Taking its name from the Sanskrit word for service, the Seva (pronounced say-va) Foundation is a non-profit organization that has been raising and distributing funds for a variety of altruistic deeds since 1978. The group helps the blind gain access to affordable cataract surgeries in countries such as Tibet, India, Nepal, and other regions throughout Asia and Africa; brings healthcare, clean water, and educational support to poor indigenous communities in Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico; and provides health and wellness programs for Native Americans. Proving that no good deed goes unnoticed, musicians gathered at the Grand Ballroom for the annual Sing Out for Seva benefit show in honor of hippie activist Wavy Gravy’s 71st birthday — an event which doubled as a fundraiser for the Berkeley-based foundation. Seva’s co-founder, Gravy made a fitting MC for the proceedings, bringing a dose of ’60s vibrations along with the flat-out joy that comes from still being here on this mudball after a full life’s worth of activism and adventure. For his part, Gravy and a variety of mime-like comic cohorts provided Merry Prankster-like entertainment between acts. Though the show has taken place at the Berkeley Community Theater in recent years, San Francisco’s Grand Ballroom turned out to be quite a classy alternate venue: the room blends the intimacy of the Great American Music Hall with psychedelicized chandeliers that recall the Fillmore. The venue was just the right size — it seemed fairly full but not totally jammed — and the blend of old and new acts brought in a diverse crowd whose ages spanned the spectrum. Local up-and-comers Tea Leaf Green got things cooking with a signature blend of jam rock that borrows equally from ’60s and ’90s acts. Gravy invoked the names of no less than Jerry Garcia, Bill Graham, and Janis Joplin when introducing Tea Leaf Green as San Francisco’s heirs to the city’s jam-rock throne. Coming off of their scintillating April 20th show at the Fillmore, TLG did not disappoint. While the set was relatively unique, with guitarist Josh Clark and bassist Ben C. donning acoustic instruments, the band still rocked: Clark ripped off the same hot leads he does on the electric guitar, and keyboardist Trevor Garrod stole the show with soulful vocals and piano plunking. One got the sense that the older fans in attendance were pleasantly surprised at the quality and depth of the young guns.
Chris Robinson, lead singer of the Black Crowes, was up next with his Wooden Family — an acoustic trio with boasting two guitars, a bass, and no drums. Some were disappointed by the fact that Robinson didn’t rock out, and he acknowledged that it is something of a challenge to be in the one band on the bill playing without a drummer. Still, Robinson is one of his generation’s finest songsmiths, and the trio’s set was rich with melody. “Tumbleweeds in Eden,” from the singer’s debut solo album, New Earth Mud, was a particular highlight — recognized by some as the tune Robinson had played as part of Phil Lesh and Friends in the fall of 2005. Alas, rumors that Lesh would make an unbilled guest appearance with Robinson did not come true. But the Crowe did deliver one surprise, pulling out a soulful, stirring version of the Grateful Dead classic “New Speedway Boogie.” San Francisco stalwarts since 1984, Zero hit the stage next, throwing down a searing set of funky and jazzy jams. Powered by lead guitarist Steve Kimock, drummer Greg Anton, keyboardist Melvin Seals, and saxophonist Martin Fierro, the band has gone up and down over the years, but this dazzling set showed that it has all the energy it needs to keep moving forward.
Headliner Mickey Hart and Friends took the stage later for the evening’s final set. The former Grateful Dead drummer was joined by two of his bandmates from last fall’s well-received Rhythm Devils tour — vocalist Jen Durkin and guitarist Kimock (who was pulling double duty with Seva). Fellow Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann and Phish bassist Mike Gordon weren’t present as they had been with the Rhythm Devils, but legendary Meters bassist George Porter Jr. and Phil Lesh and Friends drummer John Molo were more-than-able fill-ins. Sikiru Adepoju also joined in on the talking drum, conjuring superb polyrhythmic sounds. The band threw down a number of the songs that Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter recently wrote for the Rhythm Devils, with “Fountains of Wood” rocking the crowd into a particularly excellent groove. Porter funked it up in a supreme way, while Molo and Hart were synched much like Hart and Kreutzmann had been in days gone by. Some were surprised when the band started in on the evening’s second version of “New Speedway Boogie,” but, whereas Robinson’s version was slow and acoustic, this one was electric and fully freaked out. The “one way or another, this darkness got to give” chorus rang as true as ever. From 1969’s lament for the murder of a fan at the hands of Hell’s Angels at the notorious Altamont Festival, to 21st century blues for the world’s current conflicts, the song remains a timeless commentary on injustice and pain. The band wrapped things up with a splendid rendition of Dead classic “Fire on the Mountain” that gave every band member a chance to shine and got the crowd fully immersed in a kind of old-school, psychedelic-groove ecstasy. Alas, when the song ended and the band left the stage, it seemed the set had been a bit brief. But according to the clocks, fans had just witnessed over four hours of music, and, with all the evening’s proceeds going toward the Seva Foundation, it was one hell of a birthday party. Long live Gravy.