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.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Grateful Dead - Spring 1989

In 1989, the Grateful Dead played to one and a half million seats, with an average venue capacity of over 21 thousand. There had been a huge jump in sales and revenue since the release of In The Dark that would continue for the rest of their career: in ’91, they became the world’s highest-grossing touring act, playing to 1.6 million seats for $34 million; in 1994, they sold almost 2 million tickets, grossing $52 million.

In the late 80s, the band developed a broader role in American culture. In addition to the benefit concerts they had always done, Garcia, Weir and Hart went to the UN in 1988 to bring attention to the destruction of the rainforest, and in ’89 they appeared before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. In Garcia’s words, they had become “citizens who have a constituency.” Some of their early fans were now in high-ranking political positions, also adding some legitimacy: in March 1993, Mickey introduced the Endangered Music Project to the Library of Congress and they were invited to the White House by Al Gore, and in July ’94, they had lunch at the Senate with Senators Patrick Leahy and Barbara Boxer.

The end of the 1980s also saw a spike in new music. The band had written very little original material since 1979: in the next 8 years, they averaged a paltry two songs a year, including Lesh/Petersen’s one-off Revolutionary Hamstrung Blues. In 1988, they suddenly brought out seven new songs, including Victim, Foolish Heart, and four Brent originals.

I just finished listening to all but three of the shows played during the spring tour of 1989. While spring tours had generally been bookended with Oakland and Irvine shows, the band had been forced to cancel three mid-March shows in Oakland when the local community refused to have them. Consequently, the band hit the road with a six-week break behind them. The ’89 tour was also atypical geographically: instead of sticking to the coast, they spent most of the tour in the Great Lakes region, played Kentucky (which saw the final performance of Louie Louie) and closed out in Minnesota (where MIDI drums made their first appearance).

Perhaps because of the long break beforehand, the band took a while to hit their stride. The first four or five shows showed some of the complacency that had crept into the band’s MO. There were long breaks between songs, flubbed changes, a sense of just going through the motions. Garcia wasn’t particularly tight in his soloing either, and that first week was a bit flat. The Pittsburgh shows, fifth and sixth of the tour, were released as GD Download Series vol. 9 and as I got into that first show, I really wondered why. The answer came post-drums: The Wheel>Dear Mr. Fantasy(>Hey Jude reprise)>Around & Around>GDTRFB>Lovelight, with Baby Blue for the encore. Not only was this the most fun post-drums of the tour, but it also marked the turning point. The shows after this were all completely solid. I’m most partial to the following pair, in Ann Arbor, but the energy did not let up (though I confess I don’t have the last show in Minnesota). Weir has said that he considers the 89-90 period to be their best; by the end of the spring tour, shows were tight, the songs were as shapely and intricate as they would get, and the band alert and attentive.

I paid a bit of attention to Brent throughout the tour for two main reasons. First, it was his last full year with the band. He split from his wife that year, an experience that was very traumatic, according to Phil: always insecure, he became self-destructive, suffering a non-fatal overdose in December 1989, and dying of another in June 1990. Yet at the same time, his contributions to the band had never been greater. As I mentioned, he brought four new songs to the catalogue in 1988, and two more in ’89 brought his total to 12, plus his covers. By way of comparison, Pigpen brought 9 songs to the band, Keith brought 1 and Vince 2.

He had about one song a night, but the crowd went crazy for his performances. His two most frequent originals were Blow Away and I Will Take You Home. The first, about moving on after a failed relationship, never failed to wake everybody up, particularly the long ad-lib jam in the second half, where he would wail about grabbing love in your hand and keeping it way down deep inside. (I have to admit there were moments when I cringed at the sheer awkwardness: “It’s like you want it in your heart,” he howled at the top of his lungs, “you want it in your heart probably!... baby baby baby baby baby baby baby!” Soulful, certainly, but hardly poetic). Anyway, awkward or no – it got better as the tour went on – it never failed to draw roars of approval from the crowds.

I Will Take You Home was his weeper, typically post-drums. The rest of the band would hang back and more or less let him take the whole thing. Just as Barlow’s lyrics for Blow Away are very appropriate for Brent’s rough relationship with his wife, Home’s, I imagine, resonated particularly in the context of Brent’s daughter. The song evokes a father holding his infant girl, a lullaby of protection and reassurance. Brent sold both songs every time, the latter with poignancy enough to fill the slot after Space usually reserved for Garcia.

The last night of the tour saw the introduction of MIDI effects into the Drums segment. The Musical Instrument Digital Interface allowed an instrument to produce the sound of another. It differed from a synthesizer in two important ways: it could be used with any instrument, and it created a new sound as opposed to playing back a pre-recorded sample. Mickey and Billy had been using samples for some time, but they were the last to get on the MIDI bandwagon. It was first introduced on Brent’s rig in the early eighties, and everyone in the band picked it up at some point, though Phil dropped his MIDI setup for a while because of the lag involved in processing the long bass waves. Garcia used MIDI most conspicuously, eventually using various horn emulators in his solos.

For the drummers, MIDI was really just another toy on the massive toy chest that was the Beast. Of the myriad rhythmic noisemakers clamped to and hung from the frame, very few made frequent appearances except the huge toms and the Beam, which generally featured at the climax of the segment (often loud enough to overdrive the microphones). But in between the kit portion and the climax, Mickey and Billy had dozens of other things to experiment with, making Drums consistently interesting. I only wish I knew the names of half of the instruments they were using, or could tell a marimba from a balafon. Drums was one of the only things that improved consistently throughout. After 1981, there was exactly one show without a Drums segment – the Bill Graham memorial concert – and there were constant additions to the toy box. There is really no way to get drums “wrong,” and as the years went on, there was always something new to listen to, from the talking drum solos Bill favored early on or the atmospheric rainforest sounds Mickey brought in during the nineties.

I’m going to forego listing highlights this time around. Like I said, anything after Pittsburgh was pretty solid (i.e. 4/5 onwards). Solos could still hold surprises (and Garcia was sounding great), but by this period most songs were more or less set: there was little improvisation in introductions, thematic suites within jams, fillers, pickups etc. The one thing that might make or break a performance was the vocals: Jerry was prone to flubbing a few lines here and there, Weir could on occasion bring the roof down with his closers.

The period spanning 1989 and 1990 represents to my mind a peak in the consistency and professionalism of the band, which I think is why Weir is partial to it. They had developed a particular way of structuring a set and of performing songs with complicated arrangements, and here was a time when could be relied on to do it well. Most importantly, they could do so with their largest repertoire to date (not including the Dylan/Dead stuff), so that you can listen to a half-dozen shows without losing interest.

Up next. I realize that I tend to accentuate the positive in the music. I want to explore some of the bad days and get into what was so bad about them. I have not done so yet because I don't have enough shows from say 83-4 or 94-5 to make a fair assessment. I have 7 consecutive shows from mid '93, so that'll have to do for a start.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Furthur, November 2010

Furthur’s latest tour, an eleven-date run between November 8th and 21st, took them through the West-North-Central and North-East regions. The Grateful Dead made a similar run every summer after 1982 (barring ’86), but it was Furthur’s first time in Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota or Missouri. (Iowa is a particularly rare stop: the GD played there 7 times, the last being in ’84. RatDog had been through seven times as well, and Phil exactly once.) The recent tour rounds out all of the major US markets except the South-Central region. I’ll be curious to see if they make it down to Alabama, Kentucky or Texas, all regular - if infrequent - GD stops.

This tour saw them add another few tunes to the repertoire, notably George Harrison’s Any Road. Kadlecik presumably brought that one in: none of the GD have ever performed it, but it’s in JK’s solo catalogue. It came up twice. Aside from that, two sets of lyrics were resurrected from the depths of the Dead catalogue. Spoonful made an appearance in Baltimore on the 17th, sandwiched within Smokestack Lightning. The songs are essentially the same: Weir sang the lyrics but the tune never changed (the same applies Women Are Smarter, Aiko Aiko and Day-O; see 7/6 and 12/31/87). They also resurrected Brent’s Hey Jude reprise at the end of Dear Mr. Fantasy, also in Baltimore. Again, the chord structure doesn’t change: Kadlecik sang the Fantasy lines while the others sang Hey Jude. Finally, the crowd at Madison Square Garden was treated to Furthur’s first performance of Weather Report Prelude>Part 1. The catalogue now stands at an unheard-of 197 tunes (though there is room for debate on the afore-mentioned Spoonful/Hey Jude front, or over how to count the Weather Report or Terrapin sections)

This tour marked a bit of a turning point for the band. First of all, there was an early element of “auto-pilot” reminiscent of Dead tours. The band is getting fully comfortable with each other and the material is well ingrained, which means that they can perform by the book relatively easily. Thus, the first couple shows were tight but conservative. There were also a few songs sprinkled throughout the tour with sloppy intros or iffy changes; a corollary, no doubt, of having such a large repertoire. The second thing was more pronounced arc to the tour compared to the more even quality of the last two outings. There was a high-water mark in Cincinnati, about halfway through, followed by a lull that did not really swing back up until MSG. It wasn’t a deep trough, but noticeable.

