Friday, June 17, 2011

September 19, 1984 Julia Morgan Theater, Berkeley, CA: Tom Constanten/Electric Guitar Quartet

I keep formidable notes, and I keep them forever, but even I don't make note of everything. On my typewritten list of "shows attended" (but not the earlier, handwritten one) I have an entry that reads

9/19/84 Julia Morgan Theater, Berkeley TOM CONSTANTEN/Electric Guitar Quartet
formerly Epic West Ballroom TC: grand piano EGQ: +TC-el pi (one song)

Just to parse my own work for a moment, Constanten's name appears in capital letters because he was a recorded artist, and the Electric Guitar Quartet were not (this is one way that I distinguished local groups who opened shows from bands with an album that I had merely never heard of). I can tell by my notations that Constanten performed solo on grand piano (I would have listed other musicians), and also played electric piano on one song with the Electric Guitar Quartet.

The reference to Epic West Ballroom is an internal remark. Eight years earlier I had gone to the same venue when it was called the Epic West Ballroom. I had seen a later incarnation of Johnathan Richman and The Modern Lovers there on April 9, 1976 (they were awesome, by the way, and did both "New Teller" and "Roadrunner"), so my remark was an indication that I had been to the venue. There's no asterisk, however, so that means I didn't write down any other notes, so it's no surprise that I didn't find any. I actually remember this show somewhat clearly, so I'm putting this post down as a kind of marker for myself.

The Julia Morgan Theater
The Julia Morgan Theater, at 2640 College Avenue in Berkeley (at Derby St), was a Redwood building designed in 1908 as the St. John's Presbyterian Church by famed artist Julia Morgan. It has undergone various uses over the years, but the main room has been a performance space since at least the 1960s. It was briefly the Epic West Ballroom in the 1970s (it may have been the Center For World Music in the 1960s, I can't exactly recall) and it had various other names. Modern Lovers aside, who themselves were semi-acoustic (in a kinda rockin' way), any music presented at the venue tended to be classical, folk or chamber jazz, rather than loud electric music. By the 1980s, the room was called The Julia Morgan Theater, a name it has more or less retained to this day. It housed and houses various Berkeley artistic ensembles. It is a wonderful place to see a show, but parking is very difficult, so it helped to live in walking distance (I'm sure that's still true).

Tom Constanten
In the early 1980s, the Grateful Dead were sort of treated like a Coelacanth, particularly in the Bay Area. While most 60s rock artists who were still alive were around in some form, the Grateful Dead had been performing more or less continuously since back in the day. While they were sort of an institution, they were also taken for granted, and decidedly uncool. While the Dead were popular in the East, in the Bay Area they often played shows at 3000 seat venues like The Fox Warfield or Marin Vets in San Rafael. Granted, these shows sold out instantly by word-of-mouth, but the big runs at places like the Greek Theater or Oakland Auditorium had attendance buttressed by enthusiastic out-of-towners. There just weren't that many serious Deadheads in the Bay Area.

Casual indifference to the Grateful Dead was magnified when it came to performances by any of the individual band members. Jerry Garcia had performed constantly since 1969, and he mostly played clubs, albeit by the 80s the rather substantial Keystones. Bob Weir was not an unfamiliar performer with a variety of ensembles, Robert Hunter played around some, and most of us had seen the other members of the band in some configuration or other at some time. So seeing Dead members somewhere or another wasn't a big deal in its own right.

In 1984, however, Tom Constanten was still a complete mystery. As far as we had known, he had dropped off the face of the earth after leaving the Grateful Dead in 1970. We knew that he had sat in with them at Fillmore East in April 1971, and I had found the mysterious Touchstone album for 50 cents in a record store. Still, the Touchstone album dated him no later than '71, so there had been over a dozen years of silence. TC hadn't put out a record or been in a band, to our knowledge, so we knew nothing. Since he was billed at the Julia Morgan Theater, we were going. We had no idea what it would be like. Since parking on College Avenue was always a challenge, I drove to my friend's house and we walked over to the theater.

The Performance
At this time, the Julia Morgan Theater featured various kinds of performances, but none of them were rock music. Not surprisingly, the Theater was set up like a church, with many of the pews still intact. It was a beautiful building, and the acoustics were very nice. I recall vaguely that there was a printed program, like at a classical music performance. There was an OK crowd, about 100 people or so, most of them apparently Deadheads, but it was hard to be certain in Berkeley (where tenured faculty looked like Deadheads anyway).

I can't recall if there was any performer prior to TC, but I do recall him coming out looking surprisingly similar to the back cover of Live/Dead, if with somewhat grayer hair. He sat down at the grand piano and played a series of numbers. I don't recall if he said anything. I do recall that he played "Dark Star" and everyone briefly but respectfully burst into applause. I think he mostly played ragtime music. "Dark Star" and ragtime--you don't see a lot of concerts where that's the entire show. I am pretty sure that there were no other Grateful Dead-related numbers.

The Electric Guitar Quartet came out, and played their music. The deal seemed to be that one of the members had scored chamber music for electric guitars. It was mildly interesting, for about two minutes, but it went on a lot longer than that. At one point, TC joined them on the electric piano, and accompanied the quartet. It wasn't my thing.

One of the reasons that I am fairly sure there was a program--which would have been typical of a classical or world music performance at the Julia Morgan Theater--was that I was aware of the names of the members of the Electric Guitar Quartet. The one name that stuck in my mind was Ken Frankel. I later confirmed that this was indeed the same Ken Frankel who had played bluegrass with Jerry Garcia in the Black Mountain Boys, circa 1963. When Frankel moved to Boston for graduate school (I think he went to MIT), he joined a rock band called Ill Wind, who played all of the legendary Boston venues like the Tea Party and the Psychedelic Supermarket. They released an album, but didn't last much beyond the sixties. Somewhere in the very interesting Ill Wind website, I managed to find the links to the Electric Guitar Quartet.

Thanks to the miracle of the web, I now know that the Electric Guitar Quartet was the brainchild of Ken Frankel himself, who built the instruments specially for the ensemble. The Berkeley performance was the only appearance where TC joined the band, and according to the ever reliable Deaddisc, they performed a Mozart Sonata. It appears also that the EGQ had recorded a cassette, for sale only at performances, that featured a Constanten composition, but I don't recall it (in any case I wouldn't have gotten it).

And that was it. The whole thing was perhaps 90 minutes, and I went back to my friend's house, and then home. TC disappeared for another several years. Every once in a while, at a Dead show or something, people would be yakking about some old '69 tape or something, and I would say "I actually saw Constanten play piano in a little place in Berkeley, about '84," and people would be incredulous. Not jealous, particularly, but surprised, as if you said you were friends with a ghost.

1 comment:

  1. Nice!

    Coelacanth: "the most well-known example of a Lazarus taxon, a species that seems to have disappeared from the fossil record only to reappear much later."