Listening to everything, so you don't have to

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

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Grateful Dead: Fall 1979

Released in November 2007, Road Trips 1.1 highlights the Dead’s “blazing fall 1979 East Coast swing.” Having heard the CDs, I thought it interesting to go back and listen to the whole tour, which included fourteen shows from October 24th to November 10th. Workingman’s Tracker has been doing a ’79 project and I took the opportunity to gather up as many shows from that tour as possible. I wound up with soundboards of ten of the shows. Audience tapes of the first two nights in Springfield and New Haven came up as well, but sticking to soundboards gives me a way to keep my downloading addiction in check. I’m currently closing in on a terabyte of disk space, and that’s just silly.
When Rhino began releasing Road Trips, I frankly thought it was a great idea. Full-show-puritanism notwithstanding, there’s something to be said for an overview of a given tour. Starting in the early seventies and certainly post-hiatus, the band was able to organize clearly defined tours. In between tours, band members had extended periods of time off, so that tours themselves had a certain coherence in terms of sound and vibe. In later years, as the catalogue broadened, there could be very few versions of a given song in a tour. Picking out highlight versions of each tune would, in theory, make a relevant historical snapshot.

The fall of 1979 was notable for several reasons. The Rhythm Devils had just recorded the drum tracks for Apocalypse Now and were now carting around the famous “Beast.” Consisting of a large cylindrical frame festooned with toms, bells, gourds and other assorted rhythm-makers, it provided the drummers with a huge palette of sounds to play with. Though the “drums” section had existed for years, it was in 1979 that it became more than a conventional drum solo. “Space” was tacked on at the end but it was much shorter than in the 90s; where Drumz could eventually stretch to almost thirty minutes, it stayed under 15 in the fall of 1979.
Phil, meanwhile, was in the process of sobering up. By his account, he was drunk in 1978; he put on a lot of weight, and peripheral crew members and tour personnel had taken to calling him Phil Lush. Years later, in one of the band’s interventions with Garcia, Jerry laid into him about his sloppy playing in that period. Phil had also recently switched to a Doug Irwin bass modeled after Jerry’s new Tiger (the same bass he couldn’t get to work during the 1980 Radio City telecast.) He would not stick with the bass very long; to my ears it had a gorgeous midrange but lacked the low-end power of his later Modulus basses.
While Phil was drying out, however, Garcia had slowly begun to make escapism a way of life. He had started using heroin in 1976 during the exhaustive process of editing the Grateful Dead Movie, though it was, for the moment, not affecting his playing; nonetheless, the rest of the band would soon compose an only-half-joking letter accusing him of playing without dynamics and not listening to them like he used to.
Finally, after six months in the Grateful Dead, Brent was hitting his stride and played superbly. In addition to his predecessor’s marital and drug abuse issues, a musically logistical weak spot had been Keith’s insistence on playing a conventional piano. With two drummers, bass, and Jerry’s single-note style, the percussive piano was, as Garcia put it, “more of the same.” They had long pressed Keith to play something with more sustain, and Brent’s facility on the organ was just exactly what they had been looking for.

The overall sound of the tour was that loping style they had perfected over the last two years. Dancing in the Streets and Not Fade Away are the clearest examples. The former was in fine disco-Dead form, with one noticeable difference: while everyone’s favorite version, from Cornell, had a ten-minute Garcia solo, the jam now involved more equitable contribution across the board; rather than holding the groove, the band was throwing ideas around, making things more interesting. The latter song, NFA, was in the same general swingy/sulky shape as the long workout from the Closing of Winterland show. My favorite rendition was on November 2nd, where they took some time to work into it from the drum break.
New to the repertoire were Althea, Sailor>Saint and Brent’s Easy To Love You, as yet the only one of his tunes to make it into the rotation. Althea was in that same sort of lope, and it only got five outings. Easy To Love You got seven; generally very tight and well executed. Sailor>Saint, also seven, was evolving: a few words were not yet settled, and the transition between the two really only jelled halfway through the tour. Though Franklin’s Tower was not new, they were playing around with its location. Initially paired with Help>slipknot, it started coming after Half-Step in late ’78. By fall ’79, it could appear anywhere and it was not until 1989 that it permanently went back to following Slipknot.
Brent’s playing bears some mentioning: he asserted a strong presence with his fills, adding color all over the place and keeping things very interesting. But the biggest testament to his abilities is the facility with which he jumped into the longer jams, especially Playing In The Band. The tune was already eight years old, and that centerpiece jam was about as out-there as the band got in the late seventies - no form, no “one” – and yet Brent was right at home in the middle of it, even taking a few choice leads.