Phil’s comments in Chicago reveal something about the band’s more staid philosophy these days. The 11/12 show was, to my ears, surprisingly experimental (just as I had finished telling someone that I thought they were being too conservative…). When Phil came up for his Donor Rap, he thanked the crowd for indulging “interesting asides,” and sorta-kinda apologized for what “some might call … noodling.” In fairness, there were some loose moments in Dark Star and Viola Lee, but it was not so long ago that Phil was talking about how much he loved meltdown moments when anything can happen (Bass Player magazine, May ’09). Perhaps Phil has suddenly changed, but Weir has always run a real tight ship, and maybe Phil is coming around to the idea.

Speaking of Weir: the man has finally (finally!) developed the ability to power through a verse when he doesn’t remember the first line. For years, when he did not have the whole thing in his head, he would just not sing, shaking his head with a grin while the crowd inevitably cheered. Recently it’s been getting almost worrisome. Everybody forgets lyrics, but the solution is to sing whatever lyric comes into your head until you get the rest right. On one hand, the songsmith in Weir seems to demand that he tell the story correctly (In the RD days, he at least once stopped a tune altogether to start the verses over in order); on the other, since he steps to the mic, everybody notices when he doesn’t have it right and it interrupts the song (and gets him bad press in the bargain). Anyhow, this tour marked the first time I’ve noticed him singing whatever line comes up and catching himself after. And I can’t imagine that anyone walked out of the Baltimore show complaining that the third verse of Black-Throated Wind didn’t quite make sense. Overall, July’s Nokia show notwithstanding, Weir’s memory is much more reliable these days. There were as few flubs from Weir as from Kadlecik.

After thirteen years on the bus, Jeff Chimenti is the most consistently original member of the band. He took up piano at age 4 and he studied classical music for about ten years. He switched to jazz in high school and kept at it for another ten, eventually touring with Dave Ellis. That connection brought him to RatDog in 1997, and on to the Other Ones/The Dead starting in ‘02. (He has also played variously with Pete Escovedo, Dave MacNab, Les Claypool, and String Cheese) I’ve previously mentioned his solidity in the context of Unbroken Chain, Big River etc., but as a general rule, perhaps due to his broad background, his contributions are surprisingly fresh. Franklin’s Tower in Reading, Money For Gasoline in Baltimore, and the intro piece to Two Djinn at MSG are good examples. He had ample time to practice the latter piece over the ten-plus years it was in the RatDog catalogue, but he never really settles on a particular feel the way most players will. And he can get a crowd worked up like few others.

Furthur continues to experiment with setlist orders and song pairings. Longtime pair China and Rider are no longer necessarily a pair or even bookends; Viola Lee Blues, which has for over a decade been a sort of mortar-piece that ties most of a set together, was a single tune at MSG on the 21st; Caution and Turn On Your Lovelight appeared in first sets – and not as closers… Songs also continue to get tweaked here and there; Black Peter has a new background vocal arrangement in the jam segment, The Music Never Stopped now ends on a vocal line, Colors Of The Rain seems to change every performance, Dear Prudence has a new chord in the chorus, they’re reworking Hard to Handle… The new transition (>!, where the next tune starts on the 4th beat of the previous one) made a half-dozen appearances; and the Phil-led transitional jams are working better and better… Old dogs, new tricks.

The Reading show and the second MSG show were some of the best, in my opinion. A few other highlights: check out Big Bad Blues and Liberty in Ames, IA, Eyes in St. Louis, Dear Prudence in Chicago and Hard To Handle>Dear Mr. Fantasy in Baltimore. I can’t really link any of the transition jams, since they’re neither tracked nor labeled, but they’re worth keeping an ear out for.

Going forward, Phil and Weir are hosting the annual Unbroken Chain Foundation fundraiser in mid-December; Furthur will play San Francisco for New Year’s; Weir/Wasserman/Lane (also the Rhythm Devils) are scheduled on Jam Cruise 9 in early January; and Furthur just announced three February shows in Colorado.

Up Next: I’m listening to the Spring ’89 GD tour. It’s long, so it might be a few weeks before you get a post.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Grateful Dead – Fall 1976

Thanks once again to Germain’s systematic uploads to etree, I managed to hear the entirety of the Grateful Dead’s midwest/east coast tour in the fall of 1976 and the two pairs of shows in California a week later. The band’s June “comeback tour” had consisted of 19 shows in the northeast and Illinois. They had played a six-show run at San Francisco’s Orpheum in July; and there had been two huge shows (24 and 30K seats respectively), again in the northeast, in August. After a seven-week break (and a cancelled show in London), the band started up again on September 23rd in Durham, NC, and played nine shows, wrapping up in Detroit, MI, on October 3rd. Two shows in Oakland and two more in Los Angeles would be the last until New Year’s Eve.

The band was recently back from its “hiatus.” Apart from the four shows the band played in and around San Francisco in 1975, they had also spent weeks in Weir’s new studio jamming and working up new material, released two GD albums and several more solo efforts, and got the Grateful Dead Movie under way. As McNally tells it, the break in touring was forced on the band by the sheer un-sustainability of the operation as it was in 1974. Not only was the Wall of Sound a financial sinkhole, but rampant drug use was becoming a real hindrance to both music and interpersonal relations and the laissez-faire business model had resulted in a bloated crew and inefficient management. As Danny Rifkin succinctly put it in a post-tour meeting in August ’74: “I’m not having fun any more.” The announcement within the organization was phrased in such a way as to encourage people to find work elsewhere, but notwithstanding Bill Graham’s “the last one” gimmick at the October 20th, 1974, show, not everyone expected the break to be permanent.

(Between October ’74 and June ’76, Phil met, married and divorced a woman named Lila; Rock Scully was arrested over a drug deal and would do some jail time (bunking with HR Halderman); Robbie Taylor – to this day Phil’s stage manager – came aboard, working at Weir’s studio; Garcia separated from Mountain Girl and moved in with Deborah Koons; Weir split from girlfriend Frankie, whom he’d been with since mid-‘69; Billy married his third wife, Shelly; Lenny Hart died of natural causes; and Mickey slowly rejoined the band even though he would not appear on Blues For Allah.)

By mid- ’76 the organization had been stripped down a bit and various changes made to booking and equipment use, but things weren’t perfect by any means. The biggest persisting problem was the band’s record company. Grateful Dead Record and the Round Records subsidiary were proving more trouble than they were worth. Despite creative and quality control, the band ran up against counterfeiters and had an insufficient distribution network that led to a partnership with United Artists. The whole self-production effort finally fell apart in July when Ron Rakow, on board since the Carousel days, author of the So What Papers and head of GD records, got wind of his impending termination and made off with $225,000 in distribution advance money from UA. On top of that, Rakow had invested in a dead-end Hell’s Angels film and borrowed money to keep the company afloat. Financially, the band was not in good shape.

They would sign and remain with Arista in September 1976, definitively abandoning GD Records (and UA).

That same month, longtime friend Rex Jackson died. He had originally come down from Hermiston, OR, through a Kesey connection, with Sonny Heard and Ram Rod in 1968 and joined up with the band as a roadie. After a stint on the Rolling Stones tour of November ‘69 he returned to the GD and worked his way up to manager (‘75-6). He fathered a daughter, Cassidy (as in Cassidy), by Eileen Law, and a son, Cole, by Betty Cantor. Ironically having incited a 1974 “drug bonfire” in Europe in response to the rampant cocaine use, Rex’s newfound free time coupled with his rock-band drug connections got the better of him and he drove off the side of the road one night on his way home.

Such were the conditions under which the Grateful Dead took to the road in late September 1976.

The band’s sound had changed significantly during the break. Perhaps most significant was the return of Mickey and new swing tempos. There was a very intentional and deliberate feel to the music in this period that I like very much: it left room for everyone to have a say and contributed, I think, to the adventurous nature of some of the tunes (more on that later).

Phil was playing a fretless bass this tour, as he would again on the spring ’77 tour. While the most evident manifestation was in the introduction to Scarlet Begonias, it also contributed a wider range in open-ended passages. He dropped that bass a little while later – I think because the fretlessness was unnecessary to his style – but was in rare form throughout the tour. Here’s a jaw-dropping little lick that will give you an idea what he was capable of (at 0:25). nor was he averse to throwing some chords around if things were getting dull.

But the most distinctive element of the sound in this period might be Jerry’s Travis Bean guitar. Recognizable by a T-shaped cutout in the headstock, it was the first of his guitars with an effects loop. He would hold on to it until he got a refurbished Wolf back from Doug Irwin in fall 1977. It had an unprecedentedly bright, clean midrange that was ideally suited to the fast runs of Samson or Big River, and defines to my ears the best days of Scarlet Begonias. It could get a bit screechy in the high end though.

A word about Keith and Donna: they were far from a new addition to the band, but I haven’t really paid attention to their contributions pre-hiatus. Keith was never particularly high in the mix, but I think part of it was on purpose. He was a very colorful player but also very self-effacing. During the first few nights of the tour, he had a few real pretty absent-minded noodles between songs that showed off his abilities, but there were rather few instances where he took off in his solos, preferring instead to play safer, chord-based lines. Nonetheless, he was still alert and tight – it would be another year at least before he started to fall flat in his contributions. It's apparent, meanwhile, that Donna had a very beautiful melodic range but could not cope with the louder stuff. She sang beautifully on most ballads, particularly High Time and Looks Like Rain. Songs like Dancin’ or Playin’ In The Band demanded more power than she could comfortably put forth, and she was often both straining and low in the mix.

