Friday, January 13, 2012

August 9, 1975: Frost Amphitheater, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA: Eric Clapton/Kingfish

Frost Amphitheater is a bucolic terraced amphitheater on the Stanford University campus, with grassy platforms rising steeply in a wooded glen. The 6,900 capacity venue, built in 1937, was always the jewel of the Stanford campus, but for many decades it was mostly used for University events like graduation. When I was growing up near Stanford, I can recall that the gates were mostly unlocked during the daytime, and Frost Amphitheater was treated like a park by the locals. There are very few outdoor amphitheaters that seem like a park when they are not in use, but Frost was one of them.

In the late 60s, Stanford allowed Frost to be used for a few rock concerts. However, although everyone recalls events in 1968 and 1969 fondly, the escalating size of the rock market led to problems, particularly from locals sneaking in. By 1972, Stanford had banned all rock concerts in Frost after that, thus taking the nicest venue in the Bay Area out of the rock marketplace.

In 1975, however, Stanford University relented and allowed a few Summer events. The highlight was a concert by no less than Eric Clapton. In August, 1975, I had just graduated from High School and was on my way to UC Berkeley, and here was Eric Clapton playing within walking distance of my house. What could be better? What turned out to be better was that after I got tickets, the opening act turned out to be Kingfish. So I got to see my first Grateful Dead 'spinoff' band at a concert I already had tickets to, in a place I had been going to since I was a child. In retrospect, it turns out to be an interesting snapshot of Bob Weir's efforts to make Kingfish a success, and an interesting look at the rock market of the time, but for me of course it was the capstone to my Senior year in High School, and thus infinitely memorable in its own right. This post is about that Frost show, from the specific point of view of Kingfish's participation.

The cover to the Chambers Brothers 1968 Shout! album, photographed at (but not recorded at) Stanford's  Frost Amphitheater on July 28, 1968
Frost Amphitheater, Stanford University
Frost Amphitheater is a beautiful open air venue, dug out of an artificially constructed hill. 6,900 people can fit inside the grassy, terraced bowl. The Amphitheater was named for Laurence Frost, Stanford class of ’35, who died of polio at age 23. The Amphitheater was first opened in June, 1937, and for many decades was the site of Stanford’s commencement. The amphitheater, near the corner of Galvez and Campus (the entrance is near Laurel Street) rapidly became a treasured venue for music and theater performances.

Stanford University has always been careful about using Frost for too many events. In the 1960s, they limited rock concerts to weekend, afternoon events. A March 5, 1967 show headlined by Jefferson Airplane is the first (that I know of) of the few 60s concerts held there. In the 60s, Frost’s size actually made it too large for most concert attractions, and the University had no financial imperative to attract bigger shows. There was a 1968 show starring the Chambers Brothers, and a few 1969 shows, but the events were limited.

In the early 1970, problems with fights and bottle-throwing (specifically at a July 18, 1971 Elvin Bishop/Cold Blood show) caused the University to ban rock concerts at Frost. Stanford still allowed jazz shows, however, which was how Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders made their South Bay debut at Frost on October 3, 1971.  After a October 1, 1972 show with Miles Davis, nominally a jazz show, although with the New Riders Of The Purple Sage also on the bill, was marred by people trying to get in for free--a breeze for agile locals who knew the grounds well--the University banned all shows at Frost, and all rock concerts moved to nearby Maples Pavilion, Stanford's relatively new basketball pavilion. By 1975, however, the University relented and started to allow the occasional weekend afternoon concert, as long as the band drew the “right” sort of crowd (no R&B, no metal, etc).


A listing from the August 8, 1975 Hayward Daily Review
Eric Clapton, 1975
This post isn't about Eric Clapton, so I'll keep it brief. Eric Clapton had had a self-imposed hiatus in the early 70s, but he had come back with a popular album, 461 Ocean Boulevard, which featured the hit single "I Shot The Sheriff." At the time, Bob Marley and The Wailers were all but completely unknown in the United States, and Clapton's record was hugely important in popularizing Marley. However, Clapton had stepped back from being the gunslinging guitar hero of Cream and Derek and The Dominoes. After a triumphant tour in 1974, Clapton had spent the Summer of 1975 touring with Santana, double billed in huge venues throughout the United States. For Clapton's Bay Area appearance, however, Carlos Santana and his band stayed home. Oddly enough, this show was not a Bill Graham Presents event, and I believe the promoter had to find a venue that was not controlled by Graham, and somehow Frost had become available. By any standard, Clapton was an extremely big deal, and the beautiful setting of Frost Amphitheater made the event a must-see. Clapton's band at the time was
Eric Clapton-guitar, vocals
George Terry-guitar
Dick Simms-keyboards
Carl Radle-bass
Jamie Oldaker-drums
Yvonne Elliman-vocals (she had sung "You Don't Know How To Love Him")
Marcy Levy-vocals (later known as Marcella Detroit)
Although not big names, Clapton's group were serious, funky players, mostly from Tulsa, OK.

