Friday, July 12, 2013

March 22, 1978 Veterans Hall, Sebastopol, CA: Jerry Garcia Band (Ozzie Ahlers-piano?)

The Sebastopol Arts Center, in Sebastopol (Sonoma County), CA, where the Jerry Garcia played on March 22, 1978
The Jerry Garcia Band were a popular live attraction in Northern California in the second half of the 1970s. Mostly they played the Keystone Berkeley and the other Keystone clubs, but they played their share of concerts at theaters and small halls around the Bay Area as well. The popularity of the Garcia Band was not surprising, as the Grateful Dead continued to be a more and more popular concert attraction each year, even as rock fashions moved away from the Grateful Dead, so it's no surprise that concerts by the Dead's lead guitarist thrived as well. Yet a peculiar feature of the Jerry Garcia Band was the dark vacuum in which they performed: their shows were never reviewed,  interviewers only asked band members about the JGB in passing, and even Deadheads shared surprisingly little information about the performances. Local Deadheads hardly considered a Garcia Band concert a big deal. People who regularly saw the Garcia Band at, say, the Keystone Berkeley, could not be bothered to drive an hour to see them at Keystone Palo Alto, and vice versa.

As a result, contemporaneous information about the Jerry Garcia Band was surprisingly hard to come by. If the band changed drummers, no announcement was made--you just showed up one night at the Keystone Berkeley and there was someone else in the chair. Nor would there be an explanation if the old drummer came back, or if singers came and went. Phil Lesh subbed for John Kahn a few times, and while Lesh's presence was advertised, no explanation was ever proffered for why Kahn was unavailable. Bay Area Deadheads took Garcia Band shows for granted, and if they went at all, it was generally on the spur of the moment, and they hardly paid attention to setlists, band members or any other details.

Garcia scholarship from the 1980s onward has been focused on trying to capture all that was missed in the prior decade. TheJerrySite is a remarkable recovery of history recaptured before it drifted away. Yet even for all the work at constructing an accurate historical record, unexpected blank spots show up on the landscape, even decades later. One such blank spot came in some recent interviews with former JGB keyboardist Ozzie Ahlers. Ahlers played in the Jerry Garcia Band from Fall 1979 through Summer 1980, and then moved on to his own band. Yet in a recent interview with dj and journalist Jake Feinberg, Ahlers said that in 1978 he filled in for Keith Godchaux on at least two occasions, when Keith was unavailable to play. According to Ahlers, one time was at "some benefit in Sebastopol with Maria Mulduar," and there was at least one other time in "Santa Cruz or Southern California." This is remarkable information worthy of closer analysis, and this post will try and pin down the dates.

Ozzie Ahlers was in the band Glory River, who opened for Mountain and the Allman Brothers at SUNY Stony Brook on July 10, 1970 (the ad is from the June 18 '70 Village Voice)
The Jake Feinberg Interview with Ozzie Ahlers
Jake Feinberg, a disc jockey and scholar,  has undertaken a remarkable series of interviews with jazz and rock musicians from the 1960s and 70s. Although Feinberg's principal focus is on jazz, he has also interviewed a number of musicians who have played with Jerry Garcia, including Melvin Seals, Richard Greene, Bob Weir, David Grisman, Howard Wales and Peter Rowan. Feinberg recently had a lengthy interview with Ahlers, a wide-ranging conversation about Ahlers career and approach to music, but there was plenty of conversation about Jerry Garcia.

Ahlers, who was born and raised in New Jersey, had gone to Cornell University, where he had played keyboards in bands that were popular on the college dance circuit around 1967-70 (his Cornell band was called Oz and Ends). Ahlers ended up in Woodstock, NY, playing professionally with a group called Glory River. Glory River opened a few major rock shows, and even had a chance to record at Electric Ladyland Studios around 1971. The band did not pan out, however, and in 1972 Ahlers moved to the Bay Area to work with Van Morrison, whom he knew from Woodstock.

