Roger McNamee sings and plays rhythm guitar and bass in Moonalice. He is an activist on the subject of the threats to democracy and public health in social media, a strong supporter of poster artists and the founder of the Haight Street Art Center.
I first became aware of the Grateful Dead I think in 1968, when I was about 12, when my older brothers – I had an older brother 12 years older, and one 10 years older, both hugely into the Dead, and I really worshiped my brothers. The Dead played the RPI Field House (I grew up in Albany) some time in the late ‘60s, and my brothers went to the show. One of them was out of college and had seen the Dead numerous times in New York City, the other one had seem them both in New York and I think maybe New Haven. But they played locally, and that’s when they came onto my radar.
So in 1971 I changed schools, and there was a kid at the new school who had a reel-to-reel tape deck, which his parents had just given him. I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have any stereo stuff. But he had it, and he had just recorded American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead on it, because they were brand-new albums. And he played them every single day, and I saw him a lot, and I just heard those albums over and over, and I completely fell in love. And he also had a poster that was a Kelly and Mouse poster on his wall, and I fell in love with the art, too.
Before this, in 1969 my brothers went to Woodstock and they came back and they were just going crazy. So I’m growing up in this environment and it’s just a rite of passage to go on tour. For me, the breakthrough came in the summer of 1973. In the spring of 1973 I read in Rolling Stone or the Village Voice that there’s going to be this festival at Watkins Glen Racetrack, “Summer Jam.” It’s going to have the Allman Brothers, who I’d already seen a couple of times, it’s going to have the Band, and it’s going to have the Dead. For all intents and purposes, these are my three favorite touring bands of that era, although I’d only seen the Allmans.
The tickets were $10.50, and for me that was a huge amount of money. I went and stood in line at Ticketron, which was inside the Macy’s at the mall where I grew up. I got a ticket and I persuaded my best friend to go, and my mother said, “You can’t go to this thing, not unless you get some mature person to go.” So I talked to my older brother Dan, and he said, “I’m all in. My girl friend and I will drive you, we’ll all go to the show.”
We get in their car, and we’re getting on to the New York State Thruway at Albany and the hood blows up and comes off of one of its hinges, and we haven’t even left town yet. So we find a piece of rope, tie the fucker back down, and get on the Thruway and head west. My brother knows this guy who lives really near Watkins Glen, so instead of going and camping out, which would have been better because we would have gotten the Soundcheck, we stay in the barn of this guy who lives right near. And we drive up the next morning, and the traffic jam is over. We’re coming from the other side, we literally park the car at the gate. We probably walked 50 feet before we handed in our ticket. We were probably the last people to hand in their tickets because pretty soon everybody’s getting in for free.
So I get in there, and we get perfectly situated between the speakers, next to a plastic tarp covering a bunch of plastic bottles of water. We brought some entertainment products, in my case shall we say a member of the larger Grateful Dead family, and it was one of those days, I’m 17 years old, they come out and start with “Bertha,” and I have in head in this altered state that every song is going to be “Sugar Magnolia.” I go back and look at the set list and it was in many ways the greatest set list of any show I ever saw. They played forever. It was the proto-Wall of Sound, and it was complete magic. Then the rain comes and fortunately we have the tarp next to us so we’re able to stay sort of dry, and it goes away, the Band finishes.
