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Monday, December 12, 2011

Jerry Garcia Band Electric

**update 1: final paragraph, 8:47 Eastern 20111212**

Jerry Site administrator slipnut just updated the venue name for a show given as Jerry Garcia Band, California Theatre, San Diego, CA, on Friday May 23, 1986. Handbill follows:

Handbill for Jerry Garcia Band Electric, California Theatre, San Diego, CA, 5/23/86. Possibly courtesy of Iver McLeod.

The venue appears to be an old movie palace originally known as the New California Theatre, and while the handbill says “4th and C Street”, neither the Google Street view for that location, nor for the one given by the San Diego History Center webpage (1122 4th Avenue, San Diego, CA 92101 – am I violating their terms of use by reproducing that address?) makes it obvious to me where the theater is/was. A Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) site (a San Diego-area British expat, I presume) entry for the California Theatre does not give an address. The fact that this show took place in a fabulous old movie house is awesome and I am sure the venuologists would have a field day with this one. Perhaps I can egg Jerry Garcia’s Brokendown Palaces to do an entry on what looks to be a groovy, funky old place. ;-)

I am more interested in the billing, as “Jerry Garcia Band Electric”. Some small number of people knows the importance I place on institutional formalities, such as the names of bands. Many would dismiss these as mere trivia, and for certain purposes they might be right. But not for my purposes. My purpose is to understand Garcia on the Side as an institution, or a set of them. From that perspective, band names are really important. Names in recollections; on tape boxes; in newspaper listings; on handbills, fliers, posters, tickets; in published reviews, etc. etc. are some of the key data. To take one macro view on how I can use them, consider the following very simple descriptive statistic: variance across the names listed in those eight kinds of sources (recollections, tape boxes, newspaper listings, handbills, fliers, posters, tickets and published reviews). Hypothesis: cross-source band name variance reduces over time. Now I know that time is not a cause. I’d say that what this simple descriptive actually provides is one measure of the degree of institutionalization. Time is just the simplest proxy, for expository purposes. But if the data could be gathered—and I am not saying they can, to my satisfaction—I think you could show a much wider standard deviation in early years, closing almost monotonically over time. Just a hunch.

But I digress. For two out of town (Southern California) shows in May 1986, the one I am discussing and one on Saturday, May 24, 1986 at the Wiltern Theatre, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA, 90010 –Jerry’s first at the Wiltern, I think—Garcia’s outfit was billed as “The Band Electric” by Bill Graham. I think this has always stuck in my mind a little bit because of the clever bit of headlining over a negative review of the May 23rd show: “Band Electric Plays at Pace Languid” (Toombs, 1986). Toombs goes on at some length about how dull the Band Electric is, how tedious the Band Electric’s languid pacing, how pedestrian the Band Electric's song selection, and so forth. Heh heh. It's clever, and I don't doubt it's a totally reasonable evaluation of the show. A review in the L.A. Times of the next night’s show is only slightly more positive (Strauss 1986), and doesn’t mention the billing, although the handbill (below) shows it was the same.


What’s strange about this, of course, is that it prefigures a distinction that would come about over a year later, with the acoustic-electric shows of August-December 1987. Those would feature, first, the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band (JGAB), called by some (e.g., Jimbo Juanis of Relix) the Black Mountain Boys, comprised of Garcia on acoustic guitar, David Nelson on guitar, Sandy Nelson on dobro and mandolin, John Kahn on string bass, Kenny Kosek on the little fiddle and David Kemper on the snare drums. Second, the acoustic-electric shows featured the Jerry Garcia Band (JGB), i.e., the electric band comprised of Garcia, Kahn, Kemper, Melvin Seals on organ, and Gloria Jones and Jaclyn LaBranch on backing vocals.

I don’t doubt the canonical history of the JGAB, told by inter alia Sandy Rothman (see notes at the TJS entry for 3/18/87), that the thing started (quasi-publicly) with the GD’s Thanksgiving Party at the Log Cabin in San Anselmo on 11/23/86, when Sandy, David and a newly-hungry-to-play, post-coma Garcia sat around and regaled the gathered party goers with some old favorites. When Garcia, Nelson and Rothman got back together for the Artists’ Rights Today benefit at the Fillmore on 3/18/87, the story goes, Bill Graham came in raving about taking he show to Broadway, which is, of course, precisely what he did. Hence, the acoustic-electric shows. For more on this, see Silberman 2010.

But Graham’s May ’86 branding of the JGB as the Band Electric strikes me as foreshadowing this later distinction. I am not saying he was planning the acoustic-electric thing, per se, though in the limit it’s possible. But I had heard that some kind of product differentiation was important to John Scher out on the east coast, which is what brought us the famous (or infamous) solo acoustic shows on April 10, 1982 in Passaic and, eventually, the Jerry Garcia/John Kahn acoustic duo. In short, after many years of touring as the JGB out in Scher’s territory, mixing it up with some different product would make it easier to sell tickets. At least that’s one thing I was told by somebody.

I wonder if Graham was after the same thing, i.e., some product differentiation, so he could sell separate acoustic and electric Garcia experiences to the SoCal audience? It would put a slightly different context on the canonical history of the JGAB, if so, making it seem a less spontaneous and a more cultivated Bill Graham strategy. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but I have always had the notion that these “Band Electric” billings earlier in ’86 were anachronistic unless we viewed them in this way, as trial balloons around a Graham marketing strategy that had to be put on hold a few months later when Jerry got sick, and really only took shape with the inspiration of the March 18 ART benefit. Again, I want to be clear: I don’t think this sullies the wonderful little history of the JGAB one bit, just puts it into a slightly longer causal chain.

