It was a Friday night in Ocean Beach, where a hippie haven oasis exists in what is otherwise considered more of a conservative town. Deadhead culture thrives here on Ocean Beach’s main drag on and around Newport Avenue, an area that feels like a cross between LA’s Venice Beach and San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. Winston’s Beach Club doesn’t quite stack up to Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads in the Bay Area, but the club has been helping to keep the vibe alive by featuring the Electric Waste Band covering the Grateful Dead every week for over two decades.
The club has also been hosting periodic shows from local outfit Alleycat Street, which covers the music of the Jerry Garcia Band. There’s definitely an audience here for Garcia’s musical legacy, one that forever altered the culture of America in a more benign and musically adventurous way. The room may not have the aesthetic decor of some others, but there’s a community vibe that makes Winston’s one of the friendliest venues on the West Coast.
Enter Melvin Seals & JGB on their fall tour, a group who rightfully think of themselves as “keepers of the flame”. Seals joined the Jerry Garcia Band in 1980 and held down the keyboard position until Garcia’s untimely departure from the planet in 1995. Seals and the band always headline the annual “Jerry Day” show in San Francisco every August and keep that flame burning by continuing to tour the nation.
Seals is a Jedi master of the Hammond B-3 organ, so much so that Garcia reportedly nicknamed him “Master of the Universe”. He anchors the band with a zen sort of vibe from his keyboard corner on stage, frequently playing in the pocket yet also dabbling in swirling psychedelic forays at the edge of the space-time continuum. Seals isn’t merely continuing to play Garcia’s songs; he and his band continue to push the jams in the bold exploratory directions the JGB was always known for.
The band hit the stage with the gentle groove of Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up”, taking their time to warm the room up a bit with a nod to another Ocean Beach favorite. But then they jumped into the deep end with the full tilt rock ‘n’ roll of “Cats Under the Stars” and the dance party was on. Guitarist/vocalist Dave Hebert makes it all work because he’s, quite frankly, very Jerry. He’s got Garcia’s guitar tone dialed in, and his vocals indicate a devoted disciple as well. Seals also gives Hebert free reign to jam out, as opposed to how John Kadlecik often seems to be on a short leash filling the Jerry role in Furthur.
The female backing vocals are key to the JGB sound as well, with Shirley Starks and Cheryl Rucker adding that extra harmonic dimension for the genuine sound. Drummer Pete Lavezzoli and bassist John-Paul McLean provide a strong rhythm section and it was readily apparent from the hot sound on “Cats” that this band has some real chemistry. “Simple Twist of Fate” was a mid-set highlight, with the band delivering a faithful take on Garcia’s version of the Bob Dylan classic. Garcia’s poignant arrangement is on the mellow side, but allows for some of Seals’ most elegant piano work and deep blues from Hebert.
The band revved it up for “Struggling Man”, where Seals took command on organ to lead a surging jam. The energy carried over into a charged “Rhapsody in Red” with Hebert tearing up the classic Garcia lead guitar trills to close the set with a flourish.
Winston’s always scores highly on being a fan-friendly venue at set breaks. There’s not many other venues where you can walk down to the beach during a break. Or that have a great liquor and tobacco store right across the street, not to mention a variety of options for a quick bite. Or you can just relax for a puff out back as many often do.
“Sugaree” opened the second set in a mellow style similar to the “Stir It Up” first set opener, giving fans a chance to settle back in before a raucous jam on the dance groove of “Get Out of My Life Woman”. The centerpiece of the set occurred during a mega-jam on “Don’t Let Go”, where Seals and the band seemed to be transported back to 1980. The incendiary jam recalled a classic archival release version of “After Midnight” from that year, with Seals and Hebert pushing each other higher with their melodies as the rhythm section drove the groove deeper and deeper. The collective “x-factor” surged as the band jammed to what seemed an infinite forever ecstatic level.
Seals dialed up the perfect interlude afterward with the gospel-tinged spiritual anthem “Sisters and Brothers”, a beloved ode to keeping the faith while making one’s way through this troubled world. Then the band went back to full rock power for a soaring rendition of “Lonesome and a Long Way From Home” to close the set. It was one of those great nights were strangers were stopping strangers, or maybe distant acquaintances, just to shake their hand or maybe share a puff or a tip on the next show. The flame is still burning bright thanks to Melvin Seals and JGB.