Friday, September 14, 2012

David Nelson Musical Activities, February 1968-May 1969 (David Nelson V)

An ad for Berkeley's Freight and Salvage, from the Berkeley Barb of February 14, 1969. High Country, with David Nelson, was advertised for the following Thursday, February 20
After the demise of The New Delhi River Band at the end of January, 1968, David Nelson bided his time and worked on new ventures. Most of them didn't pan out, but given his importance in the arc of the careers in Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, it's useful to sketch out what I know about what Nelson was attempting between the New Delhi River Band and the beginning of the New Riders of The Purple Sage. Anyone with corrections, insights, additional information or recovered memories (real or imagined) is encouraged to Comment or email me.

New Delhi River Band, 1968
By the beginning of 1968, the New Delhi River Band just seemed to run out of shows to play. There seemed to be no hostility or falling out amongst the members---indeed they kept rejoining bands with each other--but the band appeared to have simply become no longer viable. Bassist Dave Torbert and drummer Chris Herold went on to form a group called Shango, and had a variety of other adventures, but that will be the subject of a different post. Nelson, meanwhile, seems to follow his own path. What follows is what little I have been able to determine about Nelson's music from early 1968 until mid-1969.

February-October 1968
For about 9 months in 1968, I can find no trace of any public musical activities by David Nelson. Presumably he laid low and made a living some other way. It does not appear that he was in an electric band nor that he was playing bluegrass or acoustic music, either. My only piece of knowledge about Nelson at this time was that he somehow had acquired an Indian motorcycle, a not-expensive but nonetheless exotic ride.

The cover to the Grateful Dead's June, 1969 album Aoxomoxoa, with cover art by Rick Griffin
Aoxomoxoa Sessions, Fall 1968
Nelson reappeared on the Grateful Dead scene in about October of 1968. Nelson hung out and participated in the Aoxomoxoa sessions at Pacific Recording in San Mateo during that time. I don't believe Nelson played a significant role in the final recordings, but he was around and he was mentioned on the back of the album. From 1966 to '68, both Nelson and Jerry Garcia had been very busy with their respective bands, and it's unlikely they saw much of each other. With Nelson unencumbered, however, there was considerably more time to hang out.

Sometime in August, 1968, the Grateful Dead at least toyed with the idea of replacing Bob Weir and Pigpen. McNally describes the infamous band meeting where they were both "fired," although the Grateful Dead continued to perform with both of them. Weir was convinced that he was out of the band, but he stuck it out, and in the end the firing didn't stick (p.276-279). However, during this period, the Grateful Dead at least had some jams with other guitarists. Whether, exactly, these were auditions is for you to decide, but it certainly looked that way. Via David Gans, we know that Nelson was invited to jam with the Dead, sans Weir and Pigpen, at Pacific Recording in Fall '68. The first number they tried was "The Eleven." In any case, Nelson remained a friend of the band, and Weir remained in the Grateful Dead.

Jam Sessions, David Nelson/Tim Abbott/Chris Herold, late 1968
Guitarist Tim Abbott had been in a Redwood City blues band called The Good News. When they broke up in October 1966, Chris Herold and Dave Torbert were free to join the New Delhi River Band. Abbott went on to a stint in the legendary Chocolate Watch Band, San Jose's finest. When Abbott left the Watch Band due to management issues, he rejoined Torbert and Herold in the group Shango, along with Matt Kelly and others. Abbott left Shango after a few months, but when the successor group to Shango (called Horses) folded, Herold and Abbott formed a group called Haywire.

When Haywire, too, faded away by the end of 1968, Herold and Abbott had a few jams with David Nelson, with an eye towards forming a group. However, according to Abbott, his guitar style did not particularly mesh with Nelson's, and nothing came of the jams.

Big Brother Warehouse, early 1969
In early 1969, David Nelson was apparently living in the rehearsal space warehouse of Big Brother And The Holding Company. Although Big Brother had been hugely successful, when Janis Joplin left the group they immediately disintegrated. The last show with Janis was at the Avalon on December 1, 1968, so Big Brother wouldn't have had much to do afterwards. Big Brother bassist Peter Albin was an old high school friend of Nelson's; indeed, according to legend, Albin had been with Nelson in Kepler's Books in Menlo Park when they first came across Garcia.

