Saturday, February 21, 2009

Author brings humanitarian message to Marin Center

Greg Mortenson is seen with Khanday schoolchildren in Pakistan. Mortenson, who talked to a sold-out audience at Marin Center on Thursday, wrote 'Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations One School at a Time.' (Provided by the Central Asia Institute)A sold-out crowd of 2,000 people, crackling with excitement and anticipation, packed into the Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium for an old-fashioned slide show.
In our high-tech, short-attention-span popular culture, this old-school presentation Thursday night was the hottest ticket of the Marin Center season because it was delivered in person by Greg Mortenson, a former "dirt bag" mountain climber who is the co-author and subject of "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations One School at a Time."

A New York Times No. 1 best-seller, the phenomenal success of the book has turned the shy, unassuming humanitarian from Bozeman, Mont., into a reluctant celebrity and genuine American hero - a nominee for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

When Mortenson asked his audience how many of them had read "Three Cups of Tea," a gripping account of his death-defying efforts to build schools in war-torn Pakistan and Afghanistan that has been on the best-seller list for 105 straight weeks, nearly every hand in the hall shot up.

Tall and lumbering, the boyish 51-year-old had on khaki slacks, a brown sportcoat a little too snug for his bulky body and a bright red Jerry Garcia necktie adorned with hearts that his wife, Tara, gave him for Valentine's Day.

"She said I had to wear this in Marin," he said to a warm laugh from the audience. "It's called 'Exploding Heart.' It took a lot of courage to put it on."

It took an extraordinary amount of courage for Mortenson to do what he and his Central Asia Institute have been able to do since 1996, successfully building 78 schools in the wildest regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan and operating four dozen others, educating thousands of children, particularly girls, who are often denied an education by the Taliban and Islamic fundamentalists.

"The more I do this, the more I'm convinced that there's only one thing that can make a difference and that's education," he said. "Unless the girls are educated, the society won't change.

"From my perspective, I see girls learning how to read and write, and they teach their mothers to read and write, and educated women refuse to allow their sons to join the Taliban."

Pacing the stage as he talked, his story illustrated by slides of the schools and the faces of the grateful children they serve flashing on a large screen behind him, Mortenson told the crowd that he had bad news and good news for them.

He began with the bad news. "Since 2007," he said, "the Taliban have bombed or destroyed or shut down 500 schools in Afghanistan and another 180 schools in Pakistan."

"What is interesting, though, is that nearly all the schools are girls' schools," he explained. "Their greatest fear is that if a girl gets an education, grows up and becomes a mother, the value of education will go on in their community, causing the Taliban to lose their ideological power to control the society."

Shifting gears, he went on: "Here's the good news. How many of you know that in Afghanistan in 2000, at the height of the Taliban, there were 800,000 mostly boys in school? Today, there are 7.2 million children going to school in Afghanistan and 2 million of them are female. Has anybody here heard that?"

The audience buzzed at the question. Two hands tentatively went up.

"In the last year I've talked to over 350,000 people and in the whole time that I've asked that question, only about 50 hands have come up," he said.

Then, pausing for emphasis, he elaborated: "That is the greatest increase in school enrollment in any country in modern history, and nobody in America is aware of it. Don't you think that's good news?"

With that, Mortenson smiled as a huge ovation washed over him.

The "Three Cups of Tea" saga began in 1992, when Mortenson attempted to scale Pakistan's K2, the world's second-highest mountain, as a tribute to his younger sister, who had died at 23 of an epileptic seizure.

As fate would have it, he had to turn back before reaching the summit. Emaciated and injured, disoriented and half starved to death, he stumbled into the tiny, impoverished mountain village of Korphe (pronounced Core-fay), where he was nursed back to health.

While recovering, he noticed that the village's 84 children were sitting outdoors in the cold, scratching their school lessons in the dirt with sticks. They were so poor that they couldn't afford the $1-a-day to pay a teacher, sharing one with a neighboring community.

When he was strong enough to leave, Mortenson vowed that he would return and build a school, making good on that promise.

"I found a better mountain to climb," is the way he put it.

