The Big View – Once Upon A Time in Modesto

The BigView
Once Upon a Time in Modesto
By Chris Murphy

1969 was a time of great music, expanded awareness and horizons. Nothing showed this to the world like Woodstock Festival, held in August 1969. Along with Elvis and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, this was one of history’s greatest music happenings. 1969 was also a creative space in Modesto USA. Modesto Junior College, Merced College and the fledgling Stanislaus State brought a lot of music and students to the area, bands were plentiful and there were a couple of cool venues to host creative shows, many that attracted big name artists, sharing the stage with our locals. Earlier in the 60s, bands like the Ratz, Eisage, Nimitz Freeway, Weathervane and others shared the stage with the big name bands, Van Morrison and Them in 1966, and then new to the scene, The Doors in 1967 at the Ice Rink, and then in the spring of 1969, an amazing show by the Grateful Dead at MJC that featured local musicians (see note from Michael Lingg). Word is that the Grateful Dead spent the night at the Covell Hotel. There is an excellent recording of this show here:

Nightclubs like the Purple Turnip brought in bands from everywhere, and 10th and 11th Streets were the places to be. The California Ballroom, the Fable Room, the Amory, and the Playhouse were jumpin’ and besides wrestling, the Uptown Arena had concerts too, even hosting Montrose, led by Sammy Hagar. Back in In 1965, local musician Gary Duncan moved from the Ratz to Quicksilver Messenger Service and Modesto’s proximity to the bay area provided good access to bands that lasted well into the 70s. As the 70s evolved into the 80s and the department stores abandoned downtown for the mall, the venues changed, with the Pavilion opening on Prescott, The Vintage opened in downtown and the Tree Frog and Carmen’s became the places to be and the legendary Fable Room in the basement of the Covell Hotel became Dazzles Underground. The Modesto Ice Rink had a string of great shows including Fleetwood Mac in ‘76, Pablo Cruise, Hagar and more. Local bands California Zephyr, Countryside, Silvermoon, and Homegrown became local household words. The Disco age saw the conversion of the Pavilion to the Sports Page, the Black Angus was jumpin’, teen discos like Charlie Tuna’s brought in the crowds as well as Gilligan’s. Bands like the Lights, Jet Red, Visitor and Raven brought the rock and bands like Collage and Strayheart delivered the new wave. As Day on the Green brought the superstars to Oakland, Mountain Aire brought the big bands to the foothills and Oakwood Lake had great summer concerts.

In the 90s, bands like Fathom, Built Like Alaska, DAM & took hold and the super innovative and critically acclaimed Grandaddy found fame around the world while operating out of Modesto. Venues like the Mustang, Dirty Duck and Charlie’s is where it was happening. In the late 90s and through the 2000s, the scene really began to catch on with the help of B93 FM that presented annual Summerfests, local bands like Flying Blind, UVR, Built, Puffin Billies, Tara Tinsley, Hollopoynt, The Evening News (now Stop Motion Poetry) Megan Slankard were showcased side by side with national acts. The local metal scene thrived, with Built, Nothing But Losers and Fissure. Now superfamous, Matt Nathanson got his start in his many Modesto gigs downtown and showcasing the annual Acoustic Christmas shows at the State. And through all of this, Kid Guitar was there looking for a bikini wearing bass player.

Cruising was a huge part of Modesto’s history and it was going strong and even bigger than ever in the 70s. McHenry was the place to be and Graffiti night would bring the crowds and cars back to 10th and 11th St over the years, but for most, it was 5 points all the way out to Mervyns or Gemco to turn around. It was quite the sight when Grease played at the Briggsmore and then you cruised afterwards. Former Modesto Bee photographer Al Golub had a front row seet to the Modesto of the 70s and 80s and his photos really capture the spirit of the day. Cruising was one big giant gridlock in those days and got bigger as it became sanctioned with Graffiti Night events and concerts.

The 90s saw an end to cruising, a new renaissance of downtown Modesto thanks to the Modesto Downtown Improvement District, Tresetti’s, Deva, and the State Theatre. Soon with the redevelopment and construction of 10th St Place and the opening of the Gallo Center in 2007, new business started bringing downtown to life. The Barkin’ Dog has been one of the biggest champions of local music of all types. With music being front and center at the Monthly Art Walks, Patio Fests, Samplers, and the summertime favorite Music In the Plaza, Modesto music is front and center again.

2000 was a milestone year of music in Modesto, with great concerts in the plaza, street corners and shows at Hero’s, and Modesto Center Plaza. and it introduced X Fest to downtown.

The opening of the Fat Cat Music House in 2001 was a game changer and brought in world class bands like Maroon 5, Snoop Dog, Lifehouse, George Thorogood, Buddy Guy, Leon Russell, Coolio and so many more and was a vital showcase for many local bands of all genres.

X-Fest was one of the region’s biggest catalyst for live music, with our downtown streets filled with stages, featuring music of all genres with over 80 bands performing on one night. This was an event that worked for so many different groups, genres and cultures and it was good for our community. X Fest was an annual milestone that bands prepared for. Sadly X Fest was shut down and hopefully something that showcases so many bands in our community will come back again.

