By the end of the speech, the murmurs were in the ascendency. 'Who is this guy? Sounds authoritative, and pretty interesting, sort of ... but getting to be long-winded' ... So at about 10:25, Gaskin reappeared to say "Ladies and Gentleman, Moby Grape!" and they sauntered out, six musicians to pick up a mantle dropped twenty-six years ago, for all intents and purposes. After a few minutes' tuning and noodling, they launched into "Hey Grandma," the opening number on their debut album, premiered at a raucous party in San Francisco in the fall of 1966, almost thirty years ago.
The line-up was classic Moby Grape: three guitars, bass and drums. Only three surviving members tonight; Don Stevenson was out of the country, but will appear with the band later this summer. A full reunion was even suggested-in a recent interview, Peter Lewis held open the possibility of Skip Spence, long institutionalized, joining the band onstage. If so, they will hold the title to the Most Abused But Surviving Band in the World, bar none.
From left to right, on the stage in front of me,
were: Billy Darnell, playing a blue Strat; Jerry Miller, dressed
in a black cowboy hat and playing his beloved Beulah, a hollow-body
Gibson L-5; Bob Mosley, white hair coifed in a halo around his
intense, weathered face, dressed in a nondescript shirt; Tiran
Porter, looking young, fairly excited and professional; Peter
Lewis, playing a fierro red Strat, looking healthy and determined,
if somewhat nervous; and James Preston in the back, on drums.
And the audience was delighted. This was more than
a pale imitation, it sounded authentic. By the time they reached
the end of the short song, the audience was chugging up and down
enthusiastically; the Grape had returned.
I had settled the levels on the tape recorder now - always
a struggle as they change with the mix in the hall, as the engineers
compensate for the weirdnesses in response that happens when a
place fills with bodies - and could see more of what was happening
around me. An interesting crowd. Very like a small Dead crowd:
the same span of generations, from grandfather to grandchild,
though almost no teenagers; not on a school-night.
After "Fall On You," Mosley spoke and
the crowd greeted him warmly, which may have helped for the next
song, his own "Mr. Blues." And he sang it so well, just
belting it out: "I'm not afraid a you, Mistuh Blues!"
For a moment, it really was the old Bob Mosley, one of the two
frontmen of the band, radiating presence and charisma. A bravura
performance, which everyone recognized, and amidst the applause
Jerry Miller stepped to the mike and said "Bob Mosley,"
as the audience roared, and the band launched into "Changes,"
the most topical anthem of the set so far. Against spectacular
work by Miller, the band built a powerful, roaring raunch, with
all the punch of a band half their age. And my central image of
Mosley that night came then, standing there with his shoulder
length white hair gently flaming around his head, a backlit halo
with the stage lights behind, in his institutional-looking shirt,
light-blue with huge oversized sleeves, down from which his thin
arms hung, empty for the evening, not even a tambourine, nothing
but that voice. A voice that was nothing but impressive, despite
difficulties with the PA and the hardships of Mosley's last few
The rest of the band picked up the vibe and responded,
too. Miller's solo was first-rate, vintage Grape, and the band
swung in behind him with an excellent jam that made me jot one
word - "wow" - in my notes. So psychedelic; so pretty - all
the familiar sonic landscape of the San Francisco Sound in the
late Sixties, complete and accurate and as fresh as it ever sounded,
thirty years less a couple of months from the Grape's star-studded
orgy of excess at the Avalon to announce the debut of their first
album. A few hours after the last note of their feature performance
that night, two members were arrested with underage girls and
some pot, on a fire road on Mount Tamalpais, just over the Golden
Gate Bridge, in Marin County. The charges were eventually dropped,
but the sour note sounded an encore to that stellar debut set
a pattern of 'one step forward musically, two steps back professionally,'
that could describe the rest of their career.
And in the middle of the jam, the perfect epiphanic
moment: Bob steps to the mike during the final parts of the jam,
when the band is far out into weirdness, and against the strange
sonic backdrop intones "the Ancient Mayan civilization,"
and it is perfectly appropriate, brilliant, even, in the middle
of all the slides and swirling incense and smoke and colored lights
playing over the walls and ceiling and audience, Mosley standing
defiantly, skinny and tense and wide-eyed at a crowd cheering
him, encouraging and enthusiastic.
All of the songs that night seemed to have overtones and resonances for the band's history. During "Sitting By the Window," it was the lines:
But just the same I guess I'm playing my game
By "Indifference" they had hit their stride. Good harmonies; good, strong drive; smooth transitions in tempos between the sections; and once again, so apropos: "What a difference a day has made. / What a difference and more of the same," as Bob sang perfect three-part harmony, and the floorboards were bouncing with at least three generations ... Gaskins' tribe of hippies, incarnate. Some great vocal work by Mosley here but not uniform - he couldn't hear himself well, and also not entirely at ease. Three weeks is not a long time to adjust from drinking and living in a shanty to gigging and living in a hotel room. But he is definitely all there, even if not entirely comfortable with his role as vocalist only. Holding an instrument gives you something to do, as well as making you actively involved in the jams, a big part of the Grape's repertoire. It must have irritated Mosley a great deal to hear another bassist copping his lines, a few feet away, with his band cooking away with him. But as a rendition, "Indifference" was made wonderful by the jam, improvised out into the farthest reaches of abstracted melody, all haunting riffs and melodic phrases, reduced and resolved to a shimmering final crescendo. A beautifully done version, fully explored and realized.
