“Well, you’re the guy now.” That’s what Bob Weir told Steve Kimock when Steve became the lead guitarist in Ratdog in 2007, one of the Grateful Dead iterations 12 years after Jerry Garcia’s passing. Steve recalls the conversation. “He said whenever it came up I should I handle this like that. It was difficult, though. There’s such audience expectation for a certain something. In a lot of ways, I kind of went there and occasionally in a classic Garcia soloing kind of thing, I learned the solo, and said, ‘Well, that’s the song. That’s how it goes.’ Then (I thought) ‘What would Geroge Harrison do?’”
He laughs. “I worked out that stuff on the bottleneck that I like a lot better, but it’s things like that. Talk about wearing my influences on my sleeve.”
Kimock began a national tour on July 18 with his band Zero that has just released Naught Again, a live album recorded in San Francisco in 1992. The two-CD set contains music that influenced the jam band craze but is far more sophisticated than most of the sounds that typically emote from the jam bands that evolved out of the fundamentals established by the Grateful Dead and evolved into the jam band scene popularized by Phish and moe.
Born in 1955, 13 years younger than Garcia, he listened to Jerry early on.
“I was still a young teen probably living at home. Up to that point I had been into The Allman Brothers, Johnny Winter, Black Sabbath, the more obsessive hard rock stuff along with whatever pop and miscellany I was listening to, but I mean hearing Garcia play, his chromaticism and his sound and the whole thing was just very much more interesting, melodic to me and sophisticated. I love the sound of it. I was immediately taken when I heard it.”
Jack Casady told Kimock that when he went to San Francisco and became Jefferson Airplane’s bass player, he and others in the emerging West Coast scene didn’t go there because of any particular vibe. “They went there because it was cheap. So, that’s how long ago that was. And I said, ‘Oh, I wish I’d been there. If I’d just been there 10 years earlier.’
“I said this to Jack Casady on the bus. And he smacked me down so hard. It’s like, ‘Everybody thinks that.’” The influences precede the vibe. “And then I thought about San Francisco in the ’60s into the ’70s. It’s just like a musical where people that were there, people that were in town playing wherever it was: Miles Davis, Bill Evans, The Grateful Dead, Joe Pass, Ali Akbar Kahn, Ravi Shankar. So many good players, and I can’t think of another time or place that was that fertile, and I just wish I knew where some more of that was. I mean, I had it. I had a good time while I was there doing it in San Francisco and hung out with a lot of good blues players for sure.
“The other thing about that music was how close to the folk scene I was. Garcia was a banjo player. People were surprised when he said, ‘I think I’ll play the guitar now.’ Nobody could believe he was going to play the guitar. ‘Yeah, he’s a banjo player.’”
Jerry Garcia has been quoted calling Kimock his “favorite unknown guitar player.” In 2017, Kimock admitted, “There are some early comparisons which I thought were superficial at best between what I was trying to do and what Jerry was doing which pissed me off a little because my least favorite thing about guitar playing in general is how just very derivative it is, and there’s nowhere near the amount of creativity that there could be considering how personal an instrument it is.”
Time, place and influences are different enough for Zero that the band is much more than another jam band in The Dead and Company’s shadow. I asked him if he looks at his music as art, product or both?
“I try not to (look at it as product) because I’m not sure what it means. I think I’m just sure that a lot of what I would have had to do to get a position commercially, I didn’t care. I just want to be able to play guitar. That was my attitude. The band I’ve got is not a household word. I have no clue how they (Dead and Company) got into the position they got. I have hung out enough with those guys. They can’t even go out and have breakfast which is kind of a drag, but no, I don’t have a problem in any way with celebrities. I don’t need to be one, and I’m not one. I’m a guy from Pennsylvania.”
Zero’s music has the circular quality of jam band music coming back around to the fundamental melody and then “jamming” it, but their sound is more sophisticated than most groups falling under that name. “It’s a circle, or it could be a sine wave or multiple sine waves, but yeah, there has to be something oscillating about it. It has to go from one plane to another. I mean the nature of the art is being temporal.”
Besides headlining major festivals around the country, Zero has played double bills with artists as diverse as Blood Sweat and Tears, Ray Charles, Kenny G., Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Hot Tuna, Dr. John, Nicolette Larson, Eddie Money, The Neville Brothers, Stephen Stills, The String Cheese Incident, Alan Toussaint, Robin Trower, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Weir, and Edgar Winter.
Zero has been joined on stage and/or in the studio by Jerry Garcia, Donna Godchaux, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Derek Trucks, Noel Redding, Jorma Kaukonen, Sikiru Adepoju, Norton Buffalo, Jack Cassidy, Jessica Fierro, Wavy Gravy, Terry Haggerty, Jerry Joseph, Alex Ligertwood, and Buddy Miles
Blues is not the biggest strain running through a repertoire that’s a swirling amalgam of rock, jazz and other American roots music, but it’s definitely in the gumbo. “It was nice playing at some level (with Taj Mahal) because I’ve been digging his stuff since I was a teenager. I’ve been listening to Taj Mahal all my life, and there I am sitting with him, and he’s teaching me African stuff. I mentioned to him about being the last man standing for a bunch of that music, and he rattled off 20 names.
“I know more people who went to Ann Arbor (The Ann Arbor Blues Festival) than went to Woodstock. When we started doing the Zero thing (in the early ’80s), Steve Wolf was the first bass player in the band. He was my roommate. We actually learned a lot of blues and R&B and American music, James Brown and he was like he heard about the Woodstock thing, and he said, ‘Fuck that. I’m going to Ann Arbor.’”
Steve lives in his hometown Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He’s raising a family here, and his 33-year-old son John Morgan Kimock named after John Cippolina of the psychedelic band Quicksilver Messenger Service plays in Zero. “Man, it’s indescribably impossibly cool and wonderful. I can’t – literally I pinch myself sometimes. He’s so good, and he is such a badass, and no bullshit dude, you know? It’s really, really super cool. It’s the coolest thing as far as I’m concerned. He’s great. He’s a great musician and an inspiration to me every time we take the stage.”
All that said, the spirit of San Francisco is in Kimock’s soul. “I remember playing a gig at the old Waldorf, and I had to run out and get something, and I came back in, and they’re hanging out and right outside there’s Kurt Vonnegut, and I’m like holy shit. In San Francisco there used to be this beat thing. There used to be this intellectual component. There’d be artists there. Something was going on. It wasn’t just a bunch of guys with balloons trying to get high. It actually was people, you know, other artists doing other art. So, yeah, it didn’t occur to me that it was anything unusual at the time, that there were writers and poets and actors and whatever. People do all that stuff.”
He feels that spirit every time he plays. “There’s a vibe. There’s a sense involved. There’s the air. There’s time. If I was in San Francisco now, I could know even if my eyes were closed.”
Zero Tour Dates:
Oct. 15 – The Fillmore – San Francisco
Oct. 27 – Brooklyn Bowl – Brooklyn, N.Y.
Oct. 28 – Ardmore Music Hall – Ardmore, Pa.
Oct. 29 – Sherman Theater – Stroudsburg, Pa.
Oct. 30 – Baltimore Soundstage – Baltimore
Nov. 2 – Bearsville Theater – Woodstock, N.Y.
Nov. 3 – Infinity Hall Hartford – Hartford, Conn.
Nov. 4 – The Cabot – Beverly, Mass.
Nov. 5 – The Flying Monkey – Plymouth, N.H.
Nov. 6 – Double E Performance Center – Essex Junction, Vt.