|A ticket stub for the Jerry Garcia Band show at Concord Pavilion on Labor Day 1981. Note the price. It's not because the seat was "Obstructed View"--thanks to radio station KMEL-fm, all seats were $1.00.|
On Labor Day, September 7, 1981, the Jerry Garcia Band played the Concord Pavilion, a 9,000-capacity outdoor venue in suburban Concord, just 20 miles East of Berkeley, but far away in cultural terms. The Garcia Band had played the Pavilion before, in a modestly attended show six years earlier (October 17, 1975, with Kingfish and Keith And Donna), but this was different. In the East Bay, the Jerry Garcia Band just played late night shows at the smoky Keystone Berkeley, packing the house for those over 21 and willing to stay up really, really late. But here was Jerry, headlining a big concert in the suburbs, with two other bands. The house was full, mostly with suburban kids and twenty-somethings who hardly knew the Grateful Dead, much less the somewhat exotic Jerry Garcia Band, which only had only released one mostly forgotten album from a few years earlier.
It's no surprise the house was sold out--tickets only cost $1.00, subsidized as a promotion for the local rock station. This was the record biz, where the real money was: the suburbs, FM radio, and being a rock star. Jerry was great at it. But it appears he didn't like it, so he never did anything like this again. This post will take a close look at the surprisingly unique Jerry Garcia Band concert at Concord Pavilion on September 7, 1981.
|An ad from the July 31 1981 edition of BAM, for the August 6,7 and 8 JGB shows in the Central Valley area|
By 1981, the Grateful Dead had been together for 16 years, and Jerry Garcia had been some kind of solo performer under his name for about 11. The Grateful Dead were an established rock institution, but that wasn't entirely a good thing. The band hardly got airplay any more on FM radio, and their album sales were unimpressive when compared to peers like Steve Miller or Fleetwood Mac. Garcia's solo career was obscure to non-Deadheads, and frankly unknown by lot of heads, too. Garcia was nearly 40, pudgy and bearded. Now sure, Garcia had always been pudgy and bearded, but compared to Stevie Nicks or even Mick Fleetwood, he wasn't that photogenic. The Dead were a popular concert attraction, but lots of people had seen them once or twice, just like having seen Ten Years After or Jefferson Starship, and didn't feel the need to see them again. It didn't seem like the Dead's audience was expanding.
The Grateful Dead had made a huge splash with their month of concerts at The Warfield and Radio City Music Hall in October, 1980, and they would release two live double albums and a video from it. Yet neither of the live albums (Dead Reckoning and Dead Set) were any kind of success, and by mid-1981, the band had even given up playing acoustic. It was hard not to think the Dead were falling back into the status quo of being an aging, popular rock band who were just playing to the faithful. Although the group did well on the road, they barely kept pace with the huge expenses their own style of touring required. Truth be told, in 1981, the Grateful Dead were just making a living.
Jerry Garcia, meanwhile, had taken what he considered his most serious stab at being a solo artist with his 1978 Jerry Garcia Band album, Cats Under The Stars. Despite the excellent original material, along with heavy touring and some East Coast radio broadcasts, the record absolutely bombed. In 1978, rock radio was bisecting towards either slickly-produced "Arena Rock," such as Journey and REO Speedwagon or faster, poppier "New Wave" groups like Blondie and Talking Heads. The Garcia Band was neither, and FM radio ignored them accordingly. Garcia admitted that he was pretty depressed by the failure of Cats, and even temporarily discontinued the Garcia Band, getting his side gig on instead with John Kahn's funky Reconstruction band.
By 1981, however, Garcia seems to have been back in the saddle. Ozzie Ahlers had left the reformed Jerry Garcia Band in 1980, replaced by organist Melvin Seals. Seals was soon joined by pianist Jimmy Warren, and the five-piece JGB gigged steadily. In the Bay Area, the Garcia Band mostly played the three Keystone clubs, although they occasionally played a small hall in towns without Keystones. It was quite surprising, then, when the Garcia Band played a high profile show at the Warfield (on June 26, 1981) with Phil Lesh on bass, only to introduce two new female backup singers. John Kahn nonetheless retained his bass role, and the new, seven-piece Garcia Band continued to play the Keystones and smaller halls when the Dead were not playing.
