Pete Sears - Watchfire

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Pete Sears
By Toni A. Brown

Pete Sears was born in Bromley, Kent, England. He grew up playing piano and listening to such blues artists as Champion Jack Dupree, Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Johnson.

At age 13, Sears started playing guitar, and at 16 began playing clubs and recording at EMI Studios on Abbey Road. Around that time, he toured Britain and Europe with the Sons of Fred, Fleur de Lys and an underground band called Sam Gopal's Dream. In 1967, Jimi Hendrix played on the Fleur de Lys' debut album,Amen, and later sat in with the band in London.

Sears came to the United States in 1969 to form Silver Meter. He went on to join Stoneground, who was affiliated with Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm. Sears spent many years traveling back and forth between the U.S. and England, touring, recording and doing session work with artists as diverse as Rod Stewart, Ron Wood, Mickey Hart, Copperhead with John Cipollina, Nick Gravenites, Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter, Maria Muldaur, Papa John Creach, Big Brother, Kathi McDonald, Jimi Hendrix and Quicksilver Messenger Service. During his sessions with Kathi McDonald, he met Grace Slick and ended up playing bass and piano on her solo album, Manhole.

In 1974, Slick and Paul Kantner phoned Sears in England and urged him to return to the States to join a band they were forming called the Jefferson Starship. He played bass and keyboards with the band for 13 years, contributing several songs on each album.

Sears left Starship in 1987 to record a concept album. Long an environmentalist and peace activist, Sears and his wife Jeannette put the material together for Watchfire. Originally released on Redwood Records and then through Grateful Dead Merchandising, the album has now been reissued through Relix Records.

In recent years, Sears' most visible role has been his union with Hot Tuna.

What made you break away from Starship to record Watchfire?

Sears: In the '70s, Starship was a good band. In the '80s, it turned into something else, which I couldn't stand. I did Watchfire live in the studio. It was a complete reaction to the way Starship was going towards the end, recording with Cinclaviers and computers, which is okay when you're doing it in a creative sense, but it was done in a very contrived manner to sort of get a hit or something, and it just turned into this horrible thing. Watchfire was a sort of reaction to the way they were recording things. I just went into the studio with all these acoustic instruments-mandolins and drums, acoustic congas. I had a Latin rhythm section, Celtic harps and bagpipes.

Towards the end of the Starship, the policy of the band was sort of the reverse of what it was in the '70s as far as lyrics go. In the old days, they encouraged free-thinking and writing in the lyrics-political overtones or undertones or whatever. Towards the end, they didn't like that sort of thing.

My wife and I had been working with human rights in Guatemala for some time and doing rainforest work and things like that. So Watchfire has that theme running through it. The music is very spontaneous and sort of folky. Jerry Garcia was kind enough to help out and Mickey Hart and Dave Grisman and some good friends. That was in 1988 on Redwood Records, a relatively small label. But they were a label that was very involved in cultural and refugee work, so it was a perfect label for that album. Then Grateful Dead Merchandising picked it up through Jerry. Now it's on Relix Records, and it feels really good to have some more life injected back into it.

What was Jerry Garcia's input on the album?

Sears: He played slide guitar on two songs and acoustic guitar on another one.

Slide guitar is pretty unusual for Jerry, isn't it?

Sears: Actually, he didn't do that a lot at Dead shows, I guess, but he was a really good slide player, and he really enjoyed playing it. I like the acoustic guitar solo he does on "Let The Dove Fly Free," it really sounds like Jerry. He has a very identifiable sound. He's just unique. In my mind, his style had sort of a hint of Django Reinhart in that he had a jazz approach to his playing. He was able to really build a solo well. He put you into this sort of mesmerized state that built into this hypnotic trance until a real peak. There'd be this long, mesmerizing solo, but then, all of a sudden you'd see the audience reacting-everybody would just erupt with energy. It was amazing to watch.

Did you ever perform any of the Watchfire material live?

Sears: Right after I finished it, Jerry and David offered to do a show at the Great American Music Hall if I were to get it together. For one reason or another, it didn't happen. But I did a television show called "Save Something For The Children" with many of the players. It was a benefit. I did some work with Mimi Farina who is also on the record, that is Joan Baez's sister who runs Bread And Roses organization. We did a lot of gigs, just the two of us. I played piano, she played guitar and sang. We did quite a few of the songs from the album at various peace rallies and also out at the Concord Weapons and Naval Base trying to stop the trains going to El Salvador. Jerry came and played on that, too.

There are several rare performances with other artists on Watchfire...

Sears: Yes. On "One More Innocent," Jerry played slide guitar, and Holly Near sang with me. John Cipollina played rhythm guitar on a couple of tracks, Babatunde (Olatunji) and a lot of other really good players are on there.

I am forming a band, and we'll certainly be playing material from Watchfire. We're probably going to call it the Watchfire Band, and we'll also be doing material off a new record I'm working on.

That's assuming you have a spare moment to breathe from your work with Hot Tuna and Jorma Kaukonen.

Sears: This is very true. I've also been playing with a few other artists-Leftover Salmon, Los Lobos, Zero, John Hammond, Taj Mahal, sometimes Peter Rowan. You're right, there isn't a lot of time, but I'll find some.

Pete Sears has organized the music for, and performed at, numerous benefits including the 1988 "Soviet American Peace Walk" concert in San Francisco, which attracted 20,000 people and featured Jerry Garcia, Grace Slick, Mickey Hart, John Cipollina and many others. He organized a benefit for the Native American "Inter Tribal Bison Co-Op," featuring Bob Weir, Jorma Kaukonen and Chris Whitley. Sears has played for Wavy Gravy's SEVA benefits and raised food and clothing for refugees of El Salvador and Guatemala.

Moreover, Sears is on the board of N.A.S.A.F.O.N.A., a joint Hopi Indian and University of Arizona based organization, working to restore ancient garden terracing on the Hopi reservation in Arizona. He is also on the board of "The Endangered People Project," an organization headed by ethnobotonist, Dr. Wade Davis.

In 1989, Pete and Jeannette Sears formed a non-profit video production company, along with several prominent Bay Area film people, and produced a music video on human rights' abuses in Guatemala.

Sears' most recent project is the soundtrack for a documentary film on Cesar Chavez of the Farm Workers Union. The documentary will air on PBS on April 16, 1997.

This article originally appeared in Relix Magazine, Volume 24 #1 (February, 1997).

Copyright 1999-2004 - Toni Brown

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