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.