Friday, May 10, 2013

Shango, Horses and Matt Kelly-1968 (Matt Kelly I)

Matt Kelly, Tim Abbott and Dave Torbert of Shango, at an unknown venue in 1968. Photo courtesy of Tim Abbott.
Matt Kelly played harmonica on two Grateful Dead studio albums, and he joined the band on various blues numbers many times in the early 1980s. Kelly has also played with Bob Weir as a member of Kingfish, Bobby And The Midnites and Ratdog over a period of two decades. By any accounting, Kelly was part of the extended musical family of the Grateful Dead. The standard issue story has been that Kelly and Weir were friends from junior high school in Atherton, CA, and that is true enough. However, Kelly and Weir only played sports together, not music, and they effectively did not know each other after the eighth grade. They would only meet intermittently throughout the next decade. Having gone to junior high together did give Kelly and Weir a topic of conversation, but it was a footnote to their shared musical history. This post will begin a series on the musical history of Matt Kelly, who had numerous connections to the Grateful Dead.

An ad for Fremont's "teen" psychedelic venue, The Yellow Brick Road. Was "St. Matthews Experiment" Matt Kelly's band?
Matt Kelly
Matt Kelly had grown up in Atherton with Bob Weir. Atherton had been a wealthy community since its founding in the 19th century, and it certainly had remained so during Weir and Kelly's childhood. However, back in the 50s and 60s, Atherton residents were well off, but not crazy rich as they would become in the Silicon Valley era. So while Kelly and Weir had privileged childhoods, their day-to-day experiences were not necessarily so different than other kids their age in that time and place. Kelly first got interested in music as an adolescent when he spent several months in Mexico with his father, even though he mostly just played congas with some locals. The interest blossomed, and soon replaced sports.

By the mid-60s, Kelly had his own band, the St. Matthews Blues Band. Kelly played harmonica and guitar. I do not know who else was in the group, nor what they sounded like. I assume they played the sort of free-floating blues that most bands were playing at the Fillmore. I have also been unable to find out anything about where they played. The one trace I have been able to find is the ad above from an obscure suburban venue called The Yellow Brick Road in Fremont. I can't even say for certain that the "St. Matthews Experiment" listed is Kelly's band, but it seems probable. The Yellow Brick Road was a fascinating but short-lived psychedelic teen club experiment, finally undone by the rise of the Fillmore and constant harassment of the Fremont police. It seems a likely place for Kelly's fledgling band to have played.

According to an interview with Kelly, he picked up Robert Hunter hitchhiking in Palo Alto around 1966 or so, and took him to 710 Ashbury, and re-connected with Weir there. Since the interview was in the late 90s, I think Kelly has something wrong with the chronology, but I don't doubt that he took a hitchhiker to 710 and met his old pal from junior high school, even if they did not follow through musically for some years. Interestingly, like many 60s musicians, Kelly had numerous connections to various potential avenues of professional success, but they either did not work out or he chose not to pursue them. By the time Kingfish appeared in the mid-70s, seemingly from "nowhere" to Bay Area Grateful Dead fans like me, Kelly had in fact been a working musician for nearly a decade.

The New Delhi River Band
Kelly's first and foremost connection to the Dead, though it may not have seemed that way at the time, was The New Delhi River Band.  The New Delhi River Band, to the extent that they are remembered at all, are recalled as a band that featured David Nelson and Dave Torbert before they were members of the New Riders Of The Purple Sage. They were both obscure and yet visible, in the way that only late 60s bands can be, with their name familiar from old posters, yet with no released or even circulating recordings. Yet the New Delhi River Band story was an interesting one, as they were Palo Alto's second psychedelic blues band. Despite being friendly with the first of the breed, and despite some good breaks in 1966, the New Delhi River Band never managed to find paying shows outside of Santa Cruz and Santa Clara County, never managing to cross over to the higher profile shows in Berkeley or San Francisco. In that respect, my detailed history of the group serves as a template for every 60s psychedelic blues band who were local heroes who couldn't break out beyond the county line.

