Friday, April 15, 2011
Howard Wales, Rendezvous With The Sun, What Next Records 1976/1999 (More Hooteroll)
A recent post on another blog of mine about the Jerry Garcia/Howard Wales collaboration the Hooteroll? album pursued the seemingly simple question of when the album was actually recorded. My original purpose for the analysis was to attempt to assess Garcia's partnership with various keyboard players in his nightclub band. The subject turned out to be not at all simple, and the subject leapfrogged to another blog for further rumination. Nor was it a simple matter to figure out the arc of when the album was released, and the apparent corporate machinations behind the album turned out to be intriguing as well. My original plan to focus my Grateful Dead blog on the history of live performances of the band and its members had been infiltrated by the mysterious history of Hooteroll?.
My solution to the Hooteroll problem will be this blog, where I discuss all the issues arising from the scholarship in my Lost Live Dead blog, but not directly related to it. Grateful Dead scholarship is a series of interlocking circles, like a Venn diagram, and this blog will look at some circles that have somewhat less overlap with the central topics of Lost Live Dead. I have always strived to make Lost Live Dead and its partner, Rock Prosopography, feature well researched posts about subjects I consider important. I admit, I may be one of the few people who thinks the history of The Good News (a mostly forgotten 1966 South Bay band that included Dave Torbert) was important, but I find myself curious about many subjects that even I cannot justify posting about without indulging myself in undermining the focus of my blogs. Hence this blog, which as far as Grateful Dead topics go, has been conceived as a platform where I can indulge some of the more trivial and speculative results of my Grateful Dead research. If that turns into all Hooteroll, all the time, so be it.
Rendezvous With The Sun-Howard Wales (Coastal CST1000, 1976: CD What Next WNR 1001, 1999 [distributed by Grateful Dead Records])
In the late 1990s, Grateful Dead Records had a fairly substantial mail order operation, for an independent record label. Their most prominent products were archival Grateful Dead cds, such as Dick's Picks, but they also retailed the band's regular cds and new and re-issued solo material. Someone in the band heirarchy got the idea of releasing albums by friends of the band that would appeal to the Dead's audience, and they released an Allman Brothers album recorded in 1970, a Crosby/Nash album recorded in 1971 and a new live album (with classic material) by the Sons Of Champlin in 1998. While I think the effort was well intentioned, the Grateful Dead were in an odd inbetween status after Garcia's death, and the albums did not get the attention they deserved. All three aggregations subsequently released additional albums under different aegis, and over the next few years Grateful Dead Records scaled back its efforts to focus only on the Grateful Dead.
As part of this effort, Grateful Dead Records released two cds by Howard Wales. Wales had been running the Monday night jam session at the Matrix in early 1970, when Garcia became a regular. The Garcia/Wales/John Kahn/Bill Vitt ensemble only lasted a few months, but it spawned the Garcia/Saunders aggregation that followed, and that in turn led to the Jerry Garcia Band. Jerry Garcia was also Wales's partner on the peculiarly named Hooteroll? album (on Columbia), which was the first release with Garcia's name on it when it was released in September 1971. Warner Brothers rushed out Garcia's debut solo album in January 1972 as competition, but Columbia sponsored Garcia as a guest on an East Coast tour by Howard Wales. The 10 date tour in January of 1972 was Garcia's first solo tour outside of California.
Wales was a very "outside" player, and his swirling organ and strange changes pushed Garcia's guitar playing into the furthest out realm of anything he ever released under his own name. Garcia had continued to record with Wales after Saunders had taken over the keyboard chair in their little band, so clearly Garcia liked him personally. Wales had played on two tracks of American Beauty in 1970, and Wales had jammed with the Dead various times. He was apparently auditioned for the keyboard chair--whether in 1970 or 1971 isn't clear yet--but was deemed "too strange." Wales disappeared from the Grateful Dead universe for many years, but rather unexpectedly sat in with the Jerry Garcia Band at the Warfield for a few songs on March 5, 1988. Whatever Wales exact story may have been, Garcia seemed to have been OK with him, and Wales's playing was as unconventional as ever.
Wales kept a very low profile from the 1970s onward. According to Garcia, Wales was uncomfortable with success. He had moved to the Bay Area in 1968 with a progressive blues band from Milwuakee called AB Skhy. AB Skhy had a local following, and they released a pretty good debut album on MGM in 1969. The one live tape I have of them (Avalon Ballroom, March 30 '69) is terrific. However, just as some kind of buzz had begun about the group, Wales seems to have quit, and he did not appear on their second album (Ramblin' On, MGM 1970). However, Wales association with Garcia got him a Columbia contract for Hooteroll?, but that seems to have spooked him as well, and he was largely unseen after the early 1970s.
Nonetheless, it appears that Wales released a little known album called Rendezvous With The Sun in 1975, and it was released on Coastal Records in 1976. After arriving and disappearing with no fanfare--I was totally unaware of the album in the 70s--Grateful Dead Records distributed the album on cd in about 1999. The re-release was actually on What Next Records, which appears to be Wales's own label. Grateful Dead Records hardly publicized the release. They also released a contemporary Wales solo album, The Monk In The Mansion, in 2000. This cd was actually released on Grateful Dead Records, but it too received very little publicity.