The fall tour was atypical in that it took longer than most tours to get rolling but didn’t taper off. I noted in my last post that the band wasn’t always tight: a certain disorganization persisted for about half the tour, with confusion in the arrangements and the odd blown change. I also noticed that there were 1-to-2-minute breaks between tunes, suggesting either technical issues or uncertainty about how to structure the sets. It is difficult to pinpoint when these breaks got shorter because many of the circulating recordings have had them removed. By the time they wrapped up in LA, however, things were moving smoothly. Over those three weeks, the band’s facility with the material improved steadily and there was none of the usual end-of-tour fatigue: perhaps the relative shortness of the tour and the several days of rest between the last two pairs helped sustain the energy.

The long pressure-free jam sessions at Weir’s had yielded a lot of new material. The Music Never Stopped, for example, grew out of repeated workouts on a Weir progression called Hollywood Cantata. Aside from Music were Help-Slip-Frank, Samson and five other new songs. They also rearranged Dancin’, St. Stephen, Minglewood and All Over Now, which had been absent since ‘71. This material would provide the backbone of late-1976 setlists, with many songs – especially Dancin’ – making near-nightly appearances.

While the relative novelty of the material meant the occasional pitfalls, it also meant that the band had an experimental approach to a large proportion of the material they were playing. Music is a good example. The thematic succession that makes up the second half of the tune had two parts: a bridge and a jam on the main theme. At one point (9/30), there was a miscue in the change that led to a sort of awkward jam before everyone came back to the same page. As the tour went on, that awkward moment was repeated intentionally, cued by Phil, and made for a third theme. By the last show, it was gone again. Another moment materialized out of haphazard noodles, becoming what was labeled Orange Tango Jam on Dick’s Picks 20. That being a favorite jam of mine I waited for it as I was listening through the tour and I noticed that the odd lick or effect reminiscent of that jam were peppered throughout, both before and after the night of the jam itself.

A different sort of improvisation stemmed from the new Drums interlude. Drums were a new addition to the sets: usually confined to a few minutes and involving little more than the regular drum kits, they were not always a nightly fixture. Nevertheless, they were regular enough to occasion experimentation with respect to the set: they floated around, generally in set II, and served variously as interludes within a song or as transitions. On September 24th, they split up Slipknot and increased the tempo significantly. As the band came back in, there was a nice little jam on the faster Slipknot theme before they worked the tempo back down into Slipknot>Franklin’s.

To a certain extent, improvisation of this sort was common currency, if not a trademark, of the band’s music throughout its career. This period was nevertheless exceptionally experimental in that department.

Finally I’d like to say a word about venues. We modern-day Heads are spoiled by the circulation of so many soundboards, but it’s a double-edged sword: while it makes for great listening, it also means we often don’t get a sense of the actual rooms the band was playing in. It struck me during one of the longer audience patches that many of these places were big concrete cubes with few acoustic qualities and little intimacy. The Wall of Sound and other financial constraints had engendered the need to book ever-bigger halls. Without including Watkins Glen, the average venue in 1973 held 13,500 seats, up from 5,900 in ‘71. Even with the European tour, 1974’s average was 10,500. In ’76 they were able to go back to smaller venues in the spring, but the fall tour still took them through gyms, event centers and arenas.

All this points to the fact that this band was still struggling. They were making completely unique music for a very dedicated fan-base and that put them on a solid foundation, but they were constantly chasing their bank balance. In 1976, after ten years on the road, there was nothing to indicate that this would ever be anything more than a hand-to-mouth exercise in survival for all those involved. They were famous in their own circle but had not gained any kind of cultural notoriety in the wider world. Nobody was writing books about them (except Hank Harrison, the Warlocks’ “manager,” who published a semi-fictional account of their early days in 1973), and none of them had a retirement fund.

Here are a few highlights from the tour: St. Stephen, 9/25 (interesting stuff in the jam); Looks Like Rain, 9/27 (Keith and Donna both sound lovely); Minglewood, (for Jerry’s solo), and Johnny B. Goode from 9/28; Around and Around, 10/03 (with the double-time ending of that period); Music 10/03 (with that middle bit), Scarlet and Lazy Lightning>Supplication 10/09; and Dancin’>Wharf Rat>Dancin’ from 10/10. As a general rule, shows got better as they went along, and I would say that the tour as a whole is most interesting for its experimental aspects. It yielded two Dick’s Picks: 20 (9/25, 28) and 33 (10/09, 10). Personally, I‘m most partial to DP 20 and the Detroit show on October 3rd.

There you have it. Happy listening!

Up Next: I'm listening four Rhythm Devils shows from the most recent tour; I'll have a word about that up shortly.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Furthur - Fall 2010

Furthur played a nine-date west coast tour in September. They had had a six-week break beforehand (barring a one-off in Golden Gate Park), and are scheduled for another before hitting the Midwest and East Coast in November. They also just announced two shows to wrap up the year in San Francisco, putting this year’s show total at a healthy 82.

September’s outing saw the premiere of three new songs, bringing their songbook to a total of 193 tunes. Two of those songs have their origins in previously written material and feature lyrics by Phil’s son Brian Lesh (with some indirect input from Robert Hunter). The full story appeared in a article, but the broad strokes are as follows. Having heard an outtake from David Crosby’s If Only I Could Remember My Name, Brian built on the only lyric (“Gonna let the mountain be my home”) and wrote a song for his own band. His mother Jill thereafter dug up an old set of Hunter lyrics originally intended to complete Crosby’s, upon which Brian and Phil retooled the song to incorporate all the elements. This yielded Furthur’s The Mountain Song, premiered in Oregon on the 17th and played two more times thereafter. I personally like it very much; it has a great thematic suite, like Unbroken Chain, and a lot of energy.

Brian’s second contribution to the songbook comes from Olla Belle Reed’s High On A Mountain, which has a long tradition of interpretations. Phil having reworked the tune himself, it fell to Brian to write the three new verses that complete Furthur’s version, performed in Redmond and at Red Rocks.

Finally, we were treated to one performance of Weir’s Big Bad Blues. This tune was posted, in its embryonic stages, on Weir’s facebook page a while back and sounded pretty simple and generic, with only two verses and a chorus. The performed song was much more interesting; a long, funky blues with three new verses and a nice long jam sandwiched between a very cool new bridge.

There is more funk in the band’s sound these days. There has been an undercurrent at least as far back as the Crusader Rabbit Stealth Band in 2000, but it was seldom developed into actual songs (barring Shakedown and Viola Lee) until now. I noted the Schoolgirl from last tour and now Big Bad Blues. In addition, JC funked up Stagger Lee and Come Together, and On the Road Again got a full treatment.

Another new trick appeared, this time in the transitions. They can segue seamlessly from one tune to the next (>), they can transition with a jam (>jam>), they can end one tune and start the next immediately (.>), and now they’ve come up with a new way which I’m tempted to dub “>!” because it’s inherently surprising. It involves starting the next tune on the ending chord of the previous one: the tune doesn’t resolve, and the 4th beat becomes the 1st of the new bar. They did it at least twice this tour and I hope they do more of it: it keeps everybody on their toes.

Of Furthur’s revamped material, King Solomon’s Marbles deserves some mention. I noted – uncharitably – that Kadlecik had had a little trouble with the form when they first started playing it. It was originally written and recorded during the hiatus, at a time when I think they felt the desire to experiment with some complex arrangements. Consequently, it is a rather dense progression that takes some serious attention and work to get just right. They finally nailed it from start to finish in Santa Barbara on the 20th. The second performance of the tour, on the closing night at Red Rocks, saw them start to really make an original go of it, with Chimenti in particular finding some very original things to say in his solo section. I’m glad to see a substantially new interpretation start to make some headway. The same can be said of the end of Terrapin: while the first two sections have been evolving all along, those seldom-performed sections have moved past the recital phase (for lack of a better term) and into the performance phase.
Now if JK can just get his head all the way around The Eleven…!

A few disjointed notes: Kadlecik tweaked the lyrics to Deep Elem (“Have your 20 dollars ready,” “bandits in Debellum”); the Other One has a “coming around” closing tag; Phil found a new introductory line to Colors of the Rain; the tricky vocal arrangement to Born Cross-Eyed has been settled, and China Cat and Rider seem to have been separated, performed at a week’s interval, though with the transition jam still serving as outro and into respectively.

Donor Rap: the tour opened with two show in Oregon, which Phil dedicated to Macalan (sp?) in the first real departure from his usual Donor Rap. Macalan was an Oregonian who recently donated his organs, and Phil mentioned him at both shows. It has been eleven and a half years since he’s been doing the Donor Rap and recently he’s been acknowledging that most of the audience has heard it before, and that many of them are already organ donors. There are only so many ways to say that playing at all is bittersweet moment, and that we should all emulate Cody’s courage, nobility and generosity of spirit; this was the first time that he has tried to make it immediately relevant. Parenthetically, Phil has been much more genial in his donor raps this tour than he was over the summer: a word about the rain and the cold in the first few nights, a nod to the renovations at the venue in Vegas, and he repeated how he absolutely loves playing at Red Rocks.

