Bay Area Rising

Founder of legendary San Francisco band Kingfish, Matt Kelly is excited about all the new music being made by the Grateful Dead's extended family

by Lee Abraham

For a guy who recently moved to Hawaii to relax, Matt Kelly sure has been busy lately. Not only has the multi-talented Kelly been working with Bob Weir on the soon to be released album from Ratdog, he's currently touring with his own band Kingfish in support of that band's first studio album in over 20 years. Before heading into the studio for the two projects, Kelly toured with Ratdog from '95 through the fall of last year.

"It's been a long time coming, but it's getting very close," Kelly says about the new Ratdog record, tentatively scheduled for release this fall. The album was relegated to the backburner while Ratdog worked out its live sound and developed enough material to fill out a CD. "There was tons of bits and pieces of all this music, but putting it all together into some kind of coherent sense takes time," says Kelly. "Now there's more than enough material. Maybe enough for two records."

Kelly's affiliation with Weir dates back to their childhood when the two were "boyhood friends." During the '60s, Kelly played harmonica for a slew of legendary blues heavyweights, including T- Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker and Champion Jack Dupree to name a few. After making the rounds on the "chitlin circuit," Kelly headed back to his native San Francisco in the late '60s. That's when he began to make music with Dave Torbert, who later went on to form the New Riders of the Purple Sage. After a short stint in England, Kelly again returned to San Francisco and immersed himself in the bay area's thriving music scene, unwittingly laying the groundwork for Kingfish. "I think a lot of the younger fans know the name, but they don't really know quite how it all ties in," says Kelly about Kingfish's 25-year history. "There's a lot of interesting stuff there."

The story goes something like this: In '73, Kelly played on the Grateful Dead's "Wake of the Flood" album. Soon after, Torbert left the New Riders and hooked up with Kelly to form Kingfish. During the Dead's mid '70s lull, Weir joined the band. "Kingfish," the self-titled debut was released in '76, a seminal recording that has proven be an enduring classic of American rock history. Over the years, Kelly maintained close ties to Weir and the Dead. In addition to playing on the Dead's '78 release, "Shakedown Street," Kelly toured and recorded with "Bobby and the Midnights," Weir's side project during the early '80s. In '95 he once again joined forces with Weir, this time as Ratdog.

Although he's on Ratdog's upcoming album, Kelly doesn't plan on doing much touring with them. That gig has run its course. When he does feel like hitting the rock and roll highway, it'll be with Kingfish.  "I won't let this thing with Kingfish develop to the same point as it did with Ratdog and be a road slave," says Kelly. "Right now we're touring in support of our first studio album in over 20 years and it's great!"

The new album, "Sundown on the Forest," is chock full of new material, as well as a few old favorites. Musically, the record is pure Kingfish: lots of quick pickin' Americana, harmonica soaked and pedal steel driven country rock, rockin' roadhouse blues, and of course, San Fran psychedelia. "A lot went into the production on this. We really went all out in the studio," says Kelly. "I think it's the best record we've ever done and I'm very excited about it."

In addition to Kelly on harmonica and rhythm guitar, longtime Kingfish members Barry Sless on guitar and keyboardist Mookie Siegel are along for the ride. So is Jenni Muldaur and rhythm section Mike Sugar on bass and drummer Vince Littleton. Although Weir won't be on the road with Kingfish, he does contribute vocals to several tracks.

And even though Jerry Garcia is long gone, his presence is deeply etched into this record as well. Not only does "Ridin' High" feature a Garcia solo from a recording session dating back to 1973, "Every Little Light," is dedicated to his memory. "That song had completely different lyrics," says Kelly, "and then the day that Jerry passed away, we were on the road with Ratdog and I locked myself in my room and essentially rewrote the lyrics to suit the occasion."

As much as Garcia is missed, it's the void created by his absence that has shifted focus to the more grassroots music that continues to be the focal point for the Dead's still vibrant extended family. "I think it's kind of exciting," says Kelly. "You know the last few years of the Grateful Dead were not their best years. Now with the creation of these new projects, Phil and Friends, Ratdog, The Other Ones, the reemergence of Kingfish, whatever, there's new blood, new energy, new material. There's a lot of new creativity coming through and I think it's pretty exciting and that there's a lot to look forward to. It's anybody's guess where's its going to end up."