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, September 26, 2010

Grateful Dead - Europe, October 1981

The Grateful Dead went to Europe seven times in their thirty-year history and cancelled at least two other expeditions. In 1981, they went twice. The first trip, consisting of five shows in March, was a favor to Pete Townsend: the Who were breaking up and Townsend had called to ask if the band could possibly cover some dates in London. They stayed an extra few days to share a bill – and a European telecast – with the Who in Germany. In September, the Dead flew back across the pond for the first extended tour since the acclaimed 1972 visit, playing thirteen shows in seven countries between September 30th and October 19th.

The planned venues averaged 3-5,000 seats (with the notable exception of Copenhagen’s Forum Theater at about 13,000), significantly smaller that the stateside average of about 12K though not out of line with venues in Cleveland, Pittsburgh or DeMoines.

Soundboards (including at least three Millers) circulate of all but two of the shows. They all recently appeared on Workingman’s Tracker as part of the ongoing 1981 project, along with video of the shows at the Melkweg in Amsterdam (the Garcia-Weir acoustic show and the two GD performances).

After three shows in the American northeast, the band flew out and played their first European gig in Edinburg. The mood was grumpy. Technical issues caused delays and gripes from the various band-members and left space for the audience to holler at the band. Of course, the audience was Scottish, and the band can be heard talking, both among themselves and to the audience: “I can’t understand a fuckin’ word.” The show was decent.

Things changed when they hit London, however. October 4th saw a much more relaxed Weir bantering before the show, notably polling the audience as to whether they felt that Springtime for Hitler was in good taste (The Producers had been on TV the previous night). Over the four nights they played at the Rainbow Theater they built up a head of steam that would carry them through most of the rest of the tour. While most of the shows were, for my money, real good, I would point to London 10.6, Copenhagen 10.8 and Bremen 10.10 as the highlights.

I noted with a smile how Weir handled the different countries. When they went over to Germany, he made a point to e-nun-ci-ate clear-ly, and instead of his falsetto “Thank you”, it was “Danke;” Amsterdam might as well have been the US (the aud tapes reveal that a lot of the audience were in fact Americans); in Paris, he managed “intermission s’il vous plait” and a mangled “Bonne nuit et bons rĂªves.”

There were a total of 92 songs in the repertoire for the tour, including a Blues for Allah jam and four Spanish Jams (the latter having made a big comeback that year). The most frequent tunes were Althea and Minglewood, but aside from that, Garcia had a much broader repertoire than Weir did. Of the other most frequent tunes, most were Weir’s: Rooster, Sugar Mags, Sailor>Saint, Looks Like Rain etc. Garcia, on the other hand, had a numerous ballads like High Time or Row Jimmy that he could break out at will. This pattern holds true for the year as a whole: of the 15 most frequent songs, 13 were Weir’s. Brent only had two songs in the repertoire: Good Time Blues and Far from Me, the latter of which he only played once, in Amsterdam.

Brent, however, was a force to be reckoned with musically. He was in great form throughout the tour. He was always on point, Good Times was always a winner and there are a few moments that bear mentioning as well: his solos on FOTD on 10.4 and Scarlet 10.8, a fun little oom-pa-pa riff at the beginning of El Paso in Bremen, 10.10, and a solid lead on the only impromptu jam of the tour in Ruesselheim on the 13th.

The Drumz section now stretched out to nearly twenty minutes, with the drum solos taking up about 60 percent of that time. Almost every day, after a few minutes on the kits, Bill broke out the talking drum and Mickey his tar; they would give each other a few minutes more or less alone before closing out with the rack-toms. They were quite attached to those drums, it appears: on the Amsterdam jaunt, the only elements of the band’s gear that made it were Phil’s bass and those two drums.

Amsterdam's unscheduled Oops Concerts get a lot of attention as one of the band’s more spontaneous adventures. On a day off in Germany a week before, Garcia and Weir had gone over to Amsterdam to meet some friends of Rock Scully’s, including Basketball Diaries author Jim Carroll, William Burroughs, and a poet laureate named Vinkenoop with a tennis-champion wife and the world’s largest library of psychedelia. That night, Weir and Jerry had followed Jim Carroll’s rock/poetry set at the Melkweg with a 35-minute acoustic duet. The next day, back in Germany, the band heard that their two gigs in the south of France had been rained out, and they faced the choice of either staying in Germany doing nothing or blowing all their money in Paris before their next gig. Garcia, Weir and Scully convinced the rest of the band and the crew to go to Amsterdam instead. The crew accepted - grudgingly - on the condition that they not have to take the equipment.