Kingfish, Frost Amphitheater, August 9, 1975
I have discussed the touring history of Bob Weir and Kingfish at great length, so I won't recap it here. My goal here is to describe how Kingfish appeared in a conventional rock setting, and how important that is to understanding what Weir was trying to do with the band. In particular, the Frost show emphasizes how much Kingfish was a conventional rock band, in complete contrast to the Grateful Dead, and indeed how good a job they did of it. I admit that much of my analysis comes in retrospect, as although I had seen the Grateful Dead five times prior to the Frost show, I had never seen Weir or Jerry Garcia in any other configuration. However, I had seen enough other rock bands by that time to realize that in many ways Weir and Dave Torbert were consciously trying to achieve rock stardom through regular means, and it may have been well within their grasp.

Of course my experience of Kingfish live for the very first time was tempered by the general excitement of the moment. However, it has to be pointed out that in the Summer of 1975, Kingfish had released no albums, no tapes were circulating to the likes of me and they were only reviewed in the most cursory of terms by the likes of Joel Selvin in the SF Chronicle. Thus, unlike music today, all I knew when Kingfish took the stage was that Bob Weir and Dave Torbert had been in two bands that I liked. I had no idea what they would play or how they would sound. I was the proverbial clean slate, and they absolutely knocked me out from the first note. In some ways, that was a rare instance where I could listen to a member of the Grateful Dead like a regular rock fan.

The traditional Deadhead criticism of Kingfish was that they didn't vary their music enough. They had a couple of dozen songs, and while their arrangements were hardly note for note repetition, they didn't vary their performances that much.  However, in 1975 that "criticism" was true of just about all rock bands, certainly all major ones, except for the Grateful Dead and whatever other ensemble Jerry Garcia was playing in. Deadheads who saw Kingfish a dozen times in 1975 and complained that "they always sounded the same!" were missing the point. Kingfish had a broad repertoire, but they were competing with the likes of Dave Mason or Foghat on their turf, playing enjoyable rock and roll that could be appreciated as soon as it would heard, not only by you but by your girlfriend (if you had one) rather than requiring a cosmic intervention. Dissecting a Kingfish performance on tape doesn't remind you of Miles Davis, but that wasn't what Weir and Dave Torbert were trying to do.

By Summer 1975, Kingfish had mostly played bars or hard-to-get-to venues, locking out any opportunities for suburban teenagers like me. Once they got into a big venue like Frost, however, Weir and Torbert's experience in successful rock bands really showed. What Kingfish did was move air, with the veteran assurance of a band led by players who had played in huge outdoor venues with giant sound systems many a time. The Grateful Dead are such a difficult, multi-legged beast that it is easy to forget how powerful the individual musicians were on their own. Weir's remarkable pianistic approach to the rhythm guitar drove Kingfish right from the first notes of "I Hear You Knockin." Weir didn't play that many chords, but he pushed and pulled the sound so that it seemed bigger than it actually was. Dave Torbert's bass surged against it, with old friend Chris Herold locked in the groove on the drums, and lead guitarist Robbie Hoddinott's stinging Roy Buchanan-styled Fender Telecaster adding some fire. Kingfish sounded huge, and yet they were barely playing any notes.

I have cherished these memories fondly over the decades, although it turns out that Bob Menke was there as well, and made a great tape. Kingfish sounds terrific, so I wasn't imagining it. However, what even the best tape doesn't capture is the surge of air when a rocking band gets a whole crowd going, and Weir and Torbert were playing a rootsy rock and roll that got the crowd up immediately. By this time, although just a soon-to-be-college student, I had seen my share of bands besides the Dead, including Poco, Jesse Colin Young, the Allman Brothers, Faces, Pink Floyd, Dave Mason and others, and Kingfish was right on their level. It's a daunting thing to open for Eric Clapton, but the fact was that Weir had already done it, since the Grateful Dead had opened for Cream long ago (March 11, 1968 in Sacramento).

Jerry Garcia and his various aggregations generally made an effort to walk their own path, playing their own shows outside of any normal music business context. Weir and Kingfish, however, while headlining plenty of nightclubs like the Keystone, seemed perfectly willing to play second on the bill to one of the biggest acts to come to town all year. That bespoke confidence and ambition--Weir and Torbert were planning to be rock stars, and rock stars share the stage with Eric Clapton.

