Friday, May 6, 2011

Spring 1976, Lower Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley: Merl Saunders and Aunt Monk with Martin Fierro, Chris Hayes and Bill Vitt

When I was in High School, Jerry Garcia's extracurricular activities were a tantalizing mystery. I lacked money, a car and the right to go to bars, so when I saw ads for events like Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders at the Keystone Berkeley, I could only wonder what they were like. I absorbed what information I could, like the "Live At Keystone" double lp on Fantasy, or the occasional live broadcast on KSAN, but it was all largely a world I couldn't enter. The one time Garcia-Saunders actually played my town at a show I could attend (at El Camino Park in Palo Alto on June 8, 1975) I didn't go, for some high-schoolish reason--I think because none of my friends would go with me.

When I went to college, Jerry stopped playing with Merl and began the Jerry Garcia Band with Nicky Hopkins. I was lucky enough to see them, twice (Oct 17 and Dec 19 '75), but of course no explanation was ever given for changing band members, or for that matter changing the band name. We could read the paper, and see that Merl Saunders was still playing around, using the name Aunt Monk. There was some mention of his band members in Joel Selvin's SF Chronicle column, as Tony Saunders seemed to have taken over on bass for John Kahn, while Chris Hayes had the unfortunate job of "replacing" Jerry Garcia on guitar, and someone else was on drums (I think it was Larry Van). Tony Saunders may have still only been a teenager, and Chris Hayes wasn't much older. His older sister Bonnie Hayes led a popular club act in the Bay Area (Bonnie Hayes and The Wild Combo), but his playing was unknown to me. I still had no money and wasn't 21, so even when Merl Saunders played around, I couldn't go. I had no idea what the band sounded like without Garcia.

Lower Sproul Plaza as it appeared in March, 2010. The stage for free concerts in the 1970s was just off camera to the right, in front of Zellerbach Auditorium. Pauley Ballroom and The Bear's Lair are off camera to the left. Visible is Eshleman Hall, looking South with Bancroft Street in the background.
Lower Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley
Sproul Plaza was the main quad on the UC Berkeley campus, and had been for many decades. In the 60s, it was the site of many seminal protests and riots revolving around the Free Speech Movement and a series of Anti-War protests. Lower Sproul was constructed some time in the mid-60s, an adjunct to the main quadrangle, bracketed by the Student Union building which included the Bear's Lair and Pauley Ballroom on one side, while Zellerbach Auditorium was on the opposite side (the view above looks South towards Eshleman Hall. In this view, Pauley is to the left and Zellerbach to the right).

When I was in college in the late 70s, almost every Friday there was a free rock concert in Lower Sproul at noon in the Fall and Spring Quarters. Sometimes there were shows on other days as well. I often had class at 12:30 on Fridays, but I saw a half hour of a lot of interesting bands. The groups who played were usually headlining at Keystone Berkeley or opening at Winterland that weekend, so they weren't nobodies.

My older sister rather cynically, and as it turned out correctly, pointed out to me that the primary purpose of allowing rock bands on Fridays was because the administration wanted to drown out any protests. This turned out to be true. A full volume rock band on Lower Sproul made it impossible to hear any speakers at the inevitable demonstrations held on Fridays, and many times I saw this happen. This was an instructive lesson on how institutions co-opt participants for their own ends, but that wasn't my concern at the time.

One Friday morning in Spring, 1976, probably around March or April, one of my friends somehow found out that the scheduled band for Lower Sproul that day was Merl Saunders. I assume he was promoting his You Can Leave Your Hat On album, but I wasn't aware of that at the time. My little clump of Deadhead pals were really excited. We all repeated to ourselves "Jerry will never show up, he left the band" while secretly intoning "please please please just this time please." Instead of just wandering past Lower Sproul on our way to class, we all made plans to arrive early and sit down in front of the stage (y'know, just in case).

For those readers who know the UC Berkeley campus, the bands played on a mobile stage that they would set up in front of the lobby of Zellerbach Auditorium (I think they got power from Zellerbach), with an appropriate little sound system. Our backs would be to Pauley Ballroom and The Bear's Lair. Since Lower Sproul was bracketed by buildings, it had a sort of natural bowl effect, and the sound wasn't bad at all for an outdoor show. Usually a hundred or so fans of a band would be up close, a hundred or so intrigued passers-by would hang out, and hundreds more would wander through on their way to or from class or the library. Today, we were part of the hundred fans who were going to be up close.

