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.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Grateful Dead - Spring 1989

In 1989, the Grateful Dead played to one and a half million seats, with an average venue capacity of over 21 thousand. There had been a huge jump in sales and revenue since the release of In The Dark that would continue for the rest of their career: in ’91, they became the world’s highest-grossing touring act, playing to 1.6 million seats for $34 million; in 1994, they sold almost 2 million tickets, grossing $52 million.

In the late 80s, the band developed a broader role in American culture. In addition to the benefit concerts they had always done, Garcia, Weir and Hart went to the UN in 1988 to bring attention to the destruction of the rainforest, and in ’89 they appeared before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. In Garcia’s words, they had become “citizens who have a constituency.” Some of their early fans were now in high-ranking political positions, also adding some legitimacy: in March 1993, Mickey introduced the Endangered Music Project to the Library of Congress and they were invited to the White House by Al Gore, and in July ’94, they had lunch at the Senate with Senators Patrick Leahy and Barbara Boxer.

The end of the 1980s also saw a spike in new music. The band had written very little original material since 1979: in the next 8 years, they averaged a paltry two songs a year, including Lesh/Petersen’s one-off Revolutionary Hamstrung Blues. In 1988, they suddenly brought out seven new songs, including Victim, Foolish Heart, and four Brent originals.

I just finished listening to all but three of the shows played during the spring tour of 1989. While spring tours had generally been bookended with Oakland and Irvine shows, the band had been forced to cancel three mid-March shows in Oakland when the local community refused to have them. Consequently, the band hit the road with a six-week break behind them. The ’89 tour was also atypical geographically: instead of sticking to the coast, they spent most of the tour in the Great Lakes region, played Kentucky (which saw the final performance of Louie Louie) and closed out in Minnesota (where MIDI drums made their first appearance).

Perhaps because of the long break beforehand, the band took a while to hit their stride. The first four or five shows showed some of the complacency that had crept into the band’s MO. There were long breaks between songs, flubbed changes, a sense of just going through the motions. Garcia wasn’t particularly tight in his soloing either, and that first week was a bit flat. The Pittsburgh shows, fifth and sixth of the tour, were released as GD Download Series vol. 9 and as I got into that first show, I really wondered why. The answer came post-drums: The Wheel>Dear Mr. Fantasy(>Hey Jude reprise)>Around & Around>GDTRFB>Lovelight, with Baby Blue for the encore. Not only was this the most fun post-drums of the tour, but it also marked the turning point. The shows after this were all completely solid. I’m most partial to the following pair, in Ann Arbor, but the energy did not let up (though I confess I don’t have the last show in Minnesota). Weir has said that he considers the 89-90 period to be their best; by the end of the spring tour, shows were tight, the songs were as shapely and intricate as they would get, and the band alert and attentive.

I paid a bit of attention to Brent throughout the tour for two main reasons. First, it was his last full year with the band. He split from his wife that year, an experience that was very traumatic, according to Phil: always insecure, he became self-destructive, suffering a non-fatal overdose in December 1989, and dying of another in June 1990. Yet at the same time, his contributions to the band had never been greater. As I mentioned, he brought four new songs to the catalogue in 1988, and two more in ’89 brought his total to 12, plus his covers. By way of comparison, Pigpen brought 9 songs to the band, Keith brought 1 and Vince 2.

He had about one song a night, but the crowd went crazy for his performances. His two most frequent originals were Blow Away and I Will Take You Home. The first, about moving on after a failed relationship, never failed to wake everybody up, particularly the long ad-lib jam in the second half, where he would wail about grabbing love in your hand and keeping it way down deep inside. (I have to admit there were moments when I cringed at the sheer awkwardness: “It’s like you want it in your heart,” he howled at the top of his lungs, “you want it in your heart probably!... baby baby baby baby baby baby baby!” Soulful, certainly, but hardly poetic). Anyway, awkward or no – it got better as the tour went on – it never failed to draw roars of approval from the crowds.

I Will Take You Home was his weeper, typically post-drums. The rest of the band would hang back and more or less let him take the whole thing. Just as Barlow’s lyrics for Blow Away are very appropriate for Brent’s rough relationship with his wife, Home’s, I imagine, resonated particularly in the context of Brent’s daughter. The song evokes a father holding his infant girl, a lullaby of protection and reassurance. Brent sold both songs every time, the latter with poignancy enough to fill the slot after Space usually reserved for Garcia.