At least four of the members of Kingfish had grown up in the South Bay, and likely had been to Frost Amphitheater on occasion for something, as had many other kids like me. Weir and Matt Kelly (both Atherton) and Torbert and Herold (both Redwood City) most likely recognized and remembered Frost Amphitheater from their childhood and probably felt like Big Kahunas for actually taking the stage (I'm not sure where Hoddinott grew up). Weir was a handsome lad, and Torbert was the essence of Cowboy Surfer cool, and their onstage demeanor was understated but positive. Torbert and drummer Chris Herold had been playing together for nearly 10 years, so the pocket was tight. Kelly, Hoddinott, Torbert and Herold had all been playing together in various Santa Cruz and South Bay bands the previous several years, so although Kingfish was in itself new they had a veteran feel. As far as my teenage self was concerned, I couldn't see why all of America wasn't going to be knocked out by Kingfish.

Why Weren't Kingfish Big Rock Stars?
Why weren't Kingfish big rock stars? I consider this a serious question, not a joke. I saw the band open for Eric Clapton, they looked and sounded great, and the band kept their repertoire and arrangements in the normal range of rock music at the time, instead of heading down the road of Grateful Dead weirdness. They certainly could have become big rock stars. The answer, ultimately, was that although Kingfish shied away from some of the most difficult aspects of Grateful Dead music, Weir and Torbert's insistence on keeping their music separate from the Grateful Dead and the New Riders of The Purple Sage made Kingfish's success too much of an uphill battle.

Several months prior to the Clapton/Kingfish show at Frost, I had seen Dave Mason at the Maples Pavilion basketball arena, less than a mile away. Mason had been in Traffic in the 60s, and had some other abortive endeavors, and a hit album in 1970 (Alone Together), but since that time he had been slugging it out on the road. When he finally headlined Maples in January 1975, it was the culmination of a lot of heavy labor built upon an older recorded legacy.

I had seen Dave Mason, and let me tell you he was great, with a great band. But he didn't limit himself to his own material and a few exotic cover versions. Mason played a song from his Traffic days ("Pearly Queen"), a song from a band where he was the roadie (the Spencer Davis Group's "Gimme Some Lovin'") and a song where he had played bass in the studio, even though it later got overdubbed (Jimi Hendrix's "All Along The Watchtower"). Mason's other showstopper was a great version of Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home To Me," a song that Mason had nothing to do with. Sure, Mason did some of his own songs, and I really liked them ("Only You Know And I Know," "Shouldn't Have Took More Than You Gave," etc), but his big numbers were his own versions of songs that were only distantly, if legitimately associated with him. Mason came into each arena looking to hit a home run, and he wasn't going to lay off any fastballs because of any fastidiousness about whether songs "belonged" to him, so he ended every show with "Gimme Some Lovin'" and rocked the house.

Kingfish sounded like rock stars, but if they had played "Sugar Magnolia" and "Panama Red" they might have really become them. Now, speaking personally, I'm glad they played "See See Rider" and "Overnight Bag" instead, but the correct rock thing to do would have been to play the biggest hits from their previous incarnation. Never mind that Torbert hadn't been the singer when the New Riders recorded "Panama Red." Bands with long pedigrees advertised that history by playing the song, regardless of the singer: I saw Lindsay Buckingham sing Peter Green songs at Winterland before his own songs became more famous, and it helped Fleetwood Mac climb the ladder. Weir had enough Garcia in him, and Torbert too, that they kept their best known material out of Kingfish, and ultimately they paid an implicit price of never going over the top. Kingfish were a great live band, particularly in a big place, but they tied one hand behind their back, even if they played better music as a result.

Weir did perform "One More Saturday Night' with Kingfish, but the song was not particularly well known at the time to the general population. "Minglewood," too, had dropped out of the Dead's rotation years before, and covers like "Around And Around" and "Promised Land" were hardly known as Dead standards at the time. Torbert occasionally played New Riders numbers with Kingfish, but not often, and never the popular ones that he himself had not sung. I'm happy they didn't, but Weir performed on stage like a rock star while eschewing the popular songs that had made him so, a very rare set of choices for musicians who were not members of the Grateful Dead.

Aftermath
Kingfish still became pretty popular in the 1975-76 period, and they played some big events, including a rock festival near Trenton, NJ with Aerosmith, and some stadium shows in the Bay Area. They released a pretty good debut album, Kingfish, in March 1976, but though they were a popular live act they never got past the second tier. Although the Eric Clapton crowd at Frost was not a Deadhead crowd, Palo Alto was still home court for the Dead, and Kingfish certainly went over well with the Frost audience, a mark of how they could have succeeded in an alternative universe. "Jump For Joy" wasn't "I Shot The Sheriff," however, and Kingfish never got enough traction to become stars separate from Bob Weir's status as a member of the Grateful Dead.

