variety of financial woes. Helms had returned to the concert business in June 1969, opening the new Family Dog in the former Edgewood Ballrom, at a former amusement park called Playland At The Beach, on 660 Great Highway.

The Great Highway runs along the ocean, and that is why the venue was sometimes referred to as "the Edge Of The Western World." Local rock fans just called the Family Dog On The Great Highway "Playland," since that is what it had been before (and the sign may still have been there). Playland was in the Ocean Beach neighborhood, very far from downtown and the Haight Ashbury. It's a fine neighborhood, in fact, but it's in a quite distant part of the city, distant even from the suburbs. As a result, the Family Dog On The Great Highway never really caught on as a financially viable alternative to the Fillmore West, despite presenting some fine music.

In spite of the shoestring nature of the operation, Helms' many connections to the original Haight Ashbury scene made his venue a great place to try things out. The Jefferson Airplane played some unannounced, stealth shows that sold out instantly (Sep 6 '69 and Jan 31-Feb 1 '70), and a KQED TV special with the Airplane, Dead and Santana was filmed on February 4, 1970. The Playland ballroom held about 1500, whereas the Fillmore West held around 2500 (although more may have been packed in on occasion). The Grateful Dead in particular had close connections to the Family Dog.

At one point, around January 1970, Grateful Dead manager Lenny Hart was looking to merge the Dead's operation with the Family Dog. Seemingly, the Dead would have become the house band, and Chet Helms would have booked other bands when the Dead were on the road. History might have been different indeed had the deal been consummated. However, although Chet Helms had a deserved reputation for not being an efficient businessman, he was no crook. When Lenny Hart refused to show Helms the Dead's account books, he knew something was up and called off the plan.

Helms was right to call off the merger, and the Dead were right to fire Lenny Hart, not least since he had stolen $150,000 from them. Yet just as a stopped clock is still right twice a day, the move to the Family Dog may still have been a good move, though I can't fault either the Dead or Helms for not going forward. Here the Dead were, a week after headlining the Fillmore West, free to try out their new configuration for the weekend. After the April shows, the Dead never played again at the Family Dog On The Great Highway, as they simply got too big, and the Dog faded away entirely by mid-Summer. It's a fortunate break indeed that Jerry inadvertently hung on to a final relic from that weekend, a lost world that can just barely be seen from this vantage point, if you squint really hard.

Appendix; Setlists (per Judy Dawson, via Deadlists)
Friday, April 17, 1970
Don't Ease Me In ; Long Black Limousine ; Monkey And The Engineer ; Deep Elem Blues ; Candyman > Cumberland Blues ; Me And My Uncle ; Mama Tried ; Cathy's Clown ; Wake Up Little Susie ; New Speedway Boogie ; Friend Of The Devil ; Black Peter ; Uncle John's Band

Saturday, April 18, 1970

Don't Ease Me In ; Silver Threads And Golden Needle ; Friend Of The Devil ; Deep Elem Blues ; Wake Up Little Susie ; Candyman > Cumberland Blues ; New Speedway Boogie ; Me And My Uncle ; Mama Tried ; Katie Mae ; The Rub ; Roberta ; Walk Down The Street ; Flood

Sunday, April 19, 1970
I Know You Rider ; Friend Of The Devil ; Candyman ; Sawmill ; Deep Elem Blues ; The Rub ; Katie Mae ; Roberta ; Big Breasa ; She's Mine ; Cumberland Blues ; Wake Up Little Susie ; Mama Tried ; Me And My Uncle ; The Race Is On ; Uncle John's Band