Thursday, January 2, 2014

April 25, 1981 Berkeley Community Theater, Berkeley, CA Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann (SEVA Sing Out For Sight Benefit)

The Berkeley Community Theater as it looked in 2009. just across Allston Way from Provo Park
At first glance, the benefit concert at the Berkeley Community Theater featuring an acoustic performance by Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann and John Kahn on April 25, 1981 does not seem like a good candidate for this blog. There are some fine tapes circulating, people remember the show, and much of it seems pretty par for the course. When placing the show in its original context, however, the acoustic benefit turns out to have been a template for things to come. The show seems "typical" to us because so much of it was replicated throughout the rest of the '80s. Yet there were other aspects of that night at the Berkeley Community Theater that were not duplicated. This post will look at the acoustic benefit concert on April 25, 1981, and we will see how it was a tryout of a variety of new approaches for the members of the Grateful Dead, some of which became permanent and others that were rarely or never seen again.

April 25, 1981 Berkeley Community Theater, Berkeley, CA: Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir/Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann/Odetta/Country Joe McDonald/Rosalie Sorrells/Kate Wolf SEVA Sing Out For Sight Benefit
My notes from the April 25, 1981 Berkeley Community Theater SEVA Benefit
In September and October of 1980, the Grateful Dead had thrilled their fans with acoustic sets at the Fox-Warfield Theater, the Sanger Theater (in New Orleans) and Radio City Music Hall. While most fans, myself included, did not expect acoustic sets to be part of every Grateful Dead show going forward, many of us felt that such sets would be a recurring feature when the Dead played the appropriate venues. However, after the Fall '80 run of shows which provided the basis for the Dead Reckoning album, the Grateful Dead all but stopped playing acoustic. Yes, there were touching stories about the Dead performing at the Ronald McDonald Children's Hospital in San Rafael, and they did play an acoustic set on New Year's Eve at the Oakland Auditorium, but those were the only two such shows. As 1981 dawned, it was hard to get over the idea that maybe acoustic shows would be gone for another ten years.

So it was a pleasant surprise indeed when a show was advertised at the Berkeley Community Theater for April 25, 1981, featuring an acoustic appearance by Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. The show was a benefit for Wavy Gravy's SEVA Foundation, for whom the Dead had played benefit concerts the previous two Decembers (Dec 26 '79 and Dec 26 '80, both at Oakland Auditorium). There were four other acts listed on the bill, so whatever the show was going to be, it definitely wasn't going to be a typical Dead show.

When we arrived at the Berkeley Community Theater, a 3500-seat civic theater that also served as the Berkeley High School auditorium, we were all given a little folded program that listed the acts in order of appearance (I have never seen one since--maybe one will turn up on the Grateful Dead Archive). Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann were listed as playing third, right before intermission. I assumed that this was because the Jerry Garcia Band had another show that night at The Stone, where they usually went on stage at about 11:00pm.

The show began with an introduction by Wavy Gravy, who repeated his SEVA bit word for word from the previous years' benefit concerts. After an opening set by local resident and resident legend Country Joe McDonald, and then a fine set by Sonoma folk singer Kate Wolf, accompanied by guitarist Nina Gerber, the members of the Grateful Dead came on stage, probably at about 9:00 pm. Garcia, Weir, Hart and Kreutzmann were announced by Wavy, but we were quite surprised to see John Kahn on stand up acoustic bass. There was no Phil Lesh, and no piano player.

No one had seen John Kahn play acoustic bass in public since the days of Old And In The Way, and the idea of a Grateful Dead set without Phil Lesh was thoroughly unprecedented. Almost immediately, people started to contemplate whether this actually "counted" as a Grateful Dead show. In any case, although the Berkeley Community Theater doesn't have great acoustics, to my ears, the group sounded terrific and did lively versions of nine songs. Unlike the Fox-Warfield, Garcia and Weir were on their feet rather than seated at stools, and it seemed to make the tempos more energetic. Weir said "we started out something like this. Then we went on to become the Rocky And Bullwinkle of Rock and Roll." There were even some surprises--an acoustic version of "El Paso," not seen at the Fox-Warfield, and a truly unexpected encore of Buddy Holly's "Oh Boy."

After 40 fun minutes, the band was offstage. A big segment of the audience left. For one thing, the program had said that Garcia and Weir were up third, and they were done. For another, many people wanted to follow Jerry's black BMW down University Avenue and across the Bay Bridge to The Stone, rather than sit through some folk acts. I did, too, but I didn't have a way to get to The Stone, so my friends and I stayed to see the balance of the show instead.