My one encounter with Jerry: 1975, I’m a sophomore in college, Jerry Garcia Band comes to Woolsey Hall in New Haven. I’m working on the school newspaper, and I’m going to cover the show and interview Jerry. It’s with Nicky Hopkins. And Nicky is shall we say not at his best. They practically carried him onstage for the sound check. Sound check runs way long, and they have hardly any time for dinner. Big Steve and Jerry come out, I’m the only one out there, and Big Steve goes, “I’m really sorry, but there’s no time to do an interview. But here’s Jerry Garcia.” Jerry goes, “Hey.” I go, “Hey.” That was my entire conversation…
I moved to San Francisco, and I was there from ’76 through ‘78. It was a time when my girl friend decided that the thing she was going to deprive me of was everything I loved, starting with the Grateful Dead. So I miss all those shows…
I finally go back to college, and I have a new rule: I’m never going to go out with another woman who will not love the Grateful Dead, baseball, and skiing. So I meet this woman who was a grad student getting a Ph.D. in music. And I invite her to our first date, to go see the Jerry Garcia Band at the University of New Haven gym. We might as well check off one box right away. She’s getting a Ph.D. in music theory and her first reaction is, “What instrument does Mr. Garcia play?” She’d missed a lot of stuff. We had a ball. We go to 10 shows on the spring tour out of a possible 14, so we check that box off. We go to a baseball game and in the third inning I go to the bathroom and she scores balls and strikes while I’m gone, and I go, “’I’ll teach the woman how to ski,’ and we’ve been married ever since.” (laughter). Thirty-eight years and we celebrate that Jerry Garcia Band show every year.
In 1998 I get the call about Terrapin Station (the original concept was a Dead museum/playground/performance site). I said to the guy that I wouldn’t talk with him unless Peter McQuaid (then President of Grateful Dead Productions) or a member of the band calls and tells me it’s something they care about. They have strong feelings about outsiders and I’m a front of house Dead Head, I’ve never been backstage. An hour later, Peter called and I said “Why me, I don’t know anything about real estate,” and he said “You’re a Dead Head and you know about investing, and we don’t have a lot of Dead Heads who know about that.” OK, I’ll take some meetings.
This was the first time I started to meet members of the band. We went to this thing at Bel Marin Keys. It’s me and Peter on chairs, and Parish and Ram Rod in the front row. There were probably about 40 people there. And they’re trying to decide if I’m OK. “How do we know you’re really a Dead Head.” “I’ve been to a couple hundred shows.” “Lots of people do that.” “Well, how many of you guys were in Telluride when Jerry had to do the restart of “Brokedown Palace”?” And only about a quarter of the people there had been there. “How many of you were there in Hartford in ’86 when Phil did the “Earthquake Space”?”…Parish and Ram Rod came up to me afterward and they almost patted me on the head and said, “Son, I think you’re going to be OK.”
So I spent three years working on stuff like that with the Dead and had this life changing experience of being a Dead Head who got to meet and interact with the band, got to be a board member of the Rex Foundation, an opportunity to help out, like with the Archives.
The notion that you can have a whole festival like Skull and Roses dedicated to these things—you know the music will be great, but even more importantly, it’s the scene.
We (Moonalice) just played three shows in L.A. with Cubensis. Our band was put together to be original music for Dead Heads, music that Dead Heads would like. On this run, we played one venue for the 19th time with Cubensis. The place was packed to the rafters. I’ve been on a mission to make the world aware of the dangers of social media, and that’s been draining—so to be back on stage with my tribe, it was like going from Kansas to Oz (from sepia to Technicolor).
What always amazed me was the diversity of Dead Heads. I mean the crunchy Granola thing has always been there, but the scene is open to everyone. You could bring to the show whatever you brought, but when you were there, you were part of the family. The diversity was part of what made it work.
So in 2019 Moonalice shows up at the Ventura fairgrounds and we see the stage from the back and there are these guys putting up cardboard boxes and we’re trying to figure out what the hell is going on. And we’re in a Sprinter and Big Steve is in the front passenger seat. And he’s going “What are these people doing?” and we park the thing behind the stage and of course the festival hasn’t started, and we’re looking at these boxes and they have these stickers on them with images of speakers and we thought “Oh my, they’re building the wall of sound out of cardboard boxes, at which point Big Steve, the switch flips. He literally walks around to the front of the stage and next thing you know he’s barking orders at everybody. The best part of it was he was thirty years younger.
