With Dead, Kings Beach came alive
A massive tour bus heaves and shrieks to a stop outside the Safeway grocery store in Kings Beach, Calif. Shopping carts halt. Car doors hang ajar. Wide eyes lock on the idling motor vehicle. The bus door flings open. After a beat, a leather boot thuds to the pavement. Then a wave of stylishly unkempt hippies spills into the parking lot.
It’s 50 years ago, the summer of 1967, and the volume in the quiet town of Kings Beach, nestled on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, is about to get turned up by a fast-rising psychedelic rock band from the San Francisco Bay Area.
They go by The Grateful Dead.
“I just happened to be there and I saw this bus come in and the door popped open and out they came,” Rich Schultze, a seasonal resident of Kings Beach at the time, said in an interview with Tahoe Magazine this summer. “Whether it was Jerry (Garcia) or the other guys, I’m not sure; it was a whole mess of them at once. It was like something out of a movie.
“The small-town people … man, when they first saw the Grateful Dead, they didn’t know what to think. People were literally freaking out. I wish I had a camera to capture the look on people’s faces. It was a culture shock. There were hippies around and everything (at Lake Tahoe) … but not to that extent.”
Schutlze was less rock-starstruck than most of the shoppers shuttling in and out of Safeway 50 years ago this summer. After all, he was a member of Simultaneous Avalanche, a crew that performed light shows at North Lake Tahoe for touring bands.
Specifically, the group was tasked with running light shows for bands playing at the Kings Beach Bowl, a new bowling alley-turned-music venue that operated for two years on the site that now houses the North Tahoe Event Center.
In other words, Schultze was looking at his next group of clients.
Bay to the lake
Fast-forward to 2017 — it’s hard to imagine arguably the greatest American rock band to ever exist had set up shop in little Kings Beach and unspooled their blend of blues, folk and psychedelia inside a renovated bowling alley for three straight nights.
Back then, though, the Bay Area music scene was spilling into Lake Tahoe, and the Kings Beach Bowl became a hub for psychedelic-steeped bands hailing from San Francisco. Notably, the famed Bay Area concert hall The Fillmore was serving as a launching pad for countless homegrown acts cut from the tie-dye cloth: Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Quicksilver Messenger Service and, yes, the Dead, to name a few.
Serving as somewhat of an extension of the famed Fillmore was Kings Beach Bowl, owned and operated by Dave Jay and Allan Goodall. Jay’s teenage sons, who were friends with Goodall’s son, played in a Sacramento-based rock outfit called The Creators. Simply put, Jay and Goodall converted the bowling alley into a music venue to give The Creators a stage on which to consistently perform.
In addition, they hired a group of Sacramento college students — the aforementioned Simultaneous Avalanche — to perform light shows for the Creators and visiting headliners.
Aside from the Grateful Dead, Kings Beach Bowl’s walls were rattled by other giants of the psychedelic rock movement during its two-year run — featuring everyone from Jimi Hendrix to the Janis Joplin-fronted Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Testing the waters
That August of ’67 was the first time the Grateful Dead, playing in support of their debut, self-titled album, unspooled their bluesy riffs and soaring harmonies on the shores of Lake Tahoe. Days before rolling into Kings Beach, Jerry Garcia and Co. rocked the American Legion Hall in South Lake Tahoe.
The Dead played two nights at Kings Beach Bowl, making an instant splash at the newly minted music venue along the North Shore. At the time, the Dead were far from the psychedelic — and prolific — rock giants they would eventually become.
To epitomize the Dead’s youth back in ’67, Schultze offers a behind-the-curtain moment he witnessed up close.
“I remember we were there during the day and changing all of our equipment and stuff,” Schultze said. “And they (the Grateful Dead) were in there (Kings Beach Bowl) rehearsing. And Bob Weir had made a couple mistakes during rehearsal and they were chewing him out — and he was literally crying. They were going ‘Bobby, Bobby, you gotta pay attention.’ And he was going, ‘I’m trying, I’m trying.’”
The shows, however, didn’t disappoint, said Schultze, adding “Kings Beach was really receptive.”
So much so just six months later, the six-piece outfit — Garcia (lead guitar, vocals), Weir (rhythm guitar, vocals), Phil Lesh (bass, vocals), Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (keyboards, harmonica, vocals), Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart (drums) — migrated back to North Tahoe in the frigids of February 1968 for a three-night stand at Kings Beach Bowl.
Morning Glory, a rock band hailing from Sacramento, served as the co-headliner.
‘Trip and Ski’
The Feb. 22-24, 2018, shows on the North Shore were dubbed “Trip and Ski,” encouraging Dead Heads and fans alike to ski under blue skies — as one does during Tahoe’s snow season — and take a sensory trip with the Dead at dusk.
The concept inspired an iconic concert poster: the Grateful Dead skeleton, donning earmuffs and a scarf, skiing down a snowy mountain.
Hewitt Jackson, a road manager for the Sacramento-based rock band Sanpaku, said their band’s keyboard player, Bob Powell, remembers the gigs because the icy temperatures nearly rendered one of Pigpen’s instruments useless.
“He said the Dead brought their equipment up to play that gig and loaded it in there (Kings Beach Bowl) the night before,” Jackson recalls. “And the owners of the venue didn’t heat the place at night, so the organ in the cold got to be non-operable, and they were panicked about getting it warmed up. There’s a story that they took it outside in the sun (to warm it up).”
According to an anonymous Grateful Dead fan on the blog deadessays.blogspot.com, their first “Trip and Ski” show was christened by members sauntering out individually and tuning their instruments, as many bands do — but this was different.
“Amongst all the tuning, undiscovered and unrecognized, they were already playing a song,” the fan wrote. “Such a smooth transition; the point upon which the tuning stopped and the playing began was impossible to discover.”
According to the set list archives found on JerryGarcia.com, the song was “Morning Dew,” a sprawling epic off of the Dead’s debut album. The post-apocalyptic folk song was originally written and recorded by Canadian folk singer Bonnie Dobson.
Later, the fan added: “This was one of those shows Jerry played ‘to you’ and everyone was close enough so that he would stare you in the eyes and play parts directly to and for you — it was magic.”
The “Trip and Ski” shows marked one of the first times Betty Cantor, an audio crew member of the Grateful Dead, worked on their live recordings. Thirty-three years later, in 2001, two of the Kings Beach shows (Feb. 23 and 24) were released as part of Dick’s Picks Volume 22.
Schultze, who attended the Dead’s opening night, said he remembers the crowd being somewhat light, in-part due to the cold and snow keeping people in their homes.
“I wish something had been really radical that I remember,” Schultze said, “but, to me, it was just another show. But — every Grateful Dead show is a unique experience.”