Friday, May 13, 2016

Rodney Albin 1940-84 (Folk Headwaters)

Rodney Albin (1940-84), probably in the late 1970s. (Photo: Christopher Newton collection)
Jerry Garcia, like everybody, had many friends who died before he did. Yet Jerry didn't perform at many wakes--six by my count. Two of these performances were for friends who are always placed next to Jerry in the firmament: Janis Joplin's wake at the Lion's Share in San Anselmo (October 26, 1970) for a few invited guests, and Bill Graham's memorial concert in Golden Gate Park (November 3, 1991) for 300,000 friends who dropped by. Back in the Summer Of Love, the Grateful Dead had played a "funeral" at Golden Gate Park (August 28, 1967) for a Hell's Angel named Chocolate George. Another event was "The Bob Fried Memorial Boogie," at Winterland (June 17, 1975), for the family of poster artist Bob Fried. While Fried's name was not well-known, his posters were popular classics of psychedelic California rock poster art. Similarly, when Bay Area traffic reporter Jane Dornacker died in a helicopter accident, Garcia, Bob Weir and Mickey Hart played at the Benefit concert at The Warfield (November 22, 1986). While Dornacker had deep roots in the Haight Ashbury underground, she had also been a popular local radio personality.

Yet the other wake is for a character far less known, the Rodney Albin Memorial Concert at a club called Wolfgang's in San Francisco, on August 28, 1984. Jerry Garcia and John Kahn were the headliners, but they played along with many old friends of Rodney Albin's that night. Rodney Albin's name was hardly known amongst Deadheads at the time, and even those who knew of him hardly realized his impact, but he was an absolutely critical figure in the history of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, and the Haight-Ashbury as a whole. This post will take a closer look at why Rodney Albin (1940-84) was such an important figure, and why his memorial concert brought together so many old friends.

The Boar's Head, Summer 1961
The Fillmore, the Avalon, LSD and the Haight Ashbury hippies all came to the surface in the Summer of 1966, and they went nationwide the next year. Although it is 60s teenagers who recall the incipient clarion call to open minds and freedom from that time, the actual participants were in their 20s. The likes of Owsley, Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia had been around for a while, trying to create a tiny alternative universe, only to discover they had built a new paradigm. In order to found that new world, a few lonely pioneers had been searching for the next iteration in places like San Francisco and Cambridge. They found each other because there wasn't that many of them.

Rodney Albin, like Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, was searching for something different. Rodney and his younger brother Peter were from a well-to-do but not wealthy family in Belmont, a suburb of San Francisco, nearer to the City than Palo Alto. In 1961, Rodney was a student at the College of San Mateo, a junior college in the Mid-Peninsula area. He was friendly with some Stanford University freshmen who liked folk music, among them Ted Claire and Richard Astle. How they knew each other isn't exactly clear, but there would have been only a small number of "folkies" in the area and somehow they made the connection. In the early 60s, Stanford University was respectable, but not the West Coast Ivy school it is today. Thus, a Stanford freshman would have seen a student at a nearby JC (San Mateo is about 20 miles North, nearer San Francisco) as a fellow college man.

Rodney Albin started the first folk club in the South Bay, called The Boar's Head. The Boar's Head was a tiny loft that seated at most 40 people (per McNally), above a metaphysical book store called the San Carlos Book Stall, at 1101 (or 1107) San Carlos Street. Rodney's brother Peter's best friend was a fellow Carlmont High student named David Nelson. Rodney had already guided Nelson's future career by saying "you know what you would like? Bluegrass," but he was about to have an even bigger influence. In a remarkable interview with the JGMF research staff, Nelson describes Rodney Albin getting Peter and Nelson into a car to go to Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, because Rodney said,“c'mon boys were going down to Kepler’s bookstore, and pick up some of those beatniks, get them to come to our club." He also added, "we've got to find this guy Jerry Garcia."

A January 2011 aerial view, from Hoover Tower, of the Wilbur Hall Residence Complex at 658 Escondido Drive on the Stanford University campus. The Wilbur complex consists of 8 residence halls and a Dining Commons. In 1961, Jerry Garcia and Bob Hunter played their first gig at the lounge in Arroyo Hall. This umpaid gig likely connected them to Ted Claire and Richard Astle, and ultimately to Rodney Albin
How did Rodney even know about Garcia? It's hard to say for sure, but Garcia and Bob Hunter's first, unpaid gig  had been at Stanford's freshman dorm (Wilbur Hall), and they were apparently regular, if informal, performers at the Stanford University coffee shop and some fraternity parties. So the evidence seems to point towards some Stanford freshmen who had met them, particularly Ted Claire. In any case, Nelson and the Albins found Garcia holding court at Kepler's, and invited him to play the Boar's Head. According to McNally, after Garcia cheerfully agreed, Rodney added "can you bring anyone else? Tell everybody." Garcia and Hunter played the Boar's Head in the Summer of '61, and Rodney had set the wheels in motion.

The Boar's Head, Summer 1962
The Boar's Head had packed the space above the San Carlos Book Stall in the Summer of '61, and it needed more space. However small it was, folk music was happenin'. For the Summer of '62, The Boar's Head was located at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center in Belmont. The newly organized Wildwood Boys, with Garcia, Hunter and Nelson, were regulars, and Garcia played with various other aggregations. The earliest widely circulated Garcia tape, from June 11, 1962, an old-timey configurations with Marshall Leicester and Dick Arnold, under the name Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers, was from the Boar's Head. The Boar's Head actually lasted through the next two Summers, up to 1964, when it eventually faded away.

