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Moonalice’s New Sound: Zuck ‘n’ Roll

By Ben Fong-Torres

Roger McNamee, giving the thumbs up, is flanked by bandmates: from left to right, drummer John Molo and guitarists Barry Sless and Pete Sears. (Bob Minkin: https://minkinphotography.com)

Roger McNamee isn’t just a respected tech industry leader. He’s a Silicon Valley Renaissance man, taking on Facebook in his best-selling book and fronting a jam band that’s growing more popular by the day.

On the sidewalk in front of Slim’s nightclub on 11th Street, near Folsom, a man named David braves the chilly spring winds to be the first in line for the “420 Gathering of the Tribe,” an annual celebration of cannabis hosted by the jam band Moonalice. It’s about — oh, let’s say 4:20, and since the doors don’t open until 7, I ask why he’s there. “I’m a hard-core fan,” he says. “I’ve been smoking cannabis for 50 years now.”

A while later, David is joined by a few others, including Julia, who calls 4/20 “the highest holiday there is.” She is echoed by another fan, who declares, “I love Moonalice. It’s a great day to be high.

Inside Slim’s, in one of several well-worn dressing rooms, Roger McNamee, Moonalice’s founder, vocalist, guitarist and songwriter, is telling me about dealing with media and public appearances. But he’s not talking about his band. It’s his book, Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, which was published in February. McNamee, a successful veteran tech investor, was an early believer in Facebook and a mentor to founder Mark Zuckerberg, even suggesting Sheryl Sandberg to be his COO. Citing Facebook’s dominance in social media, its collecting and selling of data from users, its allowance of manipulated, actual “fake news” on its platform, and its role in the 2016 presidential election, he calls the company “the greatest threat to the global order in my lifetime.”

“It’s not about right and left,” McNamee warns of Facebook’s negative influence on the culture. “It’s about right and wrong.”

Zucked earned applause from critics, including the New York Times, whose reviewer called it “a candid and highly entertaining explanation of how and why a man who spent decades picking tech winners and cheering his industry on has been carried to the shore of social activism.” Zucked made the Times best-seller list.

To spread the word, McNamee, who allows that he did “really well” as an investor, hit the road in January on a self-funded tour, ringing up an astounding 500 appearances in five months, including book-stores, major gatherings like South by Southwest and interviews on all media platforms.

On the road, he received “extraordinarily friendly” receptions, he says, noting that Facebook, which has not responded in the media to Zucked, tracked his appearances. “They called ahead to every place I went,” McNamee recalls. “They provided a statement. There were a couple of awkward moments, but nothing I couldn’t handle.”

There were no such moments at Slim’s, where fans got the full Moonalice treatment: The stage was backed by a large LED video wall for customized visuals. Video cameras captured and streamed the set live online to the band’s site, to YouTube and, yes, to its Facebook page.

Moonalice commissions a concert poster, ’60s-style, to give away at each show. For 4/20 this year, it handed out a mind-blowing set of 23 posters, including new ones from ’60s icons Wes Wilson and Stanley Mouse.

The music was eclectic, surprising, tight and suitable for dancing. They began, appropriately, with Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me,” and their mix of oldies and originals, of pot and politics (the Beatles’ “Revolution”) got people up and moving to their beat. That beat, rooted in rock but steeped in blues, folk, country and jazz, is driven by a stellar, seasoned lineup. Besides McNamee, who formed the band in 2007, Moonalice includes vocalist and bassist/keyboardist Pete Sears, from Jefferson Starship, Hot Tuna and Rod Stewart; drummer John Molo, from John Fogerty, Phil Lesh and Bruce Hornsby’s bands; and lead guitarist Barry Sless, who also comes from Dead circles, including Kingfish.

“IT’S CARRYING ON THE SPIRIT OF THE OLD SAN FRANCISCO MUSIC SCENE, WITHOUT SLAVISHLY IMITATING THE MUSIC.”

— McNamee on Moonalice

The 420 gathering has been a sellout the last four years, McNamee says. We are at Buck’s, a restaurant in downtown Woodside, not far from his home, which he shares with Ann, his wife of 36 years who sang and contributed songs to the early version of Moonalice. “The goal of it is to be just an old-fashioned San Francisco music show.” Same with the free monthly shows in Union Square, and the celebrations of summer solstice in Golden Gate Park, which McNamee helps bankroll. And Moonalice not only plays the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival; it also provides daylong video streaming from four of the stages.

“Moonalice has settled into this comfortable place,” says McNamee. “It’s carrying on the spirit of the old San Francisco music scene, without slavishly imitating the music. It has elements of the acid trips, without the drugs.”

Well, maybe without LSD. But all the shows — and audiences — are smokin’.

Roger McNamee, who is 63, is not, like Wavy Gravy, a special guest at the 420 gathering, a survivor of the ’60s constantly flashing back. In 1966, he was 10 years old, living in Albany, New York. But thanks to older siblings, he got hooked on San Francisco bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother, and the Holding Company. As he devoted himself to music, “I realized it was stupid that I wasn’t playing an instrument.” He took up the guitar and would play it through high school and while at Yale. He took a year off in 1976 to see San Francisco for himself. The music scene had changed; he discovered stocks and made his first purchases.

Back at Yale, he discovered his future wife, Ann Kosakowski, a grad student who taught introduction to music theory. They connected after the semester, and her career moves inspired him to attend business school at Dartmouth, then take a job at T. Rowe Price in Baltimore, where he became an analyst of tech stocks. By night, he played guitar in various jam bands, including pop-ups at trade shows and conferences.

After co-founding Silver Lake Partners, a tech-focused private equity fund in Menlo Park in 1999, he heard from representatives of the Grateful Dead and from U2’s Bono himself, each seeking expertise in using technology to connect with fans.

Later, when a deal between Bono and Silver Lake fell through, and McNamee left the firm, Bono told him, “Screw them, we’ll start our own fund.” Elevation Partners, founded in 2004, was a quick success, investing early on in, among others, Facebook.

Another major musical connection was T Bone Burnett, artist and producer, who was working with McNamee and Bono on a business project as well as with such artists as the team of Alison Krauss and Robert Plant.

By now, McNamee was with the Flying Other Brothers, a garage band that did some touring. Burnett suggested forming a new, more serious band — “a San Francisco roots band,” McNamee says. At Buck’s, he recalls T Bone telling him, “Look, San Francisco had this scene, this great thing that’s been allowed to wither away. You should create something in place of it.” That would be Moonalice, and now, says McNamee, “there are 10 or 12 bands doing versions of the same thing.”

Burnett took Moonalice into a studio and produced an excellent album that went nowhere. “The industry had no interest in it,” says an unsurprised McNamee. “The business is about young people. We accepted that we’d have to find our own way.” Besides, he adds, “we had a value system where it wasn’t about money. It was about doing fun, creative, energetic things.

Why “Moonalice”? The band’s name derives inspiration from the ’50s sitcom The Honeymooners and Jackie Gleason’s line, “to the moon, Alice!” (Bob Minkin: https://minkinphotography.com)

Instead of relying on record companies, Moonalice went to social media, employing Facebook to grow its fan base. By advertising one song, “It’s 4:20 Somewhere,” the band scored an astounding 4.6 million downloads of the song, spurring the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to request its digital logs, as evidence of popular music and artists benefiting from direct-from-artist distribution.

We’re never gonna be important in the way the Beatles or the Grateful Dead were,” McNamee says.

“But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make things better, one person at a time.”

There are strong links to the Dead. Moonalice has been the house — or top-of-the-dugout — band for the last six Dead or Jerry Garcia tribute nights at the Giants’ Oracle Park. All Moonalice concerts are opened by MC and road manager “Big SteveParish, former stage manager for the iconic band and manager of the offshoot Jerry Garcia Band.

Also on the team is Peter McQuaid, former CEO of Grateful Dead Productions. He oversees the Haight Street Art Center, which was started by McNamee to give poster and other artists a place to produce prints, then exhibit and sell them. McQuaid knows that in the ’60s, artists created their works for $40 or $50 a piece, including future rights. If their posters went on to sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars, too bad for them.

Moonalice not only pays artists better — $500 is a good guess — but shares the copyrights with them and gives them a couple hundred posters to sell on their own. Since Moonalice’s debut in 2007, McNamee guesses, the band has done 1,000 shows and produced some 1,100 posters.

Next, the Art Center is lending a hand — financial and creative — to SF Heritage, which plans to convert the Doolan-Larson building at Haight and Ashbury streets (recently designated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a “National Treasure”) into a museum of the counterculture.

Shortly after the 420 Gathering and an appearance at Bottle Rock in Napa, Moonalice rolled into its tour schedule, which had been pushed back a month or so by McNamee’s book tour.

In Zucked, McNamee doesn’t only accuse, scold and set off alarms. As Reuters noted, “He also provides a reasonable framework for solving some of these issues.” He told PBS’ Judy Woodruff: “Technology companies must acknowledge their power and responsibilities. Government must enforce a fairer balance between the interests of business and consumers. And consumers must recognize that convenience has a far greater cost than is advertised.” And he tells me, “It’s not about right and left.It’s about right and wrong.”

For McNamee, it’s also about what he’s done with Moonalice.

“Music is a privilege,” he says. “Music is in some ways the opposite of the life I used to lead. My whole life, other than music, was mediated by technology. I was constantly distracted by tech. Most of my relationships were conducted by email or text or phone. Music is exactly the opposite. It’s about being present every moment.”

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