Joel Selvin, Chronicle Senior Pop Music Critic
Monday, September 29, 2008
Clown/activist Wavy Gravy will be long remembered for "What we have
in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000," but his enduring
contribution takes place around the world from Woodstock, where he
saves eyeballs in the Third World.
In a procession of different T-shirts, with the ever-present fish
purse he carries on a stick, Gravy presided over a 30th anniversary
of Seva - the remarkable organization he dreamed up with visionary
doctor, Larry Brilliant, current chief of the philanthropic arm of
Google - in which he hosted an extraordinary array of leading rock
musicians who gladly joined each other's sets and sang the praises of
Gravy and his good works for nearly five hours Saturday at the
Paramount Theatre in Oakland.
Bonnie Raitt set the tone early in the evening. After opening with an
acoustic version of James Taylor's "Rainy Day Man," she asked the
surprise opening act back onstage, gospel belter Ruthie Foster, whom
Gravy invited to join the show after seeing her earlier that day at
the San Francisco Blues Festival. Slide guitar ace Roy Rogers and
saxophonist Steve Berlin joined in for a blues guitar duel on
"Gnawin' on It," and Jackson Browne came out to sing "Thing Called
Love" with her.
She brought the house down when she introduced yet another surprise,
Elvis Costello, who dug hard into the Raitt staple, "Love Has No
Pride," as two white-haired gentlemen silently entered from the wings
and joined harmony vocals on the chorus: David Crosby and Graham Nash.
"This is a power-packed lineup tonight," Raitt crowed, "and there's
going to be a lot of people guesting on each other's sets, but I'm
going to be the queen bee of that department."
Before it was over, and Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady of Hot Tuna
had jumped onstage in the concert's final moments with Los Lobos -
which had already hosted Browne, Costello and Raitt on its set - the
event had become a kind of musical mix and match from this tidy
repertory company, pausing only for encomiums to Gravy, Seva and the
work they do fighting blindness amid the dire poverty of Asia.
Costello was nothing short of amazing. He opened the concert's second
half alone on acoustic guitar with a startling new song, "Down Among
the Wine and Spirits," followed by a ribald T Bone Burnett
collaboration, also unheard of, "From Sulphur to Sugar Cane," and
took his brief solo turn to a rousing finish with "(What's So Funny
'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." He also with Los Lobos - Raitt
decorating the sound with bottleneck. His earlier duet with Raitt -
Crosby and Nash filling out the choruses - was worth the entire
evening's price of admission alone.
Browne followed Raitt with a dense, largely leaden set drawn mainly
from his new album, "Time the Conqueror," greatly enhanced by
roof-raising vocalists Chavonne Morris and Alethea Mills, who brought
so much needed vitality and joy to his performance.
Crosby and Nash, looking as comfortable as a well-worn pair of shoes
and singing impossibly like a couple of choir boys, brought out
songwriter Joel Rafael. The duo has been performing Rafael's song
"This Is My Country" on their recent Crosby, Stills and Nash tour.
Rafael, a Woody Guthrie admirer from San Diego County, convinced the
duo to sing harmonies on his recording of the song, a pointed
political protest song in the plain-speaking tradition of Guthrie
with a ringing chorus that struck pay dirt with the Paramount crowd.
Crosby, Nash and Rafael left the stage to a standing ovation.
It is, as was pointed out frequently during the course of the
evening, an amazing thing. A bunch of people came together to sing
songs and listen to music in one room on one side of the world, and
hundreds of successful surgeries restore sight to people take place
on the other. Starting with a Christmastime concert at the Oakland
Auditorium by the Grateful Dead in 1979 that raised $100,000, Seva
has been funded by a parade of rock stars inveigled, coaxed, cajoled
and pestered into it by the relentless Gravy, a man whose compassion
knows no bounds and who sees the human comedy for what it is.
He is someone still delightfully stuck in the '60s, puffs of wooly,
gray hair sticking out from under his white derby, dressed head to
toe in tie-dye, his twinkling eyes a little red-rimmed, believing for
all he's worth that he can change the world. And doing it.
Actor Peter Coyote, acting as host to the concert's second half,
drove the point home. "You gotta admit," he said, "the hippies were right."
E-mail Joel Selvin at firstname.lastname@example.org.