While the San Francisco Bay Area might have some mighty fine music venues in the present, there are fewer that remain from the city’s bright musical past. One of the few that’s stood the test of time is The Warfield. Right off of Market Street, adjacent to downtown’s Tenderloin neighborhood, it’s hard to tell the insides majesty from the somewhat seedy exterior. Once inside, feast your eyes on a true San Francisco landmark. The Grateful Dead played dozens of shows including a fifteenth anniversary run in 1980 highlighted by a revival of their beloved acoustic set. Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia clearly had an affinity for the space, playing with Jerry Garcia Band at the Warfield more than any other single place. Alongside him for all those gigs was B-3 organist Melvin Seals. The two had an unmatched bond that inspired Seals to continue the music of JGB after the guitarist’s untimely passing in 1995.
All these years later, Melvin Seals and JGB have played countless gigs across the country met with universal positivity and celebration. It wasn’t until last year that The Warfield invited Melvin and the JGB to play for the first time without Jerry Garcia to kickoff The Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” 50th Anniversary festive weekend. The JGB’s natural kinship with the space brought back those all good vibes and greater memories. To the thrill of music lovers in the Bay Area, Melvin Seals and JGB announced a headlining performance at the Warfield last Saturday. Celebrated Bay Area Psychedelic Rockers David Nelson Band were strikingly billed as support. Even more impressive was the JGB Band lineup announced for the occasion. Accompanying the core group of Melvin Seals, Cheryl Rucker & Shirley Starks (vocals), Pete Lavezzoli (drums), John-Paul McLean (bass) was former Furthur/DSO guitarist John Kadlecik, and for the first time in a long time original Jerry Garcia Band vocalist Gloria Jones.
Last Saturday The Warfield was filled with friendly heads of all age groups gathered for their love of the music. It’s appropriate for Seals to continue this musical saga. Garcia’s band was predominately built of cover material. His favorite tunes that made him happy to jam on when he wasn’t “Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.” Though Garcia has been gone over 20 years, his spirit was in the room. This double header of Nelson and JGB was dreamily matched. In 1987 Jerry Garcia performed separately with both acoustic and electric bands at the Lunt Fontane Theatre On Broadway in New York City. The electric band featured the tenured lineup including Melvin Seals. The acoustic band assembled for the occasion was somewhat of a reunion from Garcia’s 1960s Palo Alto acoustic pre-Dead. The 1987 Acoustic Band featured Nelson on guitar amongst other old friends.
Fittingly Nelson Band opened the show with a pair of celebrated covers. “Rocky Road Blues” was electrified and expanded upon from the grassy Bill Monroe traditional. Next came “Peggy O,” undoubtedly homage to Garcia who loved and performed the tune frequently. Stunning harmonies from Nelson and pianist Mookie Siegel sent chills down our spine. Also unforgettable was the Pedal Steel guitar work from Barry Sless, crystalizing the familiar melody in a different reading of the archetypal tune. From then on the band performed a slough of illustrious originals including a wrap around of “Fable of the Chosen One” featuring impressive Celtic-laced interludes from Nelson, Siegel, and Sless. The newest tune of the bunch “Suite at the Mission” was extensively jammed out including revolving rhythmic madness between monster drummer John Molo and Modulus Bass virtuoso Pete Sears. It was hard to believe after the outrageously energetic hour, and a half long David Nelson Band set that they were only the opening act.
Set break saw an unusual occurrence for a rock concert; the gigantic Warfield Theater curtain closed in front of the stage leaving what was to come shrouded in mystery. Just before 10 PM, the JGB band took the stage, pumping the energy high from the get-go with a peppy rendition of “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” John Kadlecik’s chemistry with this band was immediately apparent. His tenured years as part of Dark Star Orchestra and Furthur molded one of the finest channels of Garcia’s music spirit. His fine vocals and relentless improvisational competency made this JGB gig one of the finest I have ever witnessed. Melvin was clearly glowing with Gloria Jones standing beside him as if no time had passed at all. Jones’ towering vocal presence augmented the already strong lineup and upped the ante for the Warfield reunion show. John K’s dexterity and buoyancy inspired the other band members on classic takes of “Stop That Train” and “Lay Down Sally.”
In a nod to the recently deceased Allan Toussaint, the JGB band busted out a lovely expanded rendering of “I’ll Take A Melody.” Always a highlight of Jerry Garcia Band shows from the early 1970s onward; this was when I realized that Melvin and CO were giving this gig everything they had. It was a great feeling. Seals broke out his rarely heard vocals on “That’s What Love Will Make You Do,” clearly having a ball onstage at The Warfield. The Hunter/Garcia classic “Run For The Roses” displayed the triple-piped Jones/Rucker/Starks combination in elevated shape. The true highlight of the JGB Band show came with a sit-in from brilliant Pedal Steel guitarist Barry Sless who joined the band for the cornerstone jam of the first set, “Don’t Let Go.” The spacey and jazzy interludes to follow were intensified with Sless’ relentless skills on his pedal-operated resonator slide guitar. So much further than the country origins of the instrument, Sless improvisational vernacular took the jam to the highest of highs before crashing into the copasetic set closer of “Midnight Moonlight.”
The second set included some classics and rarities. An expansive “Tore Up Over You” blues jam brought the crowd back after the already three-hour performance. The sole Grateful Dead tune of the bunch “Sugaree” unleashed Kadlecik for fifteen minutes of bliss including a particularly remarkable organ solo from Seals. Other second set highlights included “Tangled Up In Blue” and the ultra-rare show closer to the disco/soul tune “Mighty High.” The fans have spoken; the show nearly sold-out the sizable Warfield, with hearty old school fans, and truly heightened musicianship. Let’s make Melvin Seals and JGB a tradition for The Warfield yet again; a venue that then and now means so much to Deadheads.