So on what Scully describes as the band’s last real adventure, the Dead played two gigs on mostly borrowed equipment in a small, sweltering 1,500-capacity club tucked away on the south side of Amsterdam. The shows were a lot of fun if only because the band seemed free of the pressures of a regular tour date and could fool around somewhat with the setlist. On the first night, Brent pulled out the only Far From Me of the year, and they played the first ever Spoonful. The second night saw them open with a rare acoustic set, and the electric set boasted the first Gloria since 1968, followed by the first Lovelight since 1972, and the band’s only performance of Hully Gully.

The following day, the band was in Paris, and two days later they closed out the tour in Barcelona, the only time they ever played in Spain.

Now, the general quality of the shows notwithstanding, some Garcia issues were coming to a head. Thanks to Scully’s otherwise flawed book, we know that his heroin habit was getting to be a problem socially. Scully relates an incident that occurred upon arrival in Scotland. Upon meeting an emissary (i.e. a courier) from local contacts at the airport, a sweaty Garcia insisted upon immediately retreating to the bathroom to get high, despite objections to the effect that customs officers were twenty feet away and their hotel ten minutes from the airport.

The way in which it affected the music is less well documented. The first thing I noticed was a general laziness in moving the show along. Setlists read Jerry.>Bob, pause, Jerry.>Bob, and so on. Weir was always ready to go with the next song. The band was used to it too; one night Mickey had to fix something between tunes and you can hear him yelling to wait a second while the closing hit of Bird Song was still ringing. The only exception to this rule was Mexicali, which Jerry starts. The grainy videos from the Melkweg show that he would walk off the stage for a sec, maybe to fiddle with his rig, maybe for a puff of a cigarette.

Weir (“Mr. Clean” at that time, according to Scully) had an active stage presence. While Garcia was less than charismatic, looking generally shaggy, nobody else seemed particularly alert either, and Bob was already the one leading, calling changes, and keeping the timing and arrangements together when it was needed. There was really only one thing Garcia could be counted on to do, and that was to call the last hit of a tune. He could be capricious as well, setting off on a jam of his own accord (the first time they went along, the second time they left the stage and it segued into drums), and he was resistant to spontaneous musical suggestions put forth by the others.

Finally, I noticed that he was starting to have trouble in the faster parts of tunes. In something that would characterize his later playing as well, he would occasionally miss notes. While he was thinking and moving in time, there would be occasions, especially in faster riffs like Cumberland or Samson, when it sounded like he was missing the string. I should stress that for the vast majority of the shows, his playing was still sharp and that the shows don’t betray a serious issue. But there was a shadow of things to come in the next few years.

Overall, his condition and attitude were getting to be too much for his band-mates. On the last night of the tour, in Barcelona, they presented Jerry with a letter, penned by Phil but signed by everyone, expressing their dissatisfaction with his behavior and musicianship. It started: “Dear Sir and Brother. You have been accused of certain high crimes and misdemeanors against the art of music. To wit: playing in your own band; never playing with any dynamics; never listening to what anyone else plays…” Considering the legendary avoidance of confrontation that characterized the organization’s inter-personal relations, I take this to be a significant step, expressing a lot more than passing frustration.

While I confess I have not listened systematically to a significant portion of 1980-82, I think this European tour is a positive representation of the musical state of the band in that period. The extended jamming on, say, Scarlet>Fire, still yielded interesting moments, especially thanks to Brent, and the more complex Weir tunes like Sailor>Saint were tight and well executed. There were fun moments, like the time Garcia segued into Around and Around so fast that Weir had to jump to the mic, after which Weir screwed around with the introduction to Good Lovin’ to keep him on his toes. Not Fade Away tended to have a nice long jam-in, Truckin’ had those new whistle blasts at the intro riff, Weir was dropping F-bombs in Looks Like Rain and Saint, and the Altheas of this period are some of my favorite. Finally, though musical issues are lurking in the wings, it’s still easy enough to ignore them, and most of the tour is definitely worth a listen.

Up next: Furthur’s on tour, so I’m listening to that. I’m a little disappointed that only three of the shows have appeared (those West Coast tapers tend to be slower than the Joe Beacons of the world), so I guess I’ll be dropping some money on…