In closing, I’d like to say something that will likely be extremely unpopular: in some ways, Furthur is a better band than the Grateful Dead. Now let me explain before you throw me to the wolves. The Grateful Dead, for all their magic, cultural importance and personal significance to the tens of thousands of people who have grown up with them (myself included), are also plagued, in my opinion, with a certain hagiography. The deification of the band in Deadhead culture tends to obscure their humanity, and precludes a certain type of criticism. Of course we all agree that Garcia was a mess at certain periods, and that the last few years were a painful experience for all involved, but there is always the implicit agreement that there will never be anything that can touch the Grateful Dead. Any and all post-GD incarnations fall into the “used-to-be” column. But let’s look at it the other way: should we write off the ongoing work of the people who created the Grateful Dead to begin with? That would amount to a dismissal of (in this case) Weir and Phil’s contributions. There will never be another Jerry Garcia, just like there will never be another Shakespeare or another Pélé, but there will be other musicians and playwrights and soccer stars who build and expand on their work.

Over thirty years, there was a constant refinement and improvement of the way the Dead played. For all the fun of ’76 (which I’m currently listening to), they were not always tight, nor did the arrangements have the subtlety and texture that they would have later. These aspects continue to evolve. Furthur’s music is driven by forty-five years of development and experience. It is a more professional organization than the GDP ever was: it’s not clogged up with the complications of being the sole support of the extended GD family, it’s less claustrophobic, and in the sense that there is new blood in the band, the music is less inbred. I think the long period of frustration and ill-feelings in the late nineties attests to just how untenable that model had been.

This band is very tight and they work at it, they’re motivated, and they’re disciplined. They have, as a group, demonstrated a willingness to incorporate and develop individual interpretations of the Dead’s material. They’re sober, at least by comparison if not objectively. Phil and Bob have spent fifteen years finding a way to productively renew their body of work. I find the emotional range of the music to be broader, and the thematic progressions to be subtler and more intentional. Which is perfectly logical. Personal preference, naturally, is a different matter.

Jerry Garcia is dead: his body of work is finished and we’ll always have it, but his was a part of a larger musical organism that is still alive and no less interesting.

There. I said it.

Up next: I’m already halfway through the Dead’s 1976 fall tour. I should have a post up in two weeks. Cheers.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Grateful Dead - Europe, October 1981

The Grateful Dead went to Europe seven times in their thirty-year history and cancelled at least two other expeditions. In 1981, they went twice. The first trip, consisting of five shows in March, was a favor to Pete Townsend: the Who were breaking up and Townsend had called to ask if the band could possibly cover some dates in London. They stayed an extra few days to share a bill – and a European telecast – with the Who in Germany. In September, the Dead flew back across the pond for the first extended tour since the acclaimed 1972 visit, playing thirteen shows in seven countries between September 30th and October 19th.

The planned venues averaged 3-5,000 seats (with the notable exception of Copenhagen’s Forum Theater at about 13,000), significantly smaller that the stateside average of about 12K though not out of line with venues in Cleveland, Pittsburgh or DeMoines.

Soundboards (including at least three Millers) circulate of all but two of the shows. They all recently appeared on Workingman’s Tracker as part of the ongoing 1981 project, along with video of the shows at the Melkweg in Amsterdam (the Garcia-Weir acoustic show and the two GD performances).

After three shows in the American northeast, the band flew out and played their first European gig in Edinburg. The mood was grumpy. Technical issues caused delays and gripes from the various band-members and left space for the audience to holler at the band. Of course, the audience was Scottish, and the band can be heard talking, both among themselves and to the audience: “I can’t understand a fuckin’ word.” The show was decent.

Things changed when they hit London, however. October 4th saw a much more relaxed Weir bantering before the show, notably polling the audience as to whether they felt that Springtime for Hitler was in good taste (The Producers had been on TV the previous night). Over the four nights they played at the Rainbow Theater they built up a head of steam that would carry them through most of the rest of the tour. While most of the shows were, for my money, real good, I would point to London 10.6, Copenhagen 10.8 and Bremen 10.10 as the highlights.

I noted with a smile how Weir handled the different countries. When they went over to Germany, he made a point to e-nun-ci-ate clear-ly, and instead of his falsetto “Thank you”, it was “Danke;” Amsterdam might as well have been the US (the aud tapes reveal that a lot of the audience were in fact Americans); in Paris, he managed “intermission s’il vous plait” and a mangled “Bonne nuit et bons rêves.”

There were a total of 92 songs in the repertoire for the tour, including a Blues for Allah jam and four Spanish Jams (the latter having made a big comeback that year). The most frequent tunes were Althea and Minglewood, but aside from that, Garcia had a much broader repertoire than Weir did. Of the other most frequent tunes, most were Weir’s: Rooster, Sugar Mags, Sailor>Saint, Looks Like Rain etc. Garcia, on the other hand, had a numerous ballads like High Time or Row Jimmy that he could break out at will. This pattern holds true for the year as a whole: of the 15 most frequent songs, 13 were Weir’s. Brent only had two songs in the repertoire: Good Time Blues and Far from Me, the latter of which he only played once, in Amsterdam.

Brent, however, was a force to be reckoned with musically. He was in great form throughout the tour. He was always on point, Good Times was always a winner and there are a few moments that bear mentioning as well: his solos on FOTD on 10.4 and Scarlet 10.8, a fun little oom-pa-pa riff at the beginning of El Paso in Bremen, 10.10, and a solid lead on the only impromptu jam of the tour in Ruesselheim on the 13th.

The Drumz section now stretched out to nearly twenty minutes, with the drum solos taking up about 60 percent of that time. Almost every day, after a few minutes on the kits, Bill broke out the talking drum and Mickey his tar; they would give each other a few minutes more or less alone before closing out with the rack-toms. They were quite attached to those drums, it appears: on the Amsterdam jaunt, the only elements of the band’s gear that made it were Phil’s bass and those two drums.

Amsterdam's unscheduled Oops Concerts get a lot of attention as one of the band’s more spontaneous adventures. On a day off in Germany a week before, Garcia and Weir had gone over to Amsterdam to meet some friends of Rock Scully’s, including Basketball Diaries author Jim Carroll, William Burroughs, and a poet laureate named Vinkenoop with a tennis-champion wife and the world’s largest library of psychedelia. That night, Weir and Jerry had followed Jim Carroll’s rock/poetry set at the Melkweg with a 35-minute acoustic duet. The next day, back in Germany, the band heard that their two gigs in the south of France had been rained out, and they faced the choice of either staying in Germany doing nothing or blowing all their money in Paris before their next gig. Garcia, Weir and Scully convinced the rest of the band and the crew to go to Amsterdam instead. The crew accepted - grudgingly - on the condition that they not have to take the equipment.

So on what Scully describes as the band’s last real adventure, the Dead played two gigs on mostly borrowed equipment in a small, sweltering 1,500-capacity club tucked away on the south side of Amsterdam. The shows were a lot of fun if only because the band seemed free of the pressures of a regular tour date and could fool around somewhat with the setlist. On the first night, Brent pulled out the only Far From Me of the year, and they played the first ever Spoonful. The second night saw them open with a rare acoustic set, and the electric set boasted the first Gloria since 1968, followed by the first Lovelight since 1972, and the band’s only performance of Hully Gully.

The following day, the band was in Paris, and two days later they closed out the tour in Barcelona, the only time they ever played in Spain.

Now, the general quality of the shows notwithstanding, some Garcia issues were coming to a head. Thanks to Scully’s otherwise flawed book, we know that his heroin habit was getting to be a problem socially. Scully relates an incident that occurred upon arrival in Scotland. Upon meeting an emissary (i.e. a courier) from local contacts at the airport, a sweaty Garcia insisted upon immediately retreating to the bathroom to get high, despite objections to the effect that customs officers were twenty feet away and their hotel ten minutes from the airport.

The way in which it affected the music is less well documented. The first thing I noticed was a general laziness in moving the show along. Setlists read Jerry.>Bob, pause, Jerry.>Bob, and so on. Weir was always ready to go with the next song. The band was used to it too; one night Mickey had to fix something between tunes and you can hear him yelling to wait a second while the closing hit of Bird Song was still ringing. The only exception to this rule was Mexicali, which Jerry starts. The grainy videos from the Melkweg show that he would walk off the stage for a sec, maybe to fiddle with his rig, maybe for a puff of a cigarette.

Weir (“Mr. Clean” at that time, according to Scully) had an active stage presence. While Garcia was less than charismatic, looking generally shaggy, nobody else seemed particularly alert either, and Bob was already the one leading, calling changes, and keeping the timing and arrangements together when it was needed. There was really only one thing Garcia could be counted on to do, and that was to call the last hit of a tune. He could be capricious as well, setting off on a jam of his own accord (the first time they went along, the second time they left the stage and it segued into drums), and he was resistant to spontaneous musical suggestions put forth by the others.

Finally, I noticed that he was starting to have trouble in the faster parts of tunes. In something that would characterize his later playing as well, he would occasionally miss notes. While he was thinking and moving in time, there would be occasions, especially in faster riffs like Cumberland or Samson, when it sounded like he was missing the string. I should stress that for the vast majority of the shows, his playing was still sharp and that the shows don’t betray a serious issue. But there was a shadow of things to come in the next few years.