However, the New Delhi River Band ground to a halt around February 1968. Nonetheless, the members of the New Delhi River Band continued to play a role in the South Bay music scene after the band broke up. Most famously, of course, Nelson and Torbert were anchor members of the New Riders. However, the New Delhi River Band was also the genesis of Kingfish, and a variety of other Bay Area 60s luminaries, a major record producer and even one 80s television star crossed their path as well. Matt Kelly had only joined the NDRB at the very end of their existence, in early 1968, but that connection was essential to his musical future.

In an earlier post, I looked at the interregnum in David Nelson's career, between the demise of NDRB in February 1968 and the formation of the New Riders in May 1969. In this post, I will begin to trace the paths of the other members of the New Delhi River Band. In fact, the story is so complicated that it will take more than one post, so I will only look at the careers of New Delhi River Band members in 1968 (thanks in advance to guitarist Tim Abbott, still rockin' it with the Chocolate Watch Band, who kindly provided so much for this post).

The New Delhi River Band, February 1968
I have dealt with the twists and turns of the New Delhi River Band at great length, so I will only briefly recap it here. In the Summer of 1966, a few bohemian Palo Alto musicians decided to form a blues band, kind of in the mode of the Butterfield Blues Band. They found a place to play, an obscure and legendary venue called The Barn in Scotts Valley, near Santa Cruz. After the usual personnel shuffles, they established a stable lineup and began to play around. The group was pretty popular in the South Bay, but although they played the Fillmore once, and played for free in Provo Park in Berkeley many times, they could never get over the hump. The primary lineup of the New Delhi River Band, from late 1966 until early 1968, was
Sweet John Tomasi-harmonica, vocals
Peter Sultzbach-lead guitar
David Nelson-guitar
Dave Torbert-bass, vocals
Chris Herold-drums
According to Matthew Kelly, his band The St. Matthews Blues Band opened for them at some point in 1967, and he became friends with the NDRB and jammed with them regularly. At the very end, according to Kelly, he became a member of NDRB. Whether he specifically replaced Tomasi or Nelson isn't clear, and it's possible he just became an additional member. It also appears that the NDRB didn't really break up, it just drifed apart. Certainly there could hardly have been animosity amongst the band members, since they kept joining groups with each other. In any case, the last performance date I have been able to find for the New Delhi River Band was January 28, 1968, and they seemed to have simply faded away after that.

David Nelson took a six-month hiatus from being professional musician, not to re-appear until Fall 1968, when he took a hand in the Grateful Dead's Aoxomoxoa sessions. Guitarist Peter Sultzbach, meanwhile, joined the backing band for Linda Tillery. Tillery had left the Oakland group The Loading Zone to sign as a solo artist with Columbia Records, using the stage name Sweet Linda Devine. Torbert and Herold, along with Kelly, turned back to their recent past, and somewhere around February 1968, the remains of the New Delhi River Band reconstituted themselves as Shango.

A promotional photo of Shango from 1968, probably taken in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Photo courtesy of Tim Abbott.
The lineup of Shango was
Tim Abbott-lead guitar
Ryan Brandenburg-guitar, cello
Matt Kelly-harmonica, guitar
Dave Torbert-bass, vocals
Chris Herold-drums
According to Abbott, Dave Torbert was Shango's primary lead vocalist, although all three guitarists had vocal numbers as well. John Tomasi also sang and played with Shango on occasion, although I think on a more informal guest basis. Prior to the New Delhi River Band, both Herold and Torbert had been in a Redwood City blues band called The Good News, who were an exciting Peninsula band in 1965-66. However, the group had disintegrated in October 1966, and both of them had then joined the NDRB full time. Good News lead guitarist Tim Abbott went on to the Haight Ashbury Blues Band, and then to the Chocolate Watch Band.