The rival (really, probably complementary) hypothesis is that Wolfgang was after some product differentiation, but only because of the clusterfuck from Garcia’s previous (non-GD) visit to SoCal, with John Kahn at the Beverly Theatre, 9404 Wilshire Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA, 90212, on May 31, 1985. As related at the Jerry Site’s entry for the early show, Graham et al. sold this night’s entertainment as two separately-ticketed (i.e., early and late) shows, rather than the two-set single show that Garcia would typically put on. Folks felt ripped off. According to Ben Kamelich (cited at TJS), one attendee brought a sign reading "Jerry Sells Out L.A. Deadheads". Erik VanO recounts that the crowd started up with a “Bullshit! Bullshit!” chant when Jerry announced that the show was over. And why not, after only six songs running a paltry 35 minutes? Apparently Angry Jerry came out for a three-song “second set” just to prevent a riot (or, knowing Deadheads, some hooting, jeering and reproachful looks).

Leaving aside the big question of how such a talented, usually professional (really!) and prideful man could act this way –and, while big, it’s easily answered with a word that starts with ‘d’ and ends with ‘rugs’, I think—it might have been simple good business sense for Graham to signal to the ticket-buying crowd that this was not going to be a Garcia-Kahn acoustic nodfest, but rather the Band Electric. The Toombs review of May 23 and the Strauss review of the LA show on May 24 suggest that the musical results were far from electrifying, but that has to be the subject of some listening notes. The commercial results, by contrast, seemed to have worked out just fine – not a sellout, but not a bad day at the office, either:


The fact that there were newspaper reviews (including, not trivially, the Los Angeles Times), the fact that it grossed pretty well and got this mention in Billboard ... the notion that Bill was also courting Jerry on his home turf, getting him to switch his local playing allegiance from Freddie Herrera and the Stone to Bill Graham and the Warfield (which would be accomplished by June 1, 1987) ... the new billing (what we'd now call an attempt to "rebrand" or maybe "reposition", right?) .... it all seems to suggest to me that the JGAB didn't emerge fully formed from Bill Graham's head, like Athena from Zeus's, on March 18, 1987. And the acoustic-electric structure would seem, at least, to have been a gleam in Bill Graham's eye before the coma ... much for me to chew on.

One last proposition: The JGAB contains the arc of Garcia On The Side (GOTS) in very concentrated dosage, something I hope further to unpack moving forward.

REFERENCES:

Silberman, Steve. 2010. The Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band, The Definitive History: It’s a Long, Long Way to the Top of the World. Essay accompanying Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band, Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band [Almost Acoustic and Ragged But Right] (Rhino, JGCD-1004), 11 pp.
Strauss, Duncan. 1986. Garcia Shorts Out. Los Angeles Times, May 26, 1986, p. SD_D2.
Toombs, Mikel. 1986. Band Electric Plays at a Pace Languid. San Diego Union, May 24, 1986, p. D11.

6 comments:

  1. I find this a pretty persuasive hypothesis. The most interesting part is the failure to communicate about the double shows in 1985. Was there an opening act for those shows? I'm wondering what BGP might have assumed about the concerts beforehand, or whether Jerry just wasn't feeling it and played a short opener.

    I can recall some nightclub situations where Garcia was "misinformed" about the schedule (eg Reconstruction May 18 '79) but those were in a nightclub setting and were recoverable. In a seated theater, it would lead to serious problems.

    I agree that this billing is not at all casual.

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  2. What are you talking about re 5/18/79?

    Also, looking at the Billboard table, I am doubting my own premise ... was this even a BGP show? Looks like it by the handbills and stuff, but the table says the SD show was put on by Fahn & Silva Presents.

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  3. Never mind. The bottom of the 5/24/86 poster indeed says "Under the Direction of Bill Graham Presents".

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  4. Jerry’s music lives on with his world-embracing love and energy. I drew a psychedelic portrait of him to honor his legacy on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/08/touch-of-grey-jerry-garcia-in-memoriam.html Feel free to drop in and tell me about how the Deadhead movement affecting your life and appreciation of music.

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  5. By this point, Garcia and Kahn were performing pretty frequently as a duo, and I think the seasoned consumer (as opposed to someone who would go see Jerry no matter what) might have wised up to the somewhat spartan and abbreviated nature of the duo shows. The Beverly gig was not an anomaly, and it was common in the day for both early and late shows of an acoustic gig to fit on a single 90 M cassette with space for filler. Actually, the number of songs might not differ significantly from an electric vs. acoustic gig, nor even the amount of singing, but the song lengths were by nature almost always significantly shorter in the unplugged context. Despite that, it was hard not to feel cheated when a show ended after 30-40 minutes during that era. By almost any measure, the JGAB was a big musical step up from the 83-86 JG/JK duo shows.

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  6. I agree totally about the JGAB vs. JGJK. I was just wondering if this reflects a more rigid acoustic-electric distinction than had been common. My sense is that many ads from the '84 and even '86 Garcia/Kahn tours in John Scher territory just said "Jerry Garcia", while electric ads would usually say "Jerry Garcia Band". I guess the serious folks knew the difference, but it's not that obvious.

    Anyway, I think this is a pretty small deal in the big picture. It was probably, as I say and as you affirm, that folks found the acoustic sets less worthwhile and so it behooved the promoters to differentiate from that.

    But I do like the idea that Graham's acoustic-electric setup for late '87 may have found earliest expression here, just because it deviates a little bit from the usual narrative of JGAB as a spontaneous flash from Bill Graham on 3/18/87.

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