From the occasional banter that survives, the band sounded pretty relaxed. Weir’s joke of the moment, which he told at least three times, was “What’s the difference between a duck?” (“May I have the envelope please”) “And the answer is: One leg’s both the same!” Finally, on the last night, Mickey cracked: “Hey Weir, that’s not even a bad joke! That’s even lower than a bad joke!” On another occasion, at Nassau, he announced that he had heard it from a usually reliable source that the Russians had bombed Staten Island, and so that those in the audience who lived there needn’t go home tonight. There were a few crowd issues on Long Island: on the first night, there was so much pushing in the front rows that they were crushing the snake cable that ran to the soundboard, causing audible pops in the sound, and the band had to stop twice to ask them to move back.

Overall, the tour got better and better, starting off competent but not particularly noteworthy, and improving markedly from the end of the Nassau run (10.31-11.02). For what it’s worth, this is borne out by the track selection from Road Trips, which comes almost exclusively from the second half of the tour. If I had to pick a favorite all-around show, it would be Buffalo on November 9th, though not by much; all of the November shows were better than average (except, inexplicably, November 6th: a very long first set with breaks upwards of four minutes followed by a four-song second set, plus drums). A few highlights: Music from 10.28; Shakedown from 10.31; Peggy-O and Scarlet>Fire from 11.01; Althea from 11.05; Playin’ from 11.06; and Minglewood from 11.10.

This is a tour well worth checking out; the short tunes were tight, the long tunes inventive. They were still plagued a little by jam segments where they didn’t listen much to each other, letting Jerry fly off with those loopy 5/2 figures (especially on Eyes) that are impressive technically but so busy that nobody else can get a word in. Yet Brent was such a fresh sound that it breathed new life into the whole band, and they displayed a lot of discipline in terms of crafting a tight feel for newer tunes; Easy To Love You and Althea stand out (Peggy-O was also endowed with a fabulous groove that took some work to maintain). The band still regularly took the time to get into a ten or fifteen minute jam on some song or other, a trend that would fade markedly during the eighties. By all means buy the Road Trips, but also know that soundboards of the best of the tour are out there.
[EDIT: sorry there are no hyperlinks; archive is not responding just now.]

Up Next: I’m currently listening to RatDog’s fall ’06 tour and loving every minute; for my money it was their peak period; faster tempos than later, and transitions so tight and subtle it’ll give you chills. However, I don’t think I’ll post on that, barring overwhelming demand. Instead, I just picked up Sam Cutler’s new book “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” He details his time managing the Rolling Stones’ US tour in 1969, which included Altamont, and then his time with the Grateful Dead. According to McNally, the four years Cutler spent with the Dead were pivotal in getting them on a professional footing in terms of touring. Should be interesting.


  1. Nice overview. I'd recommend taking another listen to 10/27/79 (Cape Cod, first night), especially Set 2. Stellar from start to finish, the Dancing > Franklin's is fine, and the segue jam from He's Gone into Other One is a highlight from not just that tour but their entire career.

  2. The Scarlet>Fire on 11-01. Melting

  3. Weir everywhere.

    Fall 1979 beats the '85's and '89's for sure.

    On the bus in '86....West Coast only tours.....

  4. Just discovered this, six years after the initial post. Yes, 11/6/79 has a 4 song second set: Terrapin > Playin > Drumz > Black Peter > Good Lovin. However, the Terrapin > Playin is nearly 40 minutes long. I contend the Playin' is the finest they ever played.... incredibly adventurous, with dynamics that rival the best lysergic pulsings.

    For me, 11/6/79 is the best show they ever played.