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, March 28, 2010

Extracurricular Weir

“If I keep doing Grateful Dead stuff till the end of time, I might get bored pretty quick,” Weir said in a radio interview in March, 1978. “I already know how to do that… but fitting into that little niche… eliminates the possibility of growth.” So began Weir’s solo career with Heaven Help the Fool, recorded in the summer of 1977 and released in January 1978.

Ace, Weir’s first album under his own name, was recorded almost exclusively by the Grateful Dead (plus Dave Torbert and a few horn players), and aside from Walk in the Sunshine, it comprised exclusively Grateful Dead material. Released under Grateful Dead Records, there was no band or commercial support for the album.

Beginning in 1974, during the Grateful Dead’s then-indefinite hiatus, Weir toured and recorded with Kingfish, founded by former New Riders Dave Torbert and Matthew Kelly in 1973. Matthew Kelly was one of Weir’s oldest friends (reportedly at his tenth birthday party), and considering the New Riders’ close relationship with the Dead, it made sense that there be some cross-pollination. Unfortunately for Kingfish and despite the fact that they did very few Grateful Dead songs, Weir’s status in the musical world left the impression that they were merely his backup band. This initial collaboration lasted through August 1st, 1976, when Kingfish did a handful of east coast shows ahead of two GD dates there. Weir felt “stretched plenty thin” by his dual commitments and stepped out of Kingfish for the time being.

When Heaven Help the Fool was released, the Dead had recently signed to Arista and Weir embarked on a nationwide major-markets tour with the Bob Weir Band in support of the album. The February-March tour comprised 17 dates and there were a half-dozen one-off shows later in the year, but it was a short-lived group with a catalogue of less than twenty songs (generally about 12 per show), assembled strictly for the promotion of the album. Shows were relatively short and the music, though upbeat and energetic, was conventional. Nonetheless, two major connections emerged from that lineup. Brent Mydland, of course, would go on to join the Grateful Dead in April 1979 and the first lineup of Bobby and the Midnites in June 1980. The BWB also comprised Bobby Cochran, nephew of Eddie Cochran, former lead guitarist of Steppenwolf, and fellow Ibanez endorser with his very own Cowboy Fancy model. Master of both the screaming classic-rock lead and SRV-style blues, Cochran would play with Weir through 1984.

It was not until mid-1980 that Weir formed his first real side-project, Bobby and the Midnites. The core of Weir, Cochran and Miles-Davis-sideman and Mahavishnu Orchestra founding drummer Billy Cobham was complemented at different times by Brent Mydland and Matthew Kelly (June ‘80 – January ‘81); Alphonso Johnson (January ‘82 – March ‘83), of Weather Report, Genesis, and later Jazz is Dead and the Other Ones; and Little Feat bassist Ken Gradney (March ‘83 – September ‘84).

In contrast to the pathologically uncompromising Grateful Dead, Bobby and the Midnites threw themselves gleefully into a broader 80s sound: Me Without You, Rock in the 80s, Thunder & Lightning (with its refrain “over the edge and out of control”), and I Want To Live in America are shameless 80s pop. The rest of the repertoire was mainly Weir material, with very little GD: Minglewood, Supplication, Victim, and a few covers like Women are Smarter and C.C. Rider. The band was tight, Cochran never failed to impress, and there was room for more stage goofery than with the Dead: vamps over Heaven Help the Fool or Josephine could occasion a lot of ad-libbed antics and asides. The Midnites released two records in their four-year lifespan, did six major tours along with a dozen smaller runs and one-offs, and performed their last show in September 1984.