Christopher Newton's book The First Few Friends I Had (2013 Pondering Pig Press) is an insightful look at Bay Area teenagers who were too late for the Beats and too soon for the hippies.
The Proto-Hippie Wilderness
Most rock music fans pay attention to San Francisco and the Haight Ashbury in the mid-60s. Depending on your exact interests, attention usually gets focused on the Summer of Love in 1967, or the opening of the Fillmore and Avalon in 1966, or the Acid Tests and Mime Troupe Benefits in late 1965. Yet in order for those events to happen, there had to be a community of like-minded souls, a few years older than the teenage hippies who recall the Summer Of Love so fondly. And there was. Jerry Garcia, Grace Slick, David Crosby and a few other legends are the most famous of those characters, but there were enough of them to form a subculture, just after The Beats but still before the hippies. If you look hard enough, you can find their stories.

Christopher Newton was a mid-1950s teenager in suburban San Mateo, just South of San Francisco, midway between the City and Palo Alto, bordered by the El Camino Real. Today, young people set off after high school with all sorts of options--not just sensible college majors like BioStatistics or Hotel Management, but less prudent ones like Rhetoric or Contemplative Studies, or Outward Bound opportunities in the Great Outdoors, all in the service of a better inner and outer life. No such thing existed back in the 1950s. If neither factory work nor middle-class conformity appealed to you, what did you do? For all of those seekers, the answer was pretty much the same: read Jack Kerouac, and search for something different and meaningful on the margins of American life.

Newton has written a very interesting book about his efforts to find his place in the Bay Area pre-hippie wildnerness, from the mid-50s to the mid-60s. The First Few Friends I Had (Pondering Pig Press, 2013) is a very personal tale of Newton's friends and life in those days, but famous characters like Jerry Garcia and Chet Helms wander through the narrative, as they were part of that world. Newton has also written a blog (The Pondering Pig) that includes additional material, and between the blog and the book, we get a sharp picture of how Rodney Albin was so personally important to those seekers in the early days.

San Francisco State College
After some false starts, Newton ends up at San Francisco State College in the Fall of 1962, at the new (and current) campus at 19th Avenue and Holloway, near Lake Merced. Up until 1959, SF State was on Buchanan street, which was why so many SF State students still lived in the Haight Ashbury. It was there that Newton met Rodney Albin. He describes the encounter and their growing friendship in some detail in his blog:
Late one morning in, I suppose, the Fall of 1962, I exited San Francisco State’s HLL building, where the boring part of my initiation into high Western culture took place, and ambled across the lawn towards the  Commons to get coffee and see what was up...
On this particular morning, I happened to notice a new folkie sitting cross-legged on the lawn, surrounded by the regulars and passing around a dulcimer he had just built.  He was a tall gangly kind of folknik, just transferred in from the College of San Mateo, a junior college on the Peninsula.  He was wearing bright red trousers, a stove-piped hat and tails, and he was playing The Battle of New Orleans on his fiddle.  No.  Wait a minute.  That’s got to be my imagination.  The top hat and tails didn’t come until later.  OK, he was dressed like a normal person.  It was his dulcimer that was extraordinary.
Interested in dulcimers myself, I forgot about the coffee (never easy to do)  and squeezed into the circle.  That dulcimer was pretty cool, all right.  Shaped like Jayne Mansfield with soft flowing curves and strummed with a sea gull feather, you could tune it to any interesting modal scale you might be in the mood for, brush its strings with that quill, and there you were,  mournful and lost in the holler, sounding like you’d been born in Viper, Kentucky instead of San Francisco.  I started in on an improvised, sea gull strummed Pretty Polly, and pretty soon I was hooked.  The Commons fled and there I was in some longago fog shrouded mountain glen, watching some no-goodnik do in Pretty Polly while the pretty little birdies mourned.  It sounded like magic, and Rodney had created the damn thing out of a piece of spruce. 
I got to know Rodney after a while and discovered he was from the next holler over.  My holler was called San Mateo and his they called Belmont.  He and his younger brother Peter were still living with their parents in an upper middle class shack in the Belmont hills.  I also discovered that Rodney wasn’t the new guy – I was.  He was well-known in folk circles up and down the Peninsula and across the Bay in Berkeley.  He’d masterminded the folk music festival at the College of San Mateo where young Jerry Garcia made his debut to an unappreciative audience of frat rats.  Rodney and George ‘The Beast’ Howell [one of Newton's best friends] had opened the Boar’s Head the preceding summer, a folk-oriented coffeehouse in the loft above the book store in San Carlos where George worked.  Garcia and the other Palo Alto folkniks regularly showed up there to jam into the weekend nights.
Over the next few years, Rodney Albin facilitated Newton's passage into the nascent but growing little counterculture that would flower a few years later.
I started dropping in to see Rodney when I was down that way.  On my first visit, he showed me the six string balalaika he’d built out of orange crate wood.   It was his first sort of crude try at building an instrument.  He was way beyond now of course. He’d already finished a viol de gamba, and now he was building a harpsichord on his bedroom floor.  Its parts spread hither and thither across the carpet; tools, a reel to reel tape recorder and an unmade bed filled the rest.  He used the tape machine to record performances at the Boar’s Head.  Apparently some of these tapes still exist and are passed from hand to hand in Deadhead circles.   They would include: Garcia, Ron McKernan, David Nelson, Rodneys’s brother Peter of course, and other less talented performers who went on to become teachers and bureaucrats and accountants – but still played pretty good.
The Society Column from the San Mateo Times of September 3, 1964, announces that the folk music entertainment for Caroline Reid's debutante party was provided by the Liberty Hill Aristocrats. 
The Liberty Hill Aristocrats
Folk music had been popular since the 1950s, thanks to groups like The Weavers and The Kingston Trio. By the early 60s, however, there started to be some interest in colleges and suburbs with more serious American folk music, whether bluegrass like Bill Monroe or like its predecessor, generally known as "Old Timey" or String Band music. With new folk clubs like The Boar's Head and The Top Of The Tangent in Palo Alto, which opened in January 1963, there was room for Rodney Albin to start his own aggregation, the Liberty Hill Aristocrats.

