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.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

January 1970

The Grateful Dead were in full swing as they rolled into 1970. Having just released Live Dead (November ’69), their financial affairs were as close to tidy as they had been since they had signed with Warner Brothers in September 1966. Their touring schedule, such as it was, involved more or less constant playing: they played almost 290 shows in ’69 and ’70, meaning shows virtually every other day for two years running. December 1969 took them from San Francisco to LA, Texas, Florida, and Massachusetts. They kicked off 1970 in New York before heading back to California, then Oregon and Hawaii, and finally closing out the month in New Orleans. Still in their twenties, the Dead were playing to audiences in the thousands all over the United States.

This period was a high-water mark for the band in general. Musically, they were beginning to move away from the experimental psychedelia that had characterized the two preceding years. While it had yielded some fabulous music and a record-breaking live album, the Anthem/Live Dead years had also seen the erstwhile firing of two band-members including Pigpen, who was otherwise alienated by the influence of LSD on the band’s musical direction and structure. Garcia would later call their music of that period “self-consciously weird.” Meanwhile, the time they had spent on Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa had put them in severe debt, prompting their grueling tour schedule.

In April 1970, the band would discover that their manager Lenny Hart had been systematically diverting money to a private account set up with his bank-teller girlfriend. While suspicions had floated about for a while (Pigpen’s organ had been repossessed from the stage at a sound-check in December), the other shoe dropped over a missing royalty check destined for Garcia. He and Mountain Girl had had their eye on a house and MG had been calling the business office on Union Street regularly, awaiting the arrival of money owed Garcia for his work on the motion picture Zabriskie Point. When the check arrived, Gail Turner called the Garcias; by the time MG got down to the office, Lenny claimed that no such check had arrived. That was the last straw: RamRod was called in and Lenny was given a few days to get the books in order and turn them over, during which time he fled to Mexico with 150 thousand dollars. Mickey subsequently went into a crippling depression. Phil's father died around the same time, as did Pigpen's mother. Later that year, Jerry’s mother Ruth passed away after a month-long convalescence following a car accident. Janis Joplin, longtime friend and neighbor of the band, died of a heroin overdose in early October, two weeks after Hendrix had taken too many sleeping pills and choked to death in his sleep.

But in January, the band was in great form, getting a lot of mileage out of the by-now-familiar Live Dead material while working up the songs that would yield Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty later that same year. Most shows would incorporate the Other One suite, although it was not always complete; they omitted Cryptical one night and the reprise on another. There was by now, however, a real drum solo that could stretch up to ten minutes, a significant expansion on the initial few bars between Cryptical and Phil’s bomb into the Other One. Drum solos appeared elsewhere as well, most notably in Good Lovin’ but also in Alligator or even Dancin’. Dark Star was frequent, though less so, as was St. Stephen.

Among the newer material in the rotation was Mason’s Children (consistently tight and energetic). Phil introduced it on January 3rd as a song they had written for a film project they had finally bailed on. It was supposed to be shot at a drive-in movie theater, where they would play to parked cars. Dire Wolf appeared almost nightly as well. Jerry was determined to get people to sing along to the “don’t murder me” chorus; he would often introduce the song as a “paranoid fantasy song,” one you could easily sing along to if you wanted. He even went as far as rearranging the tune on February 1st so that it started with the chorus. Black Peter was a near-nightly fixture, as were Cumberland Blues and High Time. Uncle John’s Band made a few appearances, but the performances were still pretty sloppy.

Pigpen was in high form musically, if not physically. Lovelight was well-established by then, so much so that fans in the audience were calling out parts of his “hands-outta-yo-pockets” fix-up rap. Hard To Handle was a regular, and the audience was treated to the occasional Easy Wind and Good Lovin’ as well. He wasn’t always right on point, though since he didn’t care, it came over better than when Weir or Garcia flubbed. The latter two would either mumble or stop altogether, while, Pig just barreled ahead with whatever words came through his head. He might repeat parts of verses or switch the odd word around, but he always sold it. The end of the Live Dead years would open up some room for Pigpen to contribute more songs: within two years he would be breaking out Run Rudolph, Two Souls in Communion, Empty Pages, and a half-dozen other shorter-format songs.