Hart and Kreutzmann came on after intermission and did a duet on tar and hand drum, respectively, OK, I guess, if you like that sort of thing. They were followed by Rosalie Sorrells, a more traditional folk singer (there's a chance that I have inverted Kate Wolf and Rosalie Sorrells' spots in the running order, but I don't think so), and finally Odetta. Odetta was a folk legend from the 1950s, who also fell into the category of "OK if that's what you like." The promised finale was just the evening's performers singing "Amazing Grace." Weir and Country Joe joined in on the chorus with everyone else, and Hart and Kreutzmann banged out a beat. Jerry was probably tuning up backstage at The Stone by that time.

Where Was Phil?
After the Berkeley show, the Grateful Dead set out on an Eastern tour, playing fairly large venues in many of their strongholds, like the Philadelphia Spectrum and Nassau Coliseum. Shortly after the Dead returned, most of them played another Wavy Gravy event, an Anti-Nuclear Benefit at the Fox-Warfield on May 22. Along with some of the same acts at Berkeley (support included Country Joe McDonald backed by what would become High Noon, and Kate Wolf), they were billed as Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, and the ads made it clear that they would play acoustic. When Wavy introduced the band, he called them "Captain JerryBobKreutzHart," not the Grateful Dead. Once again, John Kahn was on standup bass, but this time Brent Mydland had joined in on grand piano. Where was Phil?

People like me had all sorts of theories. Perhaps since Phil had no background in folk music, unlike Bob and Jerry, then maybe he wasn't interested in playing acoustic music. Maybe he didn't like Wavy Gravy. Maybe he hated the sound of his bass amp. In any case, Phil was still on tour with the electric Grateful Dead, so it didn't seem that it represented a crisis. About 5 years later, I met Dennis McNally, who took the time to answer some of my questions, and he told me why Phil didn't play the two benefits: because no on had asked him.

Jerry Garcia, Benefits and The Grateful Dead
In retrospect, the April 25, 1981 Berkeley Community Theater show was an interesting experiment for Jerry Garcia, and by extension the Grateful Dead. The Berkeley event and the Warfield event that followed the next month have no precise parallels, so it's easy to simply treat them just as exceptions. Yet a closer look shows how the ever-restless Garcia was looking for a way to meet his various obligations in a way that still make them reasonably fun. The clue to this is the funny detail that Phil Lesh was not asked to play at the two benefits.

Why would Phil Lesh not have been asked to play the two shows? The plausible explanation is that Wavy Gravy arranged the benefits, and asked Jerry Garcia to play acoustic. Garcia agreed, and asked John Kahn to join him, which of course he did. With Garcia on board, Wavy could safely book Berkeley Community and The Fox-Warfield, without having to worry much about ticket sales. I believe the primary reason for the acoustic benefit was twofold: firstly, acoustic performers need far less equipment, thus cutting down on expenses, and the simplicity allows for multiple performers. Secondly, from Wavy's point of view, asking Jerry to play 45 minutes or so as the highlight of a multi-act show was asking far less than requiring him to put on a mult-set show as the sole headliner.

Nonetheless, Wavy knows everybody, and once he started asking around I assume other members of the Dead wanted to be involved. However, once Garcia and Kahn had Weir and the drummers, they knew they had a band. Given what we know now about Garcia penchant for not rehearsing, Phil wasn't likely to have been excluded from any practices, since there probably weren't any. Garcia and Weir probably just talked a few minutes before they went on stage and told the others what they were going to play. Ultimately, Phil's feelings may have been hurt, and he was probably a little bit suspicious of Kahn's closeness to Garcia, but it was just for two relatively minor shows.

Prior to 1981, the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia had done many benefits for a wide variety of causes, almost always due to a personal connection to the organizers, rather than a passion for a specific cause. Yet from 1981 onwards, both Garcia and the Dead had a completely different approach to benefits. Garcia seems to have figured out that playing acoustic was a far better arrangement for him when he agreed to a benefit. Everyone would expect a shorter show, he didn't need to worry about sound and lights, and his "entourage" was probably just Kahn and Steve Parish. Over the next dozen years or so, Garcia and Kahn played numerous benefits, sometimes with Bob Weir or other guests, and sometimes just as a duo. But the acoustic setup allowed Garcia to agree to help whom he wanted without having to involve the rest of the band, and address touring schedules, arranging a PA, and numerous other distractions.