The Liberty Hill Aristocrats featured Rodney Albin and his younger brother Peter, along with various other members, some of them part time. One apparently semi-permanent member was fellow student Ed Bogas, a classically trained violinist and pianist who would moonlight on fiddle. Peter Albin, already a fine musician by the end of High School, played guitar and banjo, and Rodney played more exotic folk instruments, many of them apparently constructed by himself.

Unlike rock bands, traditional folk music groups could have floating memberships, since there was no need for amplifiers. A friend could be invited up from the (usually tiny) crowd to sing along or play harmonica on a song they knew. So attempting to work out the actual membership of the Liberty Hill Aristocrats beyond the Albin brothers and perhaps Ed Bogas is a futile exercise. Also, at places like the Boar's Head or The Tangent, groups of fellow musicians would climb on stage for one-time performances of songs that may have been rehearsed just a few minutes before. A widely circulated tape of the Albins and Pigpen, along with singer/guitarist Ellen Cavanagh, playing blues at The Boar's Head as The Second Story Men seems to be one such group. The Second Story Men existed alongside the Liberty Hill Aristocrats, as there were no practical barriers to having multiple bands.

The Liberty Hill Aristocrats played what gigs they could. There were a few gigs at folk clubs, and since folk music was now cool, they seemed to have played at least one debutante party, and probably more. By September 1964 (the date of the Society item from the San Mateo Times clip posted above), both Albins were attending San Francisco State. However, the Albins probably knew the debutantes from around Belmont. By this time, Ted Claire may have been a member of the Liberty Hill Aristocrats, at least some of the time, and another guitarist named Jeffrey Dambreau may have played with them also. In any case, both eventually joined the band. A decade later, Robert Hunter would also play with the Liberty Hill Aristocrats on occasion.

1090 Page Street
Newton also has a detailed recollection of Rodney Albin's most critical contribution to the rise of Haight Ashbury (from the blog):
Sometime in the spring or summer of 1964, Rodney Albin’s uncle acquired a twenty-two room Victorian boarding house on the corner of Page and Broderick Streets in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. The place had seen better days. Built in the 1880s by the owner of a high-toned downtown haberdashery, it had all the modern 1888 conveniences – speaking tubes, a doorbell that rang on each floor, and gas lighting sconces on the walls for when the electricity went out. Its pearl, though, was in the basement: a full-sized ballroom with a stage in one alcove. The entire room was lined with glowing virgin redwood panels. 
But in the 1940s, 1090 Page Street was downscaled from a mansion to a boarding house. Life Magazine mentioned it in a 1961 story titled “The Irish in America.” It featured a full-page photo of thirty ‘typical Irish’ working stiffs and Mrs. Minton, their landlady, all leaning out the windows of 1090 Page waving madly. 
For Rodney’s uncle, the building was strictly a business investment.  He was planning to tear it down and replace it with federally funded senior housing.   But the deal was bogged down in Washington somewhere, so Rodney approached him – he knew a way his uncle could make some money on the place while he waited to finalize the deal.  Why not rent rooms to San Francisco State students? Why, it happened that Rodney himself was a State student.  With his connections he could easily fill the place with the most respectable type of student, earnest and studious.   Rodney guaranteed him $600 a month, and was soon installed as landlord of what would become possibly the most renowned proto-hippie/scruffy student  pad in San Francisco’s short history.  By fall, the place was jumping. Since rooms began at $15 a month, it was affordable,  to say the least.
A ticket to a jam session in the basement in 1090 Page Street, hosted by Rodney Albin (calligraphy by Rodney as well)
Big Brother And The Sopwith Camel
In the basement of 1090 Page Street there was a huge ballroom. Many of the boarders were budding musicians, and they started playing music down there. A resident of a nearby building, a Texas transplant named Chet Helms, started organizing regular Wednesday night jam sessions, early in 1965. After repeated jams, some actual bands started to form. The first one to form was in late 1965, with Peter Albin and others. They made a list of possible names, and chose Big Brother And The Holding Company. Chet Helms became their manager, and they debuted in Berkeley on January 15, 1966.  By the middle of 1966 Big Brother were regulars at Helms' new venue. the Avalon Ballroom. They were missing something, however, so Helms recruited his Texas friend Janis Joplin, and stardom followed.

