Over in San Francisco, the legacy of the psychedelic era might be shrouded by severed synapses. As Grace Slick (or was it Paul Kantner?) said, “If you can remember the 60s, you weren’t there.” Well, Joe McDonald was there, and he recalls just about everything. Working with the Berkeley Historical Society, he’s busy preparing for the Summer of Love’s 50th anniversary with an October 2017 exhibition, “Soundtrack to the 60s: The Berkeley Music Scene.”
Looking to raise awareness of the project, Country Joe and the Electric Music Band performs songs from the Country Joe and the Fish repertoire at the Berkeley Boogie benefit Saturday at Ashkenaz. The program also features a rare reunion of three original members of another signature Berkeley ensemble, Joy of Cooking (with Terri Garthwaite, David Garthwaite and Fritz Kasten), as well as activist singer/songwriter Hali Hammer, Peter Krug and others. Funds raised by the event will go to support Ashkenaz and the exhibition, but the concert is also an effort to glean support and memorabilia.
“While we will have an abundance of posters, flyers and printed materials to choose from, we’re still seeking photographs and artifacts from members of the community,” says McDonald, who helped define the era’s defiant spirit with the Country Joe and the Fish anthem “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” a song and chant immortalized at Woodstock.
McDonald famously landed in Berkeley shortly after mustering out of the Navy in 1965, and quickly fell in with the city’s vibrant folk scene. He started attending Charlie Brown’s (aka Charles Artman) Teton Tea Parties, all-night living room hootenannies where “we drank mulled wine and shared songs,” McDonald says. “I was publishing a zine on music and poems and ended up going by KPFA and performing on ‘Midnight Special’,” the show hosted by Berkeley Folk Festival founder Barry Olivier.
He met his future bandmate Barry “Fish” Melton while strumming his guitar on the steps of Sproul Hall and they played the Bear’s Lair the same night. That was the summer that Dylan plugged-in at the Newport Folk Festival and the reverberations spread quickly to the Bay Area scene, where jug bands, folk singers, and bluegrass acolytes decided to go electric. Before long, McDonald connected with Chris Strachwitz, who’d been recording master blues musicians for his Arhoolie label.
“We got together a skiffle band and went to Chris’s house where we recorded on a mic hanging from a light fixture in his living room,” McDonald recalls. “On one side of the EP we recorded ‘Fixin’ to Die’ with washboard and kazoo. On the other side we did ‘Superbird,’ and I played electric guitar. Then we were a folk rock band. We invented the name to put on the label, made up 100 copies and sold 10 or 20 for 50 cents at the second Teach-In and Moe’s Book.”
The band gained national attention with the release of its pioneering psychedelic 1967 debut album Electric Music for the Mind and Body (Vanguard), but Country Joe and the Fish wasn’t the only Berkeley band making waves. They’d occasionally share the bandstand with Joy of Cooking, a combo launched and fronted by guitarist Terry Garthwaite and pianist Toni Brown with Terry’s brother David Garthwaite on bass guitar, drummer Fritz Kasten, and percussionist Ron Wilson. Like Joy of Cooking, the Berkeley-based band Mad River signed to Capitol (championed by writer Richard Brautigan), but failed to gain much traction outside the area.
Acts like Oakland’s Loading Zone with powerhouse vocalist Linda Tillery, and several bands out of Berkeley High, including Purple Earthquake and Pete and Steve Barsotti’s Lazarus performed regularly at festivals, venues and parks around town, particularly free events at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park (then widely known, for reasons obscure to history, as Provo Park).
Maybe that subject will be covered in the Berkeley Historical Society’s “Soundtrack to the 60s” exhibition, which is slated to open next October. Featuring oral histories on video, posters, fliers, photos, recordings, and Kitty Crowe’s large-size map identifying key Berkeley music sites such as Jabberwock, Lundberg’s Guitar Shop, and the original Freight & Salvage, the project is designed to evoke a legendary era whether you were there to remember it or not.
Recommended gig: Marlena Shaw and the Jeff Chambers Power Trio at the Hillside Club
Vibraphonist/pianist Buddy Montgomery was an undersung master who gained his widest exposure touring and recording with his older brothers, legendary jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery and pioneering electric bassist Monk Montgomery. A long-time Oakland resident, Buddy died at the age of 79 in 2009, and his daughter Charla Montgomery has created a foundation to honor his musical legacy with awards and scholarships for aspiring young musicians. The 2016 Buddy Montgomery Jazz Legacy Awards and Concert introduces the foundation Saturday at the Hillside Club with a program featuring the great vocalist Marlena Shaw and the Jeff Chambers Power Trio with percussion maestro John Santos. A powerhouse singer equally effective in blues, gospel, jazz and soul settings, Shaw recorded a series of excellent albums for Blue Note in the 1970s (and an early, classic version of Ashford and Simpson’s “California Soul”). While never quite a headliner—she tended to get booked in the Bay Area as a special guest with jazz stars like saxophonist/flutist James Moody or organist Brother Jack McDuff—Shaw is a commanding performer who recorded with Montgomery on his 1987 album Ties of Love (Landmark).
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
If you like the variety of news on Berkeleyside, you will like the voices we present at Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas: two days of provocative thinking, inspiring speakers, workshops, and a big party — all in downtown Berkeley in October. See the list of speakers. Tickets are over 30% off before Sept. 23!