The Time J.J. Cale Opened For Phish At The Greek Theatre

Listen to the opening set featuring Mike Gordon sitting in on “Call Me The Breeze” and more.

By Daniel Bowman Simon Aug 28, 2023 6:20 am PDT

J.J. Cale opened for Phish? Whoa!

In January, Phish announced three April shows at The Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California as part of their 40th-anniversary celebration. Before I even submitted my PTBM ticket request, I dove right into Phish’s ancient Greek history. I’d listened to their 2010 three-night stand and watched the August 7, 2010, show featured in the COVID-lockdown-era “Dinner And A Movie” series. But I was wholly unaware that Phish had played the Greek once before, way back in the 10th year of the band’s history. It was August 28, 1993, a Saturday night, the Summer tour closer, the end of arguably the best month of shows in Phish history. I gave the show a listen.

A speedy “Llama” opener, drummer Jon Fishman on “Purple Rain,” “You Enjoy Myself” > “Oye Como Va” > “YEM,” the Dude Of Life on “Crimes Of The Mind,” extensive crew thank-yous, a Chris Kuroda light solo, “Amazing Grace” sans microphones, and a bunch of songs hit the jam charts: not a single dull moment. Phish archivist Kevin Shapiro included the Greek ’93 “Maze” on the brand-new Live Bait.

Phish.net on this “Maze”: “Page has a stirring solo, then Trey goes ballistic with the others joining the mayhem. Watch out! This dog bites!”

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As I listened, what struck me the most was guitarist Trey Anastasio’s post-“Foam” banter. He expresses gratitude to the opening act, J.J. Cale. Shocked my brain! I needed to find out how the hell J.J. Cale came to open for Phish. But first, I was desperate to hear a tape of Cale’s set.

I searched Relisten and YouTube. Not a trace. I worried that nobody had bothered to tape it. Then I hit potential paydirt. When tape trading (and later, CD-R trading) was still a thing, Etree.org’s database of “Collectors With This Show” thrived. Fifty-six people listed this show in their collection.

I emailed every one of them, many at Compuserv, Hotmail, and AOL addresses. Most bounced back. A couple of people responded that they no longer had their collections. Just goes to show that in this digital era, stuff still gets lost. Exactly one person who goes by username Zowie told me they still had the CD-R. Within minutes, Zowie ripped FLACs and sent me a download link.

For Cale’s 49-minute, 12-song opening set, Christine Lakeland, his wife and longtime bandmate, joins him on guitar. Jimmy Karstein rounds out the trio, “on congas, drums, and all this other crap he brought in here,” as Cale tells the crowd. For the first two-thirds of the set, the trio presents a mix of lesser-known tunes spanning the late ’70s through the early ’90s.

Then it’s time for what Cale calls the “oldies but goodies.” The crowd roars. Cale exclaims, “We’ve got a band now!” And all of a sudden, there’s a bass in the mix. It’s Phish bassist Mike Gordon!

Cale says, “I’m sure you know who this gentleman is,” and the quartet glides right into “Call Me the Breeze.” Next comes Cale’s anti-coke anthem “Cocaine,” followed by “Crazy Mama.” Cale announces, “We’ll play one more for ya,” and “After Midnight” closes out the set.

These oldies were made famous by the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Eric Clapton. (Hilariously, on the tape, you can hear an audience member shout “Freebird” just before they kick into “Call Me the Breeze.”)

Later in the evening, Trey makes sure these lucky Phish fans have their facts straight.

“I don’t know how many of you know that [Cale] wrote every song that he played in his set,” he tells the crowd after the aforementioned “Foam.” “Some of you might think he was covering those tunes, but those are his songs, ‘After Midnight’ and all that.”

Hearing the tape stoked my curiosity about how Cale ended up on the bill. By 1993, opening acts were a rarity at Phish shows. There were only two other openers that year, all in that final week of Summer Tour, all out West: Béla Fleck and the Flecktones opened in Salt Lake City, and Baby Gramps in Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland.

I was even more curious how Mike ended up sitting in with Cale. I called Mike’s Flying Games hotline to ask.

The next day he left an outgoing message: “Questions about J.J. Cale opening for us. I don’t know how that happened, but I’ve always been a big fan.”

Paul Languedoc was the Phish soundman in those days, so I wondered if he could share any insight. (While Languedoc is well-known for making Trey’s guitars, he also crafted the bass Gordon played at the time, and all of the Phish speaker cabinets.) He didn’t have answers but shared my sentiment.

“We all thought it was a little odd that he was an opening act since he was such a legend,” Languedoc said.

Languedoc freely admits that nearly three decades later, his memories are hazy. But, he said, “What I do recall is that J.J. Cale was a humble person, almost shy.”

John Paluska was a man likely to know how the deal went down. After all, he was Phish’s manager in 1993 and all the way through 2004 to boot. (Important aside for those coming to the Greek run: Paluska is now a Berkeley restaurateur! Comal is his spot. They serve Mexican food as good or better than anything you’d find at Moon Palace, with a world-class Meyer Sound system. Comal only serves dinner, which conflicts with actually seeing Phish, alas. So I suggest you hit up sister-restaurant Comal Next Door for lunch before heading up the hill to The Greek! )

Paluska recalled that the idea of including Cale on the bill came from the show’s promoter, Bill Graham Presents (BGP). The Phish from Vermont’s first West Coast tour was in 1991, including a stop at Berkeley Square. In 1992, Phish opened for Santana at some larger venues out West, including Shoreline Amphitheatre. In March 1993, they played a two-night run at the 2,300-capacity Warfield.