Ahlers did not actually end up playing that much with the mercurial Morrison, who liked to mix and match musicians and did not keep anything resembling a regular touring schedule. However, Ahlers played and recorded with Jesse Colin Young, alternating keyboard duties with Scott Lawrence, and he played in a lot of local combos around Marin and the East Bay. In early 1978, Ahlers was invited to join Robert Hunter's band Comfort. Ahlers had never met Hunter or Comfort, but he received a call out of the blue from Rock Scully. However, Ahlers had known John Kahn from Woodstock, where Kahn had worked with Paul Butterfield and Geoff Muldaur in the Spring of 1972. Presumably Kahn was the one who tipped Hunter, but even Ahlers himself does not know for sure.

Hunter and Comfort had been playing around the Bay Area since the middle of 1977--Comfort had existed before that--but keyboard player Richard McNees had left in December. Ahlers heard that Hunter had insisted on Ahlers by saying "I don't want your friend, I want a pro," but it does not appear that the remark had anything to do with McNees. McNees himself says that Ahlers is a great guy, and in any case McNees had already left for his own reasons. My suspicion is that Hunter, who was financing the band, wanted to make the sure the new player who came in was top-notch, and preferred a Kahn-recommended veteran to another local pal. In February and March of 1978, Robert Hunter and Comfort opened a string of shows for the Jerry Garcia Band in California and the East Coast, starting on February 18 at Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium and ending at March 18 at the Warners Theater in Washington, DC (the JGB played one more show without Comfort the next night).

Keyboard player Ozzie Ahlers with a great American, indeed, The Greatest
Jerry Garcia And Keyboard Players, 1978
As I have discussed elsewhere, 1978 was a critical year for Jerry Garcia's musical future, even though it may not have seemed that way at the time. Keith Godchaux held down the piano chair in both the Grateful Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band, and while both groups had some high moments during the year, their musical progression seemed stalled. Yet in retrospect, I have shown how all the important keyboard players whom Jerry Garcia played with from 1979 through 1990 were heard by him when they opened for the Dead or the Garcia Band. Melvin Seals played with the Elvin Bishop Group (opening for the Dead in Santa Barbara on June 4, 1978), Brent Mydland played with the Bob Weir Band (opening for the Jerry Garcia Band in the Pacific Northwest for the weekend of October 26-28, 1978) and Ozzie Ahlers played with Robert Hunter and Comfort for the Spring '78 Eastern tour.

I theorized correctly that Garcia heard Ahlers play with Hunter and judged him suitable for future use. I did not realize, however, that Kahn already knew Ahlers, and indeed may have recommended him for the gig. I also did not realize, nor seemingly did anyone else, that Ozzie had quietly filled in for Keith Godchaux for at least two shows in 1978. Thus when Garcia and Kahn decided to re-start the Garcia Band in late 1979, Ahlers had already passed the trial by fire of onstage performance.

Jerry Garcia was infamous as a musician who avoided rehearsal whenever possible. Thus, if Keith Godchaux was sick, the least of Garcia's concerns would have been that a last-minute substitute would have had no chance to rehearse. In fact, I suspect Garcia would have preferred the inherent risk and incipient possibilities of playing with a new band member who had no preparation whatsoever. With respect to the March 22 date, Ahlers would have just come off a road trip where he would have heard the Garcia Band perform ten different times, so he wouldn't have been in the dark about their music. Yet Ahlers lack of preparation would have insured that he mostly had to improvise his parts, which is exactly what Jerry would have wanted him to do anyway.

A long unseen poster for the Jerry Garcia Band/Robert Hunter and Comfort concert at the Sebastopol Veterans Hall on March 22, 1978. The concert was a benefit for the Sonoma Stump, a local paper. Thanks to JGMF for the scan
Veterans Hall, Sebastapol, CA March 22, 1978
The Jerry Garcia Band/Comfort tour of the East Coast went from March 9 through March 19, although Comfort did not play every date with the JGB. Three days after Garcia's last Eastern date in Pittsburgh, the Garcia Band played a show at the Veterans Hall in the tiny Sonoma town of Sebastopol (pop. 7,500). Sebastopol isn't particularly far from San Francisco or Berkeley (just an hour from each), or even San Rafael (about 45 minutes), but it isn't on the way to anywhere, so most Bay Area residents consider it "out-of-the-way." The peculiarly casual nature of Jerry Garcia Band performances in the 1970s was such that few East Bay or San Francisco Garcia fans considered driving to Sebastopol for the concert. Yet the Veterans Hall was tiny (see the photo up top), and the show must have had a great vibe.

