So I haven't written anything in the past few weeks for two reasons: primarily because I've been swamped with work, and also because I've been listening to disjointed, recently downloaded odds and ends, to kill time before Furthurfest without getting too deep into anything.
I heard a few shows from Mike Gordon's March tour. I don't know his solo material very well, and I was surprised not to to hear a single Phish tune, which is really to his credit. I should say I'm not an expert; there may have been some rarer Phish tunes in there, maybe Adelman's Yard, or Sugar Shack? His 5-piece band consists of two drummers, Todd Isler and Craig Myers (sp?), Scott Murawski on lead guitar and Tom Cleary on keys. Murawski is a force of nature, a monstrous player who can shred the fastest country I've ever heard, and Cleary can be really impressive as well. I don't know where he came from, but for some reason Gordon likes to say his name a lot.
The music gets really funky; there are a few songs that just shake your insides, as you might expect form Mike Gordon. As you might also expect, there are a few floaty tunes with mindless lyrics, but it's mainly really fun stuff. Each show I heard had one, maybe two songs by Cleary and Murawski, including Cruel World, which Murawski was doing regularly with Kreutzmann a few years back.
There is some Gordo banter, mostly platitudes "great to be here, shout out to whoever", but he does have a thing about "is" that he does a lot. Something about a cat named Is whose name should be called repeatedly and at random: "is is is is is is ..." The other thing I noticed was that he usually announces that he's going to go hang out by the merchandise table after the show. I was surprised to hear it simply because imagined that, being in Phish, he wouldn't need to push t-shirts, but considering that the material and the sound are so un-Phish-like, I suppose he is building a different audience.
My favorite show was on March 12th in Philadelphia. Most of the show was really upbeat and funky, and featured appearances by at least one member of the Chieftains. I say that because I only heard one guest intro, yet there was an accordion and a fiddle, and also a tap-dancer somewhere. There were three Murawski tunes, including Cruel World and one ludicrously fast country thing that I listened to twice in a row.
Overall, I like the band a lot. I don't know that I would listen to a whole tour (there is a fair amount of repetition from show to show), but I'm definitely learning some of those bass lines.
After the Gordon tour I picked up a series of Mickey Hart-related recordings that surfaced on Workingman's Tracker. The earlier one was a series of tracks dating from 1972 recorded at Mickey's barn in Novato. Mickey built a recording studio up there, and after leaving the Dead in February '71, he spend a lot of time there playing and recording. I knew that he had gone into Diga Rhythm in that time but I was surprised to hear the other material he was doing, collected under the title Mickey Hart and the Marin County Collective. First on the tape is Fire on the Mountain, which he apparently wrote himself. The groove is substantially different, even if it's definitely recognizable, and there were maybe a half-dozen alternate verses. At least one of these reappeared in the Other Ones/The Dead period when Mickey sang Fire. Other tracks involved a host of Bay Area musicians doing their own material, including David Freiberg, John Cipollina, Barry Melton and others. Some of it is really good, especially Speed Racer. Ghost Riders in the Sky stands out in the list, a slightly different arrangement than the final cut everyone knows.
Phil Lesh and Garcia show up on a number of tracks. Lesh is featured on one track about vampires that reminds me of The Who's Boris the Spider, and Garcia appears on both Fire on the Mountain takes as well as a few others. At the same time, there was some experimentation with swirly electronic noises and feedback, a sort of intermediary between Feedback and Seastones. It's not particularly pretty but it is a serious experiment with that sort of alternative noise music. One is a feedback/organ jam, one involves drums, harmonica, accordion and howling vocal stuff, featuring Ned Lagin, and one is straight space noise. Finally, there is a tune called Marshmallow Road (spacey psychedelia, as you might expect), which weaves in electronic sounds and sped-up vocals within the song.
Later, during the hiatus, Mickey was playing with Diga Rhythm Band (Diga meaning "naked" in Sanskrit). I have yet to find any reliable set- or show-lists for this band, so I have no idea how frequent these shows were, nor whether they involved only Diga or were part of a Bay Area lineup. There are only a few pieces on the surviving tapes, though they are soundboards, and I must confess I can't fully appreciate what's going on there. It all sounds well and good to me, frankly, but knowing the lineup, it probably involves complicated polyrhythmic patterns well outside the boundaries of western musical vocabulary. Son of Mickey's tabla teacher Usted Allarakha, Zakir Hussein headed and did the talking for the band, but Mickey got a few solo sections, and Hussein introduced him as a member of the Grateful Dead. It seems that Mickey retained all the cachet of a GD band member in his time off. The lineup of San Francisco musicians involved in the Novato sessions was pretty seminal, and he was still a musical celebrity in early '75, when he was not yet officially back in the band.
A month or so ago, an article appeared in the Atlantic Monthly which touched on the scholarly attention being paid to the Grateful Dead nowadays. The band appeared in various studies and such throughout their existence, but generally as a manifestation or example of hippie culture and rarely in terms broad yet clear enough to warrant much attention. The specific Deadhead phenomenon has been the subject of dissertations and college courses for a number of years, but it is only recently that doctoral and post-doctoral studies have focused on, say, the influence of the classical music structure in GD music, the nature of their brand of improvisation, or the place in the "Americana" canon of songs like Dire Wolf or Peggy-O. I poked around and came across a collection of essays written by PhDs in the past few years, called All Graceful Instruments. I bought it, mainly because I thought the title reference was satisfactorily obscure, and in spite of the high price tag ($40: it's a print-on-demand thing from Cambridge Scholars Publishing). I've only gotten through one chapter so far but it was very good, managing to discuss objectively the improvisational structure of Dark Star and The Eleven, and using that as a model to frame out the band's improvisational approach to their music in general. The components of the argument are relatively common knowledge to most deadheads, but they combine to make a scholarly discussion possible. I'm looking forward to the rest of the book.
Anyhow, I think that's it. I'm gonna read Sandy Troy's "Captain Trips" soon, so I'll post on that. Up next, I think I'll try to compare the P&F and Furthur versions of the Dead albums covered at Furthurfest.