Many San Diegans--including some of those who actually attended the show--missed a good concert by Country Joe McDonald Wednesday night at Winston's.
The Ocean Beach club was a little more than half-filled for a two-set performance by the former figurehead of Country Joe and the Fish, the late-'60s San Francisco band known for melding darkly whimsical, occasionally anti-Establishment lyrics with an idiosyncratic, folkadelic-rock sound. From the conversational din that was a constant accompaniment to McDonald's act, it was obvious that many patrons had come to Winston's not to hear but to be heard.
Nonetheless, McDonald was gracious and professional. At 49, he looked less the provocateur than a gentleman farmer in cotton shirt and cuffed blue jeans, his hair and mustache powdered with gray and a couple of extra inches around the mid-section. He early established an unforced rapport with those who were actually listening.
With a harmonica harness around his neck, McDonald turned back some pages by opening with two Woody Guthrie songs. In the traditional context of "This Land is Your Land" and "Blowing Down This Old Dusty Road," McDonald's nasally tenor recalled a younger Willie Nelson. The Guthrie tunes elicited warm applause.
Predictably, the Fish material drew the heartiest response. One might have expected an acoustic version of "Not So Sweet Lorraine" to pale in comparison to the full-blown version on 1967's "Electric Music for the Mind and Body." Yet, McDonald's spare rendition was like one of those skeletal dinosaur exhibits: There was majesty in the suggestion. The same was true of "Janis," the elegiac Fish tune McDonald wrote for Janis Joplin.
Soon, it was time for chat. A few cryptic comments about the recent revelations of Richard Nixon's White House tapes led to a rendition of McDonald's "Tricky Dicky from Yorba Linda," leavened with a slightly self-deprecating aside.
"I don't know much about Nixon's diet," said McDonald, "but he's still around. A lot of my friends who ate brown rice and stuff are dead." His prefatory comments to the next tune, "Talkin' Dustbowl," were more pointed.
"It's hard for us to imagine the Depression," he said. "Banks were in trouble and foreclosing on people's farms; there were homeless people everywhere; a lot of people were out of work. I guess if we strained our imagination we could conjure up such a situation."
It might have surprised some people that McDonald is a natural and accomplished acoustic performer. This isn't a man who plays solo because he can't afford a band; McDonald wrote and performed protest songs in Berkeley folk clubs years before forming the Fish, and his style still is well-suited to intimate (albeit less noisy) gigs.
Alternating between strumming and deft finger-style guitar playing, McDonald illustrated the power of simple music on a few selections from his latest album, "Superstitious Blues," a folkish collaboration with Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. The best was "Clara Barton," a tribute to the Red Cross founder and one of two songs in the set about heroic women (the other being "The Lady With the Lamp," a poignant ode to Florence Nightingale).
That power, though, was lost on some in the audience. When one who hadn't paid attention to the clearly articulated lyrics of "Clara Barton" yelled out afterward, "Who's Clara Barton?," McDonald patiently repeated all the salient points of the ballad for the man. At that, a woman in her 40s leaned toward her table mate and opined, "Now that's what a real folk singer does--he educates as well as sings."
Indeed, McDonald could have been expected to bring a secondary, somewhat didactic agenda to Wednesday's concert. The Fish's most famous song, 1967's "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag," was a grimly sardonic, anti-Vietnam War anthem. Its carousel-ish rock, which brought to mind Spike Jones on LSD, neatly captured the edgy lunacy of the period.
McDonald remains as political as ever. The singer is himself a Vietnam vet (he went through Navy boot camp in San Diego in the late '50s), and he has worked closely with veterans groups for many years. So, it came as small surprise Wednesday when McDonald periodically drew from that corner of his persona to address the current Administration and the Persian Gulf War.
He took one cue from a man who walked to the stage and handed him a T-shirt that had something on it about "Operation Desert Storm." McDonald looked at the inscription for a long while without sharing its message.
"Yeah, George Bush has kicked the 'Vietnam syndrome,' all right," he snarled at last. "This is a guy who can't even remember when Pearl Harbor Day is. Well, at least his health is failing."
When a woman loudly suggested that the reality of the war is starting to get to Bush, McDonald countered, "I think he's starting to get to himself." It seemed a good juncture for the next song.
"Some of us are having a little tougher time kicking the Vietnam syndrome," said the singer. "I wrote this a few years back for the Vietnam vets. I'm dedicating it to the Bush administration. It's called 'Kiss My. . . . ' " The song got a loud ovation from the crowd and primed them for the "Fish cheer," an audience-participation gimmick with which Country Joe and the Fish would get late-'60s concert-goers to spell out a certain four-letter word (not "fish").
On Wednesday, the "Fish cheer" encouraged an unusual fusing of street-political and rowdy-saloon instincts, and it seemed as though the entire Winston's crowd sang along with the inevitable set-closer, "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag." Somewhat stoic in demeanor to this point in the program, McDonald couldn't suppress a lopsided grin.