Headlining the 8,500-capacity Greek was “a big step up,” said Paluska, and “[BGP] thought adding an opener might help.” The world may never know if it helped ticket sales. Even today, Ticketmaster doesn’t ask whether you’re buying tickets because you want to see the opener.

A decade after the fact, Cale told journalist Mike Greenhaus about the time he was asked if he wanted to open for Phish. Having never heard of Phish, Cale had responded “Is that Country Joe and the Fish?” Obviously not.

To find out more about how the deal went down, I reached out to Mike Kappus, Cale’s dear friend and longtime manager. He told me that BGP booker Michael Bailey, a Tulsan like Cale, made the suggestion. Phish gave the green light. The contract was signed in mid-July. Kappus assured me that Cale was not motivated by the money, even though the paycheck was better than a typical club gig.

Eric Clapton covered “After Midnight” in 1970. Ever since Cale could live off royalties alone. As Cale said, “Getting some money doesn’t change things too much, except you no longer have to go to work.”

There were years when Cale turned down every gig offer, telling Kappus, “This is a full wallet talking.” Cale turned down all offers to play in Japan, only toured Europe a few times, and was even resistant to joining Clapton gigs.

Regarding the Phish gig, Kappus speculated that there was “no big deal about it,” and that Cale probably just had the itch to get out of town. It was an easy trip up from San Diego and back.

Back when Phish had opening acts, it was hardly the norm for Mike to sit in. In fact, Cale is the only opening act that Mike graced with a sit-in, at least since people cared enough to start keeping track of such things. (Trey sat in with just one opener too, Rhyth McFeud on “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” at Rick’s Café in Ann Arbor, Michigan on April 14, 1991. The last Phish opener was almost 23 years ago! Big Frog opened on June 11, 2000 in Tokyo.)

On the hotline, Mike said, “I got to play with him because his bass player couldn’t make it.” Paluska and Michael Bailey remembered it the same way, as sort of a last-minute thing. But, strictly speaking, the no-show bass player was a ruse. Bill Raffensperger regularly played bass with Cale dating back to 1960, and Tim Drummond occasionally gigged with Cale–but Kappus told me that neither of them nor any other bassist was ever slated for the Greek bill. Rather, saying that the bassist couldn’t make it could elicit an easy “yes” from Mike.

In 2004, Cale recounted a slightly different turn of events. He told jambands.com, “They felt bad about me not having a full band, so the bass player Gordon came out and played bass with us.”

Whoever “they” were, and however it went down, it worked out. Paluska told me, “Mike is a quick study and knew J.J.’s material, so he was able to slide right in pretty seamlessly.” Not one to shy away from the facts, Mike said that after the set he told Cale, “I’d love to play with you again.” Cale’s lighthearted response: “Nahhhh…”

The AFTERmath:

Phish took more than six years after The Greek to cover Cale. But as any semi-serious Phish fan knows, man, oh man, did they give Cale a primo spot. The Phish.net history calls the debut “perhaps the most appropriate song selection in the history of Phish.”

Phish debuted “After Midnight” as the final song of the afternoon set on December 31, 1999. Let it all hang out, peaches and cream. Cause talk and suspicion. Chug-a-lug and shout. Find out what it’s all about. Dang, they checked all the boxes! Then, somewhere in the wee-wee hours of the 21st century, in the middle of the longest Phish set ever, “Drowned” flowed into a 20-minute “After Midnight” reprise, and before you knew it, here came the sun!

Phish has busted out “After Midnight” occasionally over the years. It next appeared 206 shows later, the only time it has ever opened a show, the fabled October 26, 2010 gig in Manchester, New Hampshire. The next appearance came right after “Auld Lang Syne” at MSG on December 31, 2010 … well, after midnight, literally, so it was really January 1, 2011. “After Midnight” next popped up to open the second set at PNC Bank Arts Center on May 31, 2011.

J.J. Cale died in La Jolla, California, on July 26, 2013. The next night at the Gorge, Phish closed out the first set with “After Midnight.” “After Midnight” was sandwiched between “Harpua” and “NO2” as the “A” in the legendary Dick’s “THANK YOU ‘encore on September 6, 2015, and contained some “Harpua” narration. (Not a complete spoiler, but Jimmy was kicked back on his couch with his record player “playing one of his favorite old rock songs from the old days!”)


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“After Midnight” most recently surfaced as the second set opener in Charleston on December 8, 2019. Only your crazy mama knows if and when Phish will let it all hang out again.

In Trey’s guitar lesson series, posted on Instagram last year, he discussed playing the back of the beat. Trey mentioned that Cale credited Billie Holiday’s backbeat as the primary influence on his “laid back” style.

Decades after Trey was honored by Cale’s appearance at The Greek, he gave his students some homework: “Listen to J.J. Cale.”

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