This year Harmony Festival celebrated 33 years of “Unity in Community” with one of the most dynamic lineups in its history. The festival began in 1979 at the peak of counter-culture. People in California pursued festive gatherings and higher wisdom in a psychedelic movement centered around creative music. Last year's 2010 Festival reached record-breaking attendance, estimated at 35,000 people over the weekend. American festival culture is clearly on the rise.
On Friday night, this year's Harmony Hall housed the “Tribute to the life of Owsley ‘Bear’ Stanley and the musical spirit of Jerry Garcia”. The Grateful Dead’s late soundman Stanley produced the Dead’s last live album in 1973 with Warner Brothers; History of the Grateful Dead Vol.1 – also called by fans; “Bear’s Choice”. The live recording happened on February 13 and 14 in 1970. It is rumored that Bear’s Choice is an unofficial tribute album to the late Pig Pen (Ron McKernan) who passed away on March 8, 1973.
Steve Kimock, David Nelson, Jesse McReynolds, along with members of Kimock's Zero, Railroad Earth, and Moonalice, joined together and re-created this historical live album. The stage was draped appropriately with huge tie-dye tapestries reaching from ceiling to floor, lit up by changing colors that melted and morphed the patterns. Three large projections splashed across screens with tessellated visuals based on the classic Steal Your Face logo among some of the famous gig poster art. Oriental lamps swung peacefully overhead, revealing psychedelic artwork covering the walls, containing original art by Jerry Garcia, Owsley Stanley, Rick Griffin, Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse, The Merry Pranksters, Alex Grey, Mati Klarwein, Martina Hoffman, and more.
The underground chemist Bear met Kesey of the Grateful Dead during the acid tests in 1966 and rose to prominence as their first soundman and road manager, and then as a 1960s counterculture figure who flooded the flower power scene with LSD. He frequently recorded live tapes behind his mixing board, and Bear was pivotal in the Dead becoming the first performers since Les Paul to develop custom high fidelity audio components and sound systems for performance needs. Bear designed the gigantic "Wall of Sound" stacks of speakers, a highly innovative feat of engineering that added to the legendary Dead tours. Along with his close friend Bob Thomas, Bear designed the Lightning Bolt Skull logo that became Steal Your Face and the symbol of Deadheads everywhere.
Harmony Festival's revival collaboration of musicians has a deep rooted history with the Grateful Dead. Guitarist Steve Kimock exploded onto the jam band scene after the Dead stopped touring in the early 80’s. Jerry Garcia himself named Kimock his "favorite unknown guitarist" in Rollingstone Magazine, months before he passed. Kimock is a master of the vintage jamband sound while adding modern twists that music lovers of all generations can relate to.
Jesse McReynolds, aka The Mandolin Man, opened the night. A bluegrass legend, McReynolds originated unique “cross picking” and “split-string” techniques of mandolin playing that involve rapid-fire picking of individual strings in addition to strumming sets of strings. With his first major label album dating to 1952, his enormous repertoire includes bluegrass, country, gospel, pop, rock, movie themes, show tunes, and classical pieces. Not only is he an instrumental genius who could be seen as the forefather to much of American music, but McReynolds can still sing with the best of them, which he proved at the show. He has also done other tributes to Jerry Garcia such as a 2010 release entitled Jesse & Friends ~ Songs of the Grateful Dead.
Harmony's tribute night felt like a gathering of old friends and family to revisit good times. Whirling dancers in the audience were painted by dappled colored lights and energized by the upbeat soulful explorations of the band. Garcia and the band toured almost constantly from their formation in 1965 until Garcia's death in 1995, a stint which gave credit to the name "endless tour", which lives on to this day at revival performances such as this and through the wide range of musicians inspired by the Grateful Dead.
Words: Ashley Martino