Since then, he has fearlessly carried out his mission, tirelessly raising money for the institute, leaving his wife and two young children for months at a time, surviving a kidnapping by militant tribesmen, two fatwas against him, a firefight by rival opium dealers and any number of physical hardships in the rugged land that is like a second home to him.

The title of his book comes from a Pakistani saying that after one cup of tea you're a stranger, after two a friend and after three you're family. In other words, it's all about winning hearts and minds by building relationships, which Mortenson has done.

When his book came out in paperback, he had the subtitle changed from "One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism" to "One Man's Mission to Promote Peace."

"Fighting terrorism is based in fear," he explained. "Promoting peace is based in hope. The real enemy is ignorance. The real key and hope for peace is through our children."

With President Obama's election, the elephant in the room Thursday night was what Mortenson thinks of the new administration's Afghanistan/Pakistan policy.

"I'm concerned about what's happening now in Pakistan," said Cornelia Busse, who attended a pre-talk reception for Mortenson that was a benefit for the Marin County Library. "We're sending Predator drones in and that concerns me. We're killing civilians and I'm worried."

During his talk, Mortenson reminded his audience of what Obama, Gen. David Petraeus and other military leaders have told him.

"They all say the same thing: There is no military solution in Afghanistan," he said. "They say the answer lies in education."

Despite that knowledge, a U.S. troop buildup looks inevitable.

"President Obama now is rapidly deploying three brigades to Afghanistan," he said. "We are going to increase our troops there by up to 60 percent, about 25,000 troops there by the summer.

"My concern is that there is no strategy, there is no military plan. If you talk to any Afghan leader, they all say the same thing: We do not need more U.S. troops in Afghanistan. What we need is training and supplies for our army and our police. And most of all we need education."

Paul Liberatore can be reached at

Friday, February 13, 2009

Lib at Large: Reuniting Grateful Dead members, fans happy about tour - but not ticket prices

Bill Kreutzmann, the drummer for the Grateful Dead, is one happy man. He has a new band, a power trio called BK3 that's making its San Francisco debut tonight at the Independent, an intimate nightclub in the Western Addition.

It's one of a half dozen shows for Kreutzmann with BK3, a group he's formed with bassist Oteil Burbridge of the Allman Brothers Band and guitarist Scott Murawski of the band Max Creek.

After that short tour, Kreutzmann goes straight into rehearsals with his reunited Grateful Dead bandmates - Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh - for a Dead tour that kicks off April 12 at the Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina and ends May 10 with a homecoming show at Shoreline Amphitheater.

In addition to the new band and the new Dead tour, Kreutzmann has a new girlfriend and what sounds to me like a new lease on life.

"My personal life has changed immensely for the better," he told me from his home in Kauai, Hawaii. "I couldn't have dreamed of being this happy."

Too bad Deadheads aren't quite as joyful as he is these days. Many of them are furious over the nearly $100 ticket price the Dead is charging for the best reserved seats for its tour, the band's first in five years.

The outraged tone was set by a profane YouTube tirade by a female fan that has Deadhead chat sites and message boards buzzing over what is being seen in some quarters as price gouging by the ultimate egalitarian band.

As it turns out, $100 is sounding like a good deal.

"I've heard of tickets going for $1,200," Kreutzmann said. "They've been scalping tickets for horrendous amounts of money. And I really hate that, by the way. That's one of my pet peeves.

"There are people out there who just care about making money," he went on. "They don't care about the music or making the fans happy. Just because someone will pay $1,200 for a ticket, in this economic climate it's adding insult to injury. It's an uncool thing."

Plus it puts a lot of pressure on the Dead to live up to the elevated expectations that come with ticket prices that high.

"I don't know if I can play that good," Kreutzmann laughed. "That's like so much money. (Jerry) Garcia would be infuriated. He'd be like, 'No way, man. You can't charge that much.'"

In reality, ticket brokers are charging a lot more. After talking with Kreutzmann, I went online and found tickets for the Shoreline show going for more than $2,000 each. Tickets in the $500 to $900 range are commonplace.

"It's pretty awful," agreed Tim Jorstad, the Dead's San Rafael-based business manager. "Some artists are just fine with scalping tickets, charging a premium and keeping the money. We aren't. That money is not going to the band, and it's not good for the fans."

