A night of North East best bitter and bluegrass with Bill Monroe and Jerry Garcia alumnus Peter Rowan.
It may seem strange that a gig in the backroom of a North East pub in the early ‘80s is the subject of A Night To Remember feature, but if I forgot about the location and said the gig was by one of the legendary figures of psychedelic rock, bluegrass, country rock, americana, a singer and songwriter of note who was supported by a fiddle player who had played with Bill Monroe and who was also a songwriter who had had his songs covered by artists including Bill Monroe, Emmylou Harris and a certain Bob Dylan you may begin to get the picture. If this wasn’t enough, the bassist was one of the key figures in establishing a roots music scene in the UK from the ‘70s onwards through his record label and tours he scheduled. Finally, the guitarist was a well-known figure on the West Coast having played with Steve Miller when he hit his commercial peak in the mid-’70s and he also played with the legendary harmonica player, Norton Buffalo. This was some line-up, the only sense of incongruity was the location.
I was visiting family in Stockton-on-Tees in 1983, and I noticed a small advert in the local newspaper, The Evening Gazette, advertising on that very evening, the actual date has been lost from my memory along with those billions of brain cells that go missing with age, a certain Peter Rowan would be playing the backroom of The Oxbridge Hotel. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Ex Bill Monroe Bluegrass Boy, founder member of psychedelic pioneers Earth Opera, founder member of roots rockers Seatrain, member of two of the most influential leading progressive bluegrass bands in the ‘70s, Old And In The Way with Jerry Garcia and Muleskinner with Clarence White. He was a songwriter who had his songs covered by The New Riders Of The Purple Sage and Jerry Garcia and helped his brothers out in The Rowan Brothers, and he was now forging his own solo career in ‘80s roots and progressive bluegrass music. Stockton may have been Charlie Gillett’s hometown, but that didn’t explain why Peter Rowan was playing Stockton. It didn’t matter, I rang the pub and got two tickets without any problem. I had an interesting conversation with my wife, who questioned me on how someone I enthused about so enthusiastically would be playing a local North East pub, and therefore he can’t be that good, could he?
The gig was taking place because of Leigh-on-Sea’s Dave Hatfield, an original member of Southend pub rockers The Kursaal Flyers, and owner of Waterfront Music and a roots music promoter. Dave Hatfield started playing bluegrass bass in 1967 and over the years has recorded and toured with a host of American bluegrass and roots musicians including Bill Keith, Arlo Guthrie, Flaco Jimenez, Jim Rooney, Mac Wiseman and Jerry Douglas to name a few. In 1983 he was playing bass for Peter Rowan who was promoting his ‘Revelry’ album recorded in the UK and released on Hatfield’s Waterfront Records. Accompanying Rowan on the album and tour were west coast guitarist Greg Douglass, who has played with Steve Miller, Guy Clark, and Terry Allen as well as maintaining a solo career and bluegrass fiddler, songwriter, mathematician and electrical engineer Tex Logan.
The audience was small, roughly 30 people if my memory is not playing tricks and comprised an aged hippie who was probably still trippin’ and knew all about Rowan’s time with Earth Opera and Seatrain, and he ensured everybody in the room knew about this part of Rowan’s career. There was a reasonable contingent from the local C&W club, obviously attracted by the bluegrass part of Rowan and Logan’s careers decked out in their regalia and replica guns, and a few bemused regulars who probably used the wrong door after having a one too many. I have seen Peter Rowan a few times over the years, and the gigs I’ve attended have all followed a similar path, tracks from his latest record plus his own personal standards which include ‘The Free Mexican Airforce’, ‘Panama Red’, ‘Land Of The Navajo’, and ‘Midnite Moonlite’ with a smattering of traditional songs and this, my first Peter Rowan gig, was no exception with tracks from ‘Revelry’ heavily feature and a couple from the then recent ‘Walls Of Time’. This gig at the Oxbridge was also my first live exposure to yodelling, as Peter Rowan is part of that long lineage of yodellers that go back to Jimmie Rodgers and then to 19th Century minstrel shows, German immigrants to the American South and African- American field hollers.
Despite the small audience, the band were in great form. Peter Rowan is an imposing physical presence live with his hat and turquoise Navajo jewellery and he has a great line in between song chat giving the history behind the individual songs. At the time I knew comparatively little about real bluegrass, but the musical interplay between Rowan and Logan was a revelation. Greg Douglass did his bit on various guitar parts, and the band moved into jamband territory with his ‘Maelstrom’ which had echoes of the Grateful Dead’s ‘Space’ segments from their more freeform second sets and it certainly kept the aged hippie very happy, I’m sure I saw him levitating down the back street after the gig.
My wife was still bemused by the music and audience, but she had no doubt she had witnessed a very special performance by musicians who were at the top of their game. For me, I had seen an artist who to me was legendary in my still new musical adventure of newgrass and bluegrass music. The gig also brought home an economic truth, roots music is a true niche music, and that it is always possible to see great artists who give superlative performances in very intimate settings at value for money ticket prices. The gig also confirmed the importance Dave Hatfield had in the ‘80s and ‘90s in helping develop a UK-based roots music scene. As far as I am aware, the Waterfront Records catalogue has never been issued on CD, or in digital format, which is a great pity because there were some great records released by Southend, UK and American roots artists. It would be great if some modern-day music business entrepreneur spotted an opportunity to celebrate this lost period of UK roots music and engineered some form of re-release program. I still have my vinyl copy of ‘Revelry’ which I ripped to digital about fifteen years ago, but a remastered pristine version would be much appreciated.