The second band to come out of 1090 Page Street surfaced in early 1966. They took the same list of possible band names as Big Brother had, and chose another name: Sopwith Camel. They lacked a bass player, however, and auditioned various 1090 Page jam session participants. Much to the surprise of everyone, Rodney Albin tried out as their bass player. Rodney was a folk purist who appeared to look down on rock and roll, yet here he was trying it on. However, he didn't get the gig. Sopwith Camel isn't widely remembered today, but they were one of the first San Francisco bands signed in 1966, and they had one of the first hits with a song called "Hello, Hello," so once again Rodney passed on another opportunity. He may not have entirely wanted it. Newton alludes to the fact that even back in 1965, Rodney Albin had a persistent ulcer, and the late nights and travel of the itinerant rock and roller may not have been desirable, However, thanks to 1090 Page and the jam sessions, Rodney Albin was still a crucial fulcrum in the history of the Haight Ashbury,

A business card for Rodney Albin at Haight Street Music, at 1418 Haight (at Masonic). In 1967, the address had been a boutique called Wild Colors; now it is a restaurant called Hippie Street Thai Food
Haight Street Music, 1418 Haight Street (at Masonic)
Rodney Albin's musical activities are fairly undocumented from 1966 through 1973, a curious fact for such a critical figure in the usually well-researched Haight Ashbury scene. Brother Peter, of course, rose to the top with Big Brother, only to see it crumble when Janis left the group at the end of 1968, He joined Country Joe and The Fish for the first part of 1969 and then Big Brother reformed in 1969 and put out two pretty good, if unheralded albums (Be A Brother in 1970 and 1971's How Hard It Is). Peter remained in Big Brother through 1971, so Rodney certainly had connections to the electric rock world.

However, I do know that Rodney worked at Haight Street Music, a store that seems to have emphasized acoustic string instruments rather than the more popular electric instrumentation. I know that the Liberty Hill Aristocrats continued to play, although exactly where remains obscure. By the end of the 60s, Ted Claire and Jeffrey Dambreau were definitely members of the group, whatever exactly that meant.

I suspect that Rodney Albin made a living during this period primarily as a luthier, building and repairing instruments. He seems to have been a San Francisco version of David Lindley. While no one can compare to Mr. Dave's ability to excel on infinite stringed instruments, some custom made, Rodney seems to still have been a source for instruments that may have needed special constructions. I have learned that in the late 1960s, Rodney Albin was building electric violins for various musicians. What few extant electric violins there were had been hand built at the time, so any violinists who wanted an electric axe would have welcomed Rodney's work.

On August 3, 1969, the Grateful Dead played The Family Dog On The Great Highway, and they were joined by a saxophonist and an electric violinist. Fellow scholars and I have searched in vain for their identities. There were so few electric violinists at the time, that some of the obvious choices like David LaFlamme (It's A Beautiful Day) and Michael White (John Handy, The Fourth Way) have personally indicated that it was definitely not them. A lesser known electric violinist from that time, John Tenney, who played sessions (including the mysterious Pigpen sessions for Mercury in 1969) and in two cover bands, This Ole World and Mother's Country Jam, assured us it was not him, either, but he had some intriguing insights in a personal email:
Don't know what to tell you about the fiddle player. It doesn't sound like LaFlamme to me either... He was much more melodic, and that scrubby bluegrassy (but non-authentic) playing at the end of "Caution Do Not Stop on Tracks" sounds weird in places, almost as if played on a 5-string hybrid violin/viola (I'm hearing high E string and also low C string both). That was not common yet that early; came in a lot more when real electric string instruments were developed in the 70s and 80s. Do you know anything about a player named Rodney Albin? He was brother of Peter Albin, who played in Big Brother. Rodney was a violin maker, also was I believe the manager of the famous house on Page Street (1090?) where the Dead lived early on. He could have made a hybrid 5-string, definitely had the capability for it. He was not an excellent player, but then again neither is the player on these tracks. Incidentally he also made the electric violin that I played on then.
So we know Rodney was making custom electric violins in 1969, and there is even the chance that he is the mysterious electric fiddler at the Family Dog.

As the Grateful Dead became more famous, Robert Hunter remained a mystery. Thus it was a great surprise to Deadheads in 1976 when Hunter started appearing locally with a bar band called Roadhog, singing many of the songs from his two Round Records solo albums. In fact, it turned out that Roadhog had surfaced in 1973, and Hunter had been working with them since their inception. Initially, Hunter appeared to have been the "staff writer," like he was with the Dead. By 1974, he was surreptitiously appearing on stage with Roadhog under the Nom Du Rock of "Lefty Banks."

Commenter runonguinness, a fellow scholar, tracked down a quote from theGrateful Dead newsletter: 
The idea for a Hunter album goes back to the start of Round Records in the Spring of 73. Here's an announcement from the Deadheads newsletter #10 from May 73 page 5:
"Robert Hunter has written the material for his own album and recorded it with Liberty, a Bay Area band. To be released.
I have never come across another mention of a band called Liberty and suspect this was actually Rodney Albin and friends. His early 60s band was the Liberty Hill Aristocrats and my theory is he was still using a variant of the name.
And here he finds the money quote, from a 1979 issue of the British fanzine Dark Star:
And here’s Hunter discussing Roadhog from the third and final part of a Ken Hunt interview in late 1979 published in Dark Star No 25 p 43
KH: How did you come to get involved with Roadhog? As far as I can tell, they were an existing band.
RH: Well, I had played with the band that became Roadhog, oh, ten or twelve years ago. They used to be called the Liberty Hall (sic) Aristocrats. It was Rodney Albin’s band. He just kept the band together for years and years and years. He was always inviting me to stop by and play with them. And I did. I went under the name of Lefty Banks, ‘cause I knew I had a reputation that I didn’t want to destroy at that point – until I got good enough as a performer to use my real name. So I had to join the band to learn how to play electric music. It’s funny, I used to be very at ease on stage playing along, but then after all those years when I got in with Roadhog, I was having shaky legs. I was terrified. There was one time we were playing a fraternity party over in Berkeley and Rodney said, ‘Now Lefty’s going to sing a Robert Hunter tune for you,’ and I did “Must Have Been The Roses”. There was some kid there and he said, ‘Gosh! That sounds just like Robert Hunter!’ That was a great masquerade.
The members of Roadhog were

