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.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Furthur, Winter 2010 Vol.1

I’ve heard the first five Furthur shows of the current tour, and they have finally got it straight. This is by far the closest thing to the Grateful Dead since 1995, but it also reaches back to a much earlier time in terms of open-mindedness, experimentation and most of all responsiveness. The shows are tight and unconventional, making the experience surprising even for an obsessive Deadhead like myself.

The Grateful Dead catalogue’s evolution necessarily left some worthy songs by the wayside, and in recent Dead incarnations, there have been constraints placed on the catalogue by the committee aspect of decision-making, by the large number of vested interests (read: management), and by the crowd expectations of the large-scale tours The Other Ones and The Dead were putting on. But Furthur is a different beast on many levels.
First, they are not marketed as a continuation of the Grateful Dead, even if to many fans, they are. Second, they are not playing Giants Stadium or Shoreline Amphitheater in front of tens of thousands of fans but rather playing to anywhere from three to thirteen thousand. Third, management is stripped down and there are two clear leaders who are deeply attuned to each other. Finally, the lead guitarist is already completely versed in the material and most importantly the musical vocabulary of the Grateful Dead, unlike Kimock, Mark Karan, Jimmy Herring or Warren Haynes. Both Bob and Phil have noted in recent interviews that Kadlecik’s familiarity was a decisive element.
The result is that Weir and Phil can both go back to old and forgotten material and incorporate their respective solo work. I was glad to see The Race is On and On The Road Again reappear, tunes almost lost since 1980’s Radio City run, along with King Bee and Next Time You See Me, grand old Pigpen staples from the 60s, and even Brent’s Just a Little Light. On the other end of the spectrum, Ryan Adams’ Magnolia Mountain fits beautifully in the repertoire, and even if RatDog’s Money for Gasoline doesn’t quite translate to Furthur, it’s nice to keep that material alive as well.
Another major development is the abandonment of the Grateful Dead setlist formula. Gone are the regular short-tune-first-set or the second-set arc with a long exploratory jam in the second half>ballad>closer. There are no set- or slot-specific tunes: for example, they opened with Born Cross-Eyed>Music and closed with Shakedown on the 5th, they opened with One More Saturday Night on the 6th, did Estimated in the first set and Cumberland in the second on the 8th, etc.
The addition of Sunshine Becker and Zoe Ellis on vocals has been the occasion for more deviation from the GD MO: there are backing vocals present, though unobtrusive, on most songs, generally on refrains. At the same time, they have allowed for the reinforcement of certain key moments, notably big crowd-pleaser lines like “liiiiiiiiife” in Wharf Rat and “Steal your face” in He’s Gone. Though they are not especially featured most of the time, it was nice to hear them take an a-cappella We Bid You Goodnight in Orlando.
Finally, Jeff Chimenti, longtime veteran, is becoming an absolutely integral part of the band. Relegated to coloring the music, plus an occasional solo, for years, he now takes almost as many solo leads as Kadlecik. Among other examples, he got three rounds on Deep Elum in Orlando and made a big impression on Atlanta’s Promised opener and Casey Jones in Asheville. I don’t think any other keyboardist has been so prominently featured in the GD or any GD-related project, except Hornsby in the Other Ones. He knows the material as well as Kadlecik and has a boogie-woogie inclination, which, coupled with his general modesty, makes for some very interesting jams.

And yet somehow, with all this reinvention, this band’s sound is incredibly close to the energy and responsiveness of the late 60s and early 70s. The second set in Atlanta is a stellar example: the Cassidy>Mountains of the Moon>Death Don’t Have No Mercy sequence was outstanding. The fact of having only one drummer (Jay’s percussion is not a rhythmic anchor) makes it easy to switch gears, and Phil and Bob’s leadership provides direction. I have a dozen tunes with big check marks in my notes, but Asheville’s Unbroken Chain (especially JK’s epic lead at the end) and Orlando’s After Midnight stand out (despite the latter’s slightly confused intro). That’s not to say everything’s perfect. There is the odd meltdown here and there (one on the 6th and another on the 12th) and Weir forgets a verse every now and again, as usual, but overall, this first run is the most consistently high-quality series of shows I have heard in a long time. (I did hear the first set of the 12th as well, that one is a bit lackluster).
I don’t want to rave too much, but this is a tight band with a diverse repertoire, and it deserves attention.

On a completely unrelated note: I want to propose a new item for setlist notation. In writing setlists, most people more or less follow the Deadbase practice of labeling as “>” any two songs with less than a few seconds between them. I think that there is a relevant difference between instances when the band transitions musically from one tune to another (Scarlet>Fire or China>Rider), and when they end one song and immediately start another. I use “.>” in my notes for the latter instance, and I humbly propose we put that into general use.

