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Holding Up The Sun

Lib at Large: Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Sammy Hagar rocked in Marin in 2011

By Paul Liberatore 
Marin Independent Journal

Posted: 12/30/2011 08:20:00 AM PST

From where I sit, here’s a look back at what rocked in Marin music in 2011, a year that included breakthrough performances, classical musical meeting classic rock, an inspirational comeback, an incredible reunion, an uncensored memoir, a posthumous award and the promise of a new Sweetwater in the new year.

Dead at Sundance: The Grateful Dead, disbanded since Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, came to life again, sort of, when a look-alike band impersonated the Marin rock icons in the movie “The Music Never Stopped.” Actual band members Bob Weir and Mickey Hart gave the film their imprimatur, showing up at the Sundance premiere in January, playing an acoustic set for Deadheads in Park City.

Stage and studio: Weir had an especially ambitious 2011. The Mill Valley singer-guitarist brought classic rock and classical music together in May, when he appeared with the Marin Symphony in what was surely the longest, strangest trip of a concert in the orchestra’s 58-year history. “I guess this is a bit of a departure for you classical music buffs,” the tuxedo-clad rocker cracked from the stage. He also found the time (and the money) to open Tamalpais Research Institute (TRI) Studios in San Rafael, a pioneering Webcasting facility that presents live rock concerts over the Internet. He calls the super-high-tech venture his “flying saucer.”

Terrapin Crossroads: Meanwhile, his longtime Grateful Dead bandmate, bassist Phil Lesh, celebrated what would have been Jerry Garcia’s 68th birthday on Aug. 1, filing for a use permit to build a “music barn” in Fairfax called Terrapin Crossroads. You would think a town with Fairfax’s reputation for upholding the values of the 1960s and supporting live music would welcome such a classy, economy-stimulating project by a rock hall of famer who lives in neighboring Ross. But Lesh abruptly withdrew his plans after some knuckleheads posted signs saying “No Terrapin, Please,” where he would be sure to see them while on his morning walk. Fairfax will be a long time living that one down.

Year that clicked: This was a breakthrough year for Texas-born singer-songwriter-guitarist Danny Click. His Thursday night gigs at the Sleeping Lady in Fairfax had fans lining up out the door to hear the zipper-thin blues-rock guitarist play with a stellar band that included San Anselmo’s Bonnie Hayes, who wrote “Have a Heart” and “Love Letter” for Bonnie Raitt, and her drummer brother, Kevin, formerly of the Robert Cray Band. Carlos Santana and his bride, drummer Cindy Blackman, sat in one memorable night. Click topped it all off with a critically acclaimed new CD, “Life Is A Good Place.”

Winters goes jazz: Life was good for San Anselmo singer Deborah Winters in 2011. After years of struggling to make it as a Joni Mitchell-style, guitar-playing singer-songwriter, and never quite breaking through, she turned to the pop standards of her parents’ generation, collaborating with jazz trumpeter Peter Welker on a dazzling new album, “Lovers After All.” “When I think back, maybe I should have started this at the very beginning,” she said. “Maybe I would have gotten further along in my career and saved myself a lot of grief.”

DJ Shadow returns: Mill Valley’s DJ Shadow, aka Josh Davis, lived like a hip-hop Thoreau for six months in a spartan, one-room cottage in Sonoma, the only way he could finish his first album in five years, “The Less You Know, The Better.” “When I started making music there was no email, no cellphones,” he said. “I had to remove myself from all the distraction.”

Memphis sounds: San Rafael’s Kenney Dale Johnson, longtime drummer for Chris Isaak’s band, made a pilgrimage to Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn., one of the birthplaces of rock ‘n’ roll, to record Isaak’s new album, “Beyond the Sun.” “That was the most fun I’ve ever had making a record,” he said. “I looked around as we were playing and thought, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m here.'”

Montrose’s comeback: My inspirational musician of the year award goes to 1970s guitar hero Ronnie Montrose, who survived what he described as “a wicked, wicked battle with prostate cancer” to return to the stage at the Sausalito Art Festival on Labor Day Weekend. “I have a whole agenda of things I want to do with my music and my life,” the 63-year-old hard rock pioneer said. “Everything is essential and critical to me now. I don’t want to waste any time.”