The Chocolate Watch Band were the South Bay's finest band, both live and on record, and they never got the recognition they deserved in San Francisco. When Abbott had joined in June 1967, they were still riding high and making good money. However, Abbott left the group due to concerns about how that money was being handled, a perpetual issue throughout the history of the CWB. Thus Abbott was available when NDRB disintegrated, and he rejoined his old friends Torbert and Herold. I'm not sure how Ryan Brandenburg got connected to the group, nor how much cello he played, but with two or three guitars, plus a harmonica, and some cello, Shango was primed to go beyond the basic blues that had characterized rock music a few years earlier.

I have not been able to trace many dates by Shango. I would be very interested if anyone has any recollections even of the venues Shango might have played. There were many long-gone venues in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Clara County that I have been trying to excavate, and Shango must have played their share.

A poster for the Vernal Equinox Festival at Big Sur, March 22-24, 1968. A few thousand people showed up, and no such events were ever held at Big Sur again. Bands listed include The Bubble, Edsel Boogie, Electric Tingle Guild, The Flower, Puppy Farm, Weird Herald, Freedom Highway and Phoenix. Shango did play, however, and probably numerous other bands.
According to both Matt Kelly and Tim Abbott, the biggest event that Shango played was the Vernal Equinox Festival at Big Sur on March 22-24, 1968. Big Sur is a remarkable place, only accessible by one twisty coastal road, and completely isolated from the rest of California. It has been a counterculture haven from the day it was connected by road to the rest of the state. There were numerous hippie type events there in the mid-60s, but after something like 3000 people came to the Vernal Equinox, no such events were ever held there again. 3000 people--hippies or not--is just too much for Big Sur.

The event ended up turning into a kind of wake for Neal Cassidy, who had died in Mexico in February. The event was sponsored (so to speak) by the MidPeninsula Free University in Menlo Park, which had numerous Kesey connections, so the word had obviously gotten around. Although Shango is not listed on the poster--I assume many other bands were also unlisted, as there was supposed to be three days of music--many of the groups who did play are of great interest to those scholars interested in South Bay psychedelia. A brief synopsis of some of the bands will give an idea of Shango's peers at the time
The Bubble were a band of high school students who rehearsed at The Barn.  Lead guitarist Ken Kraft would go on to join the legendary Santa Cruz band Snail.
Edsel Boogie, I'm fairly certain, evolved into Boogie. [update: I was fairly certain, but wrong. Edsel Boogie did not become Boogie.] Boogie was a trio featuring Barry Bastian on guitar (ex-Lee Michaels) along with John Barrett on bass and Fuzzy John Oxendine on drums (both of whom would end up in The Rhythm Dukes).
Electric Tingle Guild featured guitarist Mark Loomis, who had left the Chocolate Watch Band in a dispute over management's handling of money (to be replaced by Abbott, who left for the same reason).
The Flower were a Santa Cruz psychedelic band. I know that Gordon Stevens, who played electric viola in Moby Grape in 1971 (too long a story, even for this blog) was in Flower.
Puppy Farm, a light show as well as a band, lived in a commune in the Mountains not far from Kesey's old place. The aggregation is better known from posters under their "true" name, Black Shit Puppy Farm.
Weird Herald, true legends from San Jose, were extremely popular in the San Jose area, and limited recorded evidence suggests they were quite a band. Lead guitarist Billy Dean Andrus died unexpectedly in 1970, and the abrupt sadness generated two famous songs from his good friends: Jorma Kaukonen's "Ode To Billy Dean" and the Doobie Brothers Pat Simmons "Oh Black Water."
Freedom Highway were a Marin band, booked by Ron Polte and West-Pole, who were pretty good but never broke out of Marin
Phoenix, a band with a long and complicated history, was one of those bands that should have gone much further than they did. Much of our knowledge of the craziness of the Big Sur event (not for a family blog) comes from former members of Phoenix.