Suddenly he’s in his element and it was like the perfect moment. When the thing is done we’re all looking at him. And if you’re twenty feet away it looks like cardboard boxes with stickers. But if you back up about 30 feet…You didn’t have to go very far at all. Suddenly it’s the wall of sound, and if you’re a hundred feet back you would have no idea it was card board boxes.
You know, Moonalice has been around now for fifteen years. We’ve played a lot of festivals, a lot of big one,s a lot of medium sized ones, a lot of small ones, but the story of the 2019 Skull & Roses will always remain one of the coolest things we’ve ever experienced, because it was, you know, it was for big Steve. One of these great moments.
Any way, 2019 was a wild year for us, because a couple months later we’re in Golden Gate Park doing what was then the annual summer solstice show and they were—each one was a celebration of the music of 50 years of earlier so it began in 2017 with the celebration of the Summer of Love and by 2019 we’re celebrating 1969. And so now Moonalice is the house band and we have all these great musicians from 1969, plus or minus a year, doing their songs. And it’s a really great event and some of our friends are there, and Lester Chambers is there to do some Chambers Brothers song.
And the T sisters are there to do backing vocals for this, for the bands that would have had them, and we’re all hanging around, because it’s like one of these things. It’s like a festival setting so it’s mostly hanging around, and we get to talking. We are like, where are you guys from? Well, Lester was really looking for a gig. I mean he had been attacked on stage five or six years earlier by a crazy fan who almost killed him and it just completely derailed his world and he was feeling really down and he needed some boosting. The T Sisters had just fired their manager and so they were looking. And Moonalice, we had been doing the same thing for a long time, why don’t we do something different?
So I said how about if we all play a gig together, because Lester and his son Dylan had sat in with us a few times and we played “Time Has Come Today” and “People Get Ready and one or two others. And we knew that part and so I said, do you want to come and do this too and they said well what do you think it would be like? I go, “I don’t know, we’ll just figure it out.” So they come and we play a show in Union Square, around the Fourth of July, and it was so much fun. And the audience went crazy. And all we did was, we played—the T sisters did a lot of Grateful Dead songs, so we kind of did those, and then we did a bunch of the Chamber Brothers Songs, and you know people really liked it and the musicians really liked it and I said well hang on, we’re going to go the Lockn’ festival next month in Virginia and we got a couple shows in front of us, do you guys want to go on a tour with us?
They said sure, and so we got a bus for a week and we go to the East Coast and it’s like we’re a family, but we had three generations because Lester at that point is like 79 and the T Sister twins and Dylan are like 32 or 33. It’s ten people in this thing and we rehearse a couple times, because we want to actually learn songs. We did two shows before Lockn’ and the audience goes crazy. And now we go to Lockn’ and they go bananas and we have that really weird thing where we’re on the stage and there are reports of tornadoes, a really horrific rain event with tornadoes and the year before the festival had almost been blown up by that and now it’s coming back and we do our set and we get to do every second of it and then not one minute later, the giant alarm goes off and the whole show shuts down. Melvin Seals and JGB are supposed to follow us, they’re on this rotating stage and they’re all set up on the backside and literally we get this alarm like everybody’s got to get off the stage, everybody’s got to get under cover. But the audience reaction is simply unbelievable.
We were all hiding in the bus hoping not to get hit by a tornado. And everybody is just going this is really cool. And so we said look here’s our schedule for the rest of the year let’s just be a band and so we did and we rehearsed a ton, and it was so successful that by the time we finished the year our booking agent put us together a 70 show tour where we’re going to play large club and small venues so instead of the normal 300 to 500 seaters, we’re going to be going 500 to a thousand. It’s not quite a national tour, but it’s both coasts. And maybe going to Chicago ,so it’s pretty cool, and we’re already to come and it’s supposed to start March—26th…
And as you know the whole thing—I mean we cancel it initially one week at a time. Eventually, we just pulled the plug. And instead Jason Crosby who lives on his own in the middle of nowhere in Sonoma County, decides to hang out at my house with—he and Lebo (Dan Lebowitz) and I do a live stream the night before quarantine and Jason stays. So we start a daily live stream and we do 420 of them. And when the Covid decline comes—like around Labor Day and October of 2020, there is a lull and in that lull Moonalice gets together outdoors and we do a whole bunch of rehearsals there to learn new material, but also to live stream a whole bunch of the rehearsals. And the fans really love it, so we keep going and we do more of it. And we keep trying to schedule shows and they keep getting pushed back.