No sooner had the Midnites dissolved than Weir went back to playing with Kingfish. A new MO appeared: in an effort to capitalize on Weir’s contribution while avoiding the identification as his side project, he acted as a sort of guest bandleader. Most of the band’s repertoire consisted of covers, and depending on the night, Weir would lead part or all of a given set, always leaving a half-dozen original Kingfish tunes on which he was absent. In all the Kingfish lineups (at one time including Steve Kimock), Matt Kelly was the only constant, but keyboardist Barry Flast did most of the talking: he would introduce the songs, the band and Weir whenever he came on. Parenthetically, it made me smile to hear him introduce their signature song Hypnotize with a shout-out to all the “Fishheads” in the audience. Finally, it was common for Bob to do a few solo acoustic songs towards the end of the second set. This same arrangement applied to Go Ahead, a Mydland/Kreutzmann outfit with which he did a dozen shows during the Grateful Dead’s ‘87-‘88 winter hiatus. Weir’s collaboration with Kingfish would continue sporadically through 1989.

In 1986, Weir recorded three songs with a Brian Melvin project called Nightfood. Brian Melvin shared the Dead’s San Francisco roots and loved their sound. He is an adept of the Mickey Hart-style spiritual world-rhythm approach, and played with Jorma Kaukonnen and a host of other Bay Area musicians. He was also a close friend of the late great bassist Jaco Pastorius, who among other things collaborated closely with Pat Metheny and replaced Alphonso Johnson in Weather Report. Melvin cut a record aptly titled Nightfood and Weir played a handful of gigs in support of the album in late 1986. The music on the album is fusion-lite and by then Pastorius’s bipolar disorder, exacerbated by alcohol abuse, made him very erratic, but it’s an interesting interlude in Weir’s career to have shared the stage with him. I have found no live recordings but if anyone has a lead, let me know.

In all likelihood, Weir had been doing solo acoustic stuff all along but there is no easily accessible record of such performances outside Deadbase, which lists his first solo performances in 1984. At the Sweetwater in Mill Valley, in October 1988, Weir first played with fantastically interesting upright bassist Rob Wasserman. This led to a long-standing collaboration that would tide Weir over into the mid nineties and eventually transition into RatDog, via Scaring the Children (later RD3) and Ratdog Revue. Weir/Wasserman, or more commonly Bob and Rob, did their first three outings in ’88 and ’89 as an opening act for the Jerry Garcia Band but struck out on their own in January 1990. Until 1993 they toured regularly whenever the GD were not on the road, generally with an opening act (Susan James, Hot Tuna, Bruce Cockburn and Michelle Shocked). Their sets were rather repetitive (though less and less so as the years went on), and Wasserman almost always took a bass solo. New material complemented the standard Weir solo catalogue, lighter, more vocally-driven songs from the standard jazz canon. Fever, Witchcraft, Twilight Time and Artificial Flowers found their way into the sets more and more frequently in that period.

There were no Weir/Wasserman shows in 1994, but in April 1995, Jay Lane and Matthew Kelly first performed with the duo at an Earth Day concert in San Francisco in a one-off performance that would lead to RatDog. Named Ratdog Revue, that foursome premiered on August 6th, 1995, three days shy of Jerry’s death, which would mark the biggest turning point in Weir’s career. It seems an appropriate place to end this overview of his musical extracurriculars.

I began this week’s listening with the intention of identifying some pivotal moment in which Weir went from sideman to showman, so to speak, but seven shows over 12 years is hardly enough to give that sort of insight. If anything, this overview reveals a series of explorations in different directions. The Midnites was an anti-Grateful Dead foray into the world of pop and conventional rock and roll; Kingfish and Go Ahead offered a forum for him to do a little of everything without the pressure of being a support pillar; and Scaring the Children (my favorite of the duo’s monikers) was a serious, bare-bones exercise in developing guitar voicing and jazz vocals. Whether these were planned, conscious choices or not is debatable, but they certainly complement the picture of Weir’s character available from his days with the Grateful Dead.