  • Jeffrey Dambreau-guitar, vocals
  • Ted Claire-guitar, vocals
  • Shelley Ralston-vocals
  • Rodney Albin-bass, electric violin, vocals
  • Bill Summers-drums
  • with Lefty Banks [Robert Hunter]-acoustic and electric guitar, vocals
  • --the guitarists, including Hunter, would play bass when Rodney played fiddle

Tales Of The Great Rum Runners, Robert Hunter's debut album on Round (RX-101), released in June 1974. Rodney Albin was credited on two tracks. This was likely the first time he had recorded on a record that was released.
The genesis story of Roadhog and Robert Hunter will make a remarkable post, when I get around to writing it. I have written a detailed post of Hunter's publicly announced appearances with Roadhog. Back in 1973, Roadhog recorded what appears to be an album demo at Mickey Hart's Novato barn. Hunter wrote many, but not all, of the songs, and sang lead on quite a few of them. Most, but not all of the Hunter songs turned up on Hunter's June 1974 solo album, Tales Of The Great Rum Runners, which was the first album released on Round Records (RX-101).

Albin and Ted Claire play on Rum Runners, and Jeff Dambreau is thanked. Rodney Albin plays fiddle on the title track, and Claire and Rodney join in on the vocals for "Boys In The Barroom." For all Rodney's essential history, his appearance on Hunter's solo album appears to have been his first appearance on a publicly available recording.

The A-side of the privately released 1974 Roadhog single, with the song "Rotate Your Stock," written by guitarist Jeff Dambreau. The b-side was Van Morrison's "Wild Night"
Throughout 1974 and 1975, Roadhog continued to play around the Bay Area and occasionally elsewhere. Robert Hunter appeared with them regularly, but was never billed. There is at least one instance, at a 1975 show in Oregon, where his identity on stage seems to have been acknowledged. Without an internet, however, such information was generally unavailable to Deadheads. Rather oddly, Roadhog had a privately released 45 rpm single, available only at shows. The tracks were a Jeffrey Dambreau original, "Rotate Your Stock", backed by a cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night," sung by Shelley Ralston. The tracks were recorded at a legendary SF studio called Funky Features. Funky Features, also known as Funky Jack's. Proprietor Jack Leahy had built a studio in the basement of his Haight Ashbury home at 142 Central Avenue, and it was a fine sounding alternative to more expensive studios like Wally Heiders.

I don't think the Roadhog single was really a commercial proposition. Back in 1974-75, demos were expensive, and not every nightclub even had a cassette deck. However, by giving a club the 45 rpm single, the booker could hear what Roadhog sounded like. I believe that is why they recorded a straightforward cover of "Wild Night," to show that they played danceable covers along with original material. Obviously, if Roadhog sold a few singles to fans, they were happy with that, but it probably wasn't a big part of the plan. I don't think Hunter played on this record, but Rodney Albin surely did.

Robert Hunter and Comfort
Around Halloween '76, Roadhog called it a day. Round Records had already folded, so no further solo albums seemed in the offing. Hunter played a few gigs with Barry Melton in November, but he put his performing career on hold. Nonetheless, he explained what happened next to Ken Hunt of Dark Star:
RH: …I got out of the business for nine months or so. And then (resignedly), Rodney had another band after a while, Comfort, and they were such a good band. He told me that they were going to break up unless I joined them, ‘cause they couldn’t afford to stay together any longer. So back to a life of music.
Comfort had actually formed back in 1973, as a sort of songwriting collective. Comfort had even shared bills with Roadhog at some smaller clubs in the Bay Area. By 1977, however, Rodney Albin had joined up with them, and he persuaded Hunter to join, too. Hunter actually supported the band through his Grateful Dead songwriting royalties, putting the band on salary and paying for recording an album at Front Street. It was Hunter's most serious effort at being a rock musician, and it came to pass because Rodney Albin persuaded him to do it.

The members of Comfort were

  • Robert Hunter-vocals, guitar, harmonica
  • Kevin Morgenstern-lead guitar
  • Rodney Albin-fiddle, mandolin, vocals
  • Marlene Molle-vocals [later married Rodney Albin]
  • Kathleen Klein-vocals [married to Larry Klein]
  • Richard McNees-keyboards
  • --replaced by Ozzie Ahlers in January 1978 [Ahlers recommended by John Kahn]
  • Larry Klein-bass [not the Larry Klein who married Joni Mitchell]
  • Pat Lorenzano-drums
Hunter wrote various songs for Comfort, and was the primary lead singer. The main composition was a remarkable suite of songs called "Alligator Moon," with lyrics by Hunter and music by McNees and Morgenstern. Their was also a sort of dance production that went with the suite, and on a few occasions in the Bay Area (in February 1978) Comfort added three ballerinas to the show as well. Video was made, but it has never surfaced to my knowledge. The entire production was financed by Hunter.

