Mark Karan and Friends, Sweetwater Music Hall, Mill Valley, CA – 3/14
Photo by Henry Hungerland
Wednesday night was a night of some bittersweet musical magic, as members of RatDog, Furthur, Mother Hips, Huey Lewis and a host of other friends of Mark Karan gathered to play at Mark’s biweekly throw down at the new Sweetwater in Mill Valley. Sadly, Mark learned of the passing of his beloved dog Jester, just shortly before show time. Jester was a young pup, and Mark had asked his friends to keep her in their thoughts as she went into surgery earlier in the day.
When he came out to play, with tears in his eyes, he let us know, “My dog died today, and it fuckin’ sucks” and he ripped into an opening acoustic set with all his raw emotion pouring into the music. The whole show was a sendoff to Jester, and the crowd of fans and friends in the hall were there to support Mark and his wife Maile. Halfway into the set, Mark played “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” – and while he played a sweet version of the same song the previous Saturday with Phil Lesh at Terrapin Crossroads, this time when he sang “…tried to hold up, and be brave, but I could not hide my sorrow, as they laid her in the grave” – it was brutally honest, and powerfully raw. And not many a dry eye in the house. The set was all for Jester, including Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman.” Then the band took us “to church” with a deep rocking “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad”. Set 1 was Mark’s local house band, Danny Eisenberg (Mother Hips, Glider, Ryan Adams) on keys, Joe Kyle Jr (Waybacks) on upright bass, and Billy Lee Lewis (Jemimiah Puddleduck) on drums. RIP Jester, Mark misses you more than words can tell.
Second set was electric, both in instrumentation and energy… the crowd was buzzin’ when they first caught the news of Mark’s pal Huey Lewis on stage along with Michael White on bass (NRPS, Kingfish, Robert Hunter) and Huey sang the set opener to “all the apartment managers out there” busting into Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “You Can Stay But The Noise Must Go.” Part way into the song, RatDog’s original saxophone player Dave Ellis came out and added some jazz, and then stayed on for most of the set. Huey left the stage, Paul Olguin took the over the continually evolving bass role – Paul is an incredible bottom end, groovy and funky, and with a list of credits that includes Bob Weir, Maria Muldaur, Elvin Bishop and a dozens more. Tim Eschilman (Waybacks) took over the bass and stepped up to the mic for a couple tunes, including “Going To New York,” and then handed the bass back to Paul for the rest of the show.
Then came the big highlight of the night, when Jeff Pehrson (Furthur, Box Set, The Fall Risk) came out to sing a few songs, and the drum seat was occupied by RatDog’s Jay Lane (original Furthur, Alphabet Soup, Primus), and Dave stayed on with his sax. The band became FurthDog! Interesting karmic twist, Jeff joined Furthur in 2010, replacing Dave Ellis’s sister Zoe Ellis; Zoe bowed out of the band because the tour schedule was intense, and she has a youngin’ at home. However you slice it, it’s all one big beautiful musical family, and there are many connections between Mark Karan’s very talented friends.
Jeff sings back up in Furthur, but is really a lead, having been a co-leader (with Jim Brunberg) in the Bay Area favorites Box Set for the last 20 years, and more recently in his own band The Fall Risk. But Deadheads know Jeff from his supporting role in Furthur, where along with Sunshine Becker he sings the sweet harmonies. Mark put Jeff up front where he belongs, singing lead on the Grateful Dead classic “Sugaree”, perhaps one of the most covered Dead songs, though this is a first for Pehrson. Jeff continued with Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” and then segued into a hot rocking “Turn on Your Lovelight” that had the crowd sweating with joy. Furthur take note – you ought to let Jeff step up on a couple tunes. He works the crowd in such a friendly way, and now how to let it shine, let it shine.
After Jeff and Jay and Dave left the stage, Mark went back to Billy on drums and then sang with a punk rock fury the angriest “Masters of War” ever heard, and then said “I can’t believe we still have to sing this 40 years later.” A powerful performance statement; Mark meant the words like they were written on his soul.
This is the third of Mark’s “Wednesday Night Live” shows at the new Sweetwater in Mill Valley, the next one is on March 28th. Sometimes Mark doesn’t even know who will play until the night of, but so far three out of three have been stellar line-ups and awesome set lists. Last night was filled with the energy of Mark’s grief, and yet, the event was a joyous rocker, full of release. He promised that the 28th would be different friends, and a less mournful journey. Get your tickets now, it’s going to be a hot one!