Finally, summer 2021, we’re playing outdoors and again it’s magical, there is something really interesting in the chemistry of this band but it’s not just that. We decide during Covid that we’re going to become a reincarnation of the Chambers Brothers, but with women. So it’s psychedelic soul and you know the set list won’t be just Chambers Brothers songs. It will include a lot of Chambers Brothers songs but the psychedelic soul—we’re going to play our own stuff and other people’s stuff, but all in the vibe where we got Lester and Dylan and the T Sisters all trying—we want to pick songs where we’re using everybody and we’re not just using the T’s as backing vocals, right? Sometimes they’re the lead with the Chambers backing them. Sometimes it’s the other way around. And every one of those shows is fantastic.
The problem is we can’t play indoors. We can’t play indoors because Lester is very vulnerable. Pete [Sears] is vulnerable, not as much for himself but because his wife is very immunocompromised. During the pandemic two of the T’s have babies and then two people in our crew are recovering from cancer and so we had six immunocompromised people so we had to be incredibly careful and we are and it goes really really well, like everything works really well. And you know we get a bunch of shows in, and each one bigger than the one before. And we’re recording constantly, so we record eighteen songs right before the pandemic starts. And then we’ve had two more recording sessions since then so we get up to a big number. And the next thing you know a record label says we like what you’re doing. So for the first time in our lives we have a record label. And it’s a record label that focuses on streaming. And the reason that that’s so interesting is we don’t know anything about streaming.
We’d started to call ourselves Full Moonalice and we realized we can’t do that because our website and all this other stuff says Moonalice, so we have to be Moonalice. We are Moonalice. And we have 26 songs but it turns out in streams you don’t put out albums, you put out one song at a time, five weeks apart. So first we put out—we did just what the Chambers Brothers did, we start with “Time Has Come Today.” We have a fourminute version of it and an 11minute version. We put the four-minute version out because it’s streaming. We put out the second song about three weeks ago, “Woo woo,” which was written by the T sisters. We’re about to put out “Let’s Get Funky,” which is a song that Lester wrote. Then we’re going to put out an EP with six songs which would be the long version of “Time Has Come Today” and five more songs, one of which is this ripping version of “Love Light” but it’s love light as a soul song and it’s magical. And I mean you know Deadheads are going to groove on it.
So we’ve wound up having what was the world’s most frustrating quarantine and the world’s most creative quarantine at the same time. Because what the quarantine allowed us to do was to focus everything on the integration of this sound and the thing is, ask yourself who is playing psychedelic songs. How many bands are out there who have black men as the lead vocalist with white women as the backing vocalist. Right? There is a ton of white men with black women behind them…
But not so much the other way. And so it’s a really cool sound and underneath it you’ve got, you know, Barry Sless on guitar. You got Molo on the drums. Pete Sears on bass. Right. Jason Crosby on the keys. Right. There is some real energy underneath. And, you know, we haven’t been able to play that many shows, but the ones we’ve played were really great and people came out really happy. So we’re in this situation where we’re actually making our debut at Skull & Roses, so this is a huge deal for us. And It almost got blown up because Barry Sless has been invited to play in the Wolf Brothers, and their tour was originally going to block Skull & Roses; and then they moved it back two weeks, so we’re cool. And everything works out great. That becomes the beginning of what we hope is going to be a very big year where we’re not just going to be on the West Coast, but were also going to go the Midwest, the Northeast at a minimum. And take this thing out for a spin and see if people have as much fun listening to the music as we have playing.