The Pete Frame New Riders Family Tree lists Nelson, Albin, Big Brother drummer Dave Getz and violinist Ed Bogas as a sort of jamming ensemble during this period. The classically trained Bogas had also been a high school friend of Albin's, and he had been a member of the Liberty Hill Aristrocrats, an old-time string band featuring Peter and Rodney Albin and various other intermittent members. However, since Albin and Getz went out on tour with Country Joe And The Fish in early March, the time frame for the jamming is constricted. However, I do know that Albin and Getz played at least one show--probably only one show--and I have to suspect Nelson was present if not actually a featured performer. David Gans was kind enough to ask Nelson about this, and Nelson confirms that he was present.

Sf Chronicle Datebook listing from Monday, January 6, 1969 The top item says "ROCK CLUB--Peter Albin and Dave Getz in a jam session at the Matrix, 3138 Fillmore"
From 1968 through 1970, the Matrix had a "jam session." These jams played an important role in Grateful Dead history, or at least in Jerry Garcia's musical history. Garcia was a regular, if intermittent visitor at Matrix jams. In early 1970 he showed up to jam with a guy named Howard Wales, who was hosting the jam session along with drummer Bill Vitt. Vitt in turn invited bassist John Kahn, and the roots of the Kahn/Garcia partnership and the Jerry Garcia Band were founded there.

In general, the Matrix usually advertised a host for the jam, and he in turn brought a few musicians, and if patrons were lucky some friends of the host would show up as well. In the parlance of the time, an ad that said "Elvin Bishop-Jam" meant that Elvin Bishop would play, but he might not necessarily have his regular band, and he wouldn't be playing his regular set. Of course, there would be some jamming, usually just the blues in A, but 'jam' really meant 'non-standard.' At various times in 1968 and 1969, the Monday night jam at the Matrix was hosted by Elvin Bishop, Carlos Santana, Howard Wales and other names familiar to people who read the backs of San Francisco albums. In any case, on January 6, 1969, the hosts for the Matrix jam were Peter Albin and Dave Getz of Big Brother. What material Nelson may have actually played with his friends remains obscure.

High Country, early 1969
High Country had originally been formed as a bluegrass duet, comprising mandolinist Butch Waller and guitarist Mylos Sonka. The duo's principal performing venue appears to have been Berkeley's Freight And Salvage. Waller was from Walnut Creek, and he was an old friend of Nelson and Garcia from the early 60s, when there were very few aspiring young bluegrass players in the Bay Area. Nelson was even in Waller's group, The Pine Valley Boys, for about a year in 1964-65.

By 1969, High Country had started to evolve. I have been unable to track all the details, but since there were so few bluegrass players in the rock-centric Bay Area in 1969, everyone seems to have gone through the group. Sonka was replaced by Rich Wilbun, and old Garcia pal Peter Grant joined on banjo. Grant seems to have alternated High Country dates with fellow former Palo Altan Rick Shubb, whose wife Markie Shubb played bass sometimes. David Nelson and Richard Greene then joined High Country as well (Greene, too, had been in the Pine Valley Boys), although Nelson and Greene did not play every show.

How long or how often Nelson played with High Country is uncertain. The only taped evidence of Nelson's time with High Country is a tape from the Matrix, apparently from February 19, 1969. However, neither Shubb nor Grant seems to have been available, so another old Palo Altan, Jerry Garcia filled in on banjo, playing along on some bluegrass standards, which is probably why the tape got recorded and preserved. In any case, Rick Shubb has confirmed that Nelson was a member of High Country for at least a few shows.

David Gans was kind of enough to pursue the question of High Country with Nelson himself, who when asked where he played with High Country, recently recalled:
The Matrix, believe it or not. And a couple in Berkeley - Freight and Salvage, if it was happening then. Then we went down to Charles Krug Winery in Los Gatos area for two days, with Pete Grant playing banjo.
A close look at the early history of Berkeley's Freight and Salvage shows High Country listed on February 20, 1969, the day after the putative Matrix show. This lends credence to the Matrix date as February 19, even though the Dead played Fillmore West that night. My current theory is that the Matrix show was a sort of "dinner show" at about six o'clock. It's fascinating to at least think that Garcia may have at least contemplated playing the Freight and Salvage, even though he probably didn't. In any case, here's what I think is the somewhat confirmed itinerary for David Nelson as a member of High Country:
Wednesday, February 19, 1969: The Matrix (afternoon)
    Butch Waller, David Nelson, Jerry Garcia, Rich Wilbun (bs)
Thursday, February 20, 1969: Freight and Salvage, Berkeley
    Waller, Nelson, Wilbun (gtr), Rick Shubb (banjo), Markie Shubb (bs)
Friday-Saturday, February 21-22: Charles Krug Winery, Los Gatos
    Waller, Nelson, Richard Greene (fiddle), Peter Grant (banjo), Wilbun (bs)
Hopefully more information will slowly bubble to the surface. Nelson seems to have played intermittently but regularly with High Country in the late 68/early 69 period.