What we now know is that the Grateful Dead organization was not in good financial shape. Notwithstanding Garcia's desire to play constantly, cash was in short supply. Around this time, Garcia developed a distinct interest in producing a movie, and had bought the rights to Kurt Vonnegut's Sirens Of Titan. Since movie production costs money, regular Garcia Band gigs seem to have been the engine to get that cash. What we also know now is that Garcia and Kahn were going to record a new Garcia Band album in the Fall, with none other than the great Ron Tutt returning to the drum chair. Daoud Shaw, formerly of Van Morrison's band and a fine drummer himself, had been holding down the drum chair since January of 1981.
On September 7, 1981, pretty much no one knew any of this. What we knew was that the Jerry Garcia Band was playing a big outdoor concert in suburban Concord with two other bands. It wasn't at a Keystone, so you didn't need ID or to stay out late, and it was an easy ticket so you could bring your roommate or your girlfriend or whoever you wanted. And it was a $1.00. If Jerry had played an outdoor place like SPAC for a $1.00 in 1981, how many people would have come? It's a serious question. In any case, in Concord, the answer was about 9,000, which was the approximate capacity of Concord Pavilion. Most of the people there weren't Deadheads, particularly up on the grass, where it was General Admission. I'm not guessing--I was there, too.
KMEL 106.1 ("The Camel")
The explosive growth of the record industry from the 1950s through the 1980s had to do with radio. Put simply, bands that got their music played on the radio sold tons of singles and albums and made lots of money. Generally speaking, bands that got played on the radio had better concert attendance, too. The rise of the Grateful Dead from cult act to concert stars came when FM rock radio, which had begun in San Francisco in 1967, went nationwide by 1970. High school and college age fans tuned in their FM stereos and heard songs like "Uncle John's Band" and "Truckin'" and went to check out the Dead when they came to their college. Sure, Dead concerts were something else entirely, but without radio to prime the pump, fans would never have heard of the band in the first place. By 1981, the Grateful Dead were almost never played on rock radio.
From 1968 onwards, the trendsetter for FM rock radio was San Francisco's KSAN. The Dead were close to the station, and had broadcast live over the air many times, adding to the reputations of both the band and the radio station. Garcia had done the same with some of his own bands. By 1980, however, KSAN's hippie rock format was aging out of its own demographic, since hippies didn't like "New Wave" music but old hippie bands weren't cool. Much further down the dial, well-funded rival KMEL (106.1) started pushing more mainstream "album oriented rock" (AOR) in 1977. In 1980, KMEL started broadcasting with very few ads, making them much more appealing to listen to, regardless of the actual music played. KSAN, to the shock of old hippies--who, admittedly, were hardly listening to it anymore--switched to country music. KMEL now ruled the Bay Area rock airwaves.
KMEL had a huge, powerful 69,000 watt signal that covered the entire Bay Area. In particular, as the commuter footprint of the Bay Area expanded, KMEL could be heard clearly in every car, workplace or coffee shop in every suburb. KMEL dominated the 18-34 demographic, so there were plenty of national ads for fast food, car insurance and designer jeans. Any band that wanted to make it in the Bay Area wanted to get played on KMEL, but with its tight formats, they didn't play a wide variety of music. Given the mandatory AOR menu of Zep/Mac/Journey, there wasn't much room for new releases.
|The Concord Pavilion, Concord, CA. View of the stage from the grass bowl.|
Contra Costa County was on the opposite side of the Berkeley Hills, and the various towns were 10 to 25 miles from Berkeley. This made them about 30 to 50 miles from San Francisco, depending on the commute. In 1937, the new Caldecott Tunnel allowed easy driving access from Berkeley to Contra Costa, but it was a modest road, with two lanes both way leading to and from Ashby Avenue. Most of the Contra Costa towns were fairly rural, and indeed in the main town of Walnut Creek, their were walnut groves until at least the 1970s.
