Melvin Seals and JGB play 19 Broadway this Friday, August 8
by Elisa Forsgren
Fairfax’s best live music venue, 19 Broadway is honored to have a true jam band veteran grace the stage, Friday, August 8, 2014. A man who helped shape the genre and played along side such musical greats as Elvin Bishop, Chuck Berry, Steve Kimock, John Kahn and of course, Jerry Garcia, who named him ‘The Master of the Universe.’
Melvin Seals, San Francisco native, best known for his long time friendship and collaboration with Jerry Garcia Band’s namesake, front man and founder, is a powerhouse in his own right. As a side project from the Grateful Dead, Garcia formed the nucleus of Jerry Garcia Band along with Kahn in 1975. Seals became the third member and currently remains the longest standing member after Garcia and Kahn died in 1995 and 1996 respectively.
Seals began his musical career in church. “I started off in the church playing the piano because the organ was not the main instrument of the church,” Seals says.
In 1961, eight year-old Seals played piano for an Oakland gospel church when a sound caught his ear by surprise. “I heard this organ, this gospel organ-rock sound, Billy Preston was the first to get my attention,” Seals says.
The electric organ was nothing new to Seals. He switched from piano to organ when he began to play with bands outside the church. “I heard jazz organ such as Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Shirley Stein, all of those musicians. But this gospel-rock organist, Billy Preston, delivered a sound that forever turned my head,” Seals says.
Young Seals fell under music’s spell, enamored with Preston’s command of the organ, Seals said, “I’ve got to do that, that’s what I want, that’s where I picked up my style.”
Seals knew the name Grateful Dead. “I’m in the Bay Area and often heard ‘another Grateful Dead sold-out auditorium,’ so I only knew of them from the news,” Seals says.
He couldn’t name one Grateful Dead member in a photo. “I didn’t know them. I was not into their music. I knew nothing,” Seals adds.
But that would soon change.
When Seals was in his late twenties, a musician friend, John Kahn, asked Seals to audition for a local band to play in some upcoming gigs. Kahn asked Seals to join in a rehearsal at a San Francisco Front Street warehouse. “I was the first one there, on time because I wanted to make a good first impression,” Seals says.
Then Seals, heavily involved in choirs, gospel music and Broadway, walks through the door and takes a look around the warehouse. “I see skeletons, seriously skeletons, everywhere. Skeletons with roses, skeletons wearing a hat, skeletons with canes, a sinister skeleton with a violin and I was actually kind of scared,” Seals says.
There was a good reason for Seals to be scared. At that time, San Francisco Bay residents remained weary and deeply affected by the recent cult activity of the sixties and seventies such as Hare Krishna and The Church of Satan. Specifically, The People’s Temple, once headquartered in San Francisco, shockwaves still rippled through the community after 900 church members took part in a mass Kool-aide suicide that happened in Jonestown, Guyana a couple years prior.
When Seals arrived at the Front Street studio and saw all those skeletons, he honestly believed he found a cult. But before Seals could change his mind and leave, Kahn walks in with about four or five other guys. “When you meet a group of people at once, names become a hazy blur, while you hear the names, it’s in your short-term memory so you don’t really get it,” Seals says.
Names forgotten, Seals and the band played two songs together. “We played ‘How Sweet It Is’ and ‘Second That Emotion’ both Motown songs,” Seals says.
Garcia heard enough, he found his organist. But Seals still didn’t know exactly who requested the audition. “Then the guy with the guitar – I didn’t know who he was – said, ‘Yup, that’s what I want, that’s exactly what I’m looking for, let’s take a break,’ and I said, ‘Man, you sure play some great guitar.’ Of course everyone busted out laughing because they knew I didn’t have a clue the guitarist was Jerry Garcia but, Jerry smiled and replied, ‘you play some pretty good organ yourself,’” Seals explains.