Wales had not been totally invisible in the previous decades, but close to it. Every once in a while his name would turn up on the local club listings. In 1996, he had started playing around regularly with the great guitarist Harvey Mandel. In fact, I saw the Harvey Mandel Band with Howard Wales open a show at the Fillmore on May 16, 1996 (the headliners were Eric Burdon, Alvin Lee and Aynsley Dunbar: Best Of The British Blues). The music seemed to mainly be Mandel's, driving sophisticated blues, well played instrumental music that never got too far out there. The band was a quartet, with Wales playing a little electronic keyboard instead of a big Hammond organ (bassist Nate Riddle and drummer Benny Murray filled out the lineup).
Rendezvous With The Sun is a pretty enjoyable mid-70s instrumental album, but it doesn't really stand out for me. The title track is heavily orchestrated, with multiple keyboard overdubs, but most of the songs are in mildly funky jazz groove. While it hearkens back a little to the first AB Skhy album, the nearest contemporary comparison would be Brian Auger and The Oblivion Express, although Wales lacks Auger's magical ability to mix deep musicianship with a catchy organ groove. Wales plays beautifully, but he never gets way out there the way he did with AB Skhy or Hooteroll?.
The music on Rendezvous With The Sun is copyrighted 1975, but I believe it was recorded earlier. Since it was recorded at Wally Heider's with Al Schmidt as the engineer, that suggests major record company support, but from whom is uncertain. For reasons too oblique even for this blog, I think the album was prepared for a major label, but Wales got dropped and the project was finished somewhat later for the unknown-to-me Coastal Records. The core band is the same one that Garcia and Wales toured with in 1972: Jim Vincent on guitar, Wales on keyboards, Roger Troy on bass and Tom Donlinger on drums. Donlinger and Vincent were brothers (Jim Vincent's real last name is Donlinger), and they had been in the Chicago band Aorta, and by the mid-70s would turn up in the group Lovecraft (who were not HP Lovecraft, also from Chicago--got it?). Troy was a Midwesterner as well, and had worked for many years in Cincinnati.
Various other players turn up on Rendezvous, but there are no track listings. There are two other bassists, Doug Killmer and Peter Marshall, Pat Gleeson on synthesizers, Bill Champlin on a few "ooh-ooh" vocals and 7 horn players on one track ("My Blues"). While old friend Martin Fierro is one of the players, several of them are Los Angeles session heavies who among many other things were part of Frank Zappa's Petit Wazoo ensemble (Gary Barone, Mike Altschul and Sal Marquez). High priced overdubs are one of the markers of major label involvement, although the playing of these big hitters is quite restrained.
Why did Grateful Dead Records distribute the cd re-release of Rendezvous With The Sun? No publicity was associated with it, even on the Dead website, and as Wales played out only occasionally, as it appears he mostly scores films and other professional studio work for a living, he did nothing to promote it. Wales's own website, where the cd is now available, has little useful information about the record. Like everything associated with Howard Wales, explanations are just beyond the horizon. I can't imagine many people bought the cd from Grateful Dead Merchandising--for all I know I was the only one.
I grant that Howard Wales is a name associated with Jerry Garcia, but he's a pretty obscure name. GDM was not a charity, so there had to be some reason for the release. While by all accounts Wales is quite a nice guy, his friendship was with Garcia and John Kahn, and he seems to have had little or no contact with other members of the band or the extended family.
In 1998, Grateful Dead Records released the cd Side Trips, Volume One by Jerry Garcia and Howard Wales. It featured selections from a fantastic performance at the Matrix on May 18, 1970. Garcia, Wales, John Kahn and Bill Vitt play the most flexible, strange and inventive music imaginable, and its plain to see how Wales opened up Garcia's playing into the vast, jazzy landscape he would explore in the mid-70s. Since Wales would have had to assent to the release, I think part of the agreement was that GDM would distribute the re-release of Rendezvous With The Sun and also release The Monk In The Mansion on Grateful Dead Records.
Whether or not I am correct, and whether or not it was a good deal, Side Trips Volume One is essential Garcia. Rendezvous With The Sun shows how much Wales needed Garcia to explore his most far out side, although obviously the album was made with some commercial considerations in mind. Not that it mattered in 1999, but Jerry would have been the first to be willing to release an old Howard Wales album as a courtesy to his old friend, even if it was probably done for more business-like reasons. If I am correct about Side Trips being dependent on the Wales releases, that was a pretty shrewd business deal on Wales's part. I suspect he had some good advice, and since his website mentions work he did with "Sy Klopps," I would suspect that Sy himself--Campolindo High School graduate, former Frumious Bandersnatch and Santana road manager and Journey manager Walter "Herbie" Herbert--may have helped make the deal go down.
Whatever the exact back story, given the importance of Howard Wales in Jerry Garcia's musical development, its a useful thing to have his only major recording for several years available, even if the background is inconclusive. Wales was so far ahead of mid-70s music that he seems to have been unable to move backwards, and the album isn't that satisfying, although ironically that may be as much because I know what heights he was capable of reaching, rather than any actual failing of Rendezvous With The Sun itself.