Shango were billed along with many other psychedelic luminaries--and Jack Jones and Jill St. John--for a Eugene McCarthy rally at Santa Clara County Fairgrounds on May 25, 1968
May 25, 1968 Family Park, Santa Clara County Fairgrounds McCarthy Is Happening 
Jack Jones and Jill St. John/H.P. Lovecraft/Nitty Gritty Dirt Band/Clear Light/Flaming Groovies/Crystal Syphon/The Womb/Jimmy Nite and The Nite Caps/Phantasmagoria/The Howl/Anonymous Artists of America/Day Blindness/Shango/many others
Of all the events in this brief chronology, this event is the most peculiar. I only know the event from the poster--I have never heard of a review, memory or second hand account. It may not have even happened. However, the poster itself is very revealing. I have considered the event within the history of outdoor San Jose rock concerts in the 60s, and I have analyzed the various acts at length elsewhere, so I won't recap it all. Briefly, it appears that this was an effort to have a sort of "Hippie Fair."

Eugene McCarthy was running for President on an Anti-Vietnam War platform, and the California primary was June 4. The wording of the ad suggests that it is a pro-McCarthy event, but there is no evidence that its really a fundraiser. The peculiar double headline acts of HP Lovecraft, who headlined the Fillmore a few weeks earlier, and Jack Jones and his new wife Jill St. John, Las Vegas lounge headliners, is a truly headscratching combination. My assumption is that the organizers were trying to appeal to actual hippies and people about 10 years older, and that the effort was a failure.

The "McCarthy Is Happening" took place a week after the huge "Northern California Folk-Rock Festival" held just the weekend before (May 17-18, 1968), at the very same Fairgrounds, though not the identical location. The fairgrounds were also less than a mile from the park where the 1967 San Jose Be-In had been held on May 14, 1967, so two members of Shango (Torbert and Herold) had seen outdoor shows in San Jose go from relaxed free festivals to hyped up hippie fairs featuring Hollywood stars in the space of just slightly more than a year.

Another promotional photo of Shango, circa 1968, probably taken in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Photo courtesy Tim Abbott.
According to Tim Abbott, Shango faded away due to lack of gigs--I myself have only found two, as you can see--and Ryan Brandenburg left the group. Shango briefly changed their name to The Wind, but I have been unable to track down any dates. The Wind must have been together in the Summer of 1968 [update: Matt Kelly says the group actually used the name Wind Wind]
The Wind
Tim Abbott-lead guitar
Matt Kelly-harmonica, guitar
Dave Torbert-bass, vocals
Chris Herold-drums

The cover to the 1968 album Horses on White Whale Records. Matt Kelly, Dave Torbert, Chris Herold and Scott (Quigley) Quik were mated with lead singer Don Johnson, seen lounging in front.
The strangest story in the time between the New Delhi River Band and Kingfish was the Horses album on White Whale Records. Neither Shango nor The Wind had really gotten any traction, nor, it seemed, played many shows. Nonetheless, the band had somehow come to the attention of two songwriters, Tim Gilbert and John Carter. The pair had been the lead singer and lyricist of a Colorado group called The Rainy Daze. Back in '65, The Rainy Daze had hooked up with a local dj and aspiring producer, Dave Diamond, and he had moved the band to Los Angeles.

In 1967, The Rainy Daze had had a surprise AM pop hit with the song "Acapulco Gold." It was  a catchy tune, and once public scolds discovered what the lyric of the chorus actually implied-- "Old dogs can learn new tricks/When the streets are lined with bricks/Of Acapulco Gold,"-- the record was banned in many cities. Producer Dave Diamond could hardly have been happier, since nothing improves record sales like the banning of a scandalous record. Diamond claims that to this day "Acapulco Gold" was the best selling single in the history of San Francisco, and he could very well be right. Carter and Gilbert went on to write the song "Incense And Peppermints," and Diamond found a Santa Barbara area group called The Strawberry Alarm Clock, and they had another huge hit.

