Railroad Earth, Melvin Seals headline Petaluma Music Festival
The 11th annual Petaluma Music festival on Aug. 4, headlined by Railroad Earth and keyboardist Melvin Seals, has one simple goal: to help keep music in schools.
Last year, the festival attracted more than 4,000 people and raised over $60,000 for music education programs in the Petaluma area, said festival director Cliff Eveland.
Among the recipients were Petaluma and Casa Grande high schools and local junior highs and elementary schools including Two Rock, Wilson and Liberty.
The eclectic festival features mostly jam bands, rockers and folk artists on three stages, with an emphasis on local musicians.
This year, Marin County guitar virtuoso Danny Click and Sonoma County happy-?go-lucky songsmiths The Brothers Comatose also will light up Petaluma’s Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds.
Bands play full sets, from 60 to 90 minutes. Among the other local favorites at the festival this year are Royal Jelly Jive, The Coffis Brothers, Sam Chase, and the Rainbow Girls.
Seals, best known for manning the Hammond B3 organ with the Jerry Garcia Band, plays many of the songs that group featured before Garcia’s death in 1995.
He spoke to The Press Democrat by phone last month. Here are highlights from that interview:
Is there any special feeling appearing at an event where proceeds go toward music education?
That’s one of the greatest things on Earth, to teach and train young musicians - they’re our future musicians. If we can leave our legacies behind, the music carries on.
Could you tell me about some of your earliest musical experiences growing up in San Francisco?
I was kind of a church boy. My father was a choir director and musician at the church. That’s where I first learned to pay attention to the piano and organ.
Was there any sentiment in your family or church that you should play only gospel?
There was a whole lot of that. Pastors would want to keep you in their circle. But God didn’t give me this talent to direct a choir every Sunday morning.
Coming from gospel, how did you get involved with the Jerry Garcia Band?
I got the call from John Kahn, their bass player. I didn’t know who they were. I was not a Deadhead. So to fall through that door was really overwhelming for me. That was a 180-degree turn right there, the psychedelic Grateful Dead music. Even the name, the Grateful Dead, when you’re fresh out of church …
And the imagery, the dancing skeletons …
I didn’t know what was going on, but I quickly found out that these are some of the most loving people on the face of the planet.
What was the first rehearsal like with the Jerry Garcia Band?
I met them all at one time (in San Rafael). We went over three Motown songs - “I Second That Emotion,” “The Harder They Come” and “How Sweet It Is” - just to see if the vibe was right.
After the first three songs I said to the guitar player, I couldn’t remember his name, “Man, you play some pretty good guitar.” Everyone is just laughing because I didn’t have a clue (that Jerry Garcia was one of the world’s most talented and beloved guitarists). So the guitar player (Garcia) said, “Thanks man, you play some pretty good organ.”
We had gigs at the Keystones (nightclubs in San Francisco, Berkeley and Palo Alto), and people were boogeying. They loved it and acted like they knew me.
How was playing with the Jerry Garcia Band distinctive?
In R&B and gospel, you dot your I’s and cross your T’s. You work on nailing it and making it strong and tight. So when I got with Jerry, I thought these guys were too good to be playing this stuff so sloppy. Everybody was off beat; I couldn’t believe it.
Everybody just kind of hit it their own way - it didn’t matter. I had to learn that this style of music had nothing to do with how tight a musician you are. It comes from the heart. What leaves the heart reaches the heart.
When Grateful Dead keyboardist Brent Mydland died in 1990, were you asked to replace him?
There were a lot of fans who thought I should be the (Grateful Dead’s) next keyboard player. But the band never asked me. I don’t know if I wanted it. I would have loved to have done it until they found somebody, but that was a hot seat and I didn’t want to be in a hot seat.
Given the history of the Dead’s keyboardists?
Three of their keyboard players had died, and I didn’t do a lot of things that I heard they did. I barely drink wine. I didn’t do drugs, nothing. So to be out with a group of people that you’re not like would have been hard.
Could you say why this music continues to inspire audiences?
It’s heartfelt music; it goes back to the ’60s and the love of the Haight-Ashbury scene. But why have young folks, the Deadheads’ kids and their kids, taken on this music? It’s a mystery to me.
I have young fans come and see me today who were not around when Jerry was alive. For every song, they know all the lyrics. How does this happen? It’s a wonderful thing. That’s why it must continue on.
Michael Shapiro is author of “A Sense of Place.” He writes about entertainment and travel for national magazines and The Press Democrat.