Listening to everything, so you don't have to

All the new stuff will be here: RatDog, Furthur, Phil & Friends... I listen to the rehearsal tapes that surface on etree, I watch the videos from Dime and Trader's Den. I also occasionally post little research projects on various periods and people that were pivotal in the life of the Grateful Dead.
Everything you never got around to checking out, I did.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Grateful Dead - rehearsals with Keith, Fall 1971

According to the Illustrated Trip, Donna Jean Godchaux approached Garcia after a gig in September '71 (he was playing Bay-area clubs with Merl Saunders, Bill Vitt and John Kahn at the time), and introduced him to Keith. Legend has it that she told him: "This is going to be your new keyboardist." Pigpen's liver problems weren't letting up, and Garcia was looking for a new keyboard player, so he auditioned Keith and liked him.
From September 30th to October 1st, the Dead rehearsed in Santa Venetia (just north of San Rafael), with Keith. He would play his first gig with them on October 19th in Minneapolis, and Donna would join 5 months later during the Academy of Music run.
(I should note that the tapes I have are not quite the same as those on Archive; the song lists and mixes are a bit different).

The sessions.
I picked these tapes up hoping mainly for conversation between tunes. The Other Ones rehearsals in 1998 were full of banter and stories (Weir explaining how Janis "fucked the whole train" during the Festival Express tour, Hornsby saying of Garcia "he was just a fat guy who ate too many burgers," etc.). However, these tapes came out of the board, and only Bob, Phil and Jerry had mics, and not all the time. Whoever released the tapes also edited out what was probably mainly dead air, though it might have had barely audible chatter in the background. The result is that there is only a little talk on the tapes. I also hoped to get a glimpse of the band working out songs and running passages or transitions, like the Viola Lee Blues sessions in '66. That didn't happen much either. Promised Land was the only example; they shortened the intro and closing licks. The tapes are basically straight run-throughs of their material, including some new stuff. It all sounds great, mind you; it's worth a listen just for that.

I was very impressed, right off the bat, with Keith. Having begun, way back when, listening to the later Keith period (76-78), I was never very impressed with his playing; it always seemed rather subdued, competent but unimaginative (though I've always loved that TLEO solo from the Cornell show). In these rehearsals, he really brings some very different sounds to the mix. Tennessee Jed (new song) got a really funky organ groove that everyone got in on. On Mama Tried, he played New Orleans-style fills throughout, El Paso had an "oom-pa-pa" feel, and Deep Elem was full-on boogie-woogie. It's worth noting that, unlike later when he would insist the Dead lug around a grand piano, he played an organ on a lot of these tracks, and quite nicely too. None of that stuff would make it to the live shows - in fact none of it would even make it to the last rehearsal - but having heard it, I think it would be worth checking out the early Keith period, maybe that first tour in the midwest.

New material.
The band was introducing several new songs during these sessions. Garcia brought in Tennessee Jed and Brown-Eyed Women. At the end of the latter song, we hear him ask Hunter if that was okay. Hunter doesn't hear him. When they finally get his attention, Garcia quips "He was thinking about adverbs" Everybody laughs. Weir brought in three new tunes: Jack Straw, Saturday Night, and Mexicali Blues. The first two have differences in lyrics. Jack Straw has a whole other verse: "we can jump the toll gate / save us fifty cents / I'd lend you my last dollar / but it's already spent." They "leave his rings but take his change," instead of taking both. He goes to Tulsa, "two men by his side." Finally, the first bridge "Hurts my ears to listen... / We used to play for silver..." is absent. Saturday Night is only half-finished: there are only two verses, and the first lines are "Went up to the mountain / Like I do from time to time."

Phil introduces Mexicali Blues on the 30th: "Here's one where the bad guy doesn't get it." In those days, the last line was: "And he made me trade the gallows for the Mexicali Blues." Weir argues that this original line indicates that the protagonist goes to the gallows, while Phil maintains that, to the contrary, he trades them in for the Mexicali blues. Personally I agree with Weir on this one: the protagonist already has the Mexicali blues; "... I guess I came to keep from paying dues / Instead I've got a bottle and a girl that's just fourteen / and a damn good case of the Mexicali blues." If he already had the blues and traded them, then it would be for something that he didn't have, namely the gallows. Sometime between '72 and '73, Weir changed the line so that the guy lives ("Now I spend my lifetime running with the Mexicali blues"), so apparently, he eventually saw it Phil's way, which I maintain is the wrong way. Therefore, I'm starting a petition to change it back. Who's with me?

Overall, I didn't learn as much about the band dynamic as I hoped. However, these tapes could constitute a show like any other, and a good one at that: they have some very unique interpretations that never made it into the live canon, and are a nice showcase for Keith. Incidentally, the tapes I heard were substantially cleaner than those on archive; they were posted on etree by Germain on 11/11 and are still up if you want them. Enjoy.

Next up:
I'm currently listening to Phish: someone posted six consecutive NYE shows ('94-'99) and I like the idea of hearing the evolution of their sound at regular intervals. However, since I don't know Phish all that well, I'm not sure I have anything intelligent to say. It looks like I'll wait for the Furthur run for my next post. In the meantime, I also heard a terrific jam session at Mickey's barn in Novato on 8.21.71 with Bob, Jerry, Phil, Mickey, John Cipollina, David Crosby, and maybe some New Riders. It's very laid back, and has, among other things, a dynamite 29-minute Wall Song/jam.


  1. Question - Do you know if Garcia auditioned any other keyboardist other than Keith? Did Donna and Garcia knew each other previously?

    About the debat - I think Phil is right. Sorry.

  2. The way Phil tells it (Searching for the Sound p. 199), Keith and Donna approached Jerry after the gig but Keith was too shy, so Donna did the talking. I've never heard of another keyboardist auditioning, but that's not to say it didn't happen. They were very loyal to Pigpen, obviously, so I don't know how actively they were shopping around the slot.
    Debate Score so far: tied 1-1

  3. Nice read.

    Let me know when you get to The Phish's NYE 1995 show. Listen to the Fire tease at the end of Drowned!!!