TC’s tenure was coming to a close. He was with the band until they returned to San Francisco in early February. His contributions were less and less evident at this point. The work he had done to color Mountains of the Moon and more introspective versions of Dark Star was less integral as the years went on, and his approach to the shorter, country-flavored tunes was a bit stiff. He was offered a job writing for a musical and he and the band had an amicable parting of ways.

Much of the new material featured three-part harmonies, influenced, Phil would explain later, by Crosby Stills and Nash. Stephen Stills had spent most of the summer of ‘69 living at Mickey’s ranch in Novato and the two bands had spent a fair amount of time together. While Jerry and Bob had a relatively experienced approach to singing, Phil was eager but untrained, and his frequent high harmonies sounded strained in a live setting. Can’t blame the guy for trying. Phil always had a very serious approach regardless of objective merit. I almost laughed out loud after Feedback one night: following a good ten minutes of distorted screeching and rumbling, he stepped to the mic and said, with a tone befitting the flawless completion of Beethoven’s ninth: “Thank you. Goodnight.”

Bob Weir's role in the band was growing significantly. Just over a year earlier he’d been sorta-fired because his musical chops and responsiveness lagged behind Phil and Jerry’s. The tapes from the first shows of January and February (Fillmore East and New Orleans respectively) had Weir very high in the mix, giving a close-up view of what he was doing. I was most struck by just how varied his parts are; each chord change, each shift and modulation, had a distinct Weir-part built around what the others were doing. Historically, Weir has been fairly low in the mix, and when he goes from straight chords to inversions to single notes, it’s easy to lose track of where he is and what he’s doing.

There were two occasions on which equipment issued left some space to fill. The first time, Weir did Monkey and the Engineer solo, with a little Jerry sneaking in towards the end. On January 31st, however, Phil’s amplifier blew out. Weir carried the show with five tunes mostly by himself: Long Black Limousine, Seasons of my Heart, Saw Mill, Bound in Memories, and Race is On (Jerry followed it up with five of his own before they closed with Cumberland).
Let the record show that, after the late-’68 Hartbeats experiment, Weir caught up quick.

Rock and roll equipment in those days was primitive – broken strings were an almost nightly occurrence – and the Dead had yet to start using a professional PA (Alembic would be their first, in spring ’71). Their system in January 1970 was mostly homemade, and Bear had returned to the fold (he and the band had parted ways in August ’66). Bear was a stickler for sound, an electronic mad-scientist type whose continual experiments were hampered by his constant LSD ingestion. On one hand, the soundboard tapes from this period generally sound very good - when everything was running right – but they are often incomplete. There were relatively frequent calls from the stage about tweaking the monitor mix, feedback issues and system hum. Jerry got noticeably cranky on February 1st: “Ah, could you eliminate the ring from the PA please. The ring is most annoying, most annoying.” to which Weir added “What you’re hearing now is the Bear solo.”

Sound issues abounded on the last night of January, at the Warehouse in New Orleans. Like at Woodstock, a grounding problem caused electrical shocks for the singers and they had to stop a while and fix it. Phil cracked: “For a while, we thought the only life around hear was the heat!”
Weir took the opportunity to wax antiauthoritarian: “ I got a statement to make: This seems to be a blatant attempt, by the establishment,” (laughter) “to keep rockers from coming here and, ah, save this fair city for the straight people. Well…”
Jerry: “The revolution’s over…”
Phil: “Go home, folks… Remember, obedience to the law is the only true freedom.”
Weir: “And crime does not pay.”

