The Black Mountain Boys, sans Jerry Garcia, ride again

ETKleptograss
On Friday, guitarist Eric Thompson will play with the first Black Mountain Boys gig in some 50 years, as part of Ashkenaz’s 40th birthday celebrations. Photo: Irene Young

Guitarist Eric Thompson has been the heart and soul of Berkeley’s old-time and American roots music scene since the mid-1960s, but he got his start down the peninsula in Palo Alto as the youngest member of the Black Mountain Boys, a bluegrass trio featuring Jerry Garcia on five-string banjo and David Nelson on mandolin. A short-lived combo that never recorded — though there’s a bootleg or two floating around — the Black Mountain Boys are regrouping for a performance Friday as part of Ashkenaz’s 40th anniversary celebration (which kicks off tonight with a talent-laden band led by Garcia’s future Grateful Dead bandmate Mickey Hart).

With Garcia unavailable due to his ongoing big gig in the sky, the banjo chair is being filled by Rick Shubb, a distinguished old-time musician who’s probably better known these days as the inventor of the Shubb Capo, beloved by guitarists far and wide. Nelson, renowned as a founder of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, plays guitar, trading roles with Thompson, who’s handling mandolin duties. Filling out the band are fiddlers Paul Shelasky and Suzy Thompson (Eric’s wife and partner in musical mayhem in the Aux Cajunals, Bluegrass Intentions, Todalo Shakers, and other rootsy bands), and bassist Paul Knight, who tours with Peter Rowan and Kathy Kallick. Wake the Dead shares the bill.

While this is the first Black Mountain Boys gig in some 50 years, Thompson notes that he and Nelson have stayed in close touch over the years. “We’ve had casual gigs where we invited David to be one of the members,” Thompson says. “David filled in as a guitar player in Kleptograss, and we played at Dead on the Creek one year. We wish we could have Garcia there. The closest thing we could think of was to invite Rick Shubb, because he was around in the old days. Nothing’s changed. When we got together to rehearse it was the same old guys hanging out.”

The early 1960s was a very exciting time to be a teenage folk enthusiast in Palo Alto. A few years younger than Garcia and Nelson, Thompson connected with the thriving scene centered on Dana Morgan Music, a store that attracted bluegrass and old-time music aficionados from around the region. Equipped with a coveted Martin “Herringbone” Dreadnaught guitar and blessed with a precocious facility for rhythm work, Thompson had already made a name for himself by the time he headed off to UC Berkeley in the fall of 1961. At 17, his passion for old-time music easily overshadowed his interest in academics, and he proceeded to major in hanging out at Lundberg’s Fretted Instruments on Dwight Way, “ground zero for vintage instrument consciousness in America,” Thompson says.


“Of course I flunked out, just never went to class, and when I went back to Palo Alto it was just about the time that Jerry and David were putting together a little bluegrass band. Jerry practiced incessantly. He just devoured music. I came back and they said, ‘Let’s get Thompson to be in the band.’ We did that from spring of 1963 into 1964, playing a few gigs, and touring as part of a traveling folk road show.”

Thompson ended up heading to the East Coast in early 1964, where he connected with mandolinist David Grisman and the thriving Greenwich Village folk scene. He got back to the Bay Area several months later but Garcia had moved on, connecting with a contingent of Palo Alto kids like guitarist Bobby Weir, and blues singer Ron “Pigpen” McKernan in Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. By early 1965 the jug band morphed into the Warlocks, and by the end of the year the plugged-in combo rechristened itself as the Grateful Dead for a Ken Kesey acid test in San Jose.

“It was a very turbulent time, and that was totally reflected in the music,” Thompson says. “When I think about how we looked and were in 1964 and then the next year when we all took acid together, things changed fast in those days.”

While Thompson continued to absorb bluegrass and old time music, his roving ear has taken him from the bayous of Louisiana to the lush Puerto Rican countryside to the green hills of Ireland. A master picker whose first solo album, 1979’s Bluegrass Guitar (Kicking Mule), is a treasured classic, Thompson has played a particularly important role in stoking the Bay Area Cajun music scene. Along with fiddler, accordionist, guitarist and vocalist Suzy Thompson, he performed widely with the California Cajun Orchestra, a Creole/Cajun band build around squeezebox master Danny Poullard that played monthly at Ashkenaz for two decades (the group disbanded in 2001 after Poullard’s death).

“Once we had a band really designed for dancing Ashkenaz was the obvious place to play,” Thompson says. “It always felt really comfortable. It’s an extension of the earlier hippy times, and clearly it’s evolved into a place for the Dead scene, though it’s so much more than that too.”

Recommended gigs:

Julian Lage
Julian Lage plays Freight & Salvage Sunday

Guitarist Julian Lage was a remarkably poised player before his age even reached double digits, and he’s continued to develop at an exponential rate since relocating to the East Coast from Santa Rosa, where he grew up. Now living in Manhattan, Lage, 25, returns to the Bay Area for a series of gigs, including a concert Sunday at Freight & Salvage. He’s touring with his singular ensemble, a folky chamber jazz quintet featuring Brooklyn saxophonist Dan Blake, Venezuelan-born Boston Philharmonic cellist Aristides Rivas, Peruvian bassist Jorge Roeder, and Colombian percussionist Tupac Mantilla.

The Jazzschool celebrates International Women’s Day with a weekend of concerts showcasing the region’s riches when it comes to women improvisers and composers. Pianist Tammy Hall, best known as an ace accompanist, introduces the Hall Chamber Jazz Ensemble featuring her piano and vocals, Kristen Strom on saxophones and vocals, Heidi Trefethen on French horn, Destiny Muhammad on harp and vocalsm bassist Ruth Davies, drummer Ruth Price, and percussionist Michaelle Goerlitz on Friday. Vocalist Andrea Claburn explores a program of originals and re-imagined standards Saturday with saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, pianist Ruthie Dineen, bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, and Beth Goodfellow. And violinist Cooke performs Sunday afternoon with Cloud Shepherd, a Bay Area improvisational quartet featuring Andrew Joron on theremin, waterphone, Brian Lucas on bass, tapes, and vocals, Joseph Noble on wind instruments and waterphone, and Mark Pino on percussion.

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.