By the 1960s, however, Contra Costa increasingly became a "bedroom community" for commuters to Oakland and San Francisco. In 1964, the Caldecott Tunnel was upgraded to include two more lanes (for a total of six, two of which could be rotated to accommodate the commute). By 1969, Oakland's Grove/Shafter freeway was connected to the Caldecott, so Contra Costa commuters could go from the county all the way to the Bay Bridge by freeway, and all the corresponding towns expanded.
There had been plenty of teenagers in Contra Cost in the 1960s, and they certainly loved rock music, but they all had to look longingly at Berkeley or San Francisco. Even people from Contra Costa itself dismissed the county as the culturally unhip country cousin of Alameda County, wryly referring to the Caldecott as "The Culture Tunnel." By the 1970s, however, with Conta Costa towns expanding in all directions, the County took some steps to bring culture to them. Concord was the main city in Contra Costa, east of towns like Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill, but with plenty of open space up in the foothills. In 1975, the Concord Pavilion opened, mainly to provide a permanent home for the Concord Symphony, and also to provide a venue so that the locals did not have to go through the Caldecott for anything fun.
The Concord Pavilion was modeled after venues like Tanglewood (in Lenox, MA) or the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), which were the summer homes of the Boston and New York Symphonies. The venue was semi-circular, with reserved, covered seats near the stage and a huge, grass bowl behind it. Variations on this design became common for rock venues in the 1980s when "sheds" like Shoreline Amphitheater were built, but Concord Pavilion was the first such venue in the Bay Area,
Concord Pavilion was open from about May through October every year. There was a wide variety of shows, including symphonies, musicals, and old TV star showcases. There were also a few rock concerts. However, since Bill Graham did not initially book the Pavilion, the acts were pretty unhip. Graham apparently considered Contra Costa outside his range. A competing promoter had opened the little-known Concord Coliseum in 1967, but despite some good acts it folded. There had been that JGB/Kingfish/Keith And Donna show (October 17, 1975), but it was on a cold, windy night and while the seats were filled, the grass was empty. Concord had teenagers, but they didn't know or care about the Grateful Dead.
Around 1977, Bill Graham started booking at least some shows at Concord Pavilion. I saw Jeff Beck there in 1977, and while he was electrifying (of course), it was clear that the venue hadn't really been designed for rock. The seats were far from the stage and the covered roof and the wind did weird things to the sound. Nonetheless, it was easy to get to Concord Pavilion, easy to park and bathrooms and concessions were easily available. In any case, more and more families moved to Contra Costa, so there were more incipient young rock and rollers there every year.
|The double-live album Dead Set was released on Arista Rcords on August 26, 1981. It had been recorded in Fall 1980 at the Warfield Theater and Radio City Music Hall|
The promotional structure of the Concord JGB show reflects a unique moment in time. The biggest rock station in the Bay Area, very well-funded, had a big party celebrating itself. In effect, the concert was free, but the need to have a $1.00 ticket allowed for crowd control (mind you, BASS charged their usual service fee on top of the buck). KMEL must have paid the performance fees for the bands, and the venue made its money selling popcorn and beer. It was the last three-day weekend of Summer, and lots of teenagers and young adults were looking for a blowout, so KMEL hired Jerry Garcia to provide it.
Why would KMEL hire a musician that they hardly, if ever, played on the radio for their own party? In the cosmology of the time, playing a gig like this was a sign that you were past your prime, a death knell for any working rock band. At the same time, KMEL needed a big enough act that rock fans would feel like they were getting something "special," and Garcia was a bona fide rock star, even to people who hardly knew his music. This was KMEL's way of showing people that they were big-time, that they could get a real rock star to play their party. Although I no longer specifically recall, I believe KMEL djs whipped up the crowd between sets, and one probably introduced the Jerry Garcia Band.
