Every year, during my time in San Francisco, the Greek Theatre on the U.C. Berkeley campus hosted a 3 day benefit music festival for an organization called "Bread and Roses". The organization brought live music performances to schools and hospitals. The benefit concerts consisted largely of folk music with many of the musicians coming from the rich mix of artists living in the area at the time. All instrumentation was acoustic, although miked so it could be heard in the large outdoor venue. Since it was a benefit, and many of the performers resided nearby, traditionally they would spend all weekend backstage ensuring a wealth of surprise, sometimes once in a lifetime, musical collaborations.
Growing up my parents music collection, although small, was heavy in Peter, Paul and Mary. 2 guitars and 3 voices conjuring up a sound that no one has ever been able to equal. The trio's beautiful harmonies filled our home as the vinyl records spun on the turntable. Even as a child I knew many of the songs by heart. One year they were headlining the final day of the festival. I called my mother and then procured tickets for myself, her and my stepfather. I met her and my stepfather outside the theatre and we climbed our way to the top finding a suitable spot on the lawn.
The stage was festooned with a floral swag along it's edge. The Persuasions opened the concert that afternoon. Coming out in matching suits they sang with R&B and gospel harmonies so tight they performed their entire set acapella. My mother, a proficient pianist, mentioned to me that she had not noticed that they had no backup musicians until the group pointed it out midset. Near the end of their program they stepped down from the front of the stage, obliterating a portion of the floral swag in the process, and began the folk classic "Tom Dooley". They asked the crowd to sing with them. Almost everyone knowing the tune, the arena was filled with sound. They broke us up into groups. "Just the men." A chorus of male voices rose up from the crowd. "Now the women." The higher register of female voices replaced the tenors, baritones and basses of the men. They then shouted "Women over 40".....the silence was deafening. One or two voices could be heard reminding me of the lonely chirp of crickets on a summer night. Individual audience members were invited to take the mike. A handful of people accepted the challenge including one woman whose powerful voice would have shaken the rafters, had the outdoor theatre contained any.
Next Mimi Farina, a poet and founder of Bread and Roses, also the younger sister of Joan Baez, came onstage to introduce Maria Muldaur. Ms. Muldaur, best known for "Midnight at the Oasis", has, to my mind, always been an underrated talent. Perhaps it is because her eclectic repertoire, which ranges from folk to gospel, country to honky tonk, made her difficult to pigeonhole and market. After Ms. Farina's warm and gracious introduction Maria said she almost felt embarrassed to sing the first song she had selected before launching into the bawdy, rollicking "It Ain't the Meat It's the Motion". Her performance offered up the first, that afternoon, of the collaborations this festival was noted for as The Persuasions returned to the stage, having traded in their matching suits for street clothes, to sing backup as she belted out gospel numbers. My memories of her unrestrained, spirited delivery seems a world away from the sanitized, commercial music industry of today.
Next up was Graham Nash. His band included Leah Kunkle, the younger sister of Cass Elliot, who, having just released her own album, had appeared at the festival on one of the 2 previous days. Her husband, Russ Kunkle, a respected and sought after studio musician of the era, handled the background percussion. Midway through his set Graham Nash announced a special guest. A somewhat bedraggled and obese David Crosby waddled out onstage. I had expected his appearance as he also had played the festival earlier that weekend. The venue erupted in applause and cheers. I found myself on the lawn thinking "Well, two out of four ain't bad".
As afternoon turned into evening 3 legendary people took to the stage. 2 men, 2 guitars, 1 woman. As they sang my mother remarked to me, more than once, how they sounded just as they had in the 60's. Their voices rang out clear and pure, in particular the glorious instrument possessed by Mary Travers. Maria Muldaur and The Persuasions joined them onstage adding layer upon layer of stunning vocal harmonies to the already soul stirring sound.
My mother and stepfather, leaving early, missed the final moments of the concert. All the performers that had appeared over the weekend, including iconic folk singers Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, came out to perform Woody Guthrie's American anthem "This Land is Your Land". As I left the theatre and rode the train back across the bay to my apartment in San Francisco I realized that on that afternoon I had been a part of and experienced something very special. A moment in time I cherish that I cannot imagine being replicated today.