I went looking for some bad shows this week. For a little while I’ve had a theory that shows are worse at the beginning or between tours; I’ve been meaning to listen to the infamous Boreal Ridge show; and I though 1985 was as good a place as any to find weak or sloppy playing. So, thinking I had a foolproof trifecta of negative circumstances, I listened to 5 shows from the middle of 1985: the last show of the short (9 dates) summer tour, the second of two Ventura shows (coming after a two-week break), Boreal Ridge (over a month after that), and two dates in the south in early September.
I don’t know quite why, but 1985 has always held connotations of heroin-wracked sloppiness, a period best forgotten, when Garcia spent his time nodding off against his amp and the others tried to compensate without excluding him. I suppose the January ’85 bust and the collapse in June of ’86 seemed like logical bookends for a really bad period. I consequently avoided that period like the plague, even though I had heard Dick’s Picks 21 and loved it. Well I’m here to set the record straight on ’85: Jerry’s playing was fantastic. His leads were powerful, he was precise and intentional with fills, transitions, he was on the ball with switching effects mid-phrase etc. No complaints there.
If there were shortcomings, they were in his singing. While the volume at which he sang was the same as usual, there are some moments when the smoke-damage to his vocal chords was painfully obvious. There were also definitely struggles with lyrics, on any number of songs: Big Railroad Blues, Cryptical (last one ever, and pretty bad – the reprise somewhat better), Ramble On Rose… However, this did not detract from the overall quality; unlike RatDog, for instance, the band did not loose steam when the vocals weren’t on point.
The overall sound they had developed was somewhat more conventional; songs tended to be shorter, and little effort was devoted to taking risks or improvising outside of defined jam segments (this trend continued for a few years). The result is that the tunes themselves were much tighter and could be played faster: the mid-80s have a certain energy, a certain accessibility that separates that period from any before or since. Nonetheless, the intricacy of the arrangements was the same as ever and careful listening is, to me, just as rewarding.
The Drums section in those days was really a lot of fun, more structured and rhythmic than later. There were a lot of alternative gourds and xylophones and things but the pre-recorded stuff had not made a noticeable appearance. Mickey bounced around on the beam a little in the middle of the solo rather than wait for the end, and there was some looping effects in use that provided a longer-sustained groove to build on.
Now, the Boreal Ridge show. There are no reviews in Deadbase but I have heard the same rumors as everyone else and the Illustrated Trip paints a sorry picture indeed. I was almost disappointed when the show wasn’t a complete train-wreck (except for the Day Tripper encore). The fact is, the band didn’t play that badly, and I imagine that the reputation it has gathered is, on one hand, more reflective of technical issues that musical ones, and on the other rendered disproportionate simply by virtue of the date being singled out.
The first set is indeed almost palpably trying for the musicians: the levels were off-kilter for the first few songs; a loud hum periodically emanated from Weir’s rack, something that sounded like false notes (loud, sustained ones); we can hear Mickey and Garcia griping about technical issues between songs; and Weir calls an end to the first set after seven songs, rather than the usual nine. There are the odd miscues and an awkward jammy segment in the middle of Bucket, but it’s not a disaster and songs were still tight and relatively intricate. The second set was better, with a solid Stranger opener, China-Rider (a bit ragged in the transition) and a nice He’s Gone before a huge Drums segment. Truckin’>Black Peter (with recurring sound issues)>Around and Around followed Space and the set closed with a solid Lovelight. The encore, a throwaway if there ever was one, was awful, sounding the way I expected the whole show to sound.
The band hadn’t played in more than two months, it was the first time they played that venue, and there were serious equipment issues that affected both the sound output and the ability of the band-members to hear themselves and each-other. All of this I knew, and I went into it expecting the worst show I’d ever heard. I won’t say it was very good – objectively speaking it was subpar - but it certainly doesn’t quite deserve the reputation it has. They actually scheduled a return visit to Boreal Ridge about a year later, but due to Garcia’s health, it never happened.
So, in retrospect, another myth busted. If I had to guess why 1985 is not a very popular year, I would venture that the lack of spacey exploration is a factor, as is the “Jerry’s drug issues” cloud that hangs over that period. And yet for the band, things were going rather well. It seems that Garcia’s bust in Golden Gate Park, coming directly on the heels of an intervention, did in fact prompt Jerry to clean up. They sold out 65 of the 71 shows they played that year and grossed a record $11.5 million, suggesting that their fanbase was not shrinking. Garcia commented later that the years were finally starting to pay off. They were still a few years away from Touch of Gray, but Phil quit cocaine a little while later, Bill started going to AA meetings, and Bonnie Parker, the last GD employee with real drug issues, was let go. Things were finally looking up.
All that to say that the mid 80s are seeming less and less frightening the more I look, which opens the door on a whole other period that has never been on my radar. I realize as I write this, of course, that for the first few years, anything outside of 1976-7 was not on my radar either… Well, live and learn.
Now. It has been brought to my attention that my entries are too damn long, that blogs should take five minutes to look over, and that nobody wants to read an essay every week. What do you think? I could just as easily break these up and post 500 words or so a week…
Up next. I’m going to listen to a few ‘81 shows from Healy’s band, when Kreutzmann was on board. I might post on those or just wait for Furthurfest. You’ll find out next week.