Neil Young and The Ducks

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Neil Young and The Ducks Concerts, Santa Cruz, CA 1977

Date: Sat, 06 Jan 1996 17:15:55 -0800
From: Patrick Mead <
Subject: Re: Ducks tape grovel

At 04:51 PM 1/6/96 -0500, you wrote:
On Sat, 6 Jan 1996, Patrick Mead wrote:

I am new to the list but have been following Neil since the 60's. In 1977 I had the good fortune to live in Santa Cruz and had the sublime experience that Summer of being at nearly every gig by the Ducks. Details please!

Duck Tales Alright by popular request (of one person) here are my recollections of the "Summer of the Ducks," Santa Cruz 1977.

At the time my future wife and I were students at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz had a lively if not terribly innovative music scene dominated by retro-60's Bay Area acts (various permutations of Moby Grape, Tuna & the Airplane), and country upstarts like Lacy J. Dalton & Larry Hosford. Just about anything could fill a club there and I have fond memories of acts like Rambling Jack Elliot, Robert Hunter, assorted bluesmen, etc.

Anyway in the Spring of 1977, erstwhile Moby Grape leader Jerry Miller was working various combinations of people and Neil found his way on stage one night with Jerry (who he knew from Fillmore times) and a fellow named Jeff Blackburn (now deserving of legendary status for co-writing My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue). Neil began hanging out and jamming with Blackburn in the days that followed with Blackburn on rhythm guitar, Bob Moseley (of the original Moby Grape) on bass, and a guy whose name always eludes me (but I'm sure some Rustie will supply this) on drums. The only prior credential that sticks in my mind for the drummer was that he had played on some tracks for Arlo Guthrie.

The local entertainment tabloid ("The Good Times") got wind something was up and had a conversation with the group. They announced they were forming a band called the Ducks, that would play local clubs for cover charges of less than three bucks. Further Neil was moving to Santa Cruz and would stay "as long as it remains cool." He also said they could play Mr. Soul better than the Buffalo Springfield.   By mid-June the Ducks began to play, usually two sets a night, three or four times a week. Sometimes there was enough warning that they'd be listed in the Good Times, sometimes (especially as the weeks wore on) you'd just have to drive past the clubs and check the marquees.

The set list was very democratic. All four could sing and had material, so they basically took turns throughout the set. Highlights included Mr. Soul, a Blackburn tune called Silver Wings, a Moby Grape tune of Moseley's called Gypsy Wedding, and some Chuck Berry workouts sung by the drummer. Comes a Time was played as a country rocker by the Ducks before turning up in its acoustic studio guise. They also did Homegrown, a cover of Ian & Sylvia's Four Strong Winds with Neil singing lead, and a great guitar showcase called Windward Passage. Early in the Summer "Passage" was done in a kind of pyschedulic/surf style, it grew into a more traditional Neil guitar piece as the weeks went on.

Neil played "Old Black" which sported a Santa Cruz sticker that Summer. He usually wore a plaid shirt (what else) with local drawstring pants that were high fashion at the time. In the smaller clubs they would shake hands with the crowd at the end. Even in "bigger" venues like the Catalyst (which I think could hold 1000 people) You would often bump into Neil and the others waiting in line at the bar between sets.

Neil seemed to be living a fantasy of a small town simpler life. The apartment I lived in was not far from the beach house he had rented and belive it or not I once ran into him at the laundromat. Nevertheless, he clearly was spending some of his big star money that Summer on the little bar band, by mid Summer they were doing some fancy projections of animations overhead and large mobile recording vans were usually spotted in the alley during most gigs. I think he is sitting a big stash of tape of their gigs.

They played just about every place in town, from the showcase Catalyst, to the very cozy Crossroads, to funky spots like the Veteran's Hall. They were not without some rock and roll cliché drama…the drummer seemed kind of thirsty some evenings and I remember one gig where he actually passed out behind the drum kit during the break. Near the end of the Summer they played two larger gigs, one at the Civic Auditorium that I think had the current edition of Moby Grape sharing the bill and an outdoor gig at Cabrillo Community College opening for Elvin Bishop.

Apparently, Neil had a contract with Crazy Horse that specified he could only "tour" with them and so the Ducks were required to confine themselves within the city limits so as not to tour. One very interesting moment came when Crosby & Nash (then a duo) came into town for a concert. Everyone wondered if a reunion of the big four might take place. Neil did indeed take the stage and blew the other two away. I remember him being very funny and very sharp on stage. No sign of Stills though, who apparently was still sore that NY didn't keep up the Stills Young band project.

Well all good things must end and the Ducks managed to end a mere seven weeks after they began. Neil's rented house was broken into and somebody made off with a lot of important guitars and sentimental stuff. As word had spread in the national media about Neil joining a bar band crowds got bigger with out of town "Duck Hunters" less content to let the band have its own identity and more inclined to mindlessly yell requests for old NY chestnuts.

In their prime though, rusties, the Ducks were a magical experience. There is nothing like hearing Neil play "Old Black" in a small room with the amps pointed right into your chest. The gig that stands out in my mind was one in July at the tiny Crossroads. A couple of friends who both were fellow Neil Young fans had come in from out of town. Without telling them what I was up to we went to see the Ducks. Needless to say their jaws dropped open when Neil came on and plugged in and led off the set with a scorching Mr. Soul. What I remember most was that there was a fan in a wheel chair. Everyone under the stage allowed everyone else plenty of room and this guy was dancing the chair, doing wheelies and all. Everyone shook hands at the end. Neil's playing was spectacular all night. Rock and roll heaven. There was long running cartoon in one of the local tabloids called "The Duck Brothers" - the next issue had a frame of the Duck Brothers seeing "The Ducks" and among the figures was a guy in a wheel chair and some guys who were clearly us. A cool souveneir I still have.

That's the story, kids, as this old campaigner remembers it anyway.

  /Pat in Seattle

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