As for the Grateful Dead, after 1981 they largely stopped playing any benefits save for their Rex Foundation concerts. The Rex Foundation benefits debuted on February 16-17, 1982 at the Fox-Warfield. For the Dead, the advantage to the Rex Foundation approach was obvious. As Grateful Dead concerts required planning for lights and sound, the shows had to be part of a regular tour. At the same time, as Grateful Dead concerts were increasingly lucrative, it may have become a sensitive issue as to what causes the Grateful Dead might support. By funneling their charity through the Rex Foundation, the Dead and their associates could support a broad range of endeavors, rather than tying a single concert to a single charity.

Jerry Garcia had always had many requests to perform at benefits, and by playing acoustic he could fulfill them without complicating his own busy schedule. Bay Area Deadheads rapidly adjusted to the idea that a local benefit with Garcia generally meant an acoustic appearance by Garcia and Kahn, and everyone made their plans accordingly to attend or not  There were occasional exceptions, of course, (notably the January 23, 1988 show at the Kaiser Convention Center, featuring Garcia jamming away on stage for hours with Tower Of Power, Santana, NRBQ, Wayne Shorter and others), but no one in the Bay Area in the 80s generally expected Garcia to plug in at a benefit.

The April '81 Berkeley show was also one of the first in the Bay Area that featured an all-acoustic format, with well-known "electric" musicians like the Dead and Country Joe returning to their folk roots and playing shorter acoustic sets. I'm not saying that the Berkeley show was "the first," (the real predecessors were the "Bread And Roses" benefits, but that is a tangent here), but it was an early example of the sort of shows that were made a staple not only by Wavy Gravy in the next several years, but also by Neil Young at his Bridge Concerts. One reason that the Berkeley and Fox-Warfield shows in 1981 do not stand out so much in our minds was that they now seem very typical of 80s benefit concerts. However, when they were actually put on, they were fairly unprecedented.
Arinell's Pizza, on 2119 Shattuck, where I would have gone had Jerry Garcia played Berkeley Community Theater and Keystone Berkeley on the same night.

Roads Not Taken
Nonetheless, while the 1981 Berkeley show seems to have shown the way for events to come, in certain other ways, it had some experiments that were never seen again. Garcia would try all sorts of things, but if they didn't work he simply didn't repeat them. It seems clear to me that Garcia was asked to play the benefit acoustically, and by some process Weir and the drummers got invited. They played the Warfield as well, with Brent along. Yet a full group configuration was never repeated. Garcia didn't like to rehearse, so paradoxically it meant he could bring along anyone he liked to a benefit. However, in the future, Garcia pretty much limited himself to playing with Kahn and Weir (there was one show for Neil Young's Bridge on December 4, 1988, with Weir and Rob Wasserman). Once Garcia discovered the virtues of simplicity, he seems to have preferred to keep it as simple as possible.

The other memorable experiment that was not repeated was an electric Garcia Band show on the same night as an acoustic benefit. I knew a bunch of people who went to both shows, and they considered it a great adventure. Staid, pleasant Berkeley Community Theater for a folkie benefit, then hopping in the car for the half-hour run across the Bay Bridge to The Stone, and knocking back a few beers while the Garcia Band did their thing.

If Garcia had liked this experiment, he could have tried playing Berkeley Community and then the Keystone Berkeley. The two places were only three blocks apart, and that would have been an evening: catch the early Jerry set at a BCT Benefit, walk over to Keystone Berkeley by way of  Arinell's Pizza on Shattuck, and then drop into the Keystone Berkeley for watery beer and "Tangled Up In Blue" until the bar shut down. But that, too, was not to be, as for whatever reason Garcia eschewed two gigs in one night ever again, as far as I know.

If you listen to the April 25, 1981 tape on the Archive, though, it sounds pretty alive. Garcia is on the edge of a new thing, playing acoustic rock with John Kahn and a couple of members of the Dead, and finding out that doing a favor for a friend can still be fun if you keep it simple. The inexorable gravitational pull of Garcia meant that having fun at benefits rapidly became institutionalized as well, but for a night, before it got assimilated, Garcia was reminded of why he might have got into it in the first place.

update: fellow scholar @GratefulSeconds sends along the ad for the show
The flyer for Berkeley Community Theater on April 25, 1981. A benefit on behalf of Wavy Gravy's chosen charity, the first acoustic Garcia benefit, and--one last time--Owsley on the board mixing the sound (thanks @gratefulseconds)