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The Chapel hosts all-star tribute to San Francisco rock legend Skip Spence

A group of talented local players from such notable bands as Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, the Sun Ra Arkestra, Howlin Rain, Vetiver, Flamin' Groovies and more gather to pay tribute to San Francisco psychedelic rock icon Skip Spence at the Chapel Saturday night.  

Born in Canada, Spence moved with his family to San Jose as a boy. A talented multi-instrumentalist, Spence played guitar in his early bands but was recruited by Marty Balin to be the drummer in Jefferson Airplane and played on the group's 1966 debut Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. It was after Spence was fired from the band for an unannounced disappearance (he had taken a vacation in Mexico without telling anyone) that he became one of the co-founders of Moby Grape.

Moby Grape live on Steve Paul Scene, 1967 by TheArk420 on YouTube

Weaving together elements of country, blues and the psychedelic rock emerging from the San Francisco scene, Moby Grape paired Spence with gifted guitarists and songwriters Jerry Miller and Peter Lewis (bassist Bob Mosley and drummer Don Stevenson rounded out the group). The distinctive three-guitar line-up gave the quintet a ferocious level of six-string interplay that was unmatched by any of their SF contemporaries. The band's eponymous 1967 debut on Columbia Records was well reviewed and would eventually be hailed as a classic recording of the era, but the record company blunder of issuing five singles from the album simultaneously  was just one mistake that would help doom Moby Grape to relative obscurity.

Omaha-Moby Grape-1968 by 74sodapop on YouTube

The aggressive, dictatorial approach of band manager Matthew Katz -- who early on forced the members to sign over rights to the band name -- repeatedly hampered Moby Grape's success, most egregiously when he demanded one million dollars for the group to be filmed for D.A. Pennebaker's documentary on hte Monterey Pop Festival. The outfit's ambitious sophomore double album Wow/Grape Jam sold better than the debut, but was viewed as a misstep with its confusing packaging that paired the more produced Wow with the in-studio improvisation of Grape Jam.  

The band started to fall apart as heavy use of LSD by Spence led to increasingly erratic behavior. That included his infamous attempt to break down a New York hotel room door with an ax to attack Stevenson that led to jail time and the musician eventually being committed to Bellevue Hospital, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Upon his release, Spence recorded his only solo album, the fractured psychedelic-folk masterpiece Oar.

War In Peace by Alexander "Skip" Spence - Topic on YouTube

Filled with songs written during his stay at Bellevue, Oar is an unsettling and frequently beautiful portrait of a songwriter coming apart at the seams that ranks alongside the best solo works of similarly troubled psychedelic troubadours Syd Barrett and Roky Erickson. While Spence would later argue the recordings were recorded as demos and not a finished album that producer David Rubinson submitted to Columbia for release. 

The album sold poorly and was soon deleted from the Columbia catalog, but was later hailed as one of the greatest outsider albums ever released on a major label, and has seen multiple expanded reissues with unheard bonus material over the decades. In 1999, David Katznelson's Bay Area imprint Birdman Records released More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album that featured covers of those songs by Robert Plant, Tom Waits, Beck, Mark Lanegan and Mudhoney among others along with a hidden track that Spence himself was commissioned to record for "The X Files" that the show didn't use.

While that marked the only song released after the recording of Oar, Spence participated in several reunions with his Moby Grape bandmates over the years, the last performance taking place in Santa Cruz in 1996. After struggling for years with mental illness and addiction that left him a ward of the state, he died of lung cancer in 1999. 

This special concert at the Chapel this Saturday paying tribute to Spence and focusing on the music of Oar is being curated by Bay Area modern psych institution Ethan Miller. One of the leading lights of the local neo-psych movement for over two decades ever since first rising to notoriety as a founding member of unhinged psychedelic-punk group Comets on Fire in 1999, guitarist Miller has had an important hand in a number of significant bands to emerge from the region's fruitful scene.

Howlin Rain - "Roll On The Rusted Days" (Official) by howlinrain on YouTube

In addition to Comets, Miller has been leading his more jam/roots-minded outfit Howlin Rain since the mid-2000s, exploring the laid-back style of late '60s SF psychedelia of the Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service that inspired him while growing up on the Lost Coast. He's also leads his ferocious punk-psych power trio Feral Ohms and is a member a member of local supergroup Heron Oblivion with Comets bandmate Noel Von Harmonson, guitarist Charlie Saufley (ex-Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound) and drummer/singer Meg Baird (who has her own solo career in addition to playing with Philly psych/folk band Espers).

For this celebration Spence's music, Miller will play in a high-octane, all-star backing band featuring Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, Mudhoney guitarist Steve Turner, Sun Ra Arkestra cellist and longtime Bay Area experimental jazz figure Kash Killion and songwriter Andy Cabic of Vetiver. Scheduled guest performers include Moby Grape guitarist Jerry Miller, Baird and Saufley, SF indie mainstay Kelley Stoltz, Flamin' Groovies founder and guitarist Cyril Jordan, songwriters Jesse DeNatale and Leslie Medford (of Ophelias fame), Tarnation singer and guitarist Paula Frazer (Tarnation), vocalist/keyboard player Inna Showalter (Magic Fig, Whitney's Playland) and electronic artist Brogan Bentley.

More, More, Oar: A Tribute to Skip Spence
Saturday, June 16, 7:30 p.m. $38-$43
The Chapel

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