FM rock stations like KMEL filled a lucrative but narrow niche. Most rock fans listened to FM radio in the car, and sometimes at work or around the house, but "real" listening took place by listening to records (yes, vinyl ones) on the home stereo. More and more cars had cassette decks, too, so radio wasn't guaranteed every rock fan on the road. Auto sound systems were better and better, so a massive signal insured great reception, crucial for a rock fan with good speakers in their car. FM rock was corporately owned and nationally programmed, so Led Zeppelin and Journey were the order of the day whether it was Northern California, South Florida or Chicagoland. KMEL didn't want to be "Cutting Edge"; that was for Berkeley and college radio. AOR stations wanted to appeal to the broadest swath of the 18-34 consumer, so "Fun But Mainstream" was on tap. The thinking was, if a young man was out on a date in his orange TransAm, he could put on KMEL and his prospective girlfriend wouldn't say "what is this noise?"
You may think that the 1981 Jerry Garcia Band would have been a terrible choice for a party featuring a cross-section of 18-to-34-year old suburban rock fans, and you would have been completely wrong. The Garcia Band rocked the house. Now, don't forget that in those days, the JGB was basically a bar band, The crowd didn't "know" Jerry Garcia's music, but he played 4 Motown songs, 3 by Dylan or The Band, a Jimmy Cliff classic and a Beatles tune (setlist below). Most rock fans were going to recognize something. The few thousand reserved seats around the stage were mostly filled with more serious heads who had jumped on tickets immediately. I do know of one Deadhead who drove up from Santa Cruz. Ok, I don't actually know him, but he took my future wife to the show on a date (we would not meet for another year, and I should add that she was distinctly unimpressed by the show). But up in the General Admission area, on the grass, where I was, it was mostly just locals out for fun. Not Dead-hostile, by any means, but just generally looking to have a fun, rockin' afternoon.
Sure, Garcia and Melvin Seals took his usual long guitar solos, but almost every band took long solos in those days. The tempos were more laid back than most arena bands, but it was a sunny afternoon and no one was in a hurry. If you listen to the opening track, you can tell that Jerry has kicked off "The Way You Do The Things You Do" at a pretty lively pace, for him. He knew that it wasn't the Keystone. Anyway, if you were there for the party, you could leave your seat for "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," go to the bathroom, find your roommate, then get a hot dog, and still get back to your seat before it was over. I don't think many people "got on the bus," but it was only a buck, so the expectations weren't high.
From a Deadhead perspective, there were a number of interesting factors. I have written at some length about the previous time I had seen the Jerry Garcia Band, appearing at The Warfield Theater in San Francisco on June 26, 1981, with Phil Lesh on bass and two new female singers. I had heard about a few Keystone shows since then, so I knew that Kahn had returned. When the band came on stage at Concord, however, Bill Kreutzmann was sitting in the drum chair. No explanation came from the stage, because none ever did. In fact Billy only covered the kit for this show and three Keystone shows (Sep 18-20), just keeping it warm for Ron Tutt. Yet it was something to contemplate during the show, even if ultimately Bill was just passing through.
The female singers wore sort-of matching outfits and left the stage when the solos started. From up high, you could see them sitting backstage. Information about the Garcia Band was so difficult to come by that I don't think I had even learned their names. Even if I had, I doubt I would have realized that Essra Mohawk had left, and Julie Stafford now shared the gig with Liz Stires. Mohawk and former drummer Daoud Shaw were married, and had apparently known it was a temporary gig. With Tutt coming, Shaw had moved on, and Mohawk went with him. Somehow I pieced this together over the next few months, but there was literally no one to ask. I'm not even sure how I figured it out--a combination of BAM Magazine, Relix and Joel Selvin's column, probably.
Another thing set the Concord Garcia show apart: there were three bands on the bill. In almost all Garcia Band settings, any opening acts were either solo acoustic or a band from the Grateful Dead family, like Comfort or Kingfish. Yet here was Garcia headlining the big venue, and two other electric bands played full sets. Second on the bill was The Edge, a promising Bay Area club band featuring ex-JGB keyboard player Ozzie Ahlers and Lorin Rowan (Peter's younger brother, from the ill-fated CBS Rowan Brothers album). Ahlers joined the short list of former members of a Garcia ensemble who opened for the Garcia Band. They played enjoyable reggae-rock, if nothing exceptional. Opening the show was Queen Ida And Her Bon Ton Zydeco Band, who played a lively set of zydeco music, a style largely unknown in the Bay Area at the time.
