Photos by John Margaretten
There are some that say that San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall is haunted. And if you ask theater employees about it, they may even have a personal tale or two to tell you about certain “occurrences” they have witnessed in the venerable, bejeweled old music hall and one-time bordello in the heart of San Francisco’s Tenderloin. This past Saturday night, the friendly spirit in the room was that of Mr. Jerry Garcia and the spiritual medium was JGB Band guitarist/vocalist Stu Allen, who all night channeled the great Garcia in a most impressive manner. Providing a direct connection to the dearly departed was the inimitable Melvin Seals on Hammond B-3 and keys, who performed with Jerry in the Jerry Garcia Band throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s. Joining Seals and Allen in this current JGB Band lineup were Jimmy Tebeau on Bass, Pete Lavezzoli on Drums and on backing vocals, Cheryl Rucker and Shirley Starks.
Every JGB show is an opportunity for some musical education, with material taken from sources as diverse as Broadway shows, Tin Pan Alley, Motown, The British Invasion, Blues, Gospel, Reggae and New Orleans R&B — and this show was no exception. After explaining that the show was going to be recorded for a live CD, Melvin introduced the first set opener, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” by composer Jerome Kern, by saying that he and Jerry had recorded the tune together for a movie soundtrack [The movie Smoke, directed by Wayne Wang and featuring Harvey Keitel] but that they had never played it together live. Turns out the song was also filmed at the same time for a VH1 video featuring Jerry serenading Ashley Judd in a booth at Tosca, over in North Beach. The choice of a song by Jerome Kern — the famed American composer for whom Jerry had been named by his musician father — as the opener was surely no coincidence and helped to conjure up the spirit of the man who despite being physically absent, was present in everyone’s hearts and minds.
Next up was “That’s What Love Can Do,” off of Clapton’s 1985 album, Behind the Sun, followed by the JGB Band standard, “I’ll Take a Melody,” that was originally penned by Allen Toussaint. Now things were really starting to pick up, especially when Melvin took his turn singing some soulful vocals on the Little Milton cover, “That’s What Love Will Make You Do.” By now, the bearded and ponytailed Stu Allen, playing his trademark cherry Gibson SG and looking understated in a muted-tone plaid shirt, was starting to peal off some particularly tasty solos and Melvin soon responded in kind with a swirling, whirling kaleidoscope of sound that seemed to cause his organ to combust. Turns out it was only a fog machine, and thankfully the fire department was not needed, although with the musical sparks that were flying between those two all night it might have been prudent to have had them on hand. “Strugglin’ Man,” by Jimmy Cliff, reworked from its reggae roots into a moderately paced shuffle featured some particularly soulful vocals from Allen and some solid bass work from the bearded and dreadlocked Tebeau. After an extended outro jam, Melvin and Stu led the band directly into an absolutely ripping first set closer, the Hunter/Garcia/Kahn original, “Rhapsody in Red,” off of the Jerry Garcia Band’s 1978 release, Cats Down Under the Stars. As the band walked off the stage after this set closing tour de force, the audience roared its unanimous approval. Everywhere during set-break I overheard variations on the same conversation, “Man, if you close your eyes, you would swear it IS Jerry up there!”
After a 30 minute set break that allowed us barely enough time to catch our breath and pick our jaws up off the floor, the band opened the second set with the Junior Walker Motown classic, “I’m a Road Runner,” then slowed it down a bit for the soulful standard, “That Lucky Old Sun,” that really showcased the backing vocals provided by Cheryl and Shirley. Throughout the show, whether it was Stu backing up Melvin, Melvin creating space for Stu to do his thing, or the understated rhythm section providing a solid footing for the whole enterprise, the band played with a familial affinity that was reflected in their calm, happy expressions and collaborative interplay. “Lucky Old Sun” was followed by a muscular “Let it Rock,” with the two chanteuses off stage and Stu tearing into the Chuck Berry classic with vigor. A beautiful version of Van Morrison’s “Bright Side of the Road,” was next, and then it was Gospel time as Cheryl and Shirley were again spotlighted for the lesser known spiritual, “Throw Out the Lifeline,” and then the more familiar “Sisters & Brothers.” The second set ended with an extended version of “Cats Down Under the Stars,” featuring some great bass playing by Jimmy Tebeau and Stu improvising ever longer and more intricate runs on his SG that sounded exactly like Jerry Garcia circa 1978. This last song nearly brought down the house and when the band encored with the dreamy Louis Armstrong hit “What a Wonderful World,” it almost felt like a letdown, but then the beautiful verses and inspired playing swept away any misgivings the crowd might have had. Despite the loud and demonstrative pleas of the hugely appreciative crowd, the band had to abide by the venue’s curfew and left us clapping and stomping for more. Can’t wait to buy the live CD as soon as it comes out and relive that rocking séance again.