The exchange was oddly appropriate for the evening: upon return to their Bourbon Street hotel, they found the police crawling all over the place and were all hauled off to the precinct. This was a show bust, by most accounts, and photographers and media did nothing to keep things civil or low key. Phil writes that Weir somehow managed to handcuff an officer to his desk! Pigpen and TC, roommates and both non-smokers, were not arrested. Mickey presented an ID that said Summer Wind (“spiritual advisor”) and so he was not officially booked. Eight hours later, after a phone call by Warner’s Joe Smith to the New Orleans DA promising that the Dead would stay out of New Orleans (and a significant campaign contribution), the band were released on bail. Early that same morning, Mountain Girl had called the hotel looking for Jerry to inform him that she had just given birth to a baby girl: Annabelle. “Sorry honey,” she was told, “the police came and took them away last night.”
Bail had wiped out the proceeds from that night, and they booked another gig on February 1st to make up for it. They would share the bill with Fleetwood Mac, leading to a raucous, 40-minute, all-star-jam Lovelight closer. No mention was made of the legal trouble, though there was a shout-out of sorts. The MC introduced the band: “And now those who made this afternoon possible, the G…”
“The New Orleans Police Department!”

These were the days of adventure, excitement and uncertainty. The GD machine was taking on a life of its own and the band was reaching an adulthood of sorts. The music is strong, tight and forward-looking. We hear the inauspicious beginnings of Uncle John’s Band, early stabs at the China-Rider transition jam, experimentation with arrangements for the new material, top-notch performances of the Live Dead material, some very rare acoustic stuff, and an epic Easy Wind (Jan. 30). My favorite show was Jan 2nd in New York (a Miller soundboard circulates), but the whole series was real interesting. The legendary February 14, 1970 show at the Fillmore East was just around the corner, and Harpur College (5/2) only three months away, so January is worth checking out if only for historical context.

Up next: I heard the Oakland run from February 1990 but there’s nothing of great import to say. I’ll have a post up next week on the first part of the Furthur run. I also bought Rock Scully’s Living With The Dead, so you can expect a review within a few weeks. Cheers.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

7 Walkers

In July 2008, Bill Kreutzmann ran across Louisiana native Malcolm “Papa Mali” Welbourne backstage at a festival in Oregon; the two hit it off and began playing together whenever the opportunity presented itself. In October of last year, sessions started up for an album of songs written by Papa Mali and Robert Hunter. Soon after, they began performing as 7 Walkers. They have been out and about since then and a number of shows have trickled down to etree, whence they were dutifully snatched up by yours truly.

Papa Mali is on the road 200-odd days a year and has an impressive resume. He toured with various blues and funk bands starting in his late teens and found his way into reggae with the Killer Bees. He eventually toured with Burning Spear, where he got the nickname he has gone by for the last twenty-plus years. His first solo record was real dirty swamp music, his second was more raw delta blues with a jazzy bent to it. He has toured with B.B. King, Cyril Neville and Derek Trucks, and is a regular fixture at the big summer festivals, where he inevitably winds up sitting in with any number of headliners and all-star bands.
His stylistic range is pretty broad, and even if he sticks to a mostly rock sound with 7 Walkers, he can throw some funk around and plays a mean slide. At the same time, he tends to keep things simple; there are no fireworks, no longs buildups or screaming, sustained leads. He is humble and versatile, so that he does justice to a wide range of sounds. His singing has a New Orleans/Dr. John sound on the edges, which comes out in some of the band’s swingier stuff.

Aside from Papa Mali and Kreutzmann, the official 7 Walkers band (named after one of the Hunter originals recorded for the album) also includes bassist Reed Mathis and multi-instrumentalist Matt Hubbard, from Willy Nelson’s band, who plays keyboards, harmonica and trombone. Mathis performed on the album and on the band’s early gigs, but not on the recent tour. He was replaced by George Porter Jr. for most of that time, though Brad Houser played on at least one gig. The bass slot is relatively conventional except when Porter is on board, in which case he sings a few (he does a mean Hey Pocky Way) and takes the occasional solo.
Hubbard is a great player whose facility with the trombone allows the band to take on a distinct New Orleans sound. One original on which the horn is prominent is a fun, if fairly generic, tune called New Orleans Crawl, but it is also integral in the band’s highly original take on Death Don’t Have No Mercy. The song gets a full Bourbon-Street-funeral treatment, a surprising adaptation in keeping with the character of the lyrics. They played it at all three of the shows I heard.

