If you put on the cleverly titled new live album from Zero, “Naught Again,” you’ll be transported back to the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, almost 30 years ago to the week. You’ll hear a Bay Area band at the top of its game, painting gorgeous sonic pictures with its compadres, many of them since gone, such as band members Martin Fierro and Judge Murphy and guests Nicky Hopkins, Vince Welnick, John Kahn and Robert Hunter.
“Zero did, I don’t know, 1,300 shows or more,” says drummer Greg Anton, who first crossed paths with guitarist Steve Kimock in Grateful Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux’s Heart of Gold Band. “And so living with people like that, Martin Fierro, one of the master saxophonists, he was just an incredible person. You never hear anybody say, ‘That guy sounds like Martin Fierro,’ and likewise, you’ve probably never heard anyone say, ‘That band sounds just like Zero.’ Because I think we had our own thing, and Martin was a big part of it.”
The 2-CD set, dedicated to the musician friends who have passed, is gathered from a run at the Music Hall that produced the 1994 album “Chance in a Million.”
“What happened was was Brian Risner, who mixed this record, said at this point the mastering has gotten so much better these days, you ought to think about remastering that record, it could sound like a whole new record,” says Kimock. “See if you can find some bonus tracks so there’s something new.
“So Greg found a bonus double album,” he says with a laugh. “The shows were wonderful, and they were significant to us at the time, because at the time we thought that the Great American Music Hall was the room to play in San Francisco, and we were really excited. Once we cracked that one booking, that one room, that felt like something else at the time. Otherwise, you’re at the Full Moon Saloon or something like that, everything else felt like a bar.”
Kimock, Anton and John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service started Zero in 1984 as an instrumental group. Connecting with Hunter, the wordsmith partner of Jerry Garcia on countless lyrics that have become cultural touchstones, took Zero to a different level, as heard on the new discs.
“I played drums with Robert Hunter, with him playing guitar and singin’ just a couple times, and I ran into him at a party,” Anton recalls. “He said, ‘You know, that band Zero, it’s a great band, but your audience is mostly other musicians. How about some songs?’ So we gave him some instrumental stuff and started writing with him.
“To write with Robert Hunter was such an honor. The guy is incredible. He pulls things out of thin air. We wrote about 25 songs with him. He’s just like a magician.”
With the new tunes, Zero booked the Music Hall, invited their friends — including Hunter, who did on-stage announcements — and recorded the shows. “And Dan Healy, the Grateful Dead sound guy, pretty much brought the Grateful Dead studio and installed it in the basement of the Great American Music Hall for three nights,” Anton says.
The sit-ins from the likes of Hopkins (Rolling Stones), Welnick (Grateful Dead) and John Kahn (Jerry Garcia Band) were emblematic of shows in the Bay Area at the time.
“We always had so many guests,” Kimock says. “Another one of my dear friends, Doug Green, who passed away, did a Zero family tree. It’s ridiculous, there’s like a thousand people on there. Every band, people from every place. It was not unusual that there were guests or that there were a great many people around the band. It also speaks to what a great sort of creative community and fertile kind of art scene that was still there at the time. San Francisco in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s was just like a big enough sort of energy center artistically that it really hung on.”
A reconfigured Zero is touring the US, with Kimock and Anton joined by bassist Pete Sears, who played on “Naught Again,” and Haidi Al-Saadoon (trumpet) and Spencer Burrows (keyboards and vocals). They’ll play Brooklyn Bowl on Thursday, Oct. 27, Ardmore Music Hall on Friday, Oct. 28, the Sherman Theater in Stroudsburg on Saturday, Oct. 29 and the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock on Wednesday, Nov. 2. Kimock’s son, John Morgan Kimock, will sit in as an additional drummer at the shows in Brooklyn, Ardmore, Stroudsburg and Baltimore (Sunday, Oct. 30 at Baltimore Soundstage).
As for new material from Zero, that depends on who you ask. Kimock says Anton is pushing on that front, while he’s focused on the task at hand of the tour.
“I’m always getting ahead of my skis and excited to do more new stuff,” Anton says. “He and I have played together for 40 years, it’s kind of a balance. Here’s an insider scoop of the workings of Zero on this very topic. We’ll be at a concert, and Steve will walk over to me and say, ‘What do you want to play?’ and I’ll say the name of a song, and he’ll look at his guitars and say, ‘I’m not tuned up for that one,’ and I’ll say how about so and so? and he’ll say, ‘Naw, I don’t feel like playing that one tonight.’ And I say how about this song? and he says, ‘I’m not ready.’ And I say, ‘You pick one,’ and he says, ‘No, you go ahead and pick.’ And that’s how things work in Zero.”
Photo by Alan Sheckter