One night in London in 1967 while playing with the Indian/jazz/rock fusion band Sam Gopal Dream, bassist Pete Sears was surprised to find that a famous American musician was in the audience filming their performance. It was Jimi Hendrix, whom Sears had met when the guitarist had first landed in England.
"Jimi was filming us with his home movie camera," Sears recalls. "Sam Gopal Dream played some of the same shows with Jimi. One night we were playing a show at The Speakeasy in London, and suddenly Jimi's onstage playing with us. I remember him using the mic stand sliding up and down the guitar neck.
"I met him before the Experience, when I was playing with the group Fleur de Lys," he continues. "A couple of the guys were staying at Eric Burdon's house and Jimi showed up. He overdubbed guitar on a song called 'Amen' we were recording, but it was never released."
John Molo (from left), Ann McNamee, Roger McNamee, Barry Sless and Pete Sears
From his days in the heart of Britain's underground rock movement, playing alongside bands like Pink Floyd, Traffic and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Sears went on to record with Rod Stewart. He relocated to San Francisco and joined Jefferson Starship, later spending 10 years with the Jefferson Airplane blues offshoot, Hot Tuna. These days he's an integral member of the Bay Area band Moonalice that plays Charley's tonight and Stella Blues on Friday.
With a lineage that connects to San Francisco's rock royalty, Moonalice performs Americana rock and roots music with an emphasis on improvisation.
"We're just a bunch of guys who have been playing a long time," says Sears. "We have a mixture of different influences, and we do get into extended improvisations that can go anywhere, from soul to blues to jazz to rock. There's a spirit of adventure, and I really enjoy it because I haven't had a chance to do that for a long time. Starship in the '80s, if I veered one tiny bit from the record, it was like daggers. It feels like my days back in England with Sam Gopal playing clubs like UFO and Middle Earth. I've been playing professionally since 1964 and have gone through so many different kinds of music. "
* Moonalice plays Charley's tonight and Stella Blues at 9 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door.
The band members include Barry Sless on guitar and pedal steel, John Molo on drums, Ann McNamee on keyboards and vocals, and Roger McNamee on vocals and rhythm guitar.
Sless has performed with various Grateful Dead offshoot groups including Phil Lesh & Friends and Kingfish, while drummer Molo has recorded with a variety of artists including Bruce Hornsby, John Fogerty and Dead bassist Phil Lesh. Molo was a member of Bruce Hornsby and the Range when the band won a Grammy for Best New Artist. And Sears, Molo and Sless all play occasionally with the David Nelson Band, which makes annual trips to Maui.
Besides playing music, Roger McNamee is the managing director and co-founder of Elevation Partners, a private investment firm, which also counts U2's Bono as a managing director and co-founder. That's why, following their Maui shows, Moonalice will open for the world's greatest rock band at the Oakland Coliseum on June 7.
"He's been friends with Bono for a long time," Sears reports. "I'm pretty sure that's how it happened. We don't have any hit records or anything like that, but we have a good following."
But they have released a cool, self-tilted album produced by Grammy-winner T Bone Burnett and have hit on a novel way to connect with fans, releasing a series of "Dave's Way" five-song EPs, priced at a bargain $5, that capture the band live in the studio.
Before he moved from England to the Bay Area, Sears' talent was utilized by Rod Stewart on four classic albums including "Every Picture Tells a Story" and "Gasoline Ally."
"Micky Waller (drummer with Jeff Beck) introduced me to Rod," he recalls. "I played on two tracks on 'Gasoline Alley.' Then I played mostly piano on 'Every Picture Tells a Story.' Ron Wood played most of the bass and lead guitar, and Micky played drums. It was all pretty much first takes with minimal overdubs. You can tell it's live in the studio on the 'Smiler' album and the track 'Sweet Little Rock 'n' Roller.' On Ron Wood's opening Chuck Berry-style guitar licks you can hear a dog barking. That was Micky's boxer. He just started barking, and it was so funny we kept it in."