The last night of the tour saw the introduction of MIDI effects into the Drums segment. The Musical Instrument Digital Interface allowed an instrument to produce the sound of another. It differed from a synthesizer in two important ways: it could be used with any instrument, and it created a new sound as opposed to playing back a pre-recorded sample. Mickey and Billy had been using samples for some time, but they were the last to get on the MIDI bandwagon. It was first introduced on Brent’s rig in the early eighties, and everyone in the band picked it up at some point, though Phil dropped his MIDI setup for a while because of the lag involved in processing the long bass waves. Garcia used MIDI most conspicuously, eventually using various horn emulators in his solos.

For the drummers, MIDI was really just another toy on the massive toy chest that was the Beast. Of the myriad rhythmic noisemakers clamped to and hung from the frame, very few made frequent appearances except the huge toms and the Beam, which generally featured at the climax of the segment (often loud enough to overdrive the microphones). But in between the kit portion and the climax, Mickey and Billy had dozens of other things to experiment with, making Drums consistently interesting. I only wish I knew the names of half of the instruments they were using, or could tell a marimba from a balafon. Drums was one of the only things that improved consistently throughout. After 1981, there was exactly one show without a Drums segment – the Bill Graham memorial concert – and there were constant additions to the toy box. There is really no way to get drums “wrong,” and as the years went on, there was always something new to listen to, from the talking drum solos Bill favored early on or the atmospheric rainforest sounds Mickey brought in during the nineties.

I’m going to forego listing highlights this time around. Like I said, anything after Pittsburgh was pretty solid (i.e. 4/5 onwards). Solos could still hold surprises (and Garcia was sounding great), but by this period most songs were more or less set: there was little improvisation in introductions, thematic suites within jams, fillers, pickups etc. The one thing that might make or break a performance was the vocals: Jerry was prone to flubbing a few lines here and there, Weir could on occasion bring the roof down with his closers.

The period spanning 1989 and 1990 represents to my mind a peak in the consistency and professionalism of the band, which I think is why Weir is partial to it. They had developed a particular way of structuring a set and of performing songs with complicated arrangements, and here was a time when could be relied on to do it well. Most importantly, they could do so with their largest repertoire to date (not including the Dylan/Dead stuff), so that you can listen to a half-dozen shows without losing interest.

Up next. I realize that I tend to accentuate the positive in the music. I want to explore some of the bad days and get into what was so bad about them. I have not done so yet because I don't have enough shows from say 83-4 or 94-5 to make a fair assessment. I have 7 consecutive shows from mid '93, so that'll have to do for a start.


  1. I would listen to all the greek theatre shows if you want high octane 80's dead. They started playing there each year in 1981 I think, and continued to play there up until 1989. It was a venue that was know to bring out the best in the boys.

  2. Actually, this is incorrect: "The Musical Instrument Digital Interface allowed an instrument to produce the sound of another. It differed from a synthesizer in two important ways: it could be used with any instrument, and it created a new sound as opposed to playing back a pre-recorded sample." No, MIDI is not different from a synthesizer—it's a protocol that allows one digital instrument to control another digital instrument and very often what's being controlled IS a synthesizer, which is what Jerry, Bob and Phil were doing. People often use "synthesizer" as a synonym for digital keyboard when in fact a synthesizer is simply a machine that creates sounds from analog or digital oscillators that can be controlled in various ways: patch cords, keyboards, guitars, etc.

  3. I enjoyed your comments on the tour otherwise!

  4. I believe that Weir said this was his favorite time in the band overall, Brent's final year or so.

    I hated the MIDI sound, hated the crowds, hated that Jerry just wasn't as sprightly on the guitar as he used to be, hated that Brent was the only one writing new songs for the most part. To me, the magic was slipping.

  5. I LOVED the MIDI sound. There's no doubt in my mind that the late 80's leading up to the time of Brent's death were the hottest and crispest times in the band's history. I was at the Warlocks in 89, and Alpine Valley earlier that year - There is NO Grateful Dead better than the band during this period.

  6. I am perplexed. I saw a summer 89 irvine show and made it my last. Totally disappointed after seeing lots of great early 80s shows in NorCal. But the scarlet fire from Ontario in 1990 is unreal