When you and I celebrate our birthdays, maybe we go out to dinner with loved ones or toss back a few with pals. If we’re lucky, maybe some cool band is playing in town that night. When Wavy Gravy celebrates a birthday, a whole bunch of people in Africa and Asia have their vision restored, because thousands of miles away in America, Wavy has put on yet another concert to benefit SEVA, a organization he helped start more than 30 years ago (with Dr. Larry Brilliant and Ram Dass) that is devoted to combating cataract blindness. In the Bay Area, Wavy’s annual birthday bash is a cherished tradition because not only does it give all of us a chance to donate to a worthy cause, but we also always get a very special night of music out of the deal. It’s a win-win!
This year, because it’s a milestone birthday—Wavy turned 75 on May 15—he’s putting on two shows. On May 14, a slew of top (mostly) Bay Area jam band musicians—including Bob Weir and Mickey Hart—convened for about seven hours of music at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond (next to Berkeley), a cavernous 4,000-capacity venue built in an old shipping warehouse on the edge of San Francisco Bay, its blue waters visible through the high glass walls on one side of the building. On May 27, a second 75th birthday celebration will take place in New York City, at the historic Beacon Theatre, featuring a star-studded gaggle of music greats (many of them longtime SEVA supporters), such as Jackson Browne, Crosby & Nash, Dr. John, Jorma Kaukonen, Buffy St. Marie, Bruce Hornsby, Steve Earle, Ani DiFranco and Steve Kimock. There are still some tickets available for that show, through either ticketmaster.com or the Beacon box office. I’ve been to a whole bunch of these Wavy birthday celebrations through the years, and they’re always good vibes events that offer a ton of fine music from caring musicians.
I was trying to remember the first SEVA benefit show I saw. It might have been a little concert at the tiny Julia Morgan Theater in Berkeley in May of 1985, featuring Bob Weir’s solo acoustic debut (and his first time singing “Ripple”), as well as the late, great Kate Wolf, Jonathan Richman and former Blues Project guitarist Danny Kalb. Twenty-six years later, Bob was still the marquee name at the SEVA benefit in Richmond, but in front of 10 times more people and with a parade of other acts, including a superb group put together by Mickey Hart, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, perennial local jam band faves Zero, the cheery progressive bluegrass band Hot Buttered Rum and, making their first appearance in 40 years (!), San Francisco’s original all-women rock band, the Ace of Cups—you’ve seen their name on a bunch of ’60s concert posters; now they’re in their 60s!
The first act to really turn me on at the show was Zero, whom I’ve seen quite a few times through the years and always had mixed feelings about. This lineup was impressive: Kimock and Barry Sless on guitars (Barry mostly on steel), the indefatigable bass dynamo Bobby Vega, Greg Anton on drums, Pete Sears on electric piano, Chip Roland on organ and Judge Murphy on occasional vocals. To me, Zero has been most interesting as an instrumental outfit—their more formal songs seem to constrain the group somehow. For whatever reason, they’ve never figured out how to combine the two effectively. Instead, there’s a song part and then the jam, which is what I live for with these players.
Kimock was in fantastic form, leading the jams in his inimitable way, easing into them slowly and then eventually catching fire and positively smokin’! He is truly a magical player, and the bond between him and Bobby Vega was a joy to behold. Unfortunately, where I was in the hall, fairly close on the right hand side facing the stage, I could barely hear Barry Sless except for one song on which he played steel. Sound gremlins seemed to disturb the musicians all night; not really a surprise when one considers the number of musicians going on and off the stage all night. I would’ve liked more Zero, but what they played was muy caliente!
I hadn’t heard one note of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood before this show, and I was quite impressed by them. Chris appears to have abandoned the rough and tumble R&B/rock side that dominated the Black Crowes’ sound (maybe that was his bro’s forte?) in favor of a quieter and looser countrified psychedelic sound. I could never quite predict where any of their songs were going (that’s good!)—I remember thinking their first song sounded like “Wharf Rat” and The Byrds and Fleet Foxes and The Beatles at different points. The quintet—two guitars (Robinson and Neal Casal, formerly of Ryan Adams & the Cardinals), bass, drums and keys, had a pleasingly economical, even spare sound at times, but also built to a couple of nice jamming crescendos. Weir came out and played guitar and sang backups on a version of “They Love Each Other” that was so slow it made the JGB’s take on it sound like The Clash. But otherwise the set was varied and intriguing enough that it made me want to see them sometime as a headlining act.
Next up was the band led by Mickey, and for my money it was the most interesting group of the night. There were three drummers: Mickey (with lots of electronics, too), Dave Brogan (of ALO) on standard traps, and good ol’ Sikiru on talking drum. Kimock was again the lead guitar master, and the open-ended tunes and huge grooves gave him plenty of opportunities to soar. Gawin Matthews played second guitar, Dave Schools (of Widespread Panic and Govt. Mule fame) and Vir McCoy played bass (McCoy also played sintir, a three-stringed Moroccan lute), and Ben Yonas was on keys. Crystal Monee Hall was the group’s excellent singer—she was particularly haunting on a couple of wordless flights she took with the band. There was so much going on musically within the group—so many interlocking parts—they reminded me at times of one of King Sunny Ade’s giant ensembles, or Remain in Light-era Talking Heads. Yet it still all had that unmistakable exotic Mickey Hart feeling. Too bad he and various members of the group seemed distracted by sound issues. But the groove never stopped!
At around 12:20, while Mickey’s band was playing, Wavy Gravy, who had been enjoying the show and holding court from a gilded “throne” on the rear of the stage, climbed onto different throne-on-wheels and was rolled through the hall to the cheers of the thousands on hand. The group onstage kicked into a big Afro-Latin groove and over the course of a couple of minutes, dozens more drummers (playing all sorts of different-sized hand drums) filled the stage, along with most of the other musicians who had already played. Together they all went into an exciting version of “Jingo” (written by Babatunde Olatunji, popularized by Santana, of course) but with the words changed—everyone was singing “Way-veeeeeee, Wavy G!” over and over. There was a balloon drop reminiscent of Grateful Dead New Year’s past, and once Wavy had successfully made his way back to the stage, he was serenaded with a spirited singing of “Happy Birthday,” as balloons continued to bounce and float through the hall. Give him five, he’s 75!
The last set of the night started sometime after 1 a.m. and featured Weir leading an ever-changing group. It started with Bob, joined by Kimock, Jeff Chimenti on keys, Robin Sylvester on bass and John Molo on drums, wending their way through a full version of “Playing in the Band” that built nicely thanks to some imaginative choices from Mr. K. Over the course of the set—which ranged from a plodding “New Speedway Boogie” to a freewheeling turn on “The Other One”—players rotated in and out, including Chris Robinson, guitar titans Henry Kaiser and Barry “The Fish” Melton, saxophonist Snooky Flowers, bassist Schools again, singer Nicki Bluhm and Mickey. The show ended at 2:30 a.m.; a planned encore was scrapped because it went so late. It was a lonnnnng night.
I missed the more intimate feeling of past Wavy birthday concerts at the Berkeley Community Theater, and there were tons of logistical problems surrounding this show—endless lines to get in, ridiculous lines inside for food (which ran out early) and beverages (the beer was gone quickly, too), and the unending sound issues. But there was still plenty of great music to elevate the spirit and soothe the soul, we got to show our appreciation for Wavy and his good works, and somewhere in the world, some folks are going to be able to see clearly because we danced until our feet hurt. That’s the birthday present Wavy wanted.
To learn more about Wavy, check out the superb documentary about him, Saint Misbehavin’ (coming to DVD in the late fall). Got any Wavy stories to share?