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Published: 2004/04/27
by Joshua Sabatini

Avalon All-Stars (with Phil Lesh), Avalon, San Francisco, CA- 4/20

Psychedelic imagery … 420 … Wavy Gravy … Phil Lesh … Avalon Ballroom. The 4-20 day in San Francisco was a mainline of nostalgia. The great notion took root at 3 o' clock in the afternoon. A poster pasted on a boarded-up building on Polk Street caught eyes with a handprint of Jerry Garcia pushing the release of All Good Things.

About six hours later Phil Lesh walked up the carpeted and illumined back staircase at the Avalon Ballroom into the darkness of the second floor balcony. His appearance was surreptitious. He took a seat inside the gray-walled dressing room, where congregated the night's headliners, the Avalon All-Stars: Mark Karan of RatDog and Jemimah Puddleduck, John Molo of Phil & Friends, Melvin Seals of Jerry Garcia Band and Bobby Vega of KVHW.

Karan said, "Why don't we play for a while and then pull up Phil." Lesh asked if that was a metaphor.

As this was going on upstairs, a local band Free Peoples was jamming on stage. The night opened with the band, West of Five.

The Avalon has seemingly resurrected. Since Steve Shirley, a Hog Farmer in his 30s, took over the lease last year, the ballroom whose rich musical past has a distinctive place in the annals of the 1960s once again houses music of the spheres. Under Shirley's watch, artists such as Dave Nelson and Robert Hunter have found a home onstage.

It's the ballroom's past that encourages the magic. With the return of Lesh on 4-20, the venue has come full circle. Lesh hadn't taken the stage there since the Grateful Dead played the ballroom between the years of 1966 and 1969. In 1966, Chet Helms, after his brief partnership with Bill Graham, took over the Avalon Ballroom, bringing in bands such as Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company as well as Quicksilver Messenger Service. It was the age of psychedelic Dead and great conscious development wrapped into one. Traces remain. Efforts such as Shirley's are inspiring a revival. As the old dogs keep coming out, the young ones catch glimpses of the past, which aid in carving a prosperous musical tomorrow.

So it was a big deal when Lesh showed. It actually was his second trip to the Avalon this year. But the last time, on Feb. 7, he didn't come armed with his bass. Instead, he stood by the stage, listening to Modereko, who was opening for the Dave Nelson Band.

Wavy Gravy shows up at the Avalon, located on the corner of Sutter and Van Ness, every once and while as he did on this 4-20 night. Wavy takes to the stage and drums up political activism, just as he did more than four decades ago; although not as fervent, but as well-intentioned.

"I'd like to, ahhhh, welcome, everybody, ahhh, to the Avalon," said the stout clown, prior to announcing the All-Stars. "Do you feel welcomed?" he asked the 100 or so gathered. "It is, ahh, what's the date?"
"4-20," the crowd yelled back. (A young woman's strain rises above them all.) "What's the date?" Wavy kept at them.

"4-20." Again the chorus answers.

"I can't hear you," he teased the audience. "What?" The crowd let him have it full blast.

"It is 4-20 and I've been exercising my lungs to coordinate with my calendar and [inaudible] am spaced out. As Sun Ra said, Space is the place.'" (Reverb.)

Restating an old quote, Gravy said: "'Bill Shakespeare was wrong. All the world is not a stage, there's just a few places left to play.'" (Come on, you can play everywhere.)

His commentary on the Bush administration is a constant.

"Last time around I said Think Nader, Vote Gore,' but this time I am voting for a rock to beat George Bush. I mean I would like it to be a nice rock, not just any rock. And a roll for vice-president, so you could always eat the vice-president."
His words continued.

"And remember, as I always said, You are not what you eat, you are what you don't shit.'" Lesh, sitting up by the balcony's edge, laughed and clapped his hands for that one.

Wavy Gravy concluded by calling on everyone to drive Bush out of the White House in the November election.

Then the music. At 10 of 11, the All-Stars began with a highly-charged jam launched by Molo, who created the sound of a supper bell. The tight-knit energy was colored by the bluesy guitar licks of Karan, who had recently journeyed back to the gold coast after the RatDog tour. After ten minutes of jamming, the quartet began "Hey, Pocky Way," once sung by Brent Mydland with the Grateful Dead. Karan sang smooth rhythm and blues while ripping it on guitar. Then Seals launched into "That's What Love Will Make You Do." Seals' wavy organ madness filled the crevices of the old ballroom.

And then, suddenly, there's Phil out there there: in white sneakers, jeans, blue sweatshirt pullover, looking out through his silver framed glasses. He spoke into the microphone: "It's good to be back here at the Avalon, especially."

He began making the requisite adjustments to his equipment. And then the bass was heard, as the notes led into "Good Morning Little School." "Easy Wind" followed, full of seamless, enthusiastic play. During the intense jams, Karan would walk over near Phil in front of Molo's drums, forming a tight triangle.

Eight minutes later the band was gearing up for the next one. Karan took the lead vocals on "Sugaree." While Phil sang the chorus. Karan was very much up for the challenge, playing the swift spiritual notes. Fifteen minutes later and the song came to a close. After the three songs, Phil walked off stage and soon disappeared out the backdoor.

The All-Stars maintained the high energy for the night's remainder and dished out a marvelous "Whipping Post."

Shirley was up walking the balcony. He might not have dreamt a higher note when he set out to reopen the Avalon. For this, he was elated.

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