Overall, his condition and attitude were getting to be too much for his band-mates. On the last night of the tour, in Barcelona, they presented Jerry with a letter, penned by Phil but signed by everyone, expressing their dissatisfaction with his behavior and musicianship. It started: “Dear Sir and Brother. You have been accused of certain high crimes and misdemeanors against the art of music. To wit: playing in your own band; never playing with any dynamics; never listening to what anyone else plays…” Considering the legendary avoidance of confrontation that characterized the organization’s inter-personal relations, I take this to be a significant step, expressing a lot more than passing frustration.

While I confess I have not listened systematically to a significant portion of 1980-82, I think this European tour is a positive representation of the musical state of the band in that period. The extended jamming on, say, Scarlet>Fire, still yielded interesting moments, especially thanks to Brent, and the more complex Weir tunes like Sailor>Saint were tight and well executed. There were fun moments, like the time Garcia segued into Around and Around so fast that Weir had to jump to the mic, after which Weir screwed around with the introduction to Good Lovin’ to keep him on his toes. Not Fade Away tended to have a nice long jam-in, Truckin’ had those new whistle blasts at the intro riff, Weir was dropping F-bombs in Looks Like Rain and Saint, and the Altheas of this period are some of my favorite. Finally, though musical issues are lurking in the wings, it’s still easy enough to ignore them, and most of the tour is definitely worth a listen.

Up next: Furthur’s on tour, so I’m listening to that. I’m a little disappointed that only three of the shows have appeared (those West Coast tapers tend to be slower than the Joe Beacons of the world), so I guess I’ll be dropping some money on…

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Rhythm Devils - July 2010

Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann have re-formed the Rhythm Devils. Starting on July 16th, the band played eleven shows in the Mountain region and on the West Coast, closing out the tour at the Gathering of the Vibes on the 31st. Venues were varied, from a drive-in theater in Idaho to the venerable Orpheum Theater in Flagstaff, with capacities from 700 to 6,000 (not including the Vibes), in the same circuit as Michael Franti, J.J. Grey or Yonder Mountain. They started a North East leg on August 21st; they will play Chicago’s House of Blues, the Sherman Theater and the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, venues frequented by RatDog and Furthur (the northeast has always been Deadhead territory).

The lineup has changed considerably since the Rhythm Devils’ last incarnation a few years ago, which had included Mike Gordon, Jen Durkin and Steve Kimock. The new personnel has jam-scene favorite Keller Williams on guitar and lead vocals, advantageous because he knows the words to a broad section of the Grateful Dead’s catalogue. The other guitar slot has been filled by 22-year-old Brit Davy Knowles, a founding member of Back Door Slam, who has shared bills with The Who, Government Mule and George Thorogood. The bass slot is held by Government Mule member Andy Hess (whose credits also include Tina Turner, David Byrne, the Black Crowes and John Scofield), and who filled in for Kreutzmann’s Seven Walkers band in June. Rounding out the lineup is talking drum master Sikiru Adepoju, a musical cohort of Mickey Hart’s since the mid eighties who recorded with Stevie Wonder and Santana and has played with Babatunde Olatunji for 17 years.

This tour’s rotation counted 45 songs, with a dozen originals forming the backbone of the setlists; the vast majority of the other songs are from the Grateful Dead catalogue. Aside from that, Davy Knowles contributed Sultans of Swing (the first song he ever learned on guitar, he says), they played David Crosby’s Almost Cut My Hair, Hey Bo Diddley (6 performances), and Neil Young’s Cortez The Killer. Unfortunately, very few shows trickled down through the usual channels: I only managed to get a hold of the Tucson show on the 28th and the Vibes show from the 31st.

The addition of Keller Williams gave the band the freedom to pick liberally from the GD catalogue, so that a lot of those tunes were only performed once or twice. This is nice for the band, and makes for a fair amount of diversity in the shows, but by the same token they did not have time to really work up the Dead stuff: there is nothing new or special about that material. On the other hand, their original material is pretty good. Without the thick sonic atmosphere boasted by previous incarnations, these Rhythm Devils have worked up some new arrangements for Fountains of Wood and Fire on the Mountain (mainly coming from Mickey, it sounds like), and the jam section of Strange World was great both times I heard it.

Overall, this is a young band in the sense that they have yet to really jell around a particular sound. For the moment, the Dead material sounds like it’s being played by a cover band, albeit a perfectly competent one. Davy Knowles has garnered a fair amount of praise for his talents, and knows his way around rock and blues. Andy Hess has all the experience you could ask for but comes off a bit stiff in some of the longer jam segments. Keller Williams plays great and sings well, though he doesn’t have the power and authority of Jen Durkin. It took me a little while to get used to it.

The 17 shows of the current tour, which runs though September 11th (Mickey’s 67th birthday) should give them time to work out an angle, and there are two more shows scheduled for early January 2011. I’m curious to see what happens to this band. There has already been a lineup change, with The Mother Hips’ Tim Bluhm replacing Keller, which begs the question as to what kind of commitment they’re asking of the individual members, and what kind of time-frame they have in mind for the life of the band. I’d venture that it’s not a long-term project, since it never has been in the past, and I don’t expect that they will work too hard at a seriously original sound; I think the drummers have too many other projects on the burner to commit to the Rhythm Devils.

Up Next: at the moment, I'm working through a dozen or so Miles Davis shows. I'm not very knowledgeable on that subject, so I won't post on it, but I think the next thing you'll see here is a review of the Grateful Dead's September-October 1981 European tour.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Furthur - Summer 2010

Furthur has settled into a groove of consistently solid performances this summer. Eighteen shows in the Northeast between June 25th and July 30th have yielded half a dozen new songs, most original; a fresh, non-formulaic setlist pattern; greatly improved vocal arrangements and very few meltdowns. And someone may or may not have slipped something in Weir’s drink at the Nokia Theater on July 28th.

Furthur’s catalogue for 2010 numbers 189 songs, more than the maximum for the Grateful Dead in any year (150 songs in 1987 including all the Dylan material) and even RatDog, who topped out in 2007 at 180. They’ve added a number of originals though they seem to have dropped Welcome to the Dance, which has not been played since February. Muli Guli first appeared at the festival in California and three more times since; Colors Of the Rain was first performed on June 30th and was the most frequent of this tour’s new songs (four performances); and Seven Hills of Gold was broken out in early July. Each of them is credited to “Furthur;” they trade verses on Muli, Phil sings Colors, and Bob handles Hills. Celebration is not a new song, but it had only ever been played by Phil & Friends prior to three performances in July. Aside from that, Traffic’s Feelin’ Alright appeared twice, though I suspect it won’t be a regular part of the catalogue, like Ryan Adams’ Bartering Lines, performed once in New York. I Fought The Law had not been done in recent memory but made a surprise appearance in early June.

Parenthetically, they’ve also started performing the other parts of Terrapin Station, which has a long and complicated history. Robert Hunter wrote pages of lyrics for different parts of an epic-poem-style Terrapin Station suite (see Box of Rain – Penguin Books 1990), most of which have never been performed. In 1977, the Grateful Dead recorded a musical suite including certain parts on the B-side of the eponymous album: Lady With A Fan>Terrapin Station>Terrapin>Terrapin Transit>At A Siding>Terrapin Flyer>Refrain. It may be that some sections were arbitrary cuts for royalty purposes. The At A Siding section was played live once in 1977 without lyrics and is labeled The Alhambra on the tapes that circulate but aside from that, the song was always limited to the first Lady/Terrapin diptych. In August 2002, RatDog started performing the whole suite, but it was not until the Furthur Festival that this was picked up by anyone else. Since then, Furthur have performed At A Siding>Terrapin Flyer>Refrain (or Terrapin Reprise) five times. The suite runs about twenty-five minutes, making it a bit unwieldy, but they have also played the first diptych and the second half separately.

Pardon the digression.

The summer tour kicked off in Brooklyn, and though reviews were generally very positive, I couldn’t help but notice something that persisted through the first half of the tour at least: Weir’s volume. His level has always been rather low, and the Weirheads out there, myself included, often wish he would turn up. This is only advisable up to a point. Often times during the tour his volume was the loudest on the stage. Now, insofar as he and Phil are the backbone of the group, he ought to be prominent in the mix, but his tone and the structure of the music make too much Weir detrimental. First of all, he often seems to play at the very highest limits of the human auditory spectrum, a sound bordering on screechy, which even his guitar tech admits sometimes needs to be rolled off. In the context of the Grateful Dead’s sound, with a pretty full tonal range, the high end can be the only place to find some room to play. However, if he is too loud, it can obliterate the upper midrange and the high end distracts from everything else. Secondly, the Garcia element of the Dead’s music involves a consistent, flowing lead sound to tie the other rhythms together. Weir has a way of nudging a groove along by picking moments to interject: if he is playing at lead volume, there’s nothing to nudge and it breaks up the flow.
He was pretty intentional in his volume level, as I recall, at times turning up further if Kadlecik stepped up. I imagine he’s either working on developing a way to lead with his guitar voicing, or trying to carve out a greater directive presence. I personally don’t think he can lead with guitar alone unless he plays a straighter rhythm. However, he definitely came down as the tour went along, so whatever he was going for, he seems to have found it.