Both of the opening acts were good, and appropriate to a Garcia Band show, but they weren't going to get played on KMEL. The bands may have had some independently released material, but The Edge was too unknown and Queen Ida too "ethnic." How they got on the bill is anyone's guess, but then one of the co-sponsors of the concert was BAM (Bay Area Music) Magazine, a free biweekly music magazine, back when free meant "everyone reads it." BAM favored mainstream Bay Area bands like the Doobie Brothers, of course, but they tried to cover everything, and BAM was always supportive of the Grateful Dead. Did I mention that Blair Jackson was a chief editor of BAM? As a co-sponsor, BAM would have helped publicize the show--KMEL couldn't exactly advertise it on competing stations--and the editors may have put in a good word for some appropriate bands.
Jerry Garcia Band, Concord Pavilion, Concord, CA; September 7, 1981
I: The Way You Do The Things You Do, Knockin' On Heaven's Door, Roadrunner, Sugaree
II: The Harder They Come, Mississippi Moon, Second That Emotion, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Dear Prudence, Tangled Up In Blue
E: How Sweet It Is
On Labor Day, 1981, about 9,000 Bay Area rock fans paid just $1.00 to hear the Jerry Garcia Band and two other fine local bands fill the afternoon with music. Bill Kreutzmann made a surprise guest appearance and we all got home before dark. It never happened again,
Alternatives To Known History
The Grateful Dead had an intricate, if contested, relationship with record companies. In contrast, the Jerry Garcia Band pretty much had almost no connection to the record company promotion side of the music industry. The Dead, though iconoclasts, used record company promotional muscle to arrange live broadcasts all over the country, and counted on their companies to stuff the bins of Tower Records with their releases. Save for the single attempt with Cats Under The Stars in 1978, the Jerry Garcia Band did no such thing. Save for Cats, there wasn't even a commercial Jerry Garcia Band release until 1990.
With no releases to promote, Jerry Garcia was mostly exempt from the peripheral demands of being a late 20th century Classic Rock rock star. Throughout its existence, the Garcia Band either played local joints--first the Keystones, and later The Warfield--and sometimes toured the East and Midwest. They came to town, played their music, got paid and traveled on. No local dj introduced the band, Garcia didn't have to submit to radio station interviews, or privileged advertisers who got backstage passes to "hang out" with the headliner. Steve Parish controlled the backstage, so Jerry could spend his time playing his guitar or hanging with any friends in town. Come showtime, the Garcia Band played whatever they wanted, Parish took the cash and the little circus moved on to the next gig.
One whiff that suggests that the Concord show was part of the "regular" music business lies in a little known interview from that afternoon. Garcia was interviewed at length for a then obscure outfit called "MTV News," The unseen interviewer reads out some sincere but traditional questions that Garcia must have heard hundreds of times. Garcia, always gracious, does not sneer at the interviewer and gives frank, interesting answers, but it doesn't seem like his heart is in it. The proximate cause of the interview seems to be that the Grateful Dead had just released a live album (Dead Set) two weeks earlier (August 26 '81) and Garcia's interview is an earnest, if fruitless attempt to attract some attention to the record. If the Concord show hadn't been sponsored by KMEL, and perhaps with a nudge from Arista, Garcia probably wouldn't have submitted to such an interview from a naif he didn't know, what with Blair Jackson (and probably BAM staff writer David Gans) likely already sitting backstage. But that's how things went in the music biz--the biggest dogs get the treats, even if they have no other claims to them,
The 1981 Labor Day JGB concert was a rare instance where Garcia could have crossed over. A nice payday, maybe get some promotion for the Dead album and make some new fans. We know the idea of "going mainstream" was at least crossing Garcia's mind. He would be recording a new Garcia Band album with none other than Ron Tutt in the coming months, and he wanted to make a movie, so maybe a profitable Garcia Band wasn't a bad idea. Submit to a few interviews, tolerate some jerks backstage--how hard was that? What if Garcia was willing to play, say, The Singer Bowl in Queens for a $1.00, promoted by Arista and a local FM station? How many East Coast heads would have done "Jer For A Buck?" What if the Jerry Garcia Band had toured sheds like everyone else in the 1980s, sharing headline bills with kindred spirits like Willie Nelson or Crosby, Stills and Nash? A lot of money would get made, and maybe also a movie based on a Kurt Vonnegut novel, scripted by Tom Davis.
