Thursday, October 8, 2009

April 10, 1974 Freight and Salvage, Berkeley: David Grisman and David Nichtern

The seemingly innocuous listing in the Hayward Daily Review of April 5, 1974 for Thursday, April 10 at Berkeley's Freight and Salvage, featuring David Grisman and David Nichtern, in fact appears to be the public debut of a very important band. At this time, guitarist David Nichtern was only known for writing a song for Maria Muldaur, "Midnight At The Oasis," which was currently climbing the charts. Mandolinist David Grisman was only known outside of bluegrass circles for being a pal of Jerry Garcia, having played with him in the recently defunct bluegrass group Old And In The Way. Old And In The Way's album, celebrating Jerry's 1973 return to banjo, was not released until 1975, by which time Garcia had already given up the banjo again.

Although Old And In The Way only played a modest number of gigs in 1973, and did not release an album until two years later, they ended up having an enormous effect on bluegrass. Fiddler Vassar Clements was already a great American musician, if not widely known, and David Grisman would soon become one. Peter Rowan was an interesting contemporary songwriter, and Garcia could hold his own on the banjo. Old And In The Way's 45 or so appearances and posthumous album opened up bluegrass to a wide variety of new listeners, thanks to Garcia's participation. Supposedly, for many years their album was the best selling bluegrass album ever (a less impressive achievement than it sounds, and Ricky Skaggs, Allison Kraus and others have certainly passed it). Thanks to Garcia, a wave of young hippies and college students saw bluegrass as cool, serious music--which it always was, of course, but it took Jerry and some contemporary lyrics to make it so.

Old and In The Way had run its course, however, as the band simply became too popular in the wake of the Dead's increasing popularity. David Grisman had another idea, however, which was that he would start a band that would revolutionize all American acoustic music--old timey, swing, blues, bluegrass and everything else. Garcia, being Garcia, was right on board. Other members included David Nichtern on guitar, Richard Greene on fiddle (Greene had played with Old And In The Way as well) and various guest bassists. However, Garcia only played six times with the Great American String Band, from April 20 to June 13, 1974, before it too became buried by Grateful Dead obligations and he dropped out of the band.

The Great American String Band went on under various names throughout 1974, such as Great American Music Band, or Great American Fiddle Band. By 1975, the group changed its name to The David Grisman Quintet, and subsequently the Quintet did indeed revolutionize all American acoustic music.

But the revolutionary David Grisman Quintet had to start somewhere, and it appears it started at The Freight and Salvage on April 10, 1974. Now, I don't know if the performance was just Grisman and Nichtern, or those two plus some friends, or what. Of course its possible or even likely that there were some low-key gigs in Marin to get their feet wet. However, this seems to be the first Bay Area show that was actually advertised. Furthermore, The Great American Music Band had its formal debut in Los Angeles at The Pilgrimage Theater on April 20, 1974, sponsored by a well-known music store (McCabe's), with Jerry Garcia in the band and guest Maria Muldaur singing her hit single. I can't believe that the core of the band wouldn't have a warm up gig, and this seems to be it. The Freight and Salvage had been a place for both innovative and traditional music since it opened in 1968, and it looks like here's another piece of evidence. Grisman plays the Freight (now in its third incarnation) to this day.

Who was in the band that night? I'd love to know. Was a certain Spud Boy playing banjo? Much as I wish it were so, and it is within the realm of possibility (Garcia was in town), I kind of doubt it, since by 1974 everyone who went to the Freight would recognize Jerry, and there would have at least been a legendary tale that got repeated. But Grisman is enough of a legend on his own, and its nice to see where his next chapter started.

Update: Intriguing as my speculations are, JGMF has rather definitively shown that the Great American String Band started at the Great American Music Hall on March 10, 1974. This Freight and Salvage show a month later is still an as yet undetermined piece of an intriguing puzzle, but it wasn't the debut.

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