Comfort recorded an album at Front Street Studios, financed by Hunter--though I don't doubt that Front Street proprietors Jerry Garcia and John Kahn didn't charge him much. The tracks have circulated, and the 18-minute "Alligator Moon" is a unique composition for Hunter as a vocalist. However, Hunter was unhappy with the production, and the album has never been released. A few tracks did come out on the Relix Records compilation Promontory Rider. Comfort was a serious enterprise, nonetheless. On December 5, 1977, at a Monday night "Fat Fry" on Gilroy's KFAT-fm, Hunter financed a live broadcast of Comfort at the Keystone Palo Alto, engineered by no less than Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor. This live performance, including the complete "Alligator Moon," stands as Comfort's best musical legacy.

In March of 1978, the Jerry Garcia Band toured the East Coast, in anticipation of the release of Cats Under The Stars. They were joined by Robert Hunter and Comfort, presumably still expecting to release Alligator Moon. Comfort opened nine JGB shows at theaters and arenas, and also played some club dates. They returned East in May for a few more club dates. For all Rodney Albin's long history in the San Francisco scene, the 1978 East Coast tour with Comfort seem to have been his only true rock road trip.

Many aspiring musicians, or nostalgic fans, wonder what it would have been like to have been in on the ground floor of something like San Francisco in the 60s. Rodney Albin was right on that ground floor. He introduced David Nelson to both bluegrass and Jerry Garcia, he found Garcia and Hunter and brought them to the Boar's House, and Pigpen as well. He was in on the founding of Big Brother and The Holding Company and Sopwith Camel, and he made and sold instruments to San Francisco throughout the 60s and early 70s. Yet he did not accelerate his musical career with any of these connections until a dozen years later.

Rodney Albin had introduced Nelson, Garcia and Hunter, and the trio had formed the Wildwood Boys in 1962, the first of Jerry Garcia's many bluegrass aggregations. After many curves in the road, the JGB tour found itself at an old hockey arena called the Suffolk Forum, in Commack, NY, on March 12, 1978. The bill was Jerry Garcia Band/New Riders Of The Purple Sage/Robert Hunter and Comfort, the only time all three original members of the Wildwood Boys played in separate bands on the same bill. By this time, by my count, they had 31 albums between them. I speculated in the past on whether the three of them even noticed backstage how far they had come from their first gigs in the South Bay. I also wonder now whether they recognized that Rodney Albin was there, too, and without Rodney, there wouldn't have been any Wildwood Boys at all, and no giant gig at a hockey arena in Long Island.

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However, because Hunter, Rodney and Comfort were invited to join the Jerry Garcia Band tour, they played the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ on March 17, 1978. At the Capitol at the time, every show was videotaped, even the opening acts, and the tapes have finally surfaced. Thus we get a chance to see Rodney Albin in action, in Comfort's opening set for the Garcia Band. Rodney Albin plays fiddle and mandolin, and his featured appearances are his fiddle solo on "Tales Of The Great Rum Runners" and his lead vocal turn on the Johnny Horton classic "Battle Of New Orleans." It's nice to be able to put a face and a style to such an important figure who otherwise remained in the background.

Rodney Albin, 1940-84
Comfort ground to a halt in June 1978. The Alligator Moon album was not going to be released, and Hunter could no longer afford to keep supporting the band. Rodney Albin had married singer Marlene Molle, and they had a child. While there is no doubt that Rodney continued to play music, he retired from his very brief sojourn as a touring rock musician, leaving that to his old friends Hunter, Nelson and Garcia.

By 1984, Rodney Albin was very sick with stomach cancer. Just 44 years old, with a wife and a child, it must have been a shocking intrusion of mortality. Many rock and rollers pass from excess or recklessness, but Rodney by all accounts lived a quiet, sensible life and yet left far too soon. Amongst the old San Francisco crowd, there had been a few tragedies in the 60s and early 70s, but by and large everyone was around from back in the day. After Rodney's death, a benefit concert for Rodney's wife and child was arranged at Wolfgang's, on Columbus Street, Bill Graham's primary nightclub venue at the time. Psychedelia was at a low ebb, and most of the San Francisco legends barely had paying gigs, but they all showed up. The one with paying gigs was Jerry Garcia, but he was there, too, just as he had been for Janis and would be for Bill Graham. Jerry played an acoustic set with John Kahn, and seemed pretty out of it, but for once he could hardly have been blamed.