In 2001, the musicians of Modesto rallied to raise funds for the Red Cross after the tragedy of 9-11 at the State Theatre, featuring Grandaddy, Scenic Route, Built Like Alaska, Puffin Billies, Ann Loureiro and others.

Modesto still needs a couple of good venues that can hold a couple of hundred people. The California Ballroom is still here and still rocks and the State is showcasing more live music and events. The Queen Bean regularly hosts bands and open mics, and Rivets, P. Wexford’s and Nino’s are reliable for live music and Ralston’s Goat has become one of the places to be seen and heard in the local music scene. We are seeing a lot of new bands like Sloome, Tiffany Rose & the Outlaw Hearts, Us 4 Love and youth bands like Indie Daze and faves like Triple DDD, Lodgepole Pickers, Good Luck Thrift Store, A La Lune, Greg Scudder & the Beer 30, and others are still killin’ it. We are counting on you, the music fans to get out and check out bands. But standing tall through all of the changes, Crocodile’s still rocks with a full disco light stage and classic jams, fun times and the best dance floor in the area. If you haven’t been, you need to go. It still feels like the Sports Page back in the day.

Today, there are new generations of new musicians and there is even a school of rock in downtown. VMI Rocks, under the guidance of MAMA winner Darin Morris is teaching new rockers every day and they have amazing showcases at the Gallo Center, the Stanislaus County Fair and host their own music festival in Graceada Park called ModStock, that will be held on August 11. This is especially appropriate in this 50th Anniversary of Woodstock. Somebody scream!

In 2000, Chris Murphy and Chris Ricci hatched a plan so celebrate local music on a grand Modesto scale, creating the Modesto Area Music Association, aka the MAMAs. Every October, the local music community gets together to celebrate all genres of music and honor a person for their lifetime of supporting local music. Nominations will be posted soon, so it is up to you to vote for your favorites. There is no academy, it is all up to you. The MAMAs are supported by ModestoView, Chris Ricci Presents and our amazing friends the State Theatre, the home of the MAMAs. The 2019 MAMAs will be held on October 15 and is managed by MAMA winner, Middagh Goodwin.

Live music is something special and there is something special about cities that embrace music as part of their culture. Live music and the creative song writing process a vibe about a city, a downtown that is unique and special. It generates a special vibrancy the brings a city to life. We have that here Modesto and we can make it better.

Once upon a future
We are working hard to recreate Modesto’s past so that we can really do a great to build the future. Modesto has an authentic story to tell, from our cruising, our music, our industry and culture. For us to build a brand for the future, we must build on our past. Authenticity is the key and Modesto is loaded with it.

We need you!
Do you know more of the story? Do you have pictures, postcards and ticket stubs? We need to fill in the blanks. Help us do this at We need your memories, your memorabilia and your ideas to make our city better. Please reach out at<> on any subject.

Learn more about Modesto’s music history

Grateful Dead at MJC Note from Michael Lingg: I played in the band that was the opening act for the Grateful Dead. Band was called either American Dream or Superband, depending on the day of the week with Myself, Patrick Durr (guitar), Dennis Durr (guitar), Greg Habid (bass), Herman Costa (drums), Bruce Young (tenor sax)and David Patton (alto sax and flute). I only remember that the concrete and glass octagon (?) that was MJC Student Center had horrible acoustics, but I was thrilled that Jerry Garcia played a Gibson SG just like mine.

Thanks so much to Russ Allsup, for the posters, collections, band listings and timelines and his Modesto music knowledge.

Other great places in our area that regularly showcase live music: Rusty Nail, Udder Place, Grand Cru, Twisted Pig, Tilted Turtle, the Log Cabin and more. Check out for the daily calendar.

Rip Gary Duncan
We lost a legendary performer last month. Finding fame globally as one of the founding members of Quicksilver Messenger Service, with amazing hits like Fresh Air, Gary Duncan, formerly Gary Grubb from Ceres started his music career in the local band The Ratz, and they made quite a name around town and then in 1965 after a quick stint in The Brogues, formed Quicksilver. There performances at Monterey Pop were quite electric and they helped define the bay area sound and their album Happy Trails is # 185 on Rolling Stone’s greatest albums of all time. Gary performed and toured in and out of Quicksilver until his passing at the age of 72.

Posted in: community, featured, music, news

About the Author:

Chris Murphy is the President and CEO of Sierra Pacific Warehouse Group and Publisher and Founder of ModestoView Inc. Chris worked globally in the cycling industry returning to Modesto in 1996. He is also the founder of the Modesto Historic Graffiti Cruise Route, Legends of the Cruise Walk of Fame, Modesto Rockin’ Holiday, the Modesto Music History Organization and co-founder of the Modesto Area Music Association. Chris is married to his artist wife Rebecca since 1985 and has two daughters Madison and Abigail, both graduating from Modesto High and UC Berkeley. He is lead singer and guitarist for his band, Third Party that donates their performances to non-profits.