Make a Scene:  LouieFest features reunion of the legendary Moby Grape

  • ROCK PIONEERS. Buck Ormsby, left, and Jerry Miller are gearing up to play at LouieFest. (Gerry Collen)

LouieFest, the musical extravaganza that pays tribute to the classic rock hit “Louie, Louie,” makes its return on July 28-29. It has a new location, LeMay – America’s Car Museum.

The song was written by Richard Berry as a pop number. The late Rich Dangel, guitarist for the Fabulous Wailers, rearranged it as a rock song. They recorded the tune, as did numerous other rock ‘n roll bands. It is the most recorded song in rock history.

LouieFest was first held in 2003. It celebrates the Northwest’s music, arts and culture. A portion of funds goes to Wailers Performing Arts Foundation, which supports music education for youth.

The headliners this year are Fabulous Wailers and Moby Grape.

Moby Grape was formed in San Francisco in 1966. Although often identified with the psychedelic rock scene of the era, their music also had elements of folk, blues, country and early rock ‘n roll.

The group had three guitarists. One was Jerry Miller, who grew up in Ruston and was active in the local music scene as a youth in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was in a band called the Frantics that did some touring. They stopped in San Francisco and were encouraged to stay there by the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.

Don Stevenson, who also was in the Frantics, was the drummer. Bob Mosley played bass.

The other guitarists were Peter Lewis and Skip Spence, who had played drums on the first Jefferson Airplane album. Spence left that band and went back to his original instrument, guitar.

They released their self-titled debut in 1967. Notable songs from it include “Omaha,” “Changes” and “Lazy Me.”

The follow up album, “Wow,” was recorded in New York City. Miller feels it had some good songs but lacked a cohesive theme.

Spence left the group while they were recording it. He suffered a mental breakdown. Spence entered the recording studio with an axe, apparently intending to use it to attack Stevenson. He was committed to a mental hospital. Spence struggled with mental illness until his death in 1999.

Miller said Spence got heavy into drug use while recording the album. “He went crazy in New York. Skip was out of his mind.”

Another setback occurred in 1969, when Mosley decided to join the U.S. Marine Corps. “I thought that was nuts,” Miller recalled. The band had received an invitation to perform at Woodstock. Miller feels if they had played the festival, a defining event in American popular music, they may have been able to take the momentum from it on tour and achieved big things.

He noted Mosley struggled with the discipline and structure of the military. “The Marines told him what to do. He did not last long.”

The band fizzled out by the end of the decade. Moby Grape did not last long, but they had a lasting impact. Led Zeppelin cites them as an influence.

Miller thinks the band stood out because all the members wrote and sang. The three guitars gave them good balance. Lewis specialized in finger picking and Spence played rhythm. “That opened the way for me to play lead,” he said. “No one got in the way of the others.”

The band last played a few years ago, at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. Spence’s son Omar played guitar at that show.

Randy Sparks, one organizer of the festival, and Wailers bass player Buck Ormsby spoke to Miller about getting the band back together for the event. The lineup will have three original members: Miller, Lewis and Stevenson. Mosley declined due to health issues. Don Wilhelm will take his place on bass. Ed Vance will play Hammond B3 organ and Chris Layton will play drums.

Miller has heard from people who live in New York and London who plan to travel to Tacoma to see Moby Grape. “People will come from all over world to see this.”

Miller said the band has also recorded for a new album they plan to release soon.

A total of 40 bands will play during the festival on four stages.

“The Celebration of 1,000 Guitars” will take place at 5 p.m. on July 29. Organizers invite amateur and professional musicians to play “Louie Louie” with original members of The Fabulous Wailers.  All musicians are encouraged to play along by bringing their guitars and stringed instruments, as well as medium and small amplifiers. “If you play or have ever played the guitar, we urge you to come down to ACM with your axe and amp in hand and rock out to one of the greatest songs of all time,” Ormsby said.

LouieFest runs from 10 a.m. until dusk, with tickets including free admission to the museum. Adult tickets bought in advance are $15 for one day or $25 for both days; adult tickets bought at the door are $20 for one day or $30 for both days. Tickets for children under 12 are $10 all weekend.


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