Rodney Albin's final musical legacy was on the Robert Hunter album Amagamalin Street, released in 1984 on Relix Records. Hunter had brought recording gear to Rodney's hospital room, and Rodney recorded a mournful violin solo, perhaps his last musical performance. He died soon after, but his legacy remained with his friends. George Newton summarized it best in his book. Newton, by his own admission an indifferent guitar player, had received a mandolin as a gift in 1963, but he didn't really know how to play it. Rodney taught him some chords, some fingering and a few songs. Not only that, now that Newton could play the mandolin, Rodney invited him to join the Liberty Hill Aristocrats, as well, when they played a gig at The Top Of The Tangent with Garcia and Nelson. Newton protested that he wasn't that good yet, but Rodney didn't care. In his book, he said
That was Rodney, he got people going, and he included them, even if it affected the professionalism of the music. He had his priority list, and friends were higher up than professionalism. You had to love a guy like that, and I did.
Music for friends, a sound concept. Rodney Albin's friends--David Nelson, Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter, Peter Albin, Pigpen, Chet Helms and all of us, were all the better for it,
My notes from the Rodney Albin Memorial Concert at Wolfgang's in San Francisco on August 28 1984, written down as soon as I got home.
Appendix: Notes from The Rodney K. Albin Memorial Concert
August 28, 1984 Wolfgang's, San Francisco, CA: Rodney K. Albin Memorial Concert Dinosaurs/Jerry Garcia and John Kahn/Country Joe and Friends/David Nelson/Rick and Ruby/others
Since there seems to be no other record online of the concert, I am publishing my notes from the concert, along with what I recall. I did not take notes at the show, but I wrote everything down as soon as I got home, so they are pretty accurate. The list of performers is approximately in the order which they appeared. Songs are what I could remember that evening. The Garcia, Dinosaurs and Country Joe setlists are complete to my knowledge. Garcia appeared early in the show, and the Dinosaurs were the "headliners." After the Dinosaurs set, various friends came on stage to play songs on the Dinos equipment. I left before the jam session ended, as it was 2:00am or later (an additional partial list of the show can be seen here).

Wolfgang's. 901 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, CA
Wolfgang's in the heart of North Beach in San Francisco, had a variety of prior lives. It had been a place called The Village, which advertised itself as "The Fillmore West for The Gay Set," and Garcia/Saunders had played there back on September 1971. It was a disco for a while (Dance Yer Ass Off) and eventually it became the "new" Boarding House. Robert Hunter had played there a few times. Eventually the new Boarding House failed, and Bill Graham took the club over, naming it Wolfgang's, a variation of his birth name, (Wolodia, in Hungarian). For a few years, Wolfgang's was Bill Graham Presents' "prestige" club, where hip acts played to impress tuned-in fans and industry people. Mostly, that did not include anyone associated with the Grateful Dead or old hippie bands, although Robert Hunter and the Dinosaurs had played there a few times.

MCs: Peter Albin, Bill Graham, Chet Helms
Every act had something nice to say about Rodney Albin, as did the MCs, but it has been so long I no longer remember what they said. Apparently, Peter Albin read a poem that Rodney wrote shortly before his death, but I do not actually recall that. Nonetheless, I very much got the impression that even though I only recognized Rodney as Peter Albin's brother and Robert Hunter's bass player, he was far more important than that. Some tapes have circulated of the concert, and some fairly primitive video is available on YouTube. If there are better links, please add them in the Comments.

David Nelson Band
  • David Nelson-acoustic guitar, vocals
  • Ed Neff-fiddle, mandolin, vocals
  • Tom Grant-banjo, vocals [probably Tom Stern]
  • Sara ?-bass
Ashes Of Love/ Dim Lights, Thick Smoke/ Teardrops In My Eyes/ Diamond Joe/ other songs
David Nelson opened the show with a bluegrass quartet. I only recognized a few songs, but it wasn't a long set.

The Rick And Ruby Show
  • Rick-guitar, vocals
  • Ruby-vocals
  • Righteous Raoul (Josh Brody)-piano
Rick and Ruby were a sort of parody lounge act. They were alright, but somewhat out of place with a bunch of old hippies.

<iframe width="420" height="315" src="" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>Jerry Garcia and John Kahn

Jerry Garcia and John Kahn
Deep Elem Blues
I've Been All Around This World
Friend Of The Devil
Little Sadie
Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie
Goodnight Irene
To the surprise of most, Garcia and Kahn came out early. This was not uncommon at Bay Area benefits. Garcia generally wanted to do his bit and leave, rather than hang out. While everyone of course hoped that Jerry would stick around and jam, he never actually did that at when he played acoustic at a benefit. The set was short, and Jerry seemed out of it. Unlike some other shows, you could hardly blame him this night. Jerry, as usual for him but alone amongst the performers, said nothing about his lengthy friendship to Rodney Albin, but Jerry's presence said plenty.

Country Joe McDonald And Friends
Country Joe McDonald-lead vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica
Peter Walsh-lead guitar, vocals
David Bennet Cohen-lead guitar, organ, piano
Boots Stuart Houston-tenor sax
Dorothy Moskowitz-electric piano, vocals
Bruce Barthol-bass
Chicken Hirsh-drums
Chet Helms introduced the band. No one introduced Chet--everyone seemed to recognize him except me, and even I quickly figured it out. He went through the players, and the crowd was wondering why Barry Melton wasn't on stage. Little did we know there was a long-running dispute between Barry and a member of the band. Still, when he finished introducing each player, Chet said "you know these guys--they used to play the Avalon every New Year's Eve: Country Joe McDonald [dramatic pause] And Friends.

The lineup was 4/5 of the band from Avalon days, and two regulars from Joe's band. They absolutely, positively killed it. Joe always delivers the maximum, and they were the best set of the night. They got the only encore of the evening, and knocked it out of the park again.

