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The Sounds of San Francisco Today

By BK

    Phish often gets the credit for spawning the jam band movement. Of course, the Grateful Dead is given credit for paving the way for Vermont’s phinest, but the San Francisco rockers were not a jam band. The Grateful Dead’s monikers were "throwback from the 1960s", "acid rock’, "psychedelic rock" and even "country rock" or "jazz rock". The Grateful Dead definitely "jammed" in every sense of the word as did their 1960s colleagues – the Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother & Holding Company, Moby Grape and Jefferson Airplane. During the 1970s, the close members of the Grateful Dead family, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Kingfish and JGB, also "jammed" out beyond belief. Yet they were never called jam bands. That is where Phish stepped in. Somehow Phish created the jam band formula whose exact parameters are uncertain at this time. Some prime ingredients are: eclecticism, progressivism, jazz, and mind-bending improvisations. There a plenty of bands that follow this pattern– Moe, Uncle Sammy, Disco Biscuits, YeP! – just to name a few. There is a whole wealth of modern jam bands that enjoy the benefits of being a "jam band" but they also stay true to the Grateful Dead form of playing live music. This form loosely consists of bluegrass, country, blues, psychedelic and slightly more lyrical. Here are some new releases by the Grateful Dead and some of the band’s disciples.

 The Dead Live On

Grateful Dead/Dick’s Pick’s Volume 16, 17 & 18 (Grateful Dead Records, 1969,1991, 1978, 2000)

    The first post-Dick Dick’s Picks brings us to the official home of the Grateful Dead during the late 1960s and early 1970s – San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium in November of 1969. It seems to be silly that this was an exciting time to hear for the Grateful Dead, for that argument can be said for almost every year that the band played. I am going to say it anyway (implicitly, that is). For this performance, the Dead were in prime form with the tandem drumming of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman, guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh. The X-Factors for this show are keyboardist Tom "T.C." Constanten and singer Ron "Pigpen" McKernan. For a brief period, T.C. ‘s organ sounds added a whole new dimension to the Dead’s sound (the textured sounds of "Dark Star" typified the TC touch). As for Pigpen, this tape has him singing the epic tunes "Good Morning Little School Girl" and "Turn on Your Lovelight" as well as "Easy Wind" Other highlights? One of the earliest incarnations of "Playing in the Band" when it was simply known as a Mickey Hart vehicle called "The Main Ten"; an all instrumental "Uncle John’s Band" and the first time playing of "Dire Wolf" and "Cumberland Blues". "Uncle John’s Band" , "Dire Wolf" and "Cumberland Blues", which were all in their infant stages, were early hints of the Country/Americana/Bluegrass transition was to make in the coming months.

    The second Dick’s Picks release jumps ahead 22 years to a slightly different gathering of musicians but the same musical élan. Recorded at Boston’s fabled Boston Garden during the fall of 1991, this Grateful Dead performance featured the tandem keyboard/piano of Vince Welnick and Bruce Hornsby. Following the death of keyboardist Brent Mydland, these two filled in the keys position on many instances. They both were tremendous assets to the band, as Hornsby provided eloquent grand piano passages as well as an occasional accordion while Welnick was a wizard on the keyboard. In addition, they both had beautiful voices that harmonized well with Garcia an Weir. For the people inside the show that night, they were immediately hammered with great music as the band opened the concert with the epic trilogy "Help on the Way", "Slipknot" and "Franklins Tower." The middle song, "Slipknot", once had peaceful connotations as the song represented the segue between two fantastic songs. Nowadays, the word is now associated with a heavy metal band that is taking over the airwaves. The disc also contains more of the fabled Americana music such as another version of "Dire Wolf", "Tennessee Jed" and a great rendition of Bob Dylan’s "Queen Jane Approximately."

    Dick's Picks 18 captures the Grateful Dead during one of their creative peaks.  Ask any discerning Deadhead about the Grateful Dead's best year and chances are they will say 1977.  Dicks Picks 18 jumps ahead to 1978 and quickly shows that 12 months does not make much of difference in terms of putting on an electrifying performance.  The release is a compilation of the band's two day stand in the Mid West in Wisconsin and Iowa.  All I really have to say is that the press release claimed that the discs had one of the best Scarlet Begonias -> Fire on the Mountains ever played.  I had my doubts but they were quickly dispelled and I learned to take the Grateful Dead publicist's, Dennis McNally, word as the gospel.  If you had to pick a release from this triumverate, this recording is the way to go.

    The New Riders Today 

    During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the New Riders of the Purple Sage was another San Francisco band that shared the same musical spirit as the Grateful Dead.  Besides featuring Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart during its earliest lineups, the New Riders also shared the stage with the Dead on numerous occasions.  Like the Grateful Dead, the New Riders masterfully combined country/Americana music with acid rock.  In 1970, the Grateful Dead, the New Riders, Janis Joplin and many other musicians traveled across Canada on one of the biggest rock & roll partying tours ever.  There have also been two Dick's Picks releases that have documented famous concerts in which the New Riders and the Grateful Dead shared the bill - Harpur College, 1970 and Englishtown, New Jersey 1977.    Although the New Riders of the Purple Sage are synonymous with the Grateful Dead, the band also made a name for itself.  Through albums like The Adventures of Panama Red, Powerglide and their debut album, the New Riders showed that rock and roll and country music could co-exist peacefully and symbiotically.  Today, two members of the New Riders keep the music spirit alive and well and have gained a whole slew of new fans courtesy of the jam band explosion.  they are the David Nelson Band and the Stir Fried.