Since Furthur started up about a year ago, there has been some experimentation with vocal arrangements. Specifically, Weir and Kadlecik are trading verses (Tennessee Jed), couplets (Half-Step) and in some cases even lines within a verse (Touch of Grey). When this first started, it felt disorganized and unnecessary but they have gotten quite good at it, so that it’s not that noticeable any more (Touch in Ottawa is a case in point). Jeff Pehrson and Sunshine Becker are still at times an integral part of the vocals, as opposed to embellishments or chorus: The Eleven is a good example, with substantially rearranged vocals, and Pink Floyd’s Time relies heavily on their contribution, though Phil sings as well. The a-cappella tunes like Attics and We Bid You Goodnight could not happen without them.

Some songs are noticeably being tweaked. Hard to Handle (7.8) jumps right out. There is a funky new introduction, and long centerpiece jam, and the end goes into a vamp with some Weir vocal ad-libs. Shakedown Street’s “shake it down” vocal vamp and modulation was not done the same way twice this tour. Once they did a long a-cappella vamp before the shift, once they did it like RatDog: twice around on the vocal line into the change; and there was also an occasion on which they added a vamp before the end of the modulation. It’ll be interesting to see what they settle on. Ashes and Glass has a new chord progression towards the middle at “Nothing left to say,” and Weir added some words at the top of the Jack Straw jam in Philadelphia. While on the subject of Weir’s singing, I’d like to point out two tracks in particular which showcase the roar he can still muster despite his age and reputation. Admitting that he has off nights on which he sounds a bit weak, check out Satisfaction in Philly (7.10) and Death Don’t Have No Mercy at the Nokia (7.29). I’ve never heard him belt one out quite like that last one.

Keyboardist Jeff Chimenti continues to be in top form though he takes fewer leads than he did last tour (Weir takes more). Unbroken Chain (their best song, for my money) relies most heavily on JC’s contribution but he takes relatively frequent solos and almost always has something interesting to say. Note that he has a bit more freedom to come up with something original than Kadlecik, who tends to be confined to the Garcia mood for given sections. Joe Russo is solid as always. I noticed a few things: first, he’s the only guy on stage who moves much. Those of you who saw that viral video of the wedding band drummer twirling sticks and pumping his arms will have an idea of what Russo is doing, albeit on a lower scale. It’s not too showy but it is noticeable compared to the generally staid attitude of the front-line guys. Second, he’s very tight. There are numerous transitions with Furthur (the “.>” stop-go kind, as opposed to the China>Rider type) and he never misses a beat, which is something that Bill and Mickey never quite got the hang of. His facility with fills is most noticeable on the latter Terrapin sections and on Slipknot, both of which have drum-fill portions that he always nails.

To finish up, I’d like to throw in two cents about the Weir incident at Nokia on July 28th. The by-now-familiar video of El Paso shows Weir a little unsteady on his feet, shaking his head, and completely unable to remember the words to a song he’s been singing for 40 years. Trouble started during the previous tune, Brown-Eyed Women, in which he flubbed the end verse. There were some more blank moments in the second set, though not as painful as the 5-minute El Paso vamp (Music and Cassidy). Some say he was drunk, others say he was dosed, and Phil implied the latter by way of an introduction on the following night (detractors argue that it could be a plausible lie to cover for him). I know that Weir has had issues with drinking, though not in any detail. Nonetheless, I cannot imagine that a career musician would do something quite so unprofessional. For a guy whose livelihood is so squarely and intentionally based in performance, it doesn’t seem logical to get drunk before a show. Additionally, he didn’t appear impaired in any way on the Shakedown opener, nor did he sound stumbling-around-drunk on any of the other tunes he sang. Being dosed before the show and thrown for a loop at the onset of the trip a few songs in seems to fit the performance. I have no inside info, no expertise on the psychotropics going around, but I don’t think he was drinking.

Anywho, that’s it for this installment. There is a lot I didn’t cover (setlists, for example), favorite shows (I’ve heard Herniker a lot, but I’d say Nokia 7.29), etc., but this seems quite long enough. Thank you for indulging me.

Up next: I heard a few Rhythm Devils shows from this past tour. I’ll have a short post on those within a few days.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Carol Brightman: “Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead’s American Adventure”

Carol Brightman was a political activist in the late 60s and early 70s. She edited the underground Viet-Report on the US’s involvement in Vietnam, and later won a National Book Critics Circle award for a book on author/activist Mary McCarthy. In the early nineties, her editor – and the fact that her sister had long worked for the Grateful Dead – convinced her to write a book about Deadheads. The end product came out differently: Sweet Chaos mainly chronicles the counter-culture years of the late 60s, using as lenses the Grateful Dead and her own experience.

Carol’s sister Candace had been working at the Capitol Theater in 1971 when Garcia came through with his band. He liked her work and asked her to join the GD crew (“A lot of people work for us for nothing,” he told her when she asked about pay). She started in New York at the Academy of Music in March 1972 and aside from a couple of years when she quit in a huff (‘74-’75 – Parish had refused to let Carol backstage), she was a full-fledged family member. Carol, on the other hand, was heavily involved in political activism, and had relatively little contact with her sister at the time. She makes no claims to be familiar with the inner workings of the band and admits that their a lot of their music sounds the same to her.

The book opens with the only really historical analysis of the burgeoning hippie culture of the mid-sixties. Rather than focusing on the Haight and the Summer of Love, she traces the Beat generation’s gradual demise, the emergence of a secondary coffee-shop scene and the fabrication of the “hippie” identity (noting that at the time of the S.F. Chronicle article coining the term, “hippie” referred to high-school-age Beatnik wannabes, an unflattering term hotly resisted by those involved).

The book’s centerpiece places the late-sixties activism in which Brightman was involved against the Grateful Dead’s origins and early identity. There are chapters devoted to the Weather Underground, her time at Viet-Report, and with the Brigadistas, those American youths who descended on Cuba to aid in the revolution by harvesting the sugarcane that would finance an independent government. While the connections with the GD’s world are not made explicit, she ties them together under the umbrella of the government’s efforts to curb the counterculture. The Dead were busted and hassled, of course, and Brightman discusses the extensive files on her own and others’ political activities, and chronicles the spate of clashes between National Guard and college students in 1970.

The author argues that in the early 70s, both political activism and the Dead’s early counter-cultural identity petered out. Though she is not particularly clear on the details, it is true that Lenny Hart’s exit was more or less the last straw in a series of failed in-house initiatives, and that thereafter there was a reorganization of the band’s financial and touring affairs that effectively brought them more in line with the mainstream music business. She is more eloquent on the demise of political activism: the sheer number of factions and angles made an actual solution difficult to articulate, and it became clear that the cost of further encouraging resistance (i.e. Weathermen attacks and campus clashes with the National Guard), was unacceptable.
In my opinion, the comparison is not altogether very convincing, even if the two phenomena were coeval. It seems to me that they were reactions to different mores of mainstream culture – loosely speaking, social vs. political – and that there was little direct connection between the two movements.

There is a break in the narrative around 1971-2 (like everyone else, she focuses disproportionately on the band’s first five years), but the initial intention to write a book on Deadheads provides her a wealth of interview material. A cross-section of fans, some there for the music, others for the drugs, provide a look at Deadhead culture upon which she bases some illuminating commentary: the escapism provided from mainstream culture and politics, the development of the Deadhead identity, the flowering of the secondary merchandise and parking lot scenes etc. She also gets a fair amount of information from Candace and Chris Brightman (their brother, a set carpenter for the GD in the nineties and later for the Furthur festival), providing a glimpse of the culture backstage and among the crew: jealousy and petty battles, Garcia’s unavoidable cult status, mistrust of anyone on the outside, etc. These are not great revelations, though nonetheless authoritative. The ensuing discussion is original and very useful in explaining the Grateful Dead phenomenon to the uninitiated, giving a broad overview and some insight into the “why-on-earth” questions elicited by the band’s admittedly obsessive fandom.

Sweet Chaos is, to my knowledge, the only historically contextualized book on the Grateful Dead’s early years, and it does more than most to address the varied elements of the band’s social appeal. That being said, it dwells on episodes of the author’s experience whose relevance is unclear and whose weight is unwarranted considering the book’s title The original angle about Deadheads comes through but meanders somewhat, as though the author could not pick out a unifying thread. The political counterculture parallel to the social upheaval surrounding the Dead in the late sixties is relevant to the band’s origins and this book juxtaposes them nicely, but it is only the beginning of the work to be done in that area.

Up Next: I know I’ve been promising a post on Furthur’s summer shows. I’ve had a rather fragmented schedule recently with very short commutes, so it has taken me much longer than usual to hear those shows. You should get something within a week.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Rock Scully: "Living with the Dead"

Rock Scully worked for the Grateful Dead in several capacities for almost twenty years: he was brought in by Owsley Stanley in December of 1965, and was eventually let go in early 1984 (or ’85, depending on who you believe). In 1992, having kicked the drugs that got him fired in the first place, he began writing “Living With The Dead: Twenty years on the road with Garcia and the Grateful Dead.” The first of a half-dozen primary accounts on the Grateful Dead, it was written with David Dalton; it was first published in 1996 and remains in print. Eschewing even a cursory chapter on the author’s origins and mentioning his private life only in passing, it is strictly what the title implies.