For a guy who doesn’t want to play with the Dead, Kreutzmann sure plays a lot of Grateful Dead music: 7 Walkers’ catalogue is almost exclusively GD material. They play a few covers and a handful of cuts from the album, but they also do a lot of material like Bertha, Sugaree, He’s Gone, Wharf Rat, Mr. Charlie, and even We Bid You Goodnight. On paper, this seems pretty uninspired but the approach is liberal and makes for interesting renditions. Papa Mali has no problem switching a few words here and there (“…something like a bird inside her sang,” “Got to get back on my feet someday”), and they managed to produce very interesting versions of Bird Song and Deal, to name a few standouts.

Overall, the band is very accessible: funky, versatile and surprisingly good, while sticking close to familiar territory. Here’s a great soundboard from a show in Denver in early June, which should cover all you need to hear to make up your mind. I’d definitely check them out if they come around your neighborhood.

Up Next: January 1970. I have 10 shows, so it’ll probably be two weeks.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Furthur Festival

This year’s Futhur Festival (May 28-30) was only the third of its kind, surprising in light of the fact that several second- and third-generation jam bands have been doing it regularly for years. Despite two years of the traveling Furthur Festival (little relation) and the multi-band Terrapin Station and Comes A Time gatherings, it is the first time a single Dead-related band has set up a festival of its own. While they could have undoubtedly drawn a respectable crowd on their own, they invited a half-dozen lesser-known bands to fill out the schedule, though Phil Lesh felt it was necessary to encourage the crowd to go see these bands (including his son’s), after the erstwhile “soundcheck” on the first night.

A controversial decision a few months ago saw them announcing the setlists for this festival ahead of time: the six official sets would each comprise one of their albums. Phil’s band had done this once before in May of ‘08 (though without announcing it in advance), and those shows had included some of the same albums. The reactions to this announcement had been rather befuddled; why do those again, and above all, why on earth advertise it so far in advance? This reviewer had found it strange to take away the element of surprise, a part of the atmosphere at Dead and Dead-family shows. As things got closer, however there was some excitement at the idea of hearing certain songs, particularly those that were rarely, if ever, part of the catalogue. Besides, it would have become immediately evident what they were up to anyway: it took less than an hour for people to figure it out when Phil and Friends did it two years ago.

Furthur’s current lineup has changed slightly, with the departure of Jay Lane on percussion and the replacement of background vocalist Zoe Ellis by Bay area alum Jeff Pehrson, but the sound is almost indistinguishable. Lane’s contribution had been somewhat superfluous, consisting more of embellishments than structural elements, and having an alto or a tenor voice in the background harmonies makes little difference. The band had continued their rehearsals, both private and “live,” in the run-up to the festival and they are improving noticeably. While some of the more esoteric material had an feeling of recital, the stuff that is well entrenched in the band-members’ respective solo catalogues hit some high peaks.

On the first night of the festival, the band played a two-and-a-half-hour set of popular material that would not feature in the headline shows, including the Eleven, with the original vocal arrangements, Eyes, Dark Star, Scarlet>Fire and Playin’ in the Band. The show was solid with at least one standout passage at the end of Unbroken Chain, a showcase for both Chimenti and John Kadlecik.