In the Feinberg interview, Ahlers specifically recalls substituting for Keith Godchaux at a show in Sebastopol, with Maria Muldaur. Since the Garcia Band is only known to have played Sebastopol this one time, everything points towards the March 22, 1978 show. Ahlers recalls it as a benefit, which is possible, but we don't even have a poster or ad from the show, so we don't even know that much [update: now we do, thanks to JGMF. The concert was a benefit for the Sonoma Stump, a local paper]. I do not how much publicity the show received. Given what appears to be the tiny size of the room, I suspect it was practically a guerilla show, with very little notice.

I recently listened to the surviving tape of the March 22 show, hoping to be able to distinguish some difference in the piano playing. However, while it's true that I don't have the sharpest ears in the world, I can't myself say from listening that I can tell whether or not Ozzie is playing rather than Keith. Of course, Ozzie would be playing Keith's rig, which at the time was a Yamaha electric grand piano, so that would make the tape sound "just like Keith" in many ways. Also, Ahlers would have been borrowing Keith's licks, to the extent he could remember them, so that was yet another way it would be impossible to tell them apart. Certainly, if any readers give the tape a good listen, please put your insights and speculations on the keyboard player in the Comments section.

Could there be some mistake in all of this? Could Ozzie Ahlers somehow be mis-remembering the entire sequence of events? Of course, anything is possible, but I think all signs point towards Ahlers' memory of the show being completely accurate. For one thing, it had to be a dramatic event for Ahlers to have been asked to sit in for Keith Godchaux on almost no notice. For another, Sebastopol is an oddball place for a concert, since it was a tiny farming town. To me, the sign that Ozzie's memory is clear is the very specificity of such an obscure location for the show[update: we also now know for sure that Ozzie was there, since he was a member of Comfort at the time].

The question that has to be raised is how Ozzie's presence passed unnoticed all these years. However, a few points stand out. For one thing, Garcia shows in the Bay Area in the 70s were very different than Garcia shows there the next decade, much less Garcia shows on the East Coast at pretty much any time. Much as western Deadheads loved Jerry, he was just sort of There, playing the Keystone Berkeley every month and the occasional local concert. There didn't seem to be an urgency to catch every show, and people rarely went out of town. Thus, when I lived in Berkeley, I could usually find someone who went to the most recent Keystone Berkeley show, and try and quiz them about what the JGB played, but I could never find anyone who even went to Keystone Palo Alto, much less the wilds of Sonoma County. So if anyone from my circle of acquaintances went, I never met them, and I think the Berkeley solipsism of Jerry fans was common to every Bay Area county back in the 70s.

For another thing, how many of the Sebastopol fans may have even noticed that Keith Godchaux wasn't on piano? Donna was out front, along with Maria Muldaur, so how good a look did they get at the man behind the piano? Yes, of course, Ozzie doesn't look like Keith, but most Deadheads back then would have been hard-pressed to say what Keith Godchaux looked like. Finally, most of the people who went to the show--and there probably wasn't a huge number, as it was a small place--may only have been vaguely aware of the configuration of the Jerry Garcia Band, so it may not have occurred to them to note that the keyboard player wasn't the Grateful Dead's piano player, even if they had known who Keith was.  So the fact that Ozzie Ahlers' presence at Sebastopol has gone unnoticed all these decades is hardly farfetched at all.

