It’s the season for political benefit shows, so it’s no surprise when the famously liberal Bay Area comes up with an evening of musical entertainment to raise funds for Barack Obama’s get-out-the-vote campaign. The show’s not as high profile as when members of the Grateful Dead reunited for a “Deadheads for Obama” show at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater back in February, but there’s an eclectic mix of acts assembled by fledgling organization Music for Democracy.
San Francisco newgrass rockers Hot Buttered Rum are the headliners, with special guest Michael Kang of the String Cheese Incident. The bill also features Maria Muldaur & the Free Radicals, Blame Sally, Tuck & Patti, David Gans, Jeff Halford, and Tommy Castro. John Densmore, legendary drummer of the Doors, is unfortunately a late cancellation.
The small theater in Oakland holds no more than 300 people, but the space is filled. Patrons mingle early on in the lobby, drinking wine and perusing silent auction items like framed photos from Obama’s personal photographer David Katz, an acoustic guitar autographed by the evening’s performers, and another signed by no less than Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Martin. Bidding for the latter begins at a cool $5,000.
Comedian Marga Gomez is the evening’s MC and gets things rolling with a wisecrack about the arch-right wing Republican vice presidential candidate. “You can put lipstick on Sarah Palin, but she’s still Dick Cheney,” says Gomez to laughter all around. Gomez also announces that all the evening’s artists have donated their time and then introduces Maria Muldaur & the Free Radicals.
The charismatic folk diva leads the band into Earl King’s “Make a Better World”, a Chuck Berry-ish rocker that sets an uplifting tone for the evening. “Inner City Blues” follows with some funky wah-wah and smoking lead guitar. Muldaur’s voice sounds as strong as ever. She mentions that the band originally turned down the gig since they have to head out on tour the next day, but that when Sarah Palin was introduced into the equation as vice presidential candidate, Muldaur felt it necessary to step up her activism. She then introduces the next tune as Allan Toussaint’s “Yes We Can”, a song first popularized by the Pointer Sisters.
Muldaur relates that all three tunes come from her new Yes We Can album, designed to promote a positive vision for social change. Legendary counterculture figure Wavy Gravy arrives at his front row seat in the middle of Muldaur’s rap. She tells of how she was a Hillary Clinton supporter, but when she lost the primary, Muldaur sent “Yes We Can” to the Obama campaign and was pleasantly surprised to receive a personal letter of thanks from Obama himself. The band tears into the song and conjures a soulful New Orleans-style funk groove that closes the brief set in powerful style.
Ayelet Waldman, Democratic Party delegate from the East Bay’s 9th Congressional District, takes the stage next to describe her recent trip to Denver for the Democratic Party’s convention. She describes being a delegate at Mile High Stadium for Obama’s historic acceptance speech as “like being at a Grateful Dead concert on ecstasy,” which brings laughs, some knowing nods, and some wonderment.
Blame Sally are up next and the four ladies in the band deliver a three-song set featuring sparkling harmonies that recall the best of the Indigo Girls. “Long Time With You” is dedicated to a hoped for Obama victory, while the closing “Fillmore Street” is likened to a spring thaw after the long cold metaphorical winter of the Bush regime’s tenure.
Each performance seems to build on the uplifting vibe that preceded it and so it is with Tuck & Patti, who follow with a set that blends Tuck’s virtuoso guitar skills with Patti’s booming voice for a flashback to a bygone era. Patti riffs on Bob Marley with an extended vocal improv on the “everything’s gonna be all right” line from “No Woman No Cry”. She follows that by singing about “turning dreams into reality” and the crowd joins in at the end of the set clapping in unison and singing “dream, dream.”
