By Ray Chelstowski
The Great American Music Hall on O’Farrell Street in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco is arguably as famous as the many acts it has hosted since opening in 1907. It has a world-class stage, terrific balconies and frescoes, and despite its decorative grandeur, it is small and intimate with a capacity that can hold no more than five hundred fans. That however has never kept the biggest names from making it the place where they would put forward some of their most important performances. Robin Williams chose it to film his 1982 HBO comedy special and in 1974, the new lineup of Journey would debut there and launch a run that sells out stadiums to this day.
The Hall was also home to a music scene birthed in the Bay area. Jam acts like the Jerry Garcia Band recast the room with a different kind of glow, and bands like Zero followed suit. Now a legendary three-night Zero appearance at the Hall from 1992 is being released featuring unissued performances from one of the jam world’s most innovative and collaborative acts. The first release from those sessions was 1994’s Chance In A Million. Now comes Naught Again (album cover below).
Zero were formed in the early 1980’s by guitarist Steve Kimock and drummer Greg Anton who both played in Keith and Donna Godchaux’s Heart of Gold Band. Since then, Zero have been an act that’s included a real “who’s who” of players like Nicky Hopkins, John Cipollina, Pete Sears, John Kahn and Vince Welnick. They all make an appearance on this new release along with Martin Fierro on tenor sax, Judge Murphy on vocals, and Bobby Vega and Liam Hanrahan on bass. However, the real “prize inside the box” is the opening introduction and closing epilogue by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. He took Zero from a strictly instrumental act to one with lyrics and wonderfully soulful vocals. His contributions to these nights added a sense of drama, suspense and theater, properly bookending a collection of music that lives within its own dreamy atmosphere. This is a spin with a kind of modest enormity that’s magnetic.
Kimock and Anton are taking Zero back on tour in support of the record with a new lineup and a sense of enthusiasm that will likely make these upcoming dates truly soar. We caught up with Steve Kimock and talked about those three nights back in 1992, what the music scene was like at the time and what lies next for a guitarist that the late Jerry Garcia considered one of his all-time favorites.
GOLDMINE: What prompted the decision to release this additional material?
STEVE KIMOCK: I don’t think that anyone was paying particular attention to making records after Martin (Fierro) and Judge (Murphy) passed away. It kind of took a little air out of the balloon. But we had a group of brilliant technical people, who consist mostly of Brian Risner, and they suggested that we remaster that musical record because we can make it sound better, and we can add bonus tracks. So Greg went back and started listening to what we had and it became obvious that we had enough material for a bonus record, or two.
GM: So is there more music from these nights that can be released at a later date?
SK: Well, we played for three nights at the American Music Hall with all kinds of guests and there’s only so much room on a record or CD. So we used what we thought was most representative of the “Zero/Hunter” writing at the time.
GM: Adding vocals was a big shift for Zero. Was it a difficult decision for the band to make?
SK: It makes perfect sense in hindsight. But at the time it was less obvious. It was more like we had a guy writing lyrics so we had to get someone to sing. We weren’t looking at it as a change. If anyone at the time would have been protective of the band’s instrumental space it would have been me. Instead we were all just game for it. And it was a big deal because given where we were at the time, getting a singer meant we had to get a van and a PA! (laughs)
GM: The lineup changes night to night are impressive and substantial. Did you even have time to rehearse before each performance?
SK: Yes and no. Some of it is obviously more rehearsed and there are probably some bits that we may have screwed up that we just edited back into place. Those were different times though. Back then there were musicians dropping by every day unannounced, from other countries. So to have that many people coming to the stage wasn’t something that had crossed our minds.
GM: One unfortunate takeaway from the record is how many of these musicians are no longer with us. Almost half of the people who performed on this record have passed.
SK: Yeah, that’s rock. That makes this album an even more heartfelt statement, maybe more for us than even the people buying the record. Every passing has become ever more personal and they are something I live with every day. I miss Martin Fierro every day. John Cipollina was also a hero and a very good friend. I named my son “John” after him. So these people are still very much with me.
GM: One thing I noticed is that you don’t have a gear breakdown in the liner notes.
SK: Well, I played the same stuff that I’ve always played. I played the white Stratocaster, the Explorer, my sunburst Stratocaster, my super Ozark, and my black super lap steel; the same five or six instruments that I used through the band’s history. I forget what piano Nicky Hopkins was playing, but I know he did have a module which really did sound like a piano. And there were certainly a lot of Fender basses!
GM: Right now the upcoming tour has only west coast dates. Do you plan on heading east, and what does the band lineup look like right now?
SK: Oh absolutely. We’re going to come east and I’m very much looking forward to that. It’s me and Greg along with Spencer Burrows on piano and vocals, Hadi Al-Saadoon on trumpet, and Pete Sears on bass. Pete used to play piano for us, now he plays bass. It’s like a promotion for him. (laughs) He plays everything, and whenever he’s not playing an instrument it almost escapes his memory that he can.
GM: Are you going to be playing material from Naught Again on this tour?
SK: Oh yeah. But we’re not the kind of band that does everything every night. We see how we feel, or what’s working. That said, the music that’s on those sessions had been recorded like three times even before we entered the Music Hall. There was songwriting and arranging, and then recorded a demo, and then we redid the demo. So I’ll never be able to forget any moment of that time. It’s just baked in my brain and all available to us.
GM: Outside of this tour and promoting Naught Again, is there anything else you have that’s about to break?
SK: I have a bunch of stuff that I’m working on that would just probably piss people off. It’s not traditional rock band material. It’s odd, very modern and sort of avant-garde; intonation or intonation systems and stuff that I enjoy experimenting with. So there will a record of that coming out this summer as well. It may be unrecognizable as music to some, but to me it’s where it’s at!
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