Ace of Cups claim their rightful place in rock ’n’ roll history and rekindle the hopes of a different time
By Bliss Bowen
There’s no denying the sweetness surrounding the reunion of Ace of Cups. The all-female psychedelic rock band earned acclaim from critics, peers and enthusiastic audiences, but they could not get a record deal and parted ways in 1972 after five years of sharing concert bills with better-known friends like Jimi Hendrix, Michael Bloomfield, The Band, and Grateful Dead.
That situation was finally rectified in November when Ace of Cups released their self-titled debut album, thanks to a determined fan who offered them the chance to record. After so many years, it’s just plain gratifying to see anyone get their well-earned due — and to see a group of septuagenarian women with their musical chops, creativity and humor in vibrant force is a joy to witness.
Their gender is significant, especially at a time when women are rattling the gatekeepers of music industry playlists as well as political and corporate power. But when Mary Gannon, Marla Hunt, Denise Kaufman, Mary Ellen Simpson and Diane Vitalich “organically” came together in Haight-Ashbury, it was not to protest the dearth of all-female bands in San Francisco’s exploding 1960s rock scene. Then as now, their gender was secondary — a point bassist Denise Kaufman politely underscores during an interview: “We just wanted to play and record our music.”
Ace of Cups inspire a lot of young women in their families and at their shows, Kaufman acknowledges, but that was not their purpose for playing.
“In the old days, just because of being all women in a scene where there weren’t all-women bands playing, de facto we were inspiring people. Ever since then all through our lives women have come up to us and said, ‘My mom took me to see your band in Golden Gate Park and I told her I wanted to learn to play saxophone, or I needed a guitar.’ Just being who we were we kind of opened up possibility for people, and I think that’s happening again now.
“It’s not just women,” she adds. “A guy at our show two nights ago bought our CD and said, ‘I loved your music; I’m buying this for my mom.’ [Laughs.] At this point in life, being in our seventies, a lot of people are inspired just not to let their dreams go, whether they’re male or female or younger or older. To take those things that make their souls sing, whatever that may be, and move it from the back burner to the front burner in their life. As much as possible, I like to ask: What have you put on hold that you really want to bring into the world?”
Hunt is “doing other projects,” Kaufman explains, so they bring in guest keyboardists like Dallis Craft, who will accompany Ace of Cups on Saturday at the Venice Beach Music Fest, where they will play songs from their double album, which blends ’60s material with new songs.
The women had gathered intermittently over the decades, just to play. After Wavy Gravy’s 75th birthday celebration in 2011, longtime fan George Baer Wallace offered to make it possible for them to go into the studio. That inspired a river of new Ace of Cups songs; an expected 12 songs turned into 15, then 21, and 26.
“We’ve got 36 songs recorded,” Kaufman says, “and another double album coming out next year,” with 16 more songs and guest turns by Jackson Browne, Sheila E and the Escovedo family, among others.
Blues, country, folk, pop and rock tunes on the current release include the moving “As the Rain,” written and sung by old friend Peter Coyote, who was doing street theater with the Diggers and helping collect food for the hungry when Ace of Cups lived across from the Panhandle. Jorma Kaukonen, Taj Mahal, Charlie Musselwhite, Buffy St. Marie, and Bob Weir also appear on the album. (Kaukonen represents a poignant rounding of a circle; he gave guitar lessons to Simpson when she was in college, and Ace of Cups opened concerts for Jefferson Airplane and sang on their 1969 album “Volunteers.”)
“Our record really reflects the community we were a part of,” Kaufman says, “and the people we still love and play with as often as we possibly can, and whose values we share. …
“We didn’t know how precious and graced and extraordinary those times were,” she says of their early days. “We thought they would last, and the changes we were part of promulgating. We thought that society would have made many more radical, positive changes by now in terms of tolerance, diversity, equity and a sense of shared humanity — all the things that were values of those times. We thought that maybe war would be outmoded by now. We thought that humanity was evolving a lot faster than it has.
“So the connections that we can have with people who hear our music now are really holy, because we need to sing out together with people who stand for those values. We need to reach each other and hold each other’s hands and gain strength and inspiration from each other. Getting to be at the age we are, and being able to play as we’re playing, helps us and helps everybody who sees us kind of nourish or recover that faith that the hard times won’t prevail, and that our planet will survive, and that we can work together, and it’s not too late.”
Ace of Cups performs at 2 p.m. Saturday (July 20) during the Venice Beach Music Fest, happening from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday where Windward Avenue meets the boardwalk. Admission is free. See venicefestivals.com for a complete lineup of performers.