As with almost every other account, the first half of the book centers on Haight-Ashbury and the years between 1965 and 1970. The description of that period is refreshingly subjective: Scully does not situate the hippie phenomenon in any grand philosophical or cultural scheme, using it rather as a backdrop for what the band was doing. In between descriptions of acid trips, there are glimpses of the San Francisco hippie identity, that unifying spirit of independence from the mainstream in which artists and activists coexisted for a few brief years in the mid-sixties. But the rest of the book is set squarely on the road: in green rooms, hotels and buses.

Scully’s main focus is the drugs. His opening scene has the band members banging on his door looking for whatever he is holding, and the book more or less closes on a frankly disturbing picture of a heroin-ravaged Garcia. In that respect, the book is more detailed than other accounts. That drugs were a fixture is no secret, but the book reveals the encyclopedic range of psychotropic pills and liquids that circulated in the early years, and offers a brutally frank account of Garcia’s habits in the early eighties. However, this is Scully’s only real lens: methamphetamines fueled the Beat and proto-hippie scenes in the sixties, cocaine drove the Dead’s grandiose plans for self-sufficiency in the early seventies, heroin kept them going in the studio during endless nights of mixing during and after the hiatus, etc.

The book also centers on Garcia, and Scully does not seem to notice the irony in dropping the man’s name in the sub-title as he explains that Jerry’s drug use was fueled by his need to escape the spotlight. The other band-members figure barely as caricatures. Phil likes wine. Weir is spacey and does few drugs. Kreutzmann likes to get wasted on anything and everything. Mickey is a real asshole if you don’t mike his bells properly. Despite the focus on Garcia, however, the account is very superficial, outlining no more than the most rudimentary character traits in between descriptions of Jerry holed up in an airplane bathroom for an entire flight, or dirty and stinking, subsisting on Häagen-Dazs and heroin, his legs too bloated to walk. The end of the book is an ever-darker succession of vignettes reminiscent of Requiem For A Dream: get drugs, hide out, do drugs, repeat. Scully was at the time as much a junkie as Garcia was, though he doesn’t say so in so many words. By his account, the two of them enabled each other, hid out together, scored together and got high together. Scully rented apartments – secretly – specifically so that he, Jerry, and Garcia Band bassist John Kahn could smoke Persian heroin out of sight of everyone else. He is certainly the person most intimately acquainted with Garcia’s habits, but he writes objectively and avoids all responsibility or commentary.

Painful as it may be, the portrayal might have more credibility if the book weren’t so riddled with factual errors and fabrications. For someone so closely involved with the band, he makes mistakes that could have been avoided with some basic research. He writes that Weir’s parents died in 1970 (they died in early 1971); he explains that the tie-dye amp coverings first appeared on the Wall of Sound, as a response to people hurling bottles at the speakers (they existed at least two years before that); and he states that Owsley Stanley went to jail in 1969 (he was busted with the band in New Orleans in January 1970). Meanwhile, the entire seventies seem to be a blur: among reminiscences from 1978, for instance, he places an episode with Sam Cutler, who left the band in early 1974.

These errors put into question the road-stories that make up the majority of the book: Owsley's famed pill-press in the attic of the house in LA; Keith Moon chiseling a hole into his room from Garcia’s to retrieve his stash; Kreutzmann pissing in his Eggs Benedict in front of a hotel maid … There is little reliable factual information here; the atmosphere is plausibly recreated but everything seems fictionalized to the point of irrelevance. Almost all dialogue is obviously fabricated and even if the spirit of a given conversation is true, there’s nothing you can hang a hat on.

The book is not a complete loss, however. First, the focus on drugs does force one to at least acknowledge that the organization functioned under a pervasive atmosphere of insobriety, which is especially relevant to the early years before a concerted effort was made to solidify the group’s financial and managerial affairs. Ordinarily, the inefficient and ad hoc character of the early GD years is chalked up to inexperience and an almost quaint idealism. However, the Dead in those days were very close with the Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother, Janis, and Crosby, Stills and Nash, big names with big budgets and big record companies behind them: they could not ignore the complexities and pitfalls of running a major touring and recording act. Purity of intentions notwithstanding, communal living and partying without any professional experience or external anchors could only breed waste and disorganization, especially if pot, LSD, DMT and nitrous oxide were daily indulgences.

Secondly, it does little service to perpetuate the myth of Garcia as the wise and benevolent Buddha figure. To a large extent, this image accounts for the mythos and popularity of the band, but it inaccurate and has no value for posterity. The book’s images are ugly, almost unnecessarily so, but they are a useful commentary on cults of personality and the isolation corollary to being ensconced in a self-perpetuating organism of several hundred people. If we’re going to understand the Grateful Dead, the ugly side has to figure in the perspective.

The book can be a fun read: underage groupies, trashing hotels, getting really really wasted a lot… This is the stuff of rock and roll legend and rowdy stories in concert parking lots after a show. You should, however, take it all with a pinch salt. Rock Scully, who will turn 69 on August 1st, recently appeared in two video interviews, with Lesh and Weir, on Furthur’s festival website. He and his wife Nicki, whom he was with for most of his time with the Dead, have split. She is a priestess or a witch of some sort and is heavily involved in Egyptian spiritual rites. Scully is a member of the San Francisco Arts Commission, has a radio show, and makes frequent appearances at San Francisco cultural events.

Up next: I’m catching up with the Furthur tour; that’s on deck. I also bought Carol Brightman’s “Sweet Chaos: the Grateful Dead’s American Adventure.” I should have a review in a few weeks.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

January 1970

The Grateful Dead were in full swing as they rolled into 1970. Having just released Live Dead (November ’69), their financial affairs were as close to tidy as they had been since they had signed with Warner Brothers in September 1966. Their touring schedule, such as it was, involved more or less constant playing: they played almost 290 shows in ’69 and ’70, meaning shows virtually every other day for two years running. December 1969 took them from San Francisco to LA, Texas, Florida, and Massachusetts. They kicked off 1970 in New York before heading back to California, then Oregon and Hawaii, and finally closing out the month in New Orleans. Still in their twenties, the Dead were playing to audiences in the thousands all over the United States.

This period was a high-water mark for the band in general. Musically, they were beginning to move away from the experimental psychedelia that had characterized the two preceding years. While it had yielded some fabulous music and a record-breaking live album, the Anthem/Live Dead years had also seen the erstwhile firing of two band-members including Pigpen, who was otherwise alienated by the influence of LSD on the band’s musical direction and structure. Garcia would later call their music of that period “self-consciously weird.” Meanwhile, the time they had spent on Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa had put them in severe debt, prompting their grueling tour schedule.

In April 1970, the band would discover that their manager Lenny Hart had been systematically diverting money to a private account set up with his bank-teller girlfriend. While suspicions had floated about for a while (Pigpen’s organ had been repossessed from the stage at a sound-check in December), the other shoe dropped over a missing royalty check destined for Garcia. He and Mountain Girl had had their eye on a house and MG had been calling the business office on Union Street regularly, awaiting the arrival of money owed Garcia for his work on the motion picture Zabriskie Point. When the check arrived, Gail Turner called the Garcias; by the time MG got down to the office, Lenny claimed that no such check had arrived. That was the last straw: RamRod was called in and Lenny was given a few days to get the books in order and turn them over, during which time he fled to Mexico with 150 thousand dollars. Mickey subsequently went into a crippling depression. Phil's father died around the same time, as did Pigpen's mother. Later that year, Jerry’s mother Ruth passed away after a month-long convalescence following a car accident. Janis Joplin, longtime friend and neighbor of the band, died of a heroin overdose in early October, two weeks after Hendrix had taken too many sleeping pills and choked to death in his sleep.

But in January, the band was in great form, getting a lot of mileage out of the by-now-familiar Live Dead material while working up the songs that would yield Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty later that same year. Most shows would incorporate the Other One suite, although it was not always complete; they omitted Cryptical one night and the reprise on another. There was by now, however, a real drum solo that could stretch up to ten minutes, a significant expansion on the initial few bars between Cryptical and Phil’s bomb into the Other One. Drum solos appeared elsewhere as well, most notably in Good Lovin’ but also in Alligator or even Dancin’. Dark Star was frequent, though less so, as was St. Stephen.

Among the newer material in the rotation was Mason’s Children (consistently tight and energetic). Phil introduced it on January 3rd as a song they had written for a film project they had finally bailed on. It was supposed to be shot at a drive-in movie theater, where they would play to parked cars. Dire Wolf appeared almost nightly as well. Jerry was determined to get people to sing along to the “don’t murder me” chorus; he would often introduce the song as a “paranoid fantasy song,” one you could easily sing along to if you wanted. He even went as far as rearranging the tune on February 1st so that it started with the chorus. Black Peter was a near-nightly fixture, as were Cumberland Blues and High Time. Uncle John’s Band made a few appearances, but the performances were still pretty sloppy.