Then Peter Lewis changed to acoustic for "8:05,"
his lilting ballad which showed the Grape to be still the kings
of melody. A nicely paced show throughout, as the next song showed:
"Come in the Morning," a Mosley-led powerhouse which
once again impressed those people who had read of his recent travails.
The Grape was always about musical textures, and this had huge
soundscapes made of lush, densely woven vocals and guitars, laid
over a powerful, propulsive rhythm section. Those lines - "Stay
with me now / Come what may." - really rang; maybe the audience
was singing along. In the middle was a marvelous Mosley rap, short
and terse, so confident, so bluesy, so reasonable: "Now listen,
I'm just gonna tell you I love you. I want you, I need you. I
don't want nobody else, I want your love." And it was not
a salacious or sexy blues rap, but such a world-weary, matter-of-fact,
Woody Guthrie-style statement by a worn soul, against that haunting
vocal repetitions of "Come What May," sounding behind
him in classic Grape harmony. It was one of many truly memorable
moments that evening, when Bob sounded so good, so authoritative - a
sighting of the old Bob Mosley, that charismatic and easily dominant
"Lazy Me" contributed a couple of nice
lines to my set-list summarizing, with that sad, depressing couplet
"I'll just lay here / And decay here," so prophetic
when sung in 1966 it was eerie to hear repeated now. And it ended
with a flash of the old Grape wizardry and panache, a nice little
"Frere Jacques" riff on the coda. In general, all of
their song endings showed nice little flourishes, touches to show
that they hadn't just barely mastered the material but were old
masters at this, and if perhaps still working up to ramming speed,
they were nonetheless firmly in command.
On "Someday" I thought the theme of prophecy
reached full circle, into rebirth, rejuvenation: Mosley just belting
it out, perfect control, total conviction, complete concentration,
and more than a hint of anger at the chorus: "I've still
got some things to do," hitting each word with such power
it and vengeance it was difficult to believe this man is the same
age Jerry Garcia was when he passed away, almost a year ago.
A more mundane reason for his anger surfaced at the end of the song, when he said "I don't know what's wrong, man, but it sounded really nice at sound check - It's like playing San Francisco in 1970, 'Mosley's hidin' behind a microphone,' but I ain't hidin' now." And the crowd erupted in cheers, the second time that night I had a genuine sense of the audience caring very much for this delicate figure before them, who was trying hard to cope with his demons and entertain others, and for the effort-much less the undeniable achievement - there was such an honest outpouring of support that it gave me a wonderful sense of San Francisco at its best, the spirit that can flood any truly mesmerizing, communal artistic expression.
Deadheads called it 'the X-factor,' when the music transcended the band members and became a transformative ritual for fans and musicians alike, 'when the music plays the band,' as the Hunter lyric goes, and when it plays the audience, too. I think several of those moments happened tonight, during many of the jams and in those times when Mosley was lost in what he was doing, and the X-factor for him was when thirty years dropped away and he was singing a song the way he had in 1966, when he was young and powerful and had the world by the tail, creating and forming and crafting. He still had those vocal nuances intact, those perfect stylings that showed all of the hard work and craft that he had put in with those many, many hours of rehearsals and training in his youth.
And maybe the years besotted in reflection and hindsight made some of those memories more easily accessible, who can say. But if so, then it is equally assured that with those memories must have come that savage and sharp reminder of all that has been lost in the interim, the on-going horror of his own schizophrenia and the bitter professional legacy of the band's feud with producer and manager Matthew Katz, the litigation-happy nightmare who exercised dictatorial control over his bands while maintaining questionable professional and business practices, and when faced with completely alienated clients, sought redress in the courts claiming he owned their very names, on the basis of 'personal management' contracts signed under dubious circumstances.
In addition to tying up their royalties, Katz has attempted to or successfully prevented some of those bands from performing under their own names, including the Jefferson Airplane (a 22-year long series of lawsuits), It's A Beautiful Day - whom he just managed to prevent from using their own name a few weeks ago, in a performance during this same series of shows - and several smaller bands, which failed to survive, much less flourish, under their mephistopholean svengali. Some even wondered whether the post-Its A Beautiful Day Katz bands really existed - whether he had taken no chances and assembled them from faceless studio musicians onto whom he grafted personalities and fabricated as bands in the worst of all 'Hollywood hand-jobs,' to use San Francisco critic Joel Selvin's inimitable term.
At times, the pain and confusion seemed clear in
Mosley's face, when he fell silent, waiting as a jam formed and
spun out, and his eyes showed a little more white around the cornea
than was normal, a perspective that suggested he wasn't filtering
out enough, being overloaded. Part of that can be chalked up to
an understandable reaction of anger: "now I'm acceptable,
now I'm not needing spare change but performing for several orders
of magnitude more money than that." The irony must have been