Excited by what was happening on the San Francisco music scene, Sears was soon invited to play on solo records by Grace Slick and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, which in turn led to him joining the newly formed Jefferson Starship in the mid-'70s. Sears played bass and keyboards with Jefferson Starship for 13 years, contributing to more than 10 albums, including "Dragon Fly" and "Red Octopus," which featured the top hit "Miracles."
"Right before Jefferson Starship I played the Diamond Crater Festival with Neil Schon (from Santana) and Greg Errico (Sly and the Family Stone)," he notes. "I really hit it off with Paul and Grace. We played big venues, and everybody had a chance to write, and we played long sets and had good songs. And I loved doing Airplane songs like 'White Rabbit' and 'Somebody to Love.' But then there was a big riot in Germany and we lost all our equipment and Grace went into rehab and that was the end of that version of the band, and it was never the same again."
Performing with the Jefferson Starship from 1974 to 1987, Sears later played keyboards for 10 years with former Airplane musicians Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen in Hot Tuna.
As a solo artist he's released a few albums including "Watchfire," featuring help from the Dead's Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart; and the piano blues "The Long Haul," featuring harpist Charlie Musselwhite, the Band's Levon Helm, Hot Tuna's Kaukonen and Casady and blues legend John Lee Hooker, who co-wrote a song with the keyboardist.
His soundtrack credits include music for "The Fight in the Fields," a documentary on Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker's Union; "Tibet's Stolen Child," narrated by "Star Trek's" Patrick Stewart, about religious oppression in Tibet; and most recently, "The Storm That Swept Mexico," on the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
Now with Moonalice he's happy to be playing with like-minded compatriots, "who are not tied down to one particular type of music, who have influences from all over."
Along with original material, they cast their own spin on a range of covers from the Byrds' "Mr. Spaceman" and Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" to Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again" and the Grateful Dead's "Stella Blue." And Moonalice shows typically include an opening monologue by Steve Parish, a longtime Grateful Dead crew member.
"Steve travels with us and he was Jerry Garcia's road manager and was with the Dead for 30 years," says Sears. "He gets up before the performance and tells stories about his years with the Grateful Dead. People like to hear the stories. So it's sort of like a traveling carnival. It's fun."
Keeping free-form radio alive on Maui, Mana'o Radio celebrates its ninth anniversary and the memory of co-founder Barry Shannon with BarryFest 2011 on Sunday, at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Events Lawn.
Barry Flanagan will headline the station's annual major fundraiser. A longtime supporter of the Mana'o Radio, Sunday's performance marks his first appearance at BarryFest.
Also on the bill, the funky, smooth jazz and R&B of SLAM, featuring acclaimed saxophonist David Choy. And the show will culminate in an eclectic, two-hour set by the Mana'o Radio Air Force Band, featuring local musicians and volunteer on-air hosts, including Vince Esquire, Gail Swanson, Dr. Nat, Randall Rospond, Bob Jones, Steve Grimes and more. Station co-founder Kathy "Tita" Collins will emcee.
* Gates will open at noon; the concert starts at 12:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 advance/$26 day of show, plus applicable fees, available from the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org. The day includes a silent auction and door prize giveaways.
Benjy and Heather Wertheimer of Shantala present a concert of the "Sacred Music of India" at The Studio Maui at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Collectively the duo has released 12 CDs ranging in style from world and folk music, to ambient music for yoga and sacred kirtan.
Benjy has toured and recorded with such artists as Krishna Das, Deva Premal & Miten, Jai Uttal, and Steely Dan's Walter Becker. He studied Indian classical music for more than 25 years with some of the masters of that tradition including Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain and Ali Akbar Khan.
Heather's debut CD with Shantala, "Church of Sky," was named by New Age Retailer as one of the top 10 albums of 2004.
The concert will offer a combination of songs, sounds, rhythms and instruments associated with classical music of India as well as kirtan chanting.
* Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door.