[update: it seems that the March 22 '78 Sebastopol show will be released as GarciaLive Volume 4, so we should find out if Ozzie played with Jerry that night. If not, where did he play with them? Rohnert Park Community Center on October 5 '78 seems like the next best choice.]
[update2: ok, we now know from the liner notes of GarciaLive Volume 4 that Ozzie played on the last four numbers: Mystery Train, Love In The Afternoon, I'll Be With Thee and Midnight Moonlight]

The "Other Show"-Southern California or Santa Cruz?
Of course, in the Feinberg interview, Ahlers mentions that he subbed for Keith Godchaux in the JGB at least one other time. He vaguely recalls that it was "Santa Cruz or Southern California." Of course, from March 1978 through the last Keith and Donna JGB shows in November, the band never played either Southern California or Santa Cruz. The Jerry Garcia Band would go on to play many shows at the Catalyst in downtown Santa Cruz, but Jerry Garcia's first show at that venue did not take place until early 1979. I don't think an undiscovered show at the Catalyst in 1978 is likely, either. The Catalyst had existed in downtown Santa Cruz since the beginning of the 1970s, but at first it was just a coffee shop. Its actual location was a room in a former hotel (the St. George) at 833 Front Street, and the club did not move to the converted bowling alley on 1011 Pacific Avenue (where it remains today) until the end of 1978. When the Catalyst was still on Front Street, I do not believe they could have afforded or accommodated the Garcia Band, so I feel comfortable ruling out Santa Cruz for Ozzie Ahlers' "other" show with them.

However, since the JGB did not play Southern California at all in 1978, where did Ozzie sub? A close look at the Fall '78 Garcia Band show list point directly at the Keystone Palo Alto. Palo Alto is about two hours from Marin, so if Ozzie was driven down, it might have seemed like a long trip, and he may not have known exactly where he was. There are a number of October and November JGB shows at Keystone Palo Alto for which we have no evidence beyond the advertisement of a show--no setlist, no tape, and of course, no review, since the band was never reviewed. So Ozzie could have sat in for Keith Godchaux and we would still be none the wiser.

As we know from both the Feinberg interview and David Gans' liner notes from the recent Jerry Garcia Band archival cd featuring the Ahlers lineup (March 1 '80), Ahlers was invited to join the Jerry Garcia Band when it was restarted in the Fall of 1979. It appears that John Kahn's jazz rock band Reconstruction was originally supposed to exist in parallel with the Garcia Band, but that was not in fact what happened. Ahlers joined the new look Garcia Band, and played his first gig with them on October 7, 1979 at Keystone Palo Alto--which would be ironic if in fact Ahlers had subbed for Keith there the previous year.

Ahlers played some fine music with the Garcia Band, but he only did two tours with them, first in February and then in July 1980. Apparently, Ahlers never rehearsed with the Garcia Band. When he was hired, Garcia just gave Ahlers a list of 15 or so songs that he liked to do, and Ozzie learned the chords of the ones he did not know (he commented "some of them were Dead songs, and they were, like, folk songs with half a bar missing"). Other than that, he just waited for Jerry to count off the songs and let it happen, but it turns out that he had already done that before, so Garcia and Kahn had complete confidence in his ability to roll with it.  Although many Deadheads now find the Oberheim synthesizer sound that Ahlers used kind of dated, it turns out that Garcia and Kahn asked Ozzie to solo on that instrument, apparently because they were seeking a change of pace, and that too was a new experience for Ahlers.

It seems that Kahn and Garcia invited Ozzie to tour with them again in 1981, but the financial circumstances were not as good. Also, Ozzie had his own band, at the time called The Average Beach Band, later to change its name to The Edge. Ahlers knew that the Jerry Garcia Band would always be a part-time engagement, so for good or ill he threw in his lot with The Edge. Melvin Seals was invited to play organ for the Garcia Band, and the Garcia Band traveled on. The Edge, who played "reggae-rock," which seemed to be a coming style at the time, put out a couple of nice albums that went nowhere. They even opened for the Jerry Garcia Band once (Concord Pavilion, September 7, 1981).

Although The Edge did not make it big, Ozzie Ahlers ended up making a successful series of albums in a jazz-rock "New Age" style with Jefferson Starship guitarist Craig Chacuiqo. Yet Ozzie looks back fondly on his time on the Garcia Band. It is remarkable that after all these decades, we are still finding out more about the Garcia Band in the 1970s, when for all their relative commercial success they could invite a different keyboard player to sit in with no rehearsal and no fanfare, as it they were just some local cover band playing in some dive.