David Nelson Band/ Visions Under the Moon (High Adventure Records, 1999)

Besides playing guitar for the New Riders, guitarist David Nelson was a member of the  bluegrass band known as the Wildwood Boys with Garcia and Robert Hunter back in 1962 – long before acid rock/jam rock was even an idea.  During the Dead’s heyday, he appeared on their acid rock classic Aoxomoxoa as well as the traditional blues/country sounding albums American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead.  During all of this, Nelson managed to stay with the New Riders up till 1983.  In 1994, he formed the David Nelson Band with fellow San Francisco rockers Barry Sless (guitar), Mookie Siegel (keyboards), Bill Laymon (bass), and Arthur Steinhorn (drums). Steinhorn has since left the group and been replaced by Charlie Crane.  Put this band’s credits together and you have a list consisting of not only the Grateful Dead and the New Riders, but also Kingfish, Ratdog, JGB, and Big Brother and Holding Company.  What you have with this band is some of the old vanguard of acid-country-rock showing that they can still rock hard just like any of today’s “jam bands”.  There is no better testament to this than the David Nelson Band’s album, Visions Under the Moon, which was recorded live in Portland, Oregon in September of 1998.  The show encounters the many styles of music that came out of San Francisco during the 1970s.  The opening “Long Gone Sam” has a classic New Riders country-rocking feel.  With Siegel’s accordion playing on “Fable of Chosen One” is a country ballad with a touch of Celtic. The tune “Snakebit” has a wah-wah guitar solo of “Estimated Prophet” proportions and a hippie-funk beat reminiscent of “West LA Fadeaway”.    The ballad “Haunted Man” features the piano playing and singing of Mookie Siegel and is similar to any number of songs that can be found of Mathew Kelly’s (of Kingfish) ensemble projects.  Although there are countless comparisons to bands of yore, the David Nelson Band’s originality should not be overlooked for every song on this CD opens up to a period of improvisation that belongs to nobody else but to those six musicians.  In the end, the David Nelson Band produces a contemporary sound that harken to roots rock but their ability to take their music in new directions makes them far from a nostalgic act. 

Stir Fried/The Last of the Blue Diamond Miners (Falbo Records, 2000)

    Across the continent from San Francisco is New Jersey’s Stir Fried which is one of today’s "jam bands" that definitely have not forgotten their San Franciscan roots. Led by singer/songwriter/guitarist John Markowski, Stir Fried has an X-factor in their band – pedal steel guitarist Buddy Cage. Cage was one of the primary members of the New Riders who recorded classic albums such as Panama Red and Powerglide and he jammed with the Grateful Dead on numerous occasions in both a live setting and in the studio. Two years ago, Stir Fried recorded an amazing live album titled Electrafied, which not only highlighted Markowski, Cage and company, but also featured Vassar Clements on fiddle. Clements is best known amongst jam fans young and old with his work on the album Old and In the Way. Ultimately, the bluegrass/jam band nexus owes a debt of gratitude to that 1975 album. This Jerry Garcia bluegrass vehicle introduced multiple generations of classic rockers to the world of traditional bluegrass music. This year, Stir Fried, along with Cage, have headed back into the studio to record The Last of the Blue Diamond Miners. For this session, the lineup extends even further with Vassar Clements sitting in once again as well as banjoist Tony Trischka. One track "West of the Mississippi" is a bluegrass gem with Cage, Clements, and Trischka all taking wonderful solos. Add the front line twangy singing of Markoswki and the back up harmonies of Joanne Lediger, you have one quality Appalachia romp. For "The Door is Still Open" is like Exile on Main Street era Rolling Stones with Markowski and guest pianist Rich Hilton rocking out barroom style.

Fans of the Dead

Cool Water Canyon/Far From Home (Cool Water Canyon Music, 2000)

    Santa Barbara’s Cool Water Canyon is the fresh new guard of the San Francisco sound. The band successfully embodies the spirit of the feel-good country rock sounds of the 1970s without compromising their own creative integrity. Far From Home is an impressive two CD effort from this quintet consisting of Drew Allen (guitar, vocals), Jesse Tyre-Karp (guitar), Carter Beim (bass), Matt Grover (drums) and Otto Roeser (keys). Cool Water Canyon stay true to the country rock idiom. They sing songs with tangible subject matter and they do not require complex chord changes and tempo shifts to write a song that has a groove. Far From Home is an excellently produced album that brings out Cool Water Canyon’s ability to craft a great sounding song as well as improvise energetically and intelligently. There are no excessive solos on this CD, just enough to give a listener a sampling of what these guys can do in a live setting. Although I have not had a chance to hear these guys live, I am sure that they undoubtedly would receive a voted for best bar band. Their CD makes me want to go out and have good time. I can only imagine what the real McCoy can do. 

