PORT TOWNSEND — The 1960s musicians who still are touring often present nostalgia acts, playing a familiar selection of their hits that is designed to make the audience open its wallets.
Country Joe McDonald, who performed in Port Townsend on Thursday night to a crowd of about 100 people at the Upstage Theatre and Restaurant, follows a different path.
Instead of a strict recreation of the familiar, he provides a capsulated look of his career, incorporating satire, politics and history.
He does play the big hits from Country Joe and Fish at the end of the show, leading the crowd in a perfunctory version of “Gimme an F!” followed by the Vietnam-era anti-war anthem “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag.”
The crowd participated enthusiastically, especially in “Fixin to Die,” when McDonald stopped singing and let the crowd take over for the complete “one, two, three what are we fighting for” chorus.
McDonald, 68, looks a lot different from his famous poses at the Woodstock Festival in 1969.
Instead of tie-dye and long hair, he wore comfortable grandpa shoes, rolled up khakis and a plaid shirt as he sat atop a stoll to perform.
McDonald, born Joseph Allen, now is clean-shaven and short-haired.
But when he is singing an edgy political song or providing a wry comment, the glint in his eye tells you that it is the same guy from the history books, who helped redefine obscenity and continued a tradition blending of politics and music.
“We have all aged,” said a fan who identified herself only as Eliska. “But not really.”
Another difference between McDonald and a nostalgia act is its variety.
He launched into a long story about the rumored hallucinogenic properties of banana peels, when he was told that drying them yielded a substance as potent as marijuana.
“At the time we were eating nothing but peanut butter and banana sandwiches,” he said. We were throwing the peels away and wasting our money on weed.”
The notion snowballed, resulting in newspaper headlines and rumors.
After a few months the Drug Enforcement Agency conducted a test and found the peels were benign, as far as getting high goes.
In the meantime, the media had reported the rumor and you couldn’t find any bananas in Berkeley, McDoanld said.
McDonald shifted gears, playing a song from the first-person viewpoint of an army nurse.
This was followed by a segment from a musical project he has worked on for several years, examining the life of nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale.
For those in attendance who remember the 1960s this was a more potent reminder of the era than any hit song.
Instead of today’s carefully choreographed presentations, concerts were often ragged affairs that embraced a variety of styles and ideas.
And the audience pretty much went along with it.
McDonald also drew from his next project, a 13-CD box set that features music from the Vietnam era.
The set, titled “Next Stop, Vietnam,” features well-known tunes from Bob Dylan and the Doors, as well as songs written and recorded by the soldiers themselves.
Those attending Thursday’s show, especially those who stayed for the second set, felt a personal connection with McDonald.
“Country Joe was a major part of my life,” said Aaron Von Awe of Port Townsend.
“His music meant a lot at the time, he was a major spokesman in the 1960s.”
Von Awe brought along a worn copy of Country Joe and the Fish’s fourth album, 1969’s “Here We Are Again,” to get signed.
Von Awe saw McDonald perform several times in the 1960s along with people like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
He was excited to see that McDonald play, but admitted that he hasn’t played the Fish record for some time.
“My taste now runs to Miles Davis and other kinds of jazz,” Von Awe said. “I remember the music well, but don’t listen to it much anymore,”
The signed record, he said, would be a gift for his 10-year-old grandson.
“This is a historical relic,” Von Awe said. “Maybe my grandson will listen to it someday and get a sense of what it was like back then.”
Von Awe had the album signed and chatted with McDonald, after the singer’s invitation that closed the first set, a merchandising pitch with a twist.
“If anyone wants to come up and tell me some stupid stories about the 1960s that you think actual happened, come on up and I’ll listen,” he said. “We are also selling CDs and posters.”
McDonald began the first set with a loud “gimme an F,” and the crowd responded. He didn’t get to the “U” until the end of the second set.
“I usually dedicate this song to the commander in chief but haven’t yet dedicated it to President Obama,” he said. “We all still love him.”
The crowd reaction to this was tepid.
“We still want to love him.”
The reaction was only slightly more enthusiastic.
“We don’t hate him as much as George Bush.”
The crowd then came alive, and McDonald again shouted for an “F.”
Jefferson County reporter Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at [email protected]