Thursday, February 5, 2015

old and in the way

Old and in the Way came together to jam some old timey tunes and came away with a bluegrass blockbuster.    David Griman reveals how the supergroup of sorts was born:   "I was playing bluegrass in the '60s. In the late '60s I got into a rock band with Peter Rowan called Earth Opera. I don’t know what you’d call that -- folk-rock? I don’t like labels. I’ve always had a sound of everything I’ve done, and I think that’s the way most musicians look at it - I just hate to be typecast. But I got interested in listening to jazz in the late '60s, or the mid-to-late '60s ... This is a tough business, but Jerry made it all seem easy. He said, ‘I can get us gigs,’ because he was having fun...We didn’t go up there [to Jerry's place Stinson Beach] with the idea of trying to form a band. He had never met Peter, and Peter was a Blue Grass Boy.” Soon, Jerry’s friend John Kahn joined on bass. “We played a few gigs like that and then we had a few different fiddle players sitting in. I know John Hartford played at least one of those Boarding House gigs. I don’t know if there’s a tape of that; and Richard Greene played several gigs.   Jerry booked us five East Coast tour dates, but Richard Greene couldn’t do this tour. I don’t think any of us had ever met Vassar Clements, but Rowan had his phone number and we called him up,  We asked him to join us and he graciously agreed! Vassar really enjoyed it, so when we were playing these small local clubs in San Francisco, we’d just fly him out. Personnel stabilized, and we started getting better and adding tunes. These two gigs, forty years ago in October, were consecutive Monday nights at the Boarding House. The club was down a flight of stairs and it was one of those places that Jerry could just book for two or three nights, or whatever he wanted.   By that time, Owlsey Stanley III was recording our shows. The audio wizard and architect behind the Grateful Dead’s “Wall of Sound” was returning to the scene after a few years hiatus. He used a Nagra, a state-of-the-art portable tape recorder made in Switzerland, and he had a bunch of great mics and a mixer and was following Old & In The Way around and putting up his mics and taping our gigs. It was a fun thing. We weren’t taking it seriously.  It had a vibe that people liked, and still do.”

Peter Rowan remembers:   “David [Grisman] and my brothers were living there at the beach—and he brought me up to Jerry’s house one day...David said let’s go up and see Jerry. That’s what you do when you have bluegrass in your blood, you play all the time to try to further the music. And we went up to Jerry’s house and there was Jerry standing outside in his garden with that banjo strapped on and he was playing. He played the banjo, just laughing, standing in the gardens. David and I drove up and we took our instruments out and just started playing out in the garden...We didn’t exactly know what we were doing but we enjoyed going through the old song books.  It was a great outlet for Jerry and someone told me that I didn’t know how important this was for him. Of course we didn’t know how important it was for him because we were all young and stupid. And he was touring with the Dead all the time and I figured that was his gig...That was really a special time. We would just take out the songbooks and sort of really marvel at what was there in terms of what was there in bluegrass. Jerry was rediscovering his whole connection with the music and I think that was kind of connection that went back to his youth.  Bluegrass represented a happy time for him, a time of growth, a time of discovery. And so every time that we played together, he was getting off on the sense of discovery that originally the bluegrass had been for him. He discovered something with Old and in the Way that made him really happy. And, to be around him, his happiness was infectious ... We finished a show one evening, and the band came off the stage, and some of the members started quibbling that if we had done it this way or that way, we could have played it better...and Garcia — just like a zen master — said, 'No thoughts.' The dressing room was very quiet. He just didn't want a whole lot of conceptualizing over something that was fleeting. And I think that permeated his worldview."

'Old and in the Way'  was recorded  October 8, 1973 at the Boarding House in San Francisco.  Produced and mixed by David Grisman with recording engineers Owsley Stanley and Vickie Babcock; the live set featured Vassar Clements on fiddle;  Jerry Garcia on banjo and vocals;  David Grisman on mandolin and vocals;  John Kahn on acoustic bass;  and Peter Rowan on guitar and vocals.     Greg Irons did the Sleeve illustration.  

Garcia would consider:   "That was a good band. It was satisfying and fun to be in...We ran into a really weird problem in terms of dynamics which was that bluegrass music is like chamber music: it’s very quiet. And if the audience got at all enthusiastic during the tune and started clapping or something, it would drown out the band and we couldn’t hear each other ... (laughs) Oh I was real hot when I was a kid. Now my reasons for playing banjo and my reasons for liking bluegrass music are completely different from when I started, ‘cause then I was really hot...The truth is, we had much better performances than were on that record...We had performances that were heart-stopping. And perfect, you know, but there weren’t as many that were recorded that well...That was really a thrilling band. And I think that was the nicest that Vassar’s played, too. When he was playing with Old And In The Way, he played the maximum of mind-blowing but beautifully tasty stuff, and the music had enough interesting kinds of new changes and new things happening – Pete’s good songs for example – so that Vassar had a chance to blow with a lot of range. More than he does normally. That was neat."

'Old and in the Way'  was for years the biggest selling bluegrass album of all time.  Grisman gripes:  "[Old and in the Way] did [wonders for bluegrass music], but it was long after it was over. You have to realize that the band played for less than a year, about 9 months and the record didn't come out until two years after the band had stopped playing. It came out in 1975. Any effect it had was after the band ceased to exist. There were only ten songs on that record and they were recorded in a small club...The effect was happening when we were sleeping somewhere else, so we never really felt the effect of it other than delayed royalty payments. The effect was somewhere else ... Although we didn’t realize what an impact this music would have at the time, we had a lot of fun playing the bluegrass music we loved and these tapes reveal that in a big way.”

'Old and in the Way'
full album:

"Pig in a Pen" (Traditional) -- 0:00 
"Midnight Moonlight" (Peter Rowan) -- 2:51 
"Old and in the Way" (David Grisman) -- 9:03 
"Knockin' on Your Door" (Traditional) -- 12:08 
"The Hobo Song" (Jack Bonus) -- 15:46 
"Panama Red" (Rowan) -- 20:58 
"Wild Horses" (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards) -- 23:51 
"Kissimmee Kid" (Vassar Clements) -- 28:11 
"Land of the Navajo" (Rowan) -- 31:42

Live at Boarding House. San Francisco 4 16 73

Goin' To The Races
Tragic Romance
Katie Hill 
The Willow Garden
'Til The End Of The World Rolls 'Round
Pig In A Pen 
Panama Red 
Lonesome L.A. Cowboy
Hard Hearted 
Wild Horses 
Blue Mule

Live at The Boarding House, San Francisco, CA  07/23/73

01 - Cheyenne
02 - Down Where The River Bends
03 - Love Please Come Home
04 - Midnight Moonlight
05 - Fanny Hill
06 - Hard Hearted
07 - Lonesome L.A. Cowboy
08 - Pig In A Pen
09 - Panama Red
10 - Wild Horses
11 - White Dove
12 - Wicked Path Of Sin
13 - Blue Mule
14 - Orange Blossom Special
15 - Old & In The Way Breakdown
16 - On And On
17 - Lonesome Fiddle Blues
18 - The Fields Have Turned Brown
19 - Mule Skinner Blues
20 - Catfish John
21 - Land Of The Navajo
22 - Hobo Song

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