The Floodplain Gang / Blind Ride (Plug Music, 2000)

    Bluegrass has been enjoying an incredible amount of popularity in recent years. There have been jam band/bluegrass crossovers like String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon. There are jazz-bluegrass-rock hybrids like Bela Fleck & the Flecktones and the Tony Trischka Band who have been constantly touring and winning over fans left and right. The newest arrival of traditional -Americana musical stew is Colorado’s The Floodplain Gang who won first place at the 1998 Telluride Bluegrass Festival band contest. Not a bad accolade to have under your belt. The quintet consists of Eric Walser (mandolin, vocals), John Turpin (guitar), Amy Garris (vocals), Danny Fenyvesi (bass) and Heath Graham (drums) who together play an enlightening and easygoing bluegrass-jazz-jam band blend. The opening "Jimtown Rag" is a traditional bluegrass ditty while "Walkin Grin" incorporates two saxophones and trumpet to add some jazz spice to the overall flavor. The horns also return for "Moonlight" but with "Tayo", which is named after Turpin’s dog, the jazz structure is present - minus the horns. "Falling Reign" and "Diamonds from Smiling" are good old bluegrass rockers. The former tune shows the band to really push the limits of the song and displays the jam band side of the gang while other songs like "Weary Voyager" remain true to the bluegrass idiom. On songs like "Return to Paco", David Grisman’ s Dawg style is evident and openly embraced. The song may have begun sounding like Grisman but by the song’s end, Turpin’s electric guitar solo elevates this band above being a simple bluegrass band. Although not an official member of the band, Steve Trisman might as well be one as his fiddling is heard on six of the album’s tracks. The great banjoist/dobroist Tony Furtado sits on for "Jimtown Rag", "Walkin’ Grin", and "Riff Race" but he is simply an added bonus to an already existing core of accomplished musicians.

Joe Gallant and Illuminati /Terrapin (Which? Records, 1999)

    While the previous mentioned bands assumed a stylistic approach to the grateful Dead’s music, deadhead bass player Joe Gallant took to the Grateful Dead for compositional inspiration. After the success of his interpretation of the Dead’s Blues for Allah, Gallant and his big band (consisting of strings and brass), take a stab at the Grateful Dead’s 1977 album, Terrapin Station. Unlike other unique Grateful Dead cover bands like the Dark Star Orchestra, who re-create specific Grateful Dead shows of yore in their entirety of Jazz is Dead, which provide melodic instrumental interpretations of the Grateful Dead; Joe Gallant and Illuminati completely re-establish a song’s arrangement. For instance, Illuminati’s "Passenger" combines spoken word elements with avant-garde jazz while "Dancin’ in the Streets" maintains a stable R&B structure, but logging in at over 12 minutes, the New Orleans-like funky jam in the middle is nothing like what the Dead ever put out on their original album. "Estimated Prophet" retains its reggae roots but with a choir effect. In fact, it is the additional vocals throughout the album that really elevate the songs above their normal incarnation. Garcia and gang already had a religious effect on people but hearing their songs from a choir point of view really brings out the spiritual qualities in the songs. The Terrapin Suite is highlighted by the vocals of Patricia Barber, Phoebe Legere, Rob Woolfson, Tuesday May and Pat Boone (no, not an error), who emphasize the songwriting of Robert Hunter and Garcia. The opening "Lady with a Fan", with its soft and melodic trumpet solos in between the sultry jazz vocals of Patricia Barber, is transformed into some sort of lounge act tune. By the time "Terrapin Station" evolves, the suite turns into a bluegrass ditty and then into a full orchestrated piece. Besides its standard eighteen member lineup, the Illuminati for Terrapin also features famous basketball playing Deadhead Bill Walton, Frank Zappa cohort Ike Willis, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, pedal steel guitarist Buddy Cage, banjoist Tony Trischka, and former Grateful Dead sound engineer Bob Bralove. The album also contains some Gallant originals, known as Region I-IV, which provide musical /noise composition/spoken word/percussion jam interludes throughout the "Terrapin" suite. In addition, there is "Jerome John", a solo bass instrumental tribute to Garcia, and a perfect coda to an astonishing album.

Just as a closer, this article would not be complete without the mentioning the band Max Creek. This band has been around since the early 1970s and have been perpetuating the country rock/jam sound ever since. They have been playing the smaller size clubs that many of today’s jam bands frequent long before any of today’s musicians picked up their first instrument. When Phish first got together in 1983, Creek was ten years old and playing bluegrass, classic rock, country rock and psychedelic to bar crowds up and down the East coast. To some degree, the success of Phish has overlooked Creek’s impact from a critical/fan point of view. Phish has not overlooked this fact for they two have jammed together in many different incarnations over the years. Max Creek is the ultimate "jam band" country rocker in which all standards should be set against.