Up next: I’m following the whole Furthur tour, so there will be another post or two on that, probably a bit more technical than this one: song structures, effects etc.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Garcia: Palo Alto folkie, 1961-1964

Garcia was honorably discharged from the military (“not suited to the military lifestyle") in January 1961, and he immediately moved down to Palo Alto to live with his longtime friend and future GD roadie Laird Grant. For the next four years he lived there gaining a reputation as an active and talented folkie, the kind of guy you heard of if you were making the rounds in that scene. Palo Alto is small and the folk scene was not a big cash cow, so there were only a few places to play, and a strong feeling of solidarity between those involved. I listened to five shows predating the GD, tracing Garcia’s early bands. During this time he would first meet Robert Hunter then Pigpen, Phil (though they wouldn’t play together till later), Bill Kreutzmann and eventually Bobby Weir.

The first show was from July 1961 in San Carlos (likely at the Boar's Head). This was the period when he lived in his car, next to Hunter’s, and split his time between St. Michael’s Alley, a coffee house on University Avenue, and Kepler’s Bookstore. He had just met Marshall Leicester, a Yale student who taught him a great deal and would be a musical cohort of Jerry’s for several years. In all probability, Leicester and Hunter were the two other players on the tape. They played very traditional tunes cribbed from the New Lost City Ramblers, the Carter Family and the Anthology of American Folk Music, songs about Jesse James and Robert Ford, Willow trees and absent lovers. Jerry already was taking the lead in introducing songs and making wisecracks. “Tuning will take a while so if any of you have any long distance calls to make, now’s the time.”
About a year later, the band that would become the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers played in San Rafael. Marshall Leicester was present again, and they were joined by a fiddle player named Dick Arnold. The later, apparently rather quiet, was the butt of a few jokes as to his origins. Marshall Leicester joked that they’d found him in the back of a pizza restaurant, to which Garcia quipped: “He was back there playing to curdle the mozzarella.” The material was the same sort of thing, tunes learned from old recordings. On a couple of occasions, they mentioned that they made up lyrics since they couldn’t figure them out from the recordings. They played one song called Buck Dancer’s Choice, and also Shady Grove and Sweet Sunny South, which would later be in the Garcia/Grisman catalogue. Jerry also did a solo, a-capella rendition of Man of Constant Sorrow. They spent a lot of time introducing songs and bantering while they tuned (Jerry tuned obsessively, and they would replicate the odd tunings used by the national folk acts).
In February 1963, Jerry was playing with the Wildwood Boys, composed of Jerry, Hunter, David Nelson and Norm Van Maastricht (Marshall Leicester was at Yale during the school year). Garcia’s playing had developed a great deal; he played an original early in the set called Jerry’s Breakdown (not super tight, but impressive nonetheless). Other standouts included Standing In The Need Of Prayer and Mule Skinner Blues (Weir does that one with RatDog). Hunter was the bass player at the time, but he was permitted to take a guitar tune (“otherwise he said he wouldn’t play bass tonight”). Garcia’s constant tuning was the occasion for a lot of chattering and a lot of jokes, especially on the theme of how many very short songs they played: “We’ll be back in a little bit and we’ll play another hundred songs, and they’ll all sound the same.” The show was at the Tangent, a new exclusively folk club with a regular clientele and regular musicians, which made for a relaxed and intimate atmosphere.
Two and a half months later, still at the Tangent, Jerry did a show with his then-wife Sara (née Ruppenthal), with whom he was living and had married only a week before. They opened with Deep Elum Blues (including the “money in your socks” verse that Larry Campbell later sang with Phil and Friends) and played a number of other tunes I had never heard; one whose refrain ran: “ All good times are past and gone” and another: “Your heart shall no longer be mine.” Mindful of his audience's expectations, Garcia introduced Long Black Veil with an apology for playing a “modern country tune,” which he assured them was good anyway. He noted that their duo had appeared in the local paper that day; he then mentioned in passing how they had just gotten married before starting into “The Man Who Wrote Home Sweet Home Never Was A Married Man.” Overall, the young couple’s harmonies sounded very sweet and nicely arranged. However, Sara’s musical chops were very inferior to Jerry’s and she struggled to keep up on the rhythmic accompaniments. The duo would not last very long. The marriage would hold out until early 1966: Sara and Jerry split early on in the Grateful Dead’s time in Los Angeles. Inexplicably, she did not feel that a steak-only household run by the world’s biggest acid dealer was the best place for a young child.
Finally, July 1964 saw performances by Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions (spelled differently for every gig), featuring Pigpen and Weir and two of Weir’s friends on banjo and washboard. There was also a kazoo in the mix. The material was getting more towards the stuff the Grateful Dead would play: Beat It On Down The Line, Monkey and the Engineer, and Chuck Berry’s Memphis Tennessee. The short collection of tunes, culled from at least two performances, did have some of the usual banter, but things were a bit more tense, somehow. It was not the same atmosphere at the congenial folk scene, though there was a tuning interlude during which Weir exhorted everyone to take a “boo” break, where they could feel free to boo the band for a bit. Whereas the purist folk scene that Garcia had initially moved through was focused on tradition, technical prowess and “serious” subject matter, there was now a more open-minded, rock-influenced streak in the music.