Jorstad explained to me the rather complicated process of pricing concert tickets while trying to maintain some control over the brokers and scalpers.

"We thought long and hard about ticket prices," he said. "The band was extremely sensitive about what they should be."

Jorstad had the band's booking agent survey ticket prices for some 50 bands touring last year, such as the Eagles, that are equal in star power to the Dead. Many ticket prices for those bands were in the $150 range.

"I went back to the band with my research and we sat back and said, 'OK, we don't want to be $150, which is what a lot of those tickets we surveyed were coming in at," he said. "We talked hours about this. We probably give this particular topic more time than anything else. In the end, our ticket pricing came in at 65 percent lower than that collective group."

What they agreed to charge, on average, was $95 for premium seats (plus $2.50 service charge), and $58 and $40 for second- and third-tier seats.

"We wanted to make sure we had something for everybody," Jorstad said, reminding Deadheads that "since our last tour in 2004, everything associated with touring has gone up in price - fuel, trucking, busing, personnel.

"This may be the Dead's last tour, and maybe not," he added. "And when you add into the mix the touring expenses and that this will be a good, four-hour show, we felt it was good value for the ticket price.

He acknowledged that it isn't what the fans are accustomed to paying. "They're used to $50 and $60 tickets," he said. "We don't like to make people unhappy, obviously, but what we're charging isn't an unreasonable price to pay. We've tried to be fair to the legacy of the Grateful Dead, but we are a business entity, and we're trying to give our band members a reasonable pay day as well."

According to Jorstad, the Dead had enough clout to get half the available tickets for the tour and sell them themselves at face value through Music Today's ticketing facility and the band's

In addition, the Dead set aside 1,500 of the best tickets for Grateful Dead-related charities to sell to support their work.

Despite the carping from Deadheads, Jorstad insists that the band still has its '60s bonafides.

"We didn't do what a lot of bands do. We didn't take corporate sponsorship money," he said. "And there were millions of dollars on the table for that."

The problem is that the Dead have no control over giant Ticketmaster and the ticket brokers that dominate what is called the secondary ticket market.

"Ticketmaster does what it wants. They have a secondary ticket Web site, and that's the auction. That's the secondary market, and that's where they scalp tickets for very high prices," Jorstad said.

"We shut that down as much as we could, but it was hard," Kreutzmann said. "It makes me feel the audience is getting exploited, having to come up with all this money."

It appears that the band is trying to give Deadheads their money's worth.

Augmented by lead guitarist Warren Haynes and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, the surviving members regrouped last March for an Obama fundraiser at the Warfield and followed that with a huge benefit concert at Penn State that raised $500,000 for the Obama campaign.

As a reward, they were invited to the Inauguration, playing at the Mid-Atlantic Ball. Afterward, they were among a select group of celebrities who shook hands with the president and first lady.

With those benefit concerts behind them, they have a head of steam heading into the tour. And they aren't taking it lightly. In two weeks, they're going into Bob Weir's San Rafael studio to begin a heavy rehearsal schedule, some 20 days, an unusually intense regimen for this band.

"We're going to rehearse like crazy before we go out," Kreutzmann said. "I want us to be really, really good."

Paul Liberatore can be reached at

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Liberatore: Elvin Bishop's Grammy nomination is long time coming

Veteran bluesman Elvin Bishop, whose album 'The Blues Rolls On' is up for a Grammy, has gained accolades from critics and blues fans throughout his 45-year career.
For the first time in his 45-year career, Marin's Elvin Bishop is up for a Grammy Award. I'm betting that true blues aficionados agree with me: It's about time.

Bishop has at long last gotten the attention of the Grammy people, who nominated his "The Blues Rolls On," on the Southern California label Delta Groove Music, as best traditional blues album. In terms of name recognition, he's more than aware that he's up against some formidable competition from Buddy Guy, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker Jr. and 95-year-old Pinetop Perkins.

"In the recording academy, there are 12,000 people who vote and 11,000 of them neither know nor care anything about the blues," Elvin told me matter of factly. "They just check off a name they've heard. That's basically what it amounts to."

