Heads & Tails: Tale of the Tape – “Save Mother Earth”

“Save Mother Earth”
January 19th, 1972
Lion’s Share, San Anselmo, CA

Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders and company emigrated from the Matrix for good when the tiny San Francisco club closed in the spring of 1971, but the spirit lingered. They’d started branching out with bassist John Kahn and drummer Bill Vitt almost immediately as soon as Saunders replaced Howard Wales as organist in the loose Monday night sessions in late 1970, playing Tuesdays and Wednesdays and even weekends before bringing the act to the Bay Area club circuit where they’d live for the next half-decade.

The band struck equal commitments to serious playing (gigging multiple times a week when Garcia wasn’t on the road with the Grateful Dead, constantly evolving their repertoire) and serious informality (almost never rehearsing, avoiding having a band name). They played together for some seven months before it seems like anybody thought to record them, and Saunders’ instrumental “Save Mother Earth” was in place as the first original jam vehicle in the band’s repertoire when the tape record begins in May 1971.

There aren’t many recordings from the band’s first year together, but “Save Mother Earth” is on most of them, a signature tune that was a halfway between the total freeform of their origins and the more song-driven grooves they’d discover. When the band backed Saunders for his solo debut LP, Heavy Turbulence, probably recorded in early 1972, “Save Mother Earth” became the first single, spread over two sides with only-in-the-studio overdubbed vocals by the Edwin Hawkins Singers. So when harmonica player Paul Butterfield dropped by the Lion’s Share in San Anselmo in January 1972 after bassist John Kahn reconnected with him at a Woodstock studio session, it was probably a given that they’d jam on it.

Kahn had been in and out of Paul Butterfield’s orbit for years, auditioning for Butterfield’s band in the late ‘60s and not getting the gig. He’d met drummer Bill Vitt playing in the rhythm section for Mike Bloomfield, Butterfield’s former guitarist. As founder and frontman of the epochal Butterfield Blues Band (whose 1966 East-West provided a pivotal transition between the blues and psychedelic eras), Butterfield himself didn’t have much previous musical connection with Garcia or Saunders, but the quartet had almost been designed for just such circumstances. Once the band is through the head of the song, Butterfield jumps in with both feet, his saturated harmonica honking and zapping atmospheric space-blues for 17 minutes, the earth temporarily saved.

The tape presents both Butterfield’s only documented appearance with Garcia/Saunders, and also the seed for what became a detour for both Saunders and bassist John Kahn. Within a few months, Kahn would relocate to Woodstock to help assemble Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, and soon brought Saunders with him. They played on both coasts throughout the summer of 1972. In Saunders’ memory, it lasted “six months before I got tired of it and moved back,” as he told Relix in 1988, but it was probably closer to six weeks. By the late summer, Kahn and Saunders were back in the Bay Area and the former Matrix band was gigging again, the spirit still ready to play.

Jesse Jarnow