In the summer of 1963, Jerry had made a trip into the deep south with Sandy Rothman in search of the origins of folk and bluegrass. His experience in that part of the world in a period of such high racial tension had clued him in to the fact that he may not be eligible for the life of a full-time folkie or bluegrass player, where that life required one to operate in those regions. A bit later, he had gotten into a little rock and roll, playing bass with the Zodiacs, a group featuring Bill Kreutzmann on drums. It was a logical progression. He was first attracted to Chuck Berry, but the so-called British invasion also opened new possibilities for him and his fellow musicians. His friend David Freiberg was a folk-player who would soon become Quicksilver’s bassist; David Nelson went electric, though retaining a country orientation; and Jorma Kaukonen (then called Jerry) also made the switch with Jefferson Airplane.

These recordings are a nice overview of Garcia’s range in his acoustic/banjo period. One gets a sense of his development as a player and hears examples of the technical facility that earned him his reputation. He was part of a relatively small but very dedicated scene, responding to the beginnings of the anti-establishment counterculture by sticking close to folklore. Rock and roll, though “modern,” provided a similar escape from contemporary mainstream culture, but more forward-looking and more satisfying for people in their late teens and early twenties. While I don’t know of any easily available online sources, recordings do pop up occasionally on etree, often radio broadcasts with very high quality original tapes, so keep an eye out. The two ’63 shows (Wildwood Boys, 02/23, and Jerry & Sara, 05/04), courtesy of KFOG, sounded particularly good.

Next: I’ve been stalling on the Furthur tour because tapes of the first two shows have not surfaced yet, listening instead to the four “rehearsals” that came up courtesy of Grateful_deadhead (anyone know who this guy is? He wants to remain anonymous, but I would guess he’s close to the organization). However, I can’t wait around forever so I’ll just have to buy them; I should have a first review up by next week. Cheers!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Grateful Dead: Berkeley, August 1972

The 1972 European tour has gone down in history as some of their best playing; the Veneta, Oregon show of August 27th is one of the all-time most popular shows and exists as a highly sought-after “movie” called Sunshine Daydream (a linear documentary of the show with a little rudimentary visual embellishment, depending on the version); and the September East Coast tour yielded three Dick’s Picks. I though I would take a look at where the band was in that period. I listened to five Bay Area shows from the week before Veneta: one in San Jose on August 20th, and four at Berkeley Community Center, August 21-22 and 24-25.

In the three months since the band’s return from Europe in late May they had not toured, though they had played eight shows altogether; six on the west Coast and two in the Tristate area. This was the only hometown run between March and October and was at relatively small venues (3,300 in San Jose and 3,700 at Berkeley – a little over half the average size for ‘72). I like to think they were more relaxed in those environments; the atmosphere was certainly loose.

One striking thing about these shows is the amount of time and banter between songs. I would guess there was an average of one minute between each tune (sometimes up to four, sometimes virtually none). The space was due in large part to logistical issues like tuning and equipment dysfunction. Very often you can hear them chattering in the background, talking about taping things down, turning up monitors, turning down bass extension cabinets, replacing blown speakers, et cetera. To fill that time, there was a lot of bantering, mainly from Bob and Jerry. Most nights, Weir announced how Pigpen would be laid up for a few months on account of his contracting hepatitis in Europe. He joked about Jack Straw on the 24th as “our next killer single; you want to look for it to go straight to the top of the charts.” During one 4-minute speaker malfunction break, the band played Frozen Logger with Weir singing off-mic. Afterwards he says: “Every year in Kentucky they have what’s known as a hollering contest…” to which Jerry quips “This ain’t Kentucky, man!...”

