Avalon Allstars | 12.28.03 | Avalon Ballroom | San Francisco, CA
Despite the cold winter rainstorm moving over the Bay Area, I had the good fortune to drop into the recently re-opened Avalon Ballroom over the holidays. Inside the storied venue the vibe was warm and the music was sweet. According to Mark Karan (vocalist and lead guitarist for the evening) the Avalon Allstars had never rehearsed and basically planned to wing it. No problem, I thought to myself. How could they go wrong? Two hours of mere noodling by these guys would be fun. Of course that's not what they did, but you get the point. What can you say about a lineup of musicians who have consistently stoked the fires of jam for the Jerry Garcia Band, Ratdog, Zero, the Other Ones, and Phil and Friends? I'll just start by saying they definitely know how to jam.
The first set opened with some improvisational scratching around that bloomed into a Johnny "Guitar" Watson number, "You Can Stay But the Noise Must Go." Karan's bluesy ditty tells the tale of an annoying landlord who was always telling him to turn his music down. Most of us have been there and can relate, and the tune pretty well rocked. Next came a cover of Dylan's "It Takes a lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry." Not a bad version, though a rhythm guitar player might have come in handy for this one so as to give Karan a lead break. Next came a great jam that showcased Mr. Martin Fierro, who demonstrated what saxophone playing is all about. The man can make the sax walk and this particular jam had a spicy Latin feel to it. Next the ghost of JGB reared its head for the first time in the evening as the group broke out a solid version of the classic blues, "That's What Love Will Make You Do." Melvin Seals is a monster on the keys and his swirling organ was just getting warm on this one. A slow and funky "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" followed, with Karan singing and most everyone digging in. John Molo is a master drummer and his work with Phil and Friends has only served to polish his stick work and loosen his limbs. He made drumming like a pro look easy. The set ended with an extended jam that incorporated funky blues, and was, at points, reminiscent of old-school Garcia Band (circa the Merl and Jerry Live at Keystone era).
Mark Karan By JC Juanis
Everyone was loose for the second set, audience included. Bobby Vega and John Molo opened the set with a bass/drums duet that highlighted Vega's strength as a creative bassist from the school of jam. Bobby V was animated and ready to rock. The group rolled into a heavy blues groove that sidled into a good and funky version of "Use Me." Then vocalist Jerry Brown (not the mayor or Oakland, as Karan pointed out) and guitarist Matt Hartle of Shady Groove joined the jam as the pack tweaked the JGB dial again for "Get Out My Life Woman." Seals and Karan were in synch for some stellar playing, with Hartle bubbling out some Jerry-esque riffs. The screen behind the musicians ran Dead-inspired psychedelia that gave the show a genuine acid ballroom feel, as did the soothing psychological effects of the colorful tapestries that adorned the walls of the "new" ballroom. If you haven't been to the Avalon, you should definitely check it out.
Bobby Vega By Susan J. Weiand
Perhaps the highpoint of the evening was "Love the One Your With," which segued into an extended and spirited "Lovelight." Karan put on a great vocal performance on this old Pigpen favorite and the groove, like the waves at Ocean Beach, swelled and broke repeatedly as the comfortably sized audience caught on and shook its collective bones. It was back to another JGB-inspired blues rocker for the encore, and "Don't Let Go" put the feather in the cap of the evening. The intimate show almost had the feel of private party, which is something we usually just dream about.
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