The Flame Still Burns…
By Casey Lowdermilk
For over 15 years the Warfield Theater on Market Street in San Francisco was the main home of the Jerry Garcia Band. Garcia’s leads were soulfully backed with Melvin Seals’ Hammond organ; the musical chemistry was undeniable and the bright songs always resonated deeply with timeless messages.
Fortunately, the music survives today, with excellent live interpretations from Seals and JGB. Stu Allen’s guitar licks and inspirational oratory spark uncanny resemblances to his predecessor; Melvin continues to deliver with his contagious smile. (Rounding out the lineup are Cheryl Rucker and Shirley Starks on backing vocals, Mark Corsolini on drums and Justin Purtill on bass.)
With over 30 years in the music industry as a producer, arranger, and performer, Melvin has developed a style and jovial stage presence that ensures the music and magic of the Jerry Garcia Band are preserved.
Melvin Seals & JGB will perform at the Great American Music Hall as a benefit for the Rex Foundation on January 24, 2009 – and, as Melvin reveals, a live recording is part of the plans. So raise your spirits and submit to those Hammond B3-infused melodies as Melvin reflects on the Jerry Garcia Band, the passing of Merl Saunders and the scary ways of Stu Allen.
Rex Foundation: “Keepers of the Flame” is the slogan of Melvin Seals & JGB. What is it that you are preserving with your band?
Melvin Seals: What I’m trying to preserve is the vibe and feel of the church atmosphere that we used to have with the Jerry Garcia Band. The fans used to always say that going to the Warfield was their church, with the feel that they got from the music.
A lot of times I find with people that their happy moments are going back in time to a happy spot, happy space or something that was going on at a certain age. I know for me when I hear a oldie but goodie song come on the radio, it lights me up, because I can think about what I was doing at that time, or how old I was or who I was. I know for a lot of the fans to go back and hear those songs, it brings back moments of joy.
We’re just trying to provide that for those who still love the music, and there are quite a few of them that don’t want the music to die. I’m just one of the providers trying to make it as closely as possible to what it was with the Jerry Garcia Band. That’s why I call it Keepers of the Flame – the torch that Jerry lit, I’m just trying to keep it going.
Rex: What is it about this music that is so spiritual to its fans?
Seals: There are some heavy messages in some of the songs. Some of the songs are rock ‘n’ roll and blues, and that is what it is. But there are some songs – “Forever Young,” “Sisters & Brothers,” “Waiting for a Miracle,” “The Maker” – where the message is really deep and talking about one-on-one with the creator and making this a better place.
There are quite a few songs that I say have some subliminal messages underneath that are really deep, spiritual messages, and that’s the church for me. Being one that plays in the church, there are some chords that you can play that sound sanctimonious and religious – sounds that just do something when they are put together, you just feel it!
Rex: And certainly the Hammond contributes greatly to that church vibe.
Seals: Oh yeah.
Rex: One of the most memorable moments at the “Comes A Time” Rex Benefit in 2005 was when you and Merl shared a bench together.
Seals: (chuckles) That was great. I thought that was really great.
Rex: Of course, we were all sad to hear of his passing two months ago. What was your relationship with Merl like?
Seals: Merl and I became close friends about 30 years back. When I was playing with Elvin Bishop, Merl was with Jerry. We used to talk about how it was being the only African-American in an all-white band. We were always talking about it; Elvin really looked out for me, and Merl was saying the same thing about Jerry. At that time I never thought in a million years that I’d be playing with Jerry.
Merl and I were doing some producing in a studio called Super Sound in Monterey. We became friends when they hired both of us. From that point, with both of us being an organist, we just grew in our relationship. We did go on tour together for a little over a year, it might have been 1999 or 2000. We toured together and released a double live record Merl Saunders & Melvin Seals: Live on Tour from the tour dates on a label called Blue’s Planet, which never really got major distribution.
Of course when Merl took ill and he was not able to go and play on stage, he still did with me, like he did at “Comes a Time.” I brought him out on stage and we sit down and share the organ.
He couldn’t play with his right hand. He could only play with his left hand, and so I had to sit there and cover the other end for him because he couldn’t do that. That’s what that was all about – bringing him out and people just loving to see him out and see him behind an organ again. That was just really great. That was the first time we did that, and we did it quite a few times after. Of course, until this year – he was more ill for most of the year and finally he was just struggling with life until he passed.
Rex: Stu Allen’s been with the band since 2004; what does he bring to the mix?
Seals: Stu of course has been trying to stand the shoes of Jerry, which is very complicated, with that guitar sound and vocal sound that we all love from Jerry so much.
Stu, I must admit – when he first got with me he had a little Jerry sound and a little Jerry tone, like a lot of people do; there’s quite a few clones out there. Stu has grown into his own that is really scary now. It’s really scary what I see him do on stage and what I hear. Even when I close my own eyes for a moment and I’m not looking at anybody, where my mind goes remembering being on stage with Jerry, it’s really spooky at times.
I’ve always said there are only two guys that I have met that really had Jerry’s style down to a T, which nobody absolutely does, but if anyone was closest it is John Kadlecik from Dark Star Orchestra, and Stu. Those two guys, it’s really scary how they portray Jerry – his tone and licks that he played.
Rex: Recently, JGB has been playing a lot of rare Jerry Band songs like “Rhapsody in Red.” What brought this about?
Seals: I write the set list every night. What I’m actually planning to do is one of the last recordings that I think I can get away with this – do a live recording at the Great American Music Hall for the Rex Foundation Benefit.
What I’m shooting for is not the songs that everybody’s done over and over. I’m shooting for the songs that we did with Jerry in the last days and the last years that aren’t on any of the live recordings. We started doing some songs like “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game,” “Rhapsody in Red,” “Sitting in Limbo.” They may be on recordings, but I didn’t record them with him live. Some of the other ones are “Bright Side of the Road,” “Lonesome and a Long Way From Home,” “(I’m a) Road Runner.” Just some songs that we were doing that are not recorded professionally with Jerry as a live record, like we did with “How Sweet It Is,” released in 1991. I thought it would be of some value to grab some of these last songs from the vault that we actually performed but are not on a recording. These songs that you’re talking about are some of the songs that we’re planning on recording at the Rex Benefit.
Rex: Rex benefit concerts allow the foundation to invest in charities and communities that are making a difference. What are some concerns or issues that are important to you?
Seals: The homeless situation is really getting out of hand. You have those that were just stoners and have been homeless for years and probably like it, but you have a new group of people that have lost and have come from something down to nothing. Where do you go from there? What do you do?
I’m only a few paychecks away from being homeless myself. Really, maybe I’ll have a couple years or a year worth of banking and bills, but wow, I could be one of those very easily.
It’s something that weighs heavily on my heart, and of course when people do lose a lot it still turns out in the world in many different ways. Some go to crime, go stealing and hurting others to just try to survive. That’s just one of the things that if I could do something for, then I would.