Two things became apparent that first night. First was the fluidity and responsiveness of Joe Russo. It was previously hard to discern just what he was doing, since he blended with Lane’s sound, but he is a very versatile player with a real facility in switching grooves and tempos in mid-swing. His ability to lockstep with Phil is reminiscent of John Molo, no small feat considering the disparity in their experience, but he’s more unconventional, peppering rim-shots and taps and rattles throughout.
The other revelation (if it can be called that) is that Phil is unquestionably the band’s director. It first became apparent when, at the reprise of Dark Star, Weir moved beautifully and organically into the Dark Star rhythm, setting the foundation for a jam on the main theme: Phil completely overrode it with his introduction to the piece’s “head” section. On the second night, Weir sang Friend of the Devil and included Phil’s verse (“You can borrow from the devil/ you can borrow from your friend/…”), which closed the song; after the last chord hit, Phil inexplicably felt it necessary to sing that verse again himself. Most tellingly, however, throughout the weekend, it was always Phil talking through the stage monitors between songs, as opposed to Weir or anyone else.

The six sets that comprised the official festival were, by and large, excellent, the first night being the stronger of the two. They covered each album in order, performing the modern versions of the songs: they omitted certain thematic passages, like the “Faster we go…” and “Quadlibet…” sections of The Other One, or the modulation at the end of Dancin’ In The Streets. Though it might have been an interesting exercise to perform everything just as it was on the record, learning it would have been unduly time-consuming and frankly pedantic.

The oddball material on the third night did come off a little stiff: Blues for Allah’s B-side had been performed exactly once and it was clear they were not completely comfortable with it. Aoxomoxoa’s Rosemary was a rare one (Phil sang it this time), and it is questionable whether “What’s Become of the Baby?” was ever performed at all. The lyrics, shared by Phil and Theresa Williams, were only slightly less indecipherable than on the record. Nonetheless, it was gratifying to relive those strange moments of the Grateful Dead’s catalogue in a live and modern setting, nothing’s wrong with a little nod to history and a touch of nostalgia.

Larry Campbell and Theresa Williams made liberal appearances throughout the weekend. Larry played a lot of fiddle, most notably on Brokedown Palace and Dupree’s Diamond Blues. The latter bears special mention as one the best songs of the festival: high energy and featuring stellar solos by all involved, it peaked out with a round of frankly hair-raising exchanges between Campbell, Kadlecik and Chimenti. Campbell played guitar as well on select songs: his contribution to Cumberland Blues was fantastic (even if everyone got a little carried away), I can’t think of anyone who can do that fast country stuff better than him.

Campbell’s wife Theresa Williams handled some important leads: ‘Till The Morning Comes, for one, which was originally sung in harmony by the boys in the band. Sunrise was a Donna Jean tune for Rex Jackson which definitely needed a female voice, and she handled that as well. Attics was another standout of the weekend. It was rather rarely performed by the Grateful Dead, and though it was in RatDog’s repertoire (mostly a-cappella), they never did it justice. The rendition led by Williams on the second night was an absolute gem, with beautiful, tightly orchestrated three- and four-part harmonies. It may have been the all-time best performance of the song.

A few more standouts worthy of mention for Kadlecik’s contributions: Easy Wind, Born Cross-Eyed, Help On the Way, Music (he closed it out with a monstrous lead), and Dancin’ In The streets. There was some confusion at the outset of the latter as to whether it would be in the disco-Dead or original style. However, his solo was straight out of the late-70s disco versions, both in the effect he was using (I’ve noted before how he seems to have all the exact same effects at Garcia), and the language of the riffs.

Finally, it should be mentioned that they premiered a new song by Robert Hunter known as Muli Guli, with a chord progression reminiscent of Pride of Cucamonga. It later appeared during the live rehearsal shows that followed the festival, joining Welcome To The Dance in a new batch of songs for the catalogue, with hopefully more to come. Further currently has 26 shows slated through September 25th. They will have played 79 shows since the previous September, an annual total that outstrips Phil’s most prolific year and rivals the Grateful Dead’s schedule anytime after 1970. The wheel is turning and, apparently, you can’t slow it down.

Up Next: I was pleasantly surprised by 7 Walkers, the Kreutzmann/Papa Mali band with Matt Hubbard and whatever bass player they can get a hold of. I’m going to listen to a few more shows and give you all a rundown.