Merl Saunders and Aunt Monk's 1976 Fantasy LP You Can Leave Your Hat On
Merl Saunders and Aunt Monk
Sproul Plaza shows were generally without fanfare. Someone, usually a college radio station dj, would announce the band, and off they would go. I don't even recall if Merl Saunders was actually announced at all, which in and of itself wouldn't have been surprising. I'm fairly certain that Merl began the show by introducing the band: Martin Fierro on tenor sax, Chris Hayes on guitar and Bill Vitt on drums. Saunders introduced Bill Vitt as "an old friend" or something like that, so in the context it seemed like Vitt was just making a guest appearance. In any case, we knew that Vitt had long since moved on from the Garcia-Saunders band, and yet here he was. Bill Vitt wasn't that big a deal, and yet to me, here was a name I had seen on the back of albums and in nightclub ads, and here he was in the flesh. I felt like I was in college, not some sleepy suburban high school. It was great.

I don't recall the numbers that Merl played, but I do recall that most or all of the numbers were tracks that we were familiar with from various Garcia/Saunders or Legion Of Mary tapes. I'm pretty sure they did "You Can Leave Your Hat On" and "Boogie On, Reggae Woman, " but in any case it was songs along those lines; familiar, but 'Merl songs' instead of 'Jerry songs.' Because I was naive, I initially didn't understand why there wasn't a bass player. It took a little bit of time to realize that Merl was covering bass with the foot pedals on his organ, so he was singing, playing organ and playing bass all at the same time.

Although none of us would say it out loud, we were initially let down because Jerry wasn't there, just as our rational minds had insisted. This must have happened to Merl throughout his career. Here was the thing, though--Merl and the band were absolutely smoking. Merl laid down an awesome groove on the organ, Bill Vitt had plenty of room to stretch out on the drums, and Chris Hayes laid down a nice groove himself on the guitar. Hayes sounded more like Weir than Garcia, although that was the only real grounds I had for comparison--now I realize that Hayes was trying to sound like Kenny Burrell or Larry Carlton, but he played nice jazzy chords and clean licks, keeping it moving the whole time. Fierro isn't really an exceptional soloist, but this was groove music and he had a nice tone. The place was jumping, and it was noon and on one was drinking beer--they must have really got it going on when the lights were low.

I watched the whole hour and was late to class, or skipped it (I retroactively apologize to all the college professors out there). The whole show was a revelation, in more ways than one. Whenever I had listened to Garcia-Saunders, all I had heard was Jerry, Jerry, Jerry. Without him, however, it turned out that Merl and his crew were terrific musicians who were really fun to listen to. Bill Vitt was an awesome drummer, and I was stunned at Merl's ability to play bass and organ at the same time. I didn't think that Merl Saunders and Aunt Monk were the Next Big Thing, or anything like that, but it was a reminder that I had to listen to the music that was actually played rather than thinking about my own expectations, and I have tried to keep that in mind ever since.

Chris Hayes went on to join Huey Lewis and The News in 1979 and became a big rock star. Merl Saunders (1934-2008) and Martin Fierro (1943-2008) had lengthy careers, but they are no longer with us. Bill Vitt, it turns out, released an album in 2008.

Sometime in the 21st century, I was at the Davis-Bynum Winery in Sonoma, and I was chatting with the wine salesman behind the desk. As I was leaving, he handed me his card and it said "Bill Vitt." I asked "Are you the guy etc etc" and he was. As I left, I remembered the Sproul show, and I didn't want to let it go unremarked. I do know that all artists appreciate people who enjoy their work, so I went back in to tell him how much I had enjoyed this Friday afternoon, by this time over 25 years previously. Vitt, who couldn't have been nicer, recalled the show--or pretended to anyway, but I think he really did--and said that Merl had called him the day before and told him just to show up. That means Vitt was laying it down with no rehearsal whatsoever, another sign of what great musicians were in the band, even without their famous friend.

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