The crowd was very rowdy and vocal, hooting and hollering and yelling suggestions at the band. The encore break on the 20th was incredible; so much stomping and whistling that the taper’s mics were clipping out. Contrary to later years, the band participated: at one point Jerry hollered “What!?!? … Enunciate!” Phil would say things like “Oh thanks, we’d forgotten about that one.” Weir cracked about “just as soon as you quit barking orders at us, we’ll get this together,” then told them they ought to vote for him for mayor. I also want to point out one occasion on the 24th when Donna Jean actually spoke (here at 9:35). In 15 years of listening to these guys, I don’t believe I ever heard her step up to the mic to say more than maybe the name of the song. Weir introduced Keith and Donna most nights, and on this occasion she came up to say, in a really sweet young southern voice, what a trip it was singing with the Grateful Dead, and that her old man didn’t mind, seeing as he was in the band.

While we’re on the subject, I noticed that Donna was never mixed well, and I think it’s fair to say it’s one of the reasons people aren’t nuts about her contributions. Before the GD she had sung backup for, among others, Aretha Franklin and Elvis, which is to say that she did have some pipes. In this relatively early period, five months into her tenure, she did not sing very much. There were some high harmonies, improvised vocals on things like High Time, and of course all that howling on Playin’. Often times she was low in the mix, forcing her to strain to be heard, and almost always she was mixed with too much treble, giving her that piercing sound that turns most people off. Watching the Closing of Winterland recently I noticed she always had one hand to her ear to hear herself better, suggesting she was not prominent in the monitors, though she sounded much better then (especially on Heart of Me) than in these shows.

There was a fair amount of three-part harmonizing involved. In Searching for the Sound, Phil mention the influence that Crosby Stills and Nash had on their vocals in the early 70s, coming out of the Live Dead era. Phil sounded rather nice, though he took the high parts, which would wreck his voice in the years to come. Phil also took two solos this run; a minute or two but entirely alone.

Now the music itself. The absolute highlights of this period were the few extended tunes that figured as the centerpiece of the sets: Playin’, Bird Song, Other One, Dark Star. They would easily get into the 20-30 minute range and yielded some incredibly fluid playing. These tunes had been in the repertoire for years and they knew them inside out, and there had evolved a lot of different pockets in each; at the same time the band could be incredibly responsive to each other, and jams transitioned effortlessly. Mickey’s return would change things; at some point Weir made an analogy to turning a boat – slow, powerful, inexorable – as against turning a sports car – fast but somehow less secure. Not to say that the shorter tunes were less well executed, but they were really pared down in length; longer jams and different sections had not made their way into the newer material. Jack Straw did not have the extended buildup that would later lead into the “cut his buddy down” reprise. Truckin’, while lots of fun, had not evolved those oh-so-satisfying buildup>hits in the jam; also there were fewer solo breaks all around.

Their songbook had shrunk from a high of 119 songs in 1970 to 87 in ’72, so there was a fair amount of repetition. Most frequent in the rotation were the Weir cowboy tunes, followed by Jack Straw, Promised, He’s Gone, Black-Throated Wind, Bertha and a few others. They were the meat of both sets, with no clear differentiation between first- and second-set material. With a dozen tunes in the first set and maybe ten in the second (including a 25-minute exploration of some kind), there were a lot of three-to-five minute songs. Over the years, the shows would get a little shorter but the setlists would eventually settle at about nine songs per set, and the interminable tuning breaks disappeared; those short tunes each developed lives of their own that they did not really have in ’72.

In analyzing the band’s modus operandi compared with the later stuff I’ve been focused on recently, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of organization. The band members focused almost exclusively on the music itself, leaving everything else aside: the playing was top-notch but nothing else was. Traditionally, they never wrote a setlist: later it was up to whoever was singing next to pick the song, but back then everybody got in on the conversation. With their pathological avoidance of responsibility (Jerry to the crowd: “Hey I’m not the boss here!”), it could be a long process. Equipment logistics were dealt with in the same manner: everybody relax, it’ll get done. The band was carting around their own stuff since many of the places they played were not equipped to handle their sound, and everything up to 1976 was an experiment in doing things ad hoc and in-house (the fiscal black hole that was the Wall of Sound would finally convince them to just go with one company who knew what they were doing). The result was perennial equipment malfunctions. The “shape” of the sets was also a work in progress: there was little arc, no evident climax to the sets, except for a big rowdy closer (Saturday Night or NFA).

I’m getting more and more interested in the life of the band itself in addition to the music; I feel it’s highly relevant if we’re going to put the Grateful Dead in a cultural and historical context. In that spirit, it’s interesting to note the degree of professionalization of “GDP.” It would take years and years, and many, many mistakes to create a semblance of business and logistical acumen, and those mistakes were as much a part of the Grateful Dead as Dark Star or Wave To The Wind.

Up next: I recently got a series of pre-Dead Garcia shows from etree, mostly excellent recordings. They are very short but the five I have start in July ’61 and include the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers, the Wildwood Boys, Jerry and Sara and Mother McCree’s. I will get a post about those up within a few days.