The Rainy Daze soon disintegrated, however. Dave Diamond moved up to San Francisco, working at AM giant KFRC. Carter and Gilbert ultimately moved to San Francisco as well. The duo were more interested in songwriting and producing than being in a band, so they had written an album's worth of songs and were looking for performers, which was a typical way to make records in the mid 60s. Carter and Gilbert had a lead singer from Colorado named John Fifefield, who had been the star of a famous Colorado band The Astronauts (too long a tangent even for this blog). As a lead guitarist they had found one Scott Quigley, to be better known a decade later as Scotty Quik (when he played with Sammy Hagar).

Carter and Davis needed a rhythm section, however, and somehow came upon Torbert, Herold and Kelly. All parties are vague on how this actually occurred, but I presume the producers must have seen either Shango or The Wind in some tiny joint. Unfortunately for Tim Abbott, however, since they already had a lead guitarist in Quigley, he was left behind. Torbert, Herold and Kelly moved to Los Angeles for a few months in mid-1968 to work on what became the Horses album.

For many years, the Horses album was impossible to find, probably due at least in part to legal issues involving White Whale Records. Time passes, however, and in 2003 Gear Fab Records re-released the album on cd, including a detailed interview with producer Dave Diamond, who spelled out at least some aspects of the strange tale. The strangest part is this: halfway through the album, the producers decided lead singer Fifefield was wrong for the project. They held auditions for a new lead singer, and the singer was a handsome, newly-arrived lad from the middle of the country named Don Johnson.

Was Horses' lead singer Don Johnson the same Don Johnson who would go on to star in Miami Vice and other TV shows in the 1980s and beyond? No one seems really certain [update: Matt Kelly thinks the lead singer Don Johnson lacked the charisma to become the famous movie star, and thinks they were different people]. The timing is certainly correct, as that is when Don Johnson arrived in Los Angeles. Johnson was also an aspiring musician as well as actor.  He co-wrote a song with Dickey Betts that appeared on a 1977 album ("Bougainvillea"from Great Southern) long before he was famous from television. Johnson also put out two solo albums in the 80s. And once, at least, in 1995, I saw the Allman Brothers at Concord Pavilion and Johnson came out and sang "Stormy Monday" without embarrassing himself. So the idea of Don Johnson as a potential rock star in 1968 is very plausible indeed. Yet was it him? All of the principals aren't sure, so you will have to look at the picture (above) and decide for yourself. Don Johnson himself remains quiet about his pre-Miami Vice life, so he's no help one way or the other.

Don Johnson-vocals
Scott Quigley-lead guitar
Matt Kelly-harmonica, guitar
Dave Torbert-bass, vocals
Chris Herold-drums
A flyer for a September 5, 1968 concert in Tracy, CA with San Jose's People!, supported by Horses
The only trace I have been able to find of a live Horses performance was this completely obscure flyer from the Tracy Ballroom on September 5, 1968 (thanks to Colin for this). Tracy is in Central California, roughly between San Francisco and Sacramento. People (actually People!) were a popular San Jose band who had a decent hit ("I Love You" reached #14 in Billboard in 1968, and #1 in Japan), so Horses would have been just filling out the bill. I assume this concert was after the band had finished recording the album, but then again this is so out-of-the-way it could be a different "Horses" entirely. However, People and Shango had worked the same circuit, so its more likely that this was a rare--perhaps the only--live booking for Don Johnson and Horses.

I don't believe the Horses album was even released until 1969, but Kelly never mentioned it until he was asked about it in Relix many years later, so I don't think he and Torbert were sorry to see it disappear. It's a heavily produced album, rather far from the bluesier sound that Kelly, Torbert and Herold were trying to lay down. Nonetheless it does have some decent songs, which would turn up in Kingfish repertoire years later. These include "Run Rabbit Run" which Kingfish re-titled as "Jump For Joy," "Asia Minor" and"Overnight Bag." "Asia Minor" was co-written by Tim Hovey (and Scott Quigley), a former child actor and friend of the band. Hovey would surface a few years later, as not only a co-writer of a number of songs with Dave Torbert ("Important Exportin' Man", Wild Northland" and "Goodbye Yer Honor", but also as the sound man for Kingfish.