Next: I’m listening to RD3’s three-day run at Wetlands in February 1999 (new soundboards), while I decide what to do next. My options are: GD January 1970, GD November-December 1979, RD 2006, a closer look at Bobby and the Midnites, or a series from the recent Mike Gordon tour. If anyone has a preference, let me know.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Furthur, Winter 2010 vol. 3

The Furthur tour officially wrapped up in Portland on March 8th with Phil telling the crowd how it always seems that things are getting really good just as the tour is ending. Having listened to 28 consecutive shows, I have to admit I’m a little burned out, but the overall quality stayed high for the duration. I’ve said most of what there is to say about the band in my first two posts but a few things are worth mentioning in overview.

By the end of the tour, Phil had stopped chiming in at the end of the first set, the RatDog material had disappeared, Weir finally got his Duck joke straight and Scarlet Begonias had become their favorite set opener (5 times including 3.12). Bob continued to introduce little things: the reggae jam I mentioned in my last post, which is something RatDog did for years, came back two more times now prefaced by an audible “Pressure drop!” from Weir (check out Memphis Blues in Uncasville). He also likes one-chord jams, which I find awkward because there are no built-in points of reference for dynamic movement. For years, Odessa had very few changes; recently, Minglewood lost a 5-chord at the end of the form, and in the second half of this tour there were a few instances where there was a one-chord vamp in the middle of the tune (After Midnight and Mason’s on 2/23 for example). RatDog also did a lot of reprises, wherein they ended the song and then jumped back in for a last chorus; Furthur did this a few times towards the end of the run (US Blues, Lovelight, Touch). Finally (I don’t know whose idea it was), there were two occasions on which they started the tune in double-time for a few bars before jumping in fully.

Two things surprised me about the tour, or rather two absences. First, the Throckmorton shows featured some nice jazz jams and I was surprised not to hear any others during this tour. Second, Kadlecik used a MIDI doubler occasionally (both the guitar and the effect were audible) and I thought it sounded interesting, but I only heard it three times (I might have missed some).

Any highlights are subjective but I might as well throw my two cents in anyway. I had a lot of fun listening to the first night at Radio City, even if it had a lot to do with Joebeacon’s recording, which was vastly superior to those made in the foregoing week by the tapers in New Hampshire, Delaware and Utica. The second set in Atlantic City was highlighted by Dark Star, which took a really funky turn holding out through the second verse, and Weir sounded like he was having a lot of fun on the Gloria encore. Lastly, the second night in Chicago was real interesting just because it essentially consisted of two second sets. After the show, Jay Lane introduced two people: the daughter of Johnnie Johnson (founding rock pioneer –starting with Chuck Berry in 1952 - who did a stint with RatDog in 96-97), and his own birth sister, whom he had met that day.

While it was not technically part of the tour, the birthday benefit is worth hearing if only for two long-lost classics: Pigpen's Two Souls In Communion, in the acoustic 1st set, and Garcia's Cream Puff War at the end of the third set (though RatDog played that one a few times in 08-09). The acoustic Mountains of the Moon, sung by Phil was a treat, and the 1st electric set roared throughout. I think there's a chance they'll release the soundboard for free; keep your fingers crossed.

In other news, it was announced on a Philzone thread, and confirmed by Phil, that Jay Lane has elected to leave Furthur and go back to playing with Les Claypool. At the end of the tour, Jay told Bob he’d been offered the spot and they decided it was logical to do so after the birthday show. Phil was consulted and agreed. There doesn’t appear to be a replacement percussionist in the works. I don’t think Jay was integral to the Furthur sound (Joe Russo, as far as I can tell, is flawless), so it makes sense that he would want to get back to something where he is more valuable, as it does that Phil did not object. Phil also said that the backup singers are theoretically on board, but they are both new moms and have to “figure out their logistics.”

The next stop is Futhurfest at the Calaveras County Fairground on May 28th. The other acts are Jackie Greene and Mark Karan with their respective bands; Larry Campbell and Theresa Williams; old friends Electric Hot Tuna; the Waybacks, with whom Weir sat in a few years back; Galactic; and a handful of others I’m not familiar with. It’s not Bonnaroo. It’ll probably be a low-key vibe compared with the circuses that are