Pseudonyms aside, the Moonalice family got the half full theater on its feet pretty quickly and kept us there for over an hour. Beginning with a reading from the legend, Moonalice then went into full on jam mode. Down The Road A Piece highlighted each musician for a beat or two, which allowed for some extended solos and mutual admiration between the Moonalice family. Barry Sless (Jesus H.) especially, on pedal steel, conjured the spirit of Deadheads everywhere. I found myself counting his fingers. For fear that the ghost of Jerry Garcia had not reincarnated itself in him. The members traded roles throughout the set, with Smith (Hardwood) grabbing the bass off and on all night.
The set’s second half began with another reading from the legend. It was topical, having to do with the original Moonalice residents of Portland being forced from their prime hemp fields on the Willamette by the white people. Plus it had a cliffhanger ending, not to be revealed until their next visit to the Rose City. But then the music took over again. Starting with the angelic vocals of Blue Moonalice as the nomads covered Whiter Shade Of Pale, changing the tempo and making it their own. What followed that was an other-worldly excellent version of Stella Blue. With Sir Sinjin on the piano and smoky lead vocals, this tune took me to a place I search for at every live show I attend. Slow start, heartfelt lyrics sung with sad eyes, it built around the piano and pedal steel and ancient percussion and could have gone on forever. Absolutely nothing else in the world existed except for this song in this room, with these musicians “Imagineering” all over the place. Goosebumps.
They finished with the almost pop music Marilyn, again stressing Blue Moonalice’s ethereal vocal range, and the overtly optimistic Tell Me It’s Okay. The latter proved another jam fest for the clan. Hardwood’s smile never dimmed as he traded leads with Jesus H. on pedal steel. By the time it was over, both the band and the audience were bouncing in unison, wall to wall grins.
Between sets, I met my neighbors on the dance floor. Jake and Linda, no permanent address unless you count the California plates on the bus they live in as they travel from show to show. Living on rainbow time, they called it. Taking the Deadhead philosophy to the next level, they traveled based on what bands were playing the next city down the road. They told me about some great shows they had seen in small, out of the way towns and about the strange closeness they felt with the bands with whom they forged relationships over the years in Costa Mesa, Arvada and points West.
Jake and Linda were the first ones on the dance floor. They were among the most animated as well. Luckily, they had dressed in layers, shedding the occasional sweater, shoe or whatever else modesty allowed as they warmed to the task of maximum musical motion, a task they looked on as a responsibility, and honored to be allowed to help.
Our conversation ended rather abruptly as the New Riders Of The Purple Sage (do you mind if I abbreviate that to NRPS from now on?) hit the stage. Jake and Linda were off to the front of the stage, swirling and twirling even before they started playing (Minglewood Blues). Mind you, I last saw NRPS (there, that’s much better, not as long winded sounding) in 1974. Waylon Jennings opened that show and joined them onstage for several tunes, though I have lost enough brain cells over the years to be unable to recall a single one of them. But that thirty four year gap is the longest in my concert going career. Unless Led Zeppelin gets together again and I lottery myself into a ticket, it will be the longest gap for a while. Sure, lots of players from ’74 aren’t around any more, Waylon included. The only old timers in the band are guitarist David Nelson and pedal steel guitarist Buddy Cage. Michael Falzarano comes from Hot Tuna and Johnny Markowski and Ronnie Penque come from the Jerry Garcia Band, with Penque having spent time in a ‘tribute’ band before joining the current line up. More on Penque later.
Nelson led the way from center stage, his trademark two inch wide headband firmly in place. The band’s traditionally tight harmonies shone on cuts like the thematic I Don’t Know You and Higher. They jammed their way through a few songs, and then asked Barry Sless to join them. It was at that point, four songs in to the set, that all hell broke loose, musically. Again, channeling Captain Trips, Sless noodled with the best of them throughout Henry, then Ghost Train Blues. He sounded as though he had been playing with these guys since they were the soundtrack for the monthly reading of the Continuing Adventures Of The Furry Freak Brothers (Remember kids, Keed Spills!)
Throughout the night, Nelson referred to the set list on a music stand slightly to his left. But, just as often, he would turn to Markowski, Penque and Falzarano and audible a change. I don’t think there was a song that stopped short of eight to ten minutes all night, they jammed that hard. Cage seemed happy to let Barry Sless take the lead when he was on stage and Sless stretched each song to the limit. I think the audibilizing was done mainly to take advantage of Sless’ presence and musicianship.
A great example was Where I Come From. What started as a country rock blue ballad became a twenty minute exercise in musicality. With the rhythm section chug-a-luggin along, Nelson, Cage and Sless took turns shredding fingertips and changing tempos. Just when you thought it was going to crash into the power chord ending, Mike Falzarano chimes in with the Bo Diddley-esque rhythm guitar riff with his amp turned to eleven and it starts all over again.
At some point, while the bands collective harmonies pleaded with Peggy-O to marry them, a waifish fan of no more than twenty approached the stage. All tie dye and dreds, she squeezed between the still twirling Jake and Linda and tried to get Nelson’s attention. When she finally caught his eye, she reached into her frock and presented him with a giant bud in a small tupper ware container. He thanked her for the “Party Favor” before the next song, while Cage professed the benefits living where decriminalization was born, back around the time I last saw these guys.
Appropriately, the band finished the night with the encore of Portland Woman, with most of the audience singing along for the chorus. More applause didn’t bring them back, it was over. No Panama Red, No Dead Flowers, but that’s okay by me. I’ll remember Blues Barrel and Louisiana Lady for weeks to come. And I left with Portland Woman bouncing around my head. But not before I said goodnight to Jake and Linda. They were putting their shoes back on and smiling like they knew something you don’t know. Again, they expressed their gratitude for being able to dance the night away in grand, tie dyed style.
I met up with Ronnie Penque outside after the show. He was smoking a cigarette behind the venue near the tour bus. I introduced myself and we struck up a quick conversation over a couple of Marlboros. I asked for an autograph on the set list I had grabbed from the stage. He admitted that they hadn’t followed it hardly at all, but felt it was one of the best shows in a while. “I always love the Portland crowd”, he told me. “You guys really get into it with us, like one big energy”. After he signed his name, he printed above it “Pinkley”. He explained that it was the nickname given him by the band. With respect for the history involved, he explained the importance of nickname distribution. Gage and Nelson had told him of being in the room when Pigpen was so christened, so many years ago. And the tradition must continue. They have been introducing him as Pinkley on bass every night ever since. “And,” he added, “I am honored to be called Pinkley”.
Rock on through thirty four years worth of fog,
a.k.a. Dogkomet Moonalice