Seals’ musical talent initially developed through gospel and early R&B. He learned music was played tight with intent and definition. A musician would reach a chord and note together as a group with practiced precision and perfection. “I’m used to rehearsals where you try to make it as tight as possible and hit the punch line every time,” Seals says. “But playing with Jerry, my musical style and influences changed from what I’ve always known and the punch-line was not very punchy.”
In the beginning, this musical rambling or noodling bothered the tightly trained organist. He didn’t grasp these musicians, individually masters, yet they never seemed to meet together on a chord. “I didn’t understand where it fell apart a lot of the times,” Seals says. “I had to learn jam band music is not necessarily tight but it is about a vibe, a feel that may not be technically tight and correct.”
A jam band is a rock group who performs long, unscripted, meandering segments filled with musical experiments to the structure and sound. A typical three-minute song could ramble into a twenty-minute stretch with musical genius or absolute mutiny. And it’s that cacophony of loosey-goosey ever-changing merged-song set lists that makes the jam band genre so unique. No two shows are ever the same. Even the same song is forever diverse, transforming and morphing in and out of a vague rendition of an entirely different song.
Despite his initial timing adjustment difficulties, Seals helped define the jam band genre since he joined Jerry Garcia Band in 1980. “As I listened to other musical styles and genres, I learned that’s just the way the genre is played and it’s okay that you make a mistake or a boo-boo or whatever, because the audience actually loves that stuff,” Seals says.
The fan encouragement really helped Seals make the transition from his structured music roots. “It kind of loosened and lightened me up to not worry, try not to restrict it so much. Just let the music breathe and play what you feel,” Seals says.
Skeletons, noodling and constant music change wasn’t the only adjustment for Seals, “I knew nothing about Deadheads.”
Hard to believe Seals lived in the same town as the Grateful Dead. The jam bands fans, usually named after the band’s shortened nickname with ‘head’ tacked onto the end. These nomadic fans usually pack into a borrowed vehicle and hit the road following their jam band’s tour across county. The most notorious were the Deadheads, a tie-dyed group of trippy flower children and hippies, who set up camp outside of every Grateful Dead show. Often seen Deadheads selling peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, holding out for their “miracle” ticket to that night’s performance or twirling around the parking lot to a boom box belting out the sounds of previous live show.
“However, very quickly I’ve learned Deadheads, Jerry Garcia Band, the folks are the most lovin-est people on the planet earth and I would not rather be anywhere else but with JGB right now,” Seals says.
In honor of his life altering friendships, Seals formed JGB, essentially Jerry Garcia Band without Garcia and Kahn. Seals and JGB carry on the easygoing vibe of Jerry Garcia Band and continue the tradition as ‘Keepers of the Flame.’
JGB, a modest group, two back up singers, a guitar, a bass, a drummer and of course Seals blasting away at his Hammond B3 organ. Front man, guitar and vocals, Dave Hebert has a modest stuffed vocal sound similar to Garcia. Dressed in baggy clothes, glasses and long hair he even resembles a youthful Garcia. A Deadhead even remarked, “It’s like Jerry 1974.” If Hebert pushed his glasses down his nose, like Garcia, one might not know the difference.
Of course, the band gets a lot of credit for framing him perfectly.
Shirley Starks and Cheryl Rucker, two strong gospel backup singers, both contribute largely to JGB sound. John-Paul McLean brings in the fat-assed bass along with Pete Lavezzoli who drums the beats home. The driving force, Melvin Seals, also known around his hometown as ‘the soul of the Bay,’ is the heart and soul of JGB.
Melvin Seals and JGB will be performing live at 19 Broadway this Friday, August 8 at 9 p.m. Considering this is the jam band’s home as well as the eve of Garcia’s death 19 years ago, this show is expected to be a sell out. Look out Fairfax, Melvin Seals is ready to bring on his magical mixture of rock-gospel-soul-rhythm and blues with his funked-up style to treat music lovers with his unique melodic flavor.