The cover to the 1970 album Be A Brother, by Big Brother And The Holding Company, the band's excellent but underrated post-Janis album. It's unclear if any of David Nelson's guitar parts ended up getting used on the record, but he definitely participated in some of the earlier sessions.
Spring 1969
Nelson's trail disappears for the Spring of '69. While Albin and Getz toured Europe with Country Joe and The Fish, starting in March, they initially left Nelson as caretaker of their warehouse. Soon afterwards, Nelson moved to Haight Street, near Divisadero (near the Both/And, 1090 Page street and the Harding Theater, among other landmarks). When Albin and Getz returned from the European tour with Joe and Barry, members of Big Brother headed to Los Angeles to work on recording. Nelson went with them (quote via Gans):
Went to studio in LA with Big Brother to do some guitar tracks. Sam had some songs and they had some studio time, thinking of a new record - which later became Be A Brother. That was the first time I had to join a union. Columbia Studio in LA. Classic studio, with a clock like a school clock ' "Time is money!" My first experience of the musicians' union. I had to pay $500 to join 'cause it was in LA.
Be A Brother, by Big Brother And The Holding Company, was an excellent album, given no chance because it lacked Janis. Yet its interesting to find out that Nelson may have played some of the many guitar tracks on the record.

However, as I have discussed at length elsewhere, in May of 1969 Jerry Garcia decided to play pedal steel guitar as John Dawson's sideman, while Dawson played his new songs, at a tiny hippie hofbrau in Menlo Park. All signs point to Garcia's first appearance with Dawson at The Underground on May 7 or May 14. I am personally inclined to May 7 for the debut. Nelson said that he missed the first one, but Dawson called him for the second one, which I take to be May 14, 1969. By June, and a few more dates at The Underground, the idea of the New Riders Of The Purple Sage was born, and the band played its first show on July 16, at Longshoreman's Hall.

The listing from Ralph Gleason's Ad Lib column in the SF Chronicle on August 6, 1969, the first public use of the New Riders Of The Purple Sage name
There is a variety of indirect evidence that Nelson and Dawson had spent the preceding months talking about forming a group of some kind. Dawson had written some nice songs, and Nelson didn't have a band. The pairing would make a lot of sense, but it had no form or traction. Nelson has alluded to this period a little bit, but the one detailed interview he gave had his own timeline somewhat garbled, and has to be taken with a grain of salt. According to Nelson, however, after the first, casual appearance by Garcia with Dawson, Dawson called him and said "Jerry wants to do it and he'll play pedal steel." Nelson clearly knew what Dawson was referring to, so the idea must have been at least floating around. What was unprecedented was an actual rock star being willing to act as a sideman, and on a new instrument at that.

Although Nelson had moved from the demise of the New Delhi River Band in February 1968 to the birth of the New Riders Of The Purple Sage 15 months later, the tendrils of The New Delhi River Band remained thoroughly entwined in his tale. When Bob Matthews and then Phil Lesh stepped away as bassist for the New Riders, Nelson and Dawson called on old friend Dave Torbert to step up in April 1970, and Torbert helped the Riders graduate from being a sort of Garcia hobby to a serious band. I am convinced that Nelson and Torbert would have brought Chris Herold in on drums to replace Mickey Hart as well, in December 1970, but Herold was unable to work as a full-time musician at the time, as he was fulfilling his Conscientious Objector obligation by driving a hospital truck.

After the New Riders Of The Purple Sage took root in August of 1969--their first show under that name was August 6 at The Matrix--David Nelson was permanently entwined with the Grateful Dead story. In fact, Nelson had always been part of the narrative, if somewhat in the background. Once the New Riders became a working band, however, Nelson came back into a much closer orbit around the gravitational pull of Garcia's music.