Pigpen was in high form musically, if not physically. Lovelight was well-established by then, so much so that fans in the audience were calling out parts of his “hands-outta-yo-pockets” fix-up rap. Hard To Handle was a regular, and the audience was treated to the occasional Easy Wind and Good Lovin’ as well. He wasn’t always right on point, though since he didn’t care, it came over better than when Weir or Garcia flubbed. The latter two would either mumble or stop altogether, while, Pig just barreled ahead with whatever words came through his head. He might repeat parts of verses or switch the odd word around, but he always sold it. The end of the Live Dead years would open up some room for Pigpen to contribute more songs: within two years he would be breaking out Run Rudolph, Two Souls in Communion, Empty Pages, and a half-dozen other shorter-format songs.

TC’s tenure was coming to a close. He was with the band until they returned to San Francisco in early February. His contributions were less and less evident at this point. The work he had done to color Mountains of the Moon and more introspective versions of Dark Star was less integral as the years went on, and his approach to the shorter, country-flavored tunes was a bit stiff. He was offered a job writing for a musical and he and the band had an amicable parting of ways.

Much of the new material featured three-part harmonies, influenced, Phil would explain later, by Crosby Stills and Nash. Stephen Stills had spent most of the summer of ‘69 living at Mickey’s ranch in Novato and the two bands had spent a fair amount of time together. While Jerry and Bob had a relatively experienced approach to singing, Phil was eager but untrained, and his frequent high harmonies sounded strained in a live setting. Can’t blame the guy for trying. Phil always had a very serious approach regardless of objective merit. I almost laughed out loud after Feedback one night: following a good ten minutes of distorted screeching and rumbling, he stepped to the mic and said, with a tone befitting the flawless completion of Beethoven’s ninth: “Thank you. Goodnight.”

Bob Weir's role in the band was growing significantly. Just over a year earlier he’d been sorta-fired because his musical chops and responsiveness lagged behind Phil and Jerry’s. The tapes from the first shows of January and February (Fillmore East and New Orleans respectively) had Weir very high in the mix, giving a close-up view of what he was doing. I was most struck by just how varied his parts are; each chord change, each shift and modulation, had a distinct Weir-part built around what the others were doing. Historically, Weir has been fairly low in the mix, and when he goes from straight chords to inversions to single notes, it’s easy to lose track of where he is and what he’s doing.

There were two occasions on which equipment issued left some space to fill. The first time, Weir did Monkey and the Engineer solo, with a little Jerry sneaking in towards the end. On January 31st, however, Phil’s amplifier blew out. Weir carried the show with five tunes mostly by himself: Long Black Limousine, Seasons of my Heart, Saw Mill, Bound in Memories, and Race is On (Jerry followed it up with five of his own before they closed with Cumberland).
Let the record show that, after the late-’68 Hartbeats experiment, Weir caught up quick.

Rock and roll equipment in those days was primitive – broken strings were an almost nightly occurrence – and the Dead had yet to start using a professional PA (Alembic would be their first, in spring ’71). Their system in January 1970 was mostly homemade, and Bear had returned to the fold (he and the band had parted ways in August ’66). Bear was a stickler for sound, an electronic mad-scientist type whose continual experiments were hampered by his constant LSD ingestion. On one hand, the soundboard tapes from this period generally sound very good - when everything was running right – but they are often incomplete. There were relatively frequent calls from the stage about tweaking the monitor mix, feedback issues and system hum. Jerry got noticeably cranky on February 1st: “Ah, could you eliminate the ring from the PA please. The ring is most annoying, most annoying.” to which Weir added “What you’re hearing now is the Bear solo.”

Sound issues abounded on the last night of January, at the Warehouse in New Orleans. Like at Woodstock, a grounding problem caused electrical shocks for the singers and they had to stop a while and fix it. Phil cracked: “For a while, we thought the only life around hear was the heat!”
Weir took the opportunity to wax antiauthoritarian: “ I got a statement to make: This seems to be a blatant attempt, by the establishment,” (laughter) “to keep rockers from coming here and, ah, save this fair city for the straight people. Well…”
Jerry: “The revolution’s over…”
Phil: “Go home, folks… Remember, obedience to the law is the only true freedom.”
Weir: “And crime does not pay.”

The exchange was oddly appropriate for the evening: upon return to their Bourbon Street hotel, they found the police crawling all over the place and were all hauled off to the precinct. This was a show bust, by most accounts, and photographers and media did nothing to keep things civil or low key. Phil writes that Weir somehow managed to handcuff an officer to his desk! Pigpen and TC, roommates and both non-smokers, were not arrested. Mickey presented an ID that said Summer Wind (“spiritual advisor”) and so he was not officially booked. Eight hours later, after a phone call by Warner’s Joe Smith to the New Orleans DA promising that the Dead would stay out of New Orleans (and a significant campaign contribution), the band were released on bail. Early that same morning, Mountain Girl had called the hotel looking for Jerry to inform him that she had just given birth to a baby girl: Annabelle. “Sorry honey,” she was told, “the police came and took them away last night.”
Bail had wiped out the proceeds from that night, and they booked another gig on February 1st to make up for it. They would share the bill with Fleetwood Mac, leading to a raucous, 40-minute, all-star-jam Lovelight closer. No mention was made of the legal trouble, though there was a shout-out of sorts. The MC introduced the band: “And now those who made this afternoon possible, the G…”
“The New Orleans Police Department!”

These were the days of adventure, excitement and uncertainty. The GD machine was taking on a life of its own and the band was reaching an adulthood of sorts. The music is strong, tight and forward-looking. We hear the inauspicious beginnings of Uncle John’s Band, early stabs at the China-Rider transition jam, experimentation with arrangements for the new material, top-notch performances of the Live Dead material, some very rare acoustic stuff, and an epic Easy Wind (Jan. 30). My favorite show was Jan 2nd in New York (a Miller soundboard circulates), but the whole series was real interesting. The legendary February 14, 1970 show at the Fillmore East was just around the corner, and Harpur College (5/2) only three months away, so January is worth checking out if only for historical context.

Up next: I heard the Oakland run from February 1990 but there’s nothing of great import to say. I’ll have a post up next week on the first part of the Furthur run. I also bought Rock Scully’s Living With The Dead, so you can expect a review within a few weeks. Cheers.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

7 Walkers

In July 2008, Bill Kreutzmann ran across Louisiana native Malcolm “Papa Mali” Welbourne backstage at a festival in Oregon; the two hit it off and began playing together whenever the opportunity presented itself. In October of last year, sessions started up for an album of songs written by Papa Mali and Robert Hunter. Soon after, they began performing as 7 Walkers. They have been out and about since then and a number of shows have trickled down to etree, whence they were dutifully snatched up by yours truly.

Papa Mali is on the road 200-odd days a year and has an impressive resume. He toured with various blues and funk bands starting in his late teens and found his way into reggae with the Killer Bees. He eventually toured with Burning Spear, where he got the nickname he has gone by for the last twenty-plus years. His first solo record was real dirty swamp music, his second was more raw delta blues with a jazzy bent to it. He has toured with B.B. King, Cyril Neville and Derek Trucks, and is a regular fixture at the big summer festivals, where he inevitably winds up sitting in with any number of headliners and all-star bands.
His stylistic range is pretty broad, and even if he sticks to a mostly rock sound with 7 Walkers, he can throw some funk around and plays a mean slide. At the same time, he tends to keep things simple; there are no fireworks, no longs buildups or screaming, sustained leads. He is humble and versatile, so that he does justice to a wide range of sounds. His singing has a New Orleans/Dr. John sound on the edges, which comes out in some of the band’s swingier stuff.

Aside from Papa Mali and Kreutzmann, the official 7 Walkers band (named after one of the Hunter originals recorded for the album) also includes bassist Reed Mathis and multi-instrumentalist Matt Hubbard, from Willy Nelson’s band, who plays keyboards, harmonica and trombone. Mathis performed on the album and on the band’s early gigs, but not on the recent tour. He was replaced by George Porter Jr. for most of that time, though Brad Houser played on at least one gig. The bass slot is relatively conventional except when Porter is on board, in which case he sings a few (he does a mean Hey Pocky Way) and takes the occasional solo.
Hubbard is a great player whose facility with the trombone allows the band to take on a distinct New Orleans sound. One original on which the horn is prominent is a fun, if fairly generic, tune called New Orleans Crawl, but it is also integral in the band’s highly original take on Death Don’t Have No Mercy. The song gets a full Bourbon-Street-funeral treatment, a surprising adaptation in keeping with the character of the lyrics. They played it at all three of the shows I heard.

For a guy who doesn’t want to play with the Dead, Kreutzmann sure plays a lot of Grateful Dead music: 7 Walkers’ catalogue is almost exclusively GD material. They play a few covers and a handful of cuts from the album, but they also do a lot of material like Bertha, Sugaree, He’s Gone, Wharf Rat, Mr. Charlie, and even We Bid You Goodnight. On paper, this seems pretty uninspired but the approach is liberal and makes for interesting renditions. Papa Mali has no problem switching a few words here and there (“…something like a bird inside her sang,” “Got to get back on my feet someday”), and they managed to produce very interesting versions of Bird Song and Deal, to name a few standouts.

Overall, the band is very accessible: funky, versatile and surprisingly good, while sticking close to familiar territory. Here’s a great soundboard from a show in Denver in early June, which should cover all you need to hear to make up your mind. I’d definitely check them out if they come around your neighborhood.

Up Next: January 1970. I have 10 shows, so it’ll probably be two weeks.