Also, the track "Horseradish," credited to Carter and Gilbert, is pretty much the Little Walter classic harmonica instrumental "Juke," which was performed many times by Kingfish. Kelly's harmonica plays a notable, if muted role in the sound, except on "Horseradish," where it stands front and center. There are some organ and piano parts that aren't by the band members--typical for the era--but on the whole it seems like the band really did record the basic tracks.

Nothing happened with the Horses album. If lead singer Don Johnson was the actor, we know what became of him. Dave Diamond continued a successful career as a dj up until this day. Tim Gilbert ended up managing a TV station in Lexington, KY. John Carter went on to become a very successful A&R man and producer for Capitol Records. Carter was instrumental in promoting Bob Seger and Steve Miller, two huge Capitol acts, and he also signed and produced Sammy Hagar (which helps explain the Scott Quigley/Scotty Quik connection). Carter's most memorable production was probably Tina Turner's Private Dancer album. So despite the oddity of the Horses project, Kelly and Torbert had contacts that would bode well for any ambitious and aspiring 60s musician.

The Shango lads availed themselves of exactly none of the opportunities that there Hollywood sojourn might have afforded them. To be fair, I have never read a word of regret from any of them, and indeed for the most part I think they were happy to put it behind them. Nonetheless, it's important to remember that back in the 60s, when the music industry was still expanding, talented musicians in places like California often had to pick and choose what to pursue, and Kelly, Torbert and Herold very consciously chose the NorCal hippie blues sound over the SoCal songwriter sound, and thus set their path before them.

However, when the Horses project ground to a halt, Kelly, Torbert and Herold let their own enterprise grind to a halt as well. Herold formed a group with old buddy Tim Abbott called Haywire. They played a few gigs in late 1968, but it didn't go anywhere. At the end of the year, or perhaps in the beginning of 1969, Abbott reported that he and Herold got together for a jam with David Nelson with an eye to forming a group, but none of the pieces fit together. Everyone got along fine, but Nelson and Abbott's guitar styles didn't mesh particularly well, so nothing came of it.

The members of Shango had begun the year with high hopes, but ended with no band and little to show for it. However, although the Horses album lacks a bit of crunch to my ears, it isn't terrible by any means. Matt Kelly's bands played songs from the album for decades, as "Asia Minor" and "Jump For Joy" were Kingfish staples. They were even re-recorded for the 1976 Kingfish album on Round Records.  At the end of 1968, however, that was a long way in the future, and the band members were at loose ends.

Chris Herold, like most young American men, had a national service obligation. He was a conscientious objector, so he agreed to alternative service driving a hospital truck. This only left him free to play on weekends. As a result, from 1969-71, Herold was the drummer for a legendary Santa Cruz "jam band" called Mountain Current, who are fondly though vaguely--ahem--remembered by music fans in the Santa Cruz mountains at the time. Herold's obligations prevented the group from being more than a weekend fun band, and the membership was quite fluid, but they still played an important role in the Kingfish story.

Dave Torbert had been struggling as a musician along with his friend Herold since at least 1965, so he seems to have decided it was time for a break. Torbert was also an avid surfer, and he took off for Maui, where he lived the hippie surfer life until around March 1970, when he would receive a fateful phone call.

But as 1968 ended, Matt Kelly was at loose ends. Somehow he had avoided the draft, but with Herold and Torbert effectively out of action, he did not have a band. However, his next two years would turn out to be quite interesting, even if he had no inkling that he would record with a well-known bluesman and then get to record in London. Those stories are too long to tell here, and will have to wait for Part II.