Garcia seems to have gazed into the abyss, and it must have gazed back at him. But he didn't leap. The Garcia Band album floundered, ultimately released as the tepid Run For The Roses a year later, With very few exceptions, the Garcia Band mostly played the big sheds and arenas with no support other than familiar backstage faces like Bob Weir. The Garcia Band edifice was entirely self-built, self-financed and self-sustaining, No dj announced their arrival on stage, and no radio station ads hawking their new albums inundated the FM airwaves for each tour. The Garcia Band had not played live on FM since '78, and save for one oddball final broadcast in San Jose in 1982, the Garcia Band would never again broadcast live, leaving that franchise to the Grateful Dead.
The Concord Labor Day gig was just a gig, and Garcia and Kahn probably forgot it soon after it happened. Still, it was a moment when Garcia's history could have taken a different, more profitable turn, if at the expense of some independence. Garcia looked, and took a sniff, and passed. The Jerry Garcia Band kept on its own self-guided path, for good or ill, for the balance of its existence.
The Jerry Garcia Band moved on, maintaining their insular track. KMEL-fm was the dominant rock station in the Bay Area for a few more years, until The Camel was in turn upended by KFOG. Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead, meanwhile, just continued their contrarian path. Only a few days after the Concord show, the Grateful Dead played some stunning shows at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley (Sep 11-13 '81), establishing a key venue for the band throughout the 1980s. The Jerry Garcia Band then played three nights at the Keystones (Sep 18-20), with Billy K still holding down the drum chair. With a new double-lp live album just released, the Dead made the inexplicable decision to tour Europe instead of the States. The story, as retailed by Rock Scully, has it that they filled in for a canceled Who tour, and Pete Townshend made sure that "his guy" would meet Jerry (or Rock) before every show, to provide unnamed services. In any case, the Dead played Stabler Arena in Bethlehem, PA (Sep 25 '81) to warm up, then Buffalo (Sep 26 '81) and then a big show at Capitol Center in Landover, MD (Sep '27 '81), which probably funded the whole trip.
The European tour opened in Edinburgh, Scotland on September 30, 1981. It's not clear whether Jerry took the High Road or the Low Road, or who got to Scotland afore ye. Thus the Grateful Dead toured Europe, instead of the States, which doesn't seemed to have helped sales of Dead Set. Meanwhile, the sessions that would lead to Run For The Roses were recorded with Ron Tutt at Club Front throughout the Fall of 1981. The JGB tour with Tutt was kicked off with two Keystone dates (Oct 25 and 27 '81) and then went east starting on Halloween at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia. Garcialand retained its equilibrium--no FM djs, no unwelcome backstage guests, no meaningful interaction with the late 20th century music industry.
September 6, 1982 Concord Pavilion, 2000 Kirker Pass Road, Concord, CA: The Tubes
The very next Labor Day, on September 6, 1982, KMEL had another party with another aging rock band, this time The Tubes. My college roommate and I went to the show, and paid our dollar. It was a magical summer, with a great pennant run by the San Francisco Giants and manager Frank Robinson (shout out if you recall the 10-game stretch where Joe Morgan played third base and Darrel Evans played shortstop). We listened to the Giants all the way to Concord that day, and then saw The Tubes. I had seen The Tubes in their prime in 1975, and the 1982 iteration wasn't as epic, but they were still great. Yet it was all downhill for The Tubes from there. Who thought that Vince Welnick would end up as the Dead's keyboard player? I didn't.
The Concord Pavilion show on September 7, 1981 was a foot in cold water, a glimpse of a foreign land left unexplored. Pay a buck, let Jerry rock the house. OK with everyone there, except, apparently, Jerry. As the song goes, Gotta Travel On.