August 9, 1975 was a very hot afternoon, and Clapton seemed to get a slow start, with a sort of perfunctory "Layla." As testament to Eric's status as a true rock star, he did not even bother to play "I Shot The Sheriff," his #1 single from the previous summer, but since he played songs like "Layla," it didn't matter.  Unlike Dave Mason, Clapton was big enough not to have to play his last big hit, but Weir was more like Mason, much as he aspired to be Clapton. Finally, during the guitar break in "Badge," Clapton found his groove, and he ruled the place from then on. Although the setlist seems pedestrian now, Clapton's searing, confident playing at its best can't be duplicated, and by the time he finished with "Let It Rain" it was one for the ages.

People who had seen Clapton's East Coast tour had seen him share the billing with Santana. Personally, I was happier to see Bob Weir and Kingfish, but I got the best of best worlds. On the sloped terrace of Frost, you could see Carlos hovering by the side of the stage much of the day, and for the encore Santana came onstage to join in the fun. Santana traded hot licks with Clapton and George Terry for a long version of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Eyesight To The Blind." Although Eric and Carlos love the blues, this too was no casual choice. Clapton had done the song as part of an All-Star cast of the Ken Russell film of The Who's Tommy, so the choice allowed Clapton to jam the blues on his encore while playing one of his best known numbers. I love that Weir did no such thing, but he gets no recognition for keeping the Grateful Dead's music distinct from his own at exactly the moment when he could have sold himself to a bigger audience.

Appendix
Audience Recording of Kingfish on Sugarmegs
Kingfish Setlist
d1t01 - Hear You Knocking
d1t02 - CC Rider
d1t03 - Overnight Bag
d1t04 - Big Iron
d1t05 - Jump Back
d1t06 - New Minglewood Blues
d1t07 - Juke
d1t08 - /Hypnotize
d1t09 - Promised Land
d1t10 - Jump For Joy
d1t11 - Around & Around
d1t12 - Saturday Night

Eric Clapton Setlist
Layla
Knockin' On Heaven's door
Tell The Truth
Can't Find My Way Home
Key To The Highway
Carnival
Badge
Better Make It Through Today
Blues Power
Rambling On My Mind
Let It Rain
Eyesight To The Blind (with Carlos Santana)

3 comments:

  1. It's interesting to read about the polarity between Weir's & Garcia's approaches to their sidebands. While Weir aimed for mainstream rock, Garcia wanted....well, whatever the Saunders & JGB outfits were. (Certainly no shows with Aerosmith!) For all the Dead members had in common, they also came from very different places musically. Of course, this added to the diversity of a Dead show. (And, to some people, what they did apart doesn't equal what they did together. Like other famous bands...)

    One unspoken question is, what would have happened to the Dead in '76 if Kingfish DID have a couple #1 singles.... Would Weir have backed away from Kingfish so quickly? Would Dead shows have gotten some spillover fans expecting some more straight rock?
    You mention the band not becoming stars, but of course with Weir (and other members) leaving the band shortly after their first album, it would have been very difficult for the band to stay on an upward trajectory in any case.

    (Weir indicated in interviews that being in two bands at once was a tiring challenge, and of course the Dead had the greater claim on him. Garcia was more nimble at balancing different bands, and I think he also had a closer relationship with the guys he worked with, like Kahn, than Weir did with his sidebands.)

    In the "dog that didn't bark" vein, the near-total absence of sideprojects for Phil Lesh is telling. Aside from some work with Ned Lagin in '75, he seems to have had no interest in working with others apart from the Dead! Heck, even Mickey Hart had a more diverse musical resume in the '70s...

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  2. I just read Sam Cutler's book (finally), and he said that in 1970 Phil was the least eager to tour. I note in 68-69 that Phil played a little bit at the Matrix (with the Hartbeats) and with the New Riders, and then pretty much stopped playing nightclubs forever. Generally, Phil would only play side gigs in Marin County. Phil would go to Wally Heider Studios, but that was about it.

    I think Phil liked collaborating, he just didn't like driving around to tiny venues in Berkeley or San Francisco. Weir and Garcia seemed to get a kick out of that for its own sake, but that wasn't shared by Phil. Too Loose To Truck played only one or two gigs outside of Marin (at Keystone Berkeley), and Phil subbed for John Kahn in June of '81, but that was probably an emergency.

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  3. I was working at KZSU at the time, we scheduled Clapton for the summer Frost shows that included Loggins and Messina, Cold Blood, New Riders of the Purple Sage, etc.

    I was backstage, wild eyed kid watching Clapton drinking a cold beer, when Carlos shows up in white. They played a fifteen minute version of "Eyesight to the Blind" ... both of them feeding off each other to new heights.

    A memorable show for a kid at Stanford at the time, a real amazing time.

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