Win or lose, Elvin plans to make the most of the experience. He's going down to the Staples Center in Los Angeles for Sunday's 51st Grammy Awards show with his wife of 22 years, Cara, and their 20-year-old daughter, Emily, a junior at UC Berkeley.

"I played on the Grammy show three years ago, but this is the first time I've been up for an award," the 66-year-old singer-guitarist-songwriter-bandleader-master gardener said from his San Geronimo Valley home. "Anybody you can think of in the music industry will be there. You schmooze around and see people you ain't seen in years and go to parties and stuff. There's nothin' to it really."

While pop stars like Jay-Z and the Jonas Brothers, Kid Rock and Lil
Wayne, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift soak up all the TV time, the blues and the other Americana awards are treated like the red-headed stepsisters of the Grammys. They're handed out long before the cameras go on.

"Blues is not a very important category to them," Elvin conceded. "The blues awards are given out in what they call 'the pre-tel.' That stands for, 'You're not going to be on TV.'"

I first met Elvin in the mid-'70s, just as his "Fooled Around and Fell in Love," the single from his Capricorn album "Struttin' My Stuff," shot up the charts and was a top 40 smash.

But Elvin's a blues musician, not a pop star, and he understands that the blues is bigger and more important and more enduring than any awards show or hit tune.

Not many blues musicians go to the University of Chicago on a National Merit Scholarship as Bishop did before joining the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the group that introduced young rock fans to the blues in the '60s.

And beneath his aw-shucks persona and Oklahoma-farm-boy-in-overalls image is an intellectual's appreciation of the history of the blues as an American art form that has been passed like a torch from generation to generation.

That's the concept he very effectively conveys on "The Blues Rolls On." One way he illustrates the tradition is by including among the album's dozen tracks the song "Yonder's Wall," featuring singer/guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks, son of the bluesman Lonnie Brooks, whom Bishop has known since the early '60s.

Four decades ago, Bishop recorded "Yonder's Wall" when he was with Butterfield, who learned it from the 1950s Chicago bluesman Elmore James, who picked it up from Arthur Cruddup, who had recorded it in the '40s.

"The concept of the whole thing is how the music flows from one generation to another, and I thought that was a good example of that," Elvin said.

Furthermore, he cited a line in the song, "Your man went to war," as yet another illustration of its enduring relevance from decade to decade and from singer to singer and, unfortunately in this instance, from war to war.

"These guys are singing about four different wars - World War II, Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq - and the words still hold up," he pointed out. "The blues rolls on."

As part of the package, Bishop enlisted several generations of blues musicians as guests on the record, with B.B. King and James Cotton the elder statesman.

Before listening to this album, I'd never heard of the up-and-comers John Nemeth, whom Bishop calls "a monster talent, a guy to keep your eye on," or a family band from Tupelo, Miss., called the Homemade Jamz. It includes 14-year-old lead singer and guitarist Ryan Perry, his 11-year-old brother, Kyle, on bass, and their little sister, Taya, on drums. She's all of 9-years-old. Talk about the younger generation.

"They're the nicest family in the world," Elvin said. "And they're on their way to success."

In keeping with his theme, Bishop had them record "Come On In This House" by Junior Wells, one of the elder bluesmen who mentored him when he was just starting out.

Adding to his impressive guest list are Kim Wilson from the Fabulous Thunderbirds, George Thorogood, Warren Haynes of the Dead, zydeco stars R.C. Carrier and Andre Thierry, Marin's Angela Strehli and Tommy Castro, guitarist Mike Schermer and young Derek Trucks, considered by Bishop "the best slide guitar player who's ever been."

In addition to his Grammy nomination, Elvin's a multiple nominee at the Blues Foundation's 30th Blues Music Awards on May 7 in Memphis.

"The Blues Rolls On" is up for album of the year as well as contemporary blues album of the year. The title track is nominated for song of the year. And Elvin is in the running for contemporary blues male artist of the year.

But first there's the Grammys on Sunday night. I asked Elvin what it would mean to him if he actually won.

"I don't know," he said after a moment. "It couldn't hurt anything. It's like a guy pitching a no-hitter. For ever after, it's there."

Paul Liberatore can be reached at