Spirit of Ireland: After finding himself with an uncanny companion, the spirit of the revered Irish poet William Butler Yeats, during a visit to Ireland, San Anselmo singer-songwriter Kyle Alden came home and wrote and recorded “Songs from Yeats’ Bee-Loud Glade,” an extraordinary collection of 13 Yeats’ poems Alden set to music. “I go to Ireland every few years, but this time, for some reason, Yeats was sort of following me around,” he explained.

The Dude abides: Actor Jeff Bridges sang songs from his eponymous major label debut album during an August concert at the Marin Center with his band, the Abiders, named after a catch-phrase from the Coen Brothers’ cult comedy, “The Big Lebowski,” in which he played a lovable slacker called “the Dude.” The album capitalized on the success of Bridges’ Oscar-winning portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in the 2009 movie “Crazy Heart.” I asked Bridges, who wrote or co-wrote four of the 10 songs on the CD, if there was an underlying message on the CD. “When you ask that question, a funny thing comes to mind,” he told me. “We’re alive.”

“Red” by Hagar: Sammy Hagar’s memoir, “Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock,” was published in March, and Mill Valley’s Red Rocker wasn’t kidding about the uncensored part. Just ask poor Eddie Van Halen, who gets torn a new one in the book. Writing about seeing Eddie again for a Van Halen reunion tour in 2003, Sammy described the squalor he claims the guitarist lived in, adding: “This was Eddie Van Halen, one of the sweetest guys I’d ever met. He had turned into the weirdest (expletive) I’d ever seen, crude, rude and unkempt.”

Ace of Cups reunite: How’s this for a delayed comeback? After being broken up for 40 years, the Ace of Cups, the one and only all-female rock band from San Francisco in the ’60s, reunited in May for hippie icon Wavy Gravy’s 75th Birthday Boogie, a benefit concert for the Seva Foundation at Richmond’s Craneway Pavilion. “The Ace of Cups rides again,” laughed Novato’s Diane Vitalich, the band’s drummer. “It’s a new beginning for us.”

Shining Lunabelles: 2011 wasn’t just about classic rockers. Twenty-six-year-old Alex Kline, a multi-instrumentalist from the rolling hills of Nicasio, found a place to shine in Nashville with the Lunabelles, an all-female band on the country music fast track. Fittingly, the quartet’s first single, released in May by Sony Music, is titled “A Place to Shine.”

Grammy for Stewart: One of Marin’s great but unsung singer-songwriters got a much-deserved lifetime achievement award at this year’s Grammys. John Stewart, who lived quietly in Marin for most of his 69 years, was honored posthumously as a member of the Kingston Trio. Stewart, who replaced Dave Guard in the legendary group in 1961, died three years ago. “John was a recluse,” said Buffy Ford Stewart, his wife and singing partner of 43 years. “He didn’t hang.”

“Magnetic” connection: Singer-songwriters Corinne West and Kelly Joe Phelps, who got together musically and then romantically, sang songs from their sensational first album as a duo, “Magnetic Skyline,” in an April concert at the Lark Theater in Larkspur, West’s hometown. There’s no denying they make a lovely looking and sounding couple. “The possibility for creation continues to broaden for us,” Phelps said. “The sound and the experience keeps getting richer and deeper.”

Who left us: We lost some wonderful people in 2011. In memoriam: The Big Man, Clarence Clemons; Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival founder Warren Hellman, KGO-TV reporter Joyce Shank, radio personality Carter B. Smith and reed virtuoso Jim Rothermel.

Sweetwater revival: Just when we thought Mill Valley’s long-closed Sweetwater would be relegated to a chapter in Marin music history, an investment group emerged in 2011 with the rights to the legendary nightclub’s name and forged ahead with plans to open a new Sweetwater in downtown Mill Valley. The 107-year-old Masonic Lodge is being renovated into a high-tech live music club and cafe dedicated to carrying on the name and tradition of the old Sweetwater, the nationally known roots music club that closed in 2007. “Mill Valley is a great town, and in a lot of ways Sweetwater was the soul of Mill Valley,” said Michael Klein, one of the investors. The new Sweetwater is on track to open in early 2012 — something to look forward to in the new year.

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