Flying High
[instrumental-probably Masked Marauder]
Feel Like I'm Fixin To Die Rag
LSD Commercial
Rock and Soul Music
Not So Sweet, Martha Lorraine

Ed Bogas-violin
Gary Cohen-piano
Canon In D
Ed Bogas was a neighborhood friend of the Albin brothers. He had even been the fiddle player in The Liberty Hill Aristocrats, at least some of the time. By now, Bogas had been a highly regarded jazz producer for Fantasy Records for many years. For a change of pace, Bogas played some carefully rehearsed classical music, just to give some breadth to Rodney's musical interests.

Marlene Albin And Friends
  • Marlene Molle Albin-vocals, congas
  • Kevin Morgenstern-guitar
  • Gary Cohen-piano
  • Paul Scott-bass
  • Pat Lorenzano-drums
In My Life/ Me and Eddie/ other songs
Rodney's wife fronted a band that included two other former members of Comfort (Morgenstern and Lorenzano). There were some original songs and some covers. Many of the audience seemed to know her personally.

<iframe width="420" height="315" src="" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
  • John Cippolina-lead and slide guitar, vocals
  • Barry Melton-lead guitar, vocals
  • Robert Hunter-acoustic guitar, harmonica, vocals
  • David LaFlamme-electric violin, guitar (*), vocals
  • Merl Saunders-electric piano, Korg synthesizer, vocals
  • Peter Albin-bass, vocals
  • Spencer Dryden-drums
Who Makes The Moves [Melton and Hunter, lead vocals]
The Dance [Melton]
Boogie On Reggae Woman [Saunders]
Better Bad Luck [Hunter]
Blind Man [Albin]
Who's Gonna Love Me Now* [LaFlamme]
[unknown to me at the time] [Cippolina--may have been "Motel Party Baby"]
Turn It Up [Melton]
Promontory Rider [Hunter]

The Dinosaurs were the headliners, meant to rock out the house for the night. At the time, the Dinosaurs were a pretty regular act in clubs and small halls around the area. Other than the Grateful Dead, there were no other bands playing old-school psychedelic music, and there was no kind of jam band scene. It really did seem like the Dead and the humorously named Dinosaurs were the last of their kind.

The Dinosaurs were in a transitional stage. Robert Hunter had "officially" left the band, more or less replaced by Merl Saunders (the Dinosaurs had actually been playing around for a while with Saunders and without Hunter, but under another name). David LaFlamme, ex Its A Beautiful Day, had also been announced in BAM Magazine as a new member. So this show was Hunter's last with the Dinosaurs, his only one with Saunders, and LaFlamme's second. In contrast to a typical Dinosaurs set, Hunter had a higher proportion of songs. At the end of their set, they announced that some friends were going to jam, but the crowd thinned out pretty heavily.

After Hours Jamming
"Howard Hughes Blues"
  • Michael Wilhem-lead guitar, vocals
  • John Cippolina-slide guitar
  • David LaFlamme-electric violin
  • Merl Saunders-electric piano
  • Peter Albin-bass, vocals
  • Spencer Dryden-drums
Michael Wilhem had been in The Charlatans, who had started the whole thing at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, NV in the Summer of '65.

"Rock And Roll Music"
  • [ex-Charlatans?]-lead vocals
  • Michael Wilhem-lead guitar, vocals
  • John Cippolina-slide guitar
  • Merl Saunders-electric piano
  • Peter Albin-bass, vocals
  • Fritz Kasten-drums
Someone was introduced, but I didn't figure out who, and sang a Chuck Berry song. My note says "ex-Charlatan?" It may have been Richard Olsen. Fritz Kasten had been the drummer in Joy Of Cooking.

"That's How Strong My Love Is"
  • John Cippolina-slide guitar
  • Snooky Flowers-baritone sax
  • B. Vaughn-alto sax
  • Merl Saunders-electric piano
  • Mitch Holman-bass, vocals
  • Chuck Jones-drums
Snooky Flowers had been in Janis Joplin's band (in '69) and various other aggregations. Mitch Holman had been in Its A Beautiful Day, and Chuck Jones had been the original drummer in Big Brother, way back in the 1090 Page Street days. He had played one or two shows before Dave Getz took over the chair permanently.

There were still musicians coming and going, but we were at our own witching hour and headed home.

Appendix 2: Rodney Albin Farewell Message
A number of correspondents sent me Rodney Albin's "Farewell Message." I think this was read at the concert, although I no longer remember precisely. In any case, it captures Rodney's generous spirit and good humor

[Text Of The Letter]
Dear Family And Friends,

At this moment you probably all know where you are, most of you anyway, but you're not too sure about where I am.

Since for the time being it's unlikely we'll meet fact to face, I'll tell you where to look for me. Look for me in a well made guitar, and in a well played violin. Find me wherever good rock & roll is being played, or at any performance of a Wagner opera. I'll be anywhere a kind word is being spoken, or a kind act performed. I'll be there when someone speaks out against dogmatic foolishness, or stands up in defense of science against superstition. When you open your heard, broaden your mind, lift your spirit to embrace life, I'll be there.

If you wish to remember me, join the Academy of Science, spare the life of an insect, or put one under a microscope. Stay out of the sun. Remember me by giving money to a street musician, unless he's no good, in which case tell him to get off the street. Pick up a derelict and treat him to the opera. Read an Uncle Scrooge comic. Finally, in remembrance of me, wear the same clothes for two weeks running, and be kind to ducks.

Cheers and farewell,

Now and eternally,

Rodney Kent Albin