For nearly four decades, the SEVA health service organization has served people around the world who are struggling for health, cultural survival, and sustainable communities. A Sanskrit word meaning "selfless service," SEVA was co-founded in 1978 by Dr. Larry Brilliant, Dr. Nicole Grasse, Ram Dass (former LSD pioneer Richard Alpert), and Hog Farmer and Woodstock icon Wavy Gravy (aka Hugh Romney), along with many dedicated individuals from the spiritual, music, and public health communities in and around Berkeley, California. SEVA's fundraising efforts have been directly responsible for restoring eyesight to millions of people suffering from cataract blindness in India, Nepal, Tibet, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and throughout the African continent. SEVA additionally has created programs to support agricultural and refugee relocation work in Guatemala and helps to combat health issues among Native Americans.
Wavy Gravy has been directly responsible for organizing benefit concert fundraisers in support of SEVA's programs and nobody has been more successful at mobilizing the musical communities than he. One of the most memorable benefits occurred in conjunction with SEVA's 20th Anniversary in 1998, when David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, members of the Grateful Dead, Odetta, Iris DeMent, Dan Bern, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Charlie Musselwhite, John Trudell, and various supporting musicians and friends took the stage of the intimate Berkeley Community Theater. Performing several hours of primarily acoustic music that featured plenty of extraordinary collaborations, this benefit, billed as "Sing Out For Seva," would not only raise nearly $70,000 for medical aid in Third World countries, but also provide attendees with a musical experience not soon forgotten.
By nearly all accounts, the most exciting set of the evening was saved for last when David Crosby and Graham Nash took the stage with Crosby's latest band configuration (CPR featuring guitarist Jeff Pevar and keyboardist James Raymond) and Grateful Dead bass player Phil Lesh. The significance of Lesh joining these musicians was a dream come true for many fans as it provided Crosby and Nash the ability to resurrect songs from each of their debut solo albums, revisiting a magical era when many of the key San Francisco musicians were exploring a collaborative concept called the "Planet Earth Rock & Roll Orchestra" (also known as PERRO).
This concept came about when many of the key California musicians were simultaneously off the road and recording albums at San Francisco's famed Wally Heider studios during the 1970/1971 era. Musicians from both the San Francisco and Los Angeles musical communities contributed, including members of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Joni Mitchell. The PERRO concept only lasted for an all-too-brief moment in time, but for approximately a year all of these musicians provided ego-less support on each other's album projects. The results (which included each of Crosby and Nash's first solo albums, Paul Kantner's politically charged sci-fi epic Blows Against The Empire, the Dead's American Beauty, and CSNY's"Deja Vu,) are still considered some of the most inspired albums ever recorded in San Francisco and hold a special fascination for fans and listeners to the present day.
This concluding set of the May 18, 1998 "Sing Out For Seva" benefit clearly strives to capture some of the magic that permeated that golden era, when as David Crosby concisely summarized it, "Everybody can be in the band."
Following Wavy Gravy's introduction of Crosby, Phil & Nash, the set begins with one of Graham Nash's most beautiful songs, "I Used To Be A King," in its debut live performance. With Lesh providing the same distinctive bottom that he contributed to the studio recording on Nash's "Songs For Beginners" album and with Jeff Pevar providing penetrating lead guitar work that evokes the spirit of Jerry Garcia (who played soaring pedal steel on the original), this is a remarkable opener that immediately conveys something special is taking place. This number, written at the time that Nash's romantic relationship with Joni Mitchell was ending, remains one of his most captivating songs.
Next up comes a rarely performed Crosby number sourced from his first solo album, "If Only I Could Remember My Name," arguably the album that epitomized the PERRO concept. The searching "Laughing" remains a pinnacle of Crosby's songwriting and this stripped-down acoustic version showcases the remarkable harmony vocals of Crosby and Nash with Pevar again providing dreamy guitar work inspired by Garcia's atmospheric pedal steel contributions to the original.
Following some stage banter, where Crosby mentions that it is James Raymond's birthday, Phil Lesh becomes the focal point as these musicians take on one of his most beloved songs, "Box Of Rain."Taken at a slower tempo than the familiar Grateful Dead recording and with Raymond's tasteful keyboard work leading the way, this is another heartfelt performance that delights the Berkeley audience, despite it being rough around the edges. Although Lesh's lead vocal is an acquired taste, the harmony vocals by Crosby and Nash add resonance and beauty to Robert Hunter's poignant lyrics.
The highlight of the set is next as this musical entourage collaborates on an extended jam on "Wooden Ships." A collaborative writing effort between Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Jefferson Airplane member, Paul Kantner," this song remains one of the most optimistic and unifying anti-war songs ever written. This nearly 10-minute excursion allows these musicians to stretch out a bit, which results in an inspired performance that in many ways equals and even occasionally rivals the original.
At this point, the audience is ecstatic and Wavy Gravy takes the stage and encourages all the performers to join them onstage. Lesh again leads the way, this time with the rarely performed Garcia/Hunter classic, "Ripple." Although the vocals are certainly a ragtag affair, it matters not, as this becomes an all-inclusive sing-along between the audience and performers.
This same collaborative spirit permeates "Teach Your Children," which becomes another joyous celebration with all of the night's performers joining the group onstage for vocal support. To close out the night, Odetta, followed by Iris Dement, leads the entire building in a rousing rendition of "Amazing Grace," with the stage performers eventually dropping out, leaving the audience as the final singers of the night.