The next performance pairs David Gans, DJ of the Grateful Dead Hour, with Music For Democracy’s youthful national director Bear Kittay. The duo are joined by Hot Buttered Rum mandolinist Zac Matthews and flutist Matt Eakle from the David Grisman Quintet. Kittay introduces a song called “Pittsburgh”, inspired by his time working for the Obama campaign during the primary season in Pennsylvania. Kittay relates how was stunned to be told, “how dare you betray your race” by a Pennsylvanian, and wrote the song about the experience. The tune seems a bit ragged but the quartet pulls it together by the end. Gans then contributes a number where he sings, “It’s gonna get worse before it gets better, but it’s gonna get better.” The ace musicianship of Matthews and Eakle lifts both tunes.
Vocalist Jeff Halford and renowned blues guitarist Tommy Castro come out next to front the “Ba-Ba-Barack Band” and Halford scores with “Louisiana Man”, dedicated to President Bush’s bungled response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The song has a musical flavor recalling Creedence Clearwater Revival’s classic “Born on the Bayou”, along with some stinging lyrics. Halford follows it with “Cry of Hope”, a counterpoint written for the Obama campaign. Castro then blows up the room with a serious dose of blues power on a tune called “Wake Up”, with smoking guitar solos and a three-piece horn section that pushes the music higher. He introduces the next tune as a blues that “John Lee Hooker did one time.” The song is reminiscent of blues classic “Red House”, with Castro conjuring some Hendrix-ian fire. At one point Castro leaves the stage and continues to jam out in the crowd, ala the great Buddy Guy. He caps off the set by remarking, “I’ll be casting my vote for an America I can be proud of again.” The sentiment resonates with a universal feeling in this crowd.
Marga Gomez returns to implore the crowd to vote no on California’s Proposition 8, which seeks to change the California Constitution to eliminate the right of gay couples to marry. As she’s speaking, someone from the Hot Buttered Rum organization starts passing out free CDs, a “Green Sampler” with 10 tracks from the band’s 2007 summer tour. This is a band that not only talks the talk, but the truly walks the walk. The songs on the disc concern social, political, and environmental issues and the liner notes detail how the band has been touring since 2003 in a bus that runs on biodiesel and recycled veggie oil.
Gomez suddenly switches into Saturday Night Live mode to introduce the band—“Live from Oakland, Hot Buttered Rum!” The band opens with “Swing & Sway” before being joined by String Cheese Incident’s Michael Kang as they dive into “Reckless Tex”, a tune dedicated to the current Commander in Chief. When they sing “It’s time to know your sister and brother / And drive this cowboy out of town,” the crowd responds with a huge cheer.
Kang introduces the next tune, “Stay Through”, as one he wrote a couple of years ago that seems to make even more sense to him now after the rise of Obama’s candidacy. He switches from mandolin to guitar to lead the band on the melodic number, which features sharp solos from flutist Eakle, mandolinist Matthews, banjo player Erik Yates, and guitarist Nat Keefe.
But it’s the final two songs that really deliver with compelling musical and lyrical messages that epitomize the evening. “Golden Days” features a blues-y fiddle part by Aaron Redner and a deeply soulful vocal with Matthews singing, “Look what is going on around, you will find / Open your eyes and now you can see / This world is headed for catastrophe / We need the gold to turn to green.”
The band then closes it out with a smoking performance of “Guns or Butter”. Tuck Andress joins in too as the Hot Buttered Rum quintet now evolves into an octet with Kang, Eakle, and Andress on board. Yates takes the lead vocal for the signature song of the evening—“Well, guns or butter, what’s it going to be? Feed our poor and hungry or invent new enemies? You might call me crazy, but it seems real clear to me / Less guns, more butter!” The tune captures the band’s whole package—great harmonies, meaningful lyrics, and sizzling musicianship.
Outside afterward, an enterprising t-shirt salesman has crafted one of the funniest images of the election season, summing up the night’s emotions. The shirt features Obama’s head photoshopped onto NBA star Tracy McGrady’s body slam dunking a basketball over a Dallas Maverick with John McCain’s head. In a sane world, an Obama victory would be a slam dunk. But in a crazy paradigm where profits count more than people and the corporate-controlled media spins every issue into a polarizing one, the outcome remains in doubt. If Obama can pull it out, the rock vote will no doubt have played a significant part.