Kevin Vance in better days at Cody’s. Blame Sally, Thompsonia, Maurice Tani and Stephen Kent perform Saturday at Ashkenaz in a benefit for the longtime DJ. Photo: Andy Ross
Kevin Vance in better days at Cody’s. Blame Sally, Thompsonia, Maurice Tani and Stephen Kent perform Saturday at Ashkenaz in a benefit for the longtime DJ. Photo: Andy Ross

Kevin Vance has spent his life sharing his love of music over the airwaves, and now many of the musicians he’s championed are demonstrating their abiding appreciation for his efforts. Struggling with underemployment, Vance has fallen on hard times, a situation exacerbated by a prostate cancer diagnosis last year. On Saturday, a stellar roster of roots musicians will hold a benefit concert for Vance at Ashkenaz to help him to stay in his one-bedroom Berkeley apartment.

Organized by fellow KALW DJ Dore Stein, the influential conduit for international music and host of Tangents, the concert features roots-rocker Maurice Tani, the powerhouse all-women quartet Blame Sally, fellow KPFA radio host and global didgeridoo master Stephen Kent, and Thompsonia, the tuneful new band that brings Berkeley roots music stalwarts Eric and Suzy Thompson together with their daughter Allegra.

A familiar and beloved presence on the FM dial for more than three decades, Vance has long hosted A Patchwork Quilt, which airs on KALW Saturdays 5-6:30 p.m., and various folk, world, and classical music programs on KPFA. He held down a bookstore day gig for some 25 years, which allowed him to work as a volunteer at both stations, “but since Cody’s closed I’ve been dealing with underemployment,” says Vance, 59. “I’m looking for work in radio and bookstores, which are both getting smaller. I’ve been getting various short-term jobs in customer service since 2008, and living off of savings, which I’ve basically used up. That’s why there’s an air of desperation.”

See the GoFundMe campaign for Vance.

A run of bad luck has compounded his difficulties. Like a narrative from a bad country song, his car died, his aging computer got balky, and doctors delivered the news about the renegade cells in his prostate. Overcoming his aversion to asking for help, and encouraged by his musician friends, Vance started a GoFundMe campaign that saved him from homelessness (a campaign that’s ongoing). Friends have rallied to make sure he gets rides to his doctor appointments. And then Stein organized Saturday’s celebration with the help of musician and Grateful Dead scholar David Gans.

Kevin Vance hosting the Front Porch Stage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2015. Photo: courtesy Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival

“I’m really blown away,” Vance says. “A lot of musicians have come through and expressed gratitude for my work. I’ve put my heart and soul into my shows. I’m terrible at asking for help, but I was raised in Berkeley and I refuse to be priced out of my hometown. A couple of months ago I was scared I’d have to live in my car. People ask what my long-term plan is and I tell them it’s day at a time.”

While Vance was something of a radio prodigy, he denies the rumor that he was conceived at KPFA. It’s not hard to see how the story got started. His mother worked as a KPFA receptionist throughout  her pregnancy with Vance and a few months after his arrival, so you could say his radio career started in utero. But the station can’t take credit for his conception. For one thing, his father wasn’t a fan of the organization’s tone (“He called it K-Gloom,” Vance says).

Fascinated by the mechanics of television and radio as a child, he started volunteering at KPFA in 1973 at the age of 14. A teenage activist and aspiring revolutionary, he began by answering the station’s front-desk phones. By 1975, he had his FCC license and was subbing regularly for various hosts. Vance did so much work at the station that he racked up enough work/study credits to graduate from Berkeley High a year early.

He got his first show under his own name in 1985 when Monet Holmquist asked him to sub on her KALW show As Clouds Roll By, which ran every other Monday 5-7 a.m. Tired of the early mornings, she turned it over to Vance, and, before long, the show started airing weekly. He developed a distinctive programmatic sensibility, implicitly making a case for essential musical continuities by juxtaposing long tracks from different styles. It’s a sound that can be heard on KALW’s A Patchwork Quilt, which he’s hosted since 1991.

While he continues to spin records, he’s closely monitoring his health. Rather than opt for immediate surgery, he’s undergoing intensive surveillance, with regular tests to make sure the slow-growing cancer doesn’t accelerate. And, like a radio pro, he turned the medical ordeal into a podcast about the experience.

“If nobody told me I had it I wouldn’t know,” Vance says. “It is the scary C word, but it’s the slowest moving kind, and I’ve been blessed with lots of friends to help me through this.”

The UC Theatre: Back to the Dead

Dark Star Orchestra raises the Dead, opening the UC Theatre on April 7 with a three-night run. Photo: courtesy Dark Star Orchestra

After three false starts, the fourth attempt to re-launch the UC Theatre should be the charm Thursday night, when the dedicated Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra opens a three-night run. Best Coast and Wavves were due to perform at the UC Theatre on March 1, but the show was relocated to the Fillmore. Problems with the theater’s electrical wiring forced the cancellation of March 25’s sold-out They Might Be Giants show, as well as March 26’s concert by Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue.

For non-initiates, Dark Star Orchestra might seem like an odd endeavor. The Chicago-based band plays Dead shows in their entirety, recreating specific concerts with uncanny accuracy. In a rare move, the group announced beforehand that Saturday’s closing show will be recreating the Grateful Dead’s Aug. 24, 1972 concert at the Berkeley Community Theater, which is considered by aficionados as a particular high point for the band (you can judge for yourself here).

Drummer Rob Koritz, who handles the Mickey Hart chair, explained the significance of that date. “That was a really good week, just before the famous show in Oregon,” which was captured on the documentary and album Sunshine Daydream. Koritz might have the night off, as the show took place early in Hart’s nearly two-year Dead hiatus when Bill Kreutzmann was the band’s sole drummer. It’s the group’s first show in Berkeley, but they’ve performed often in the Bay Area, where “it’s always a little different,” Koritz says. “It’s Mecca, and the Bay Area fans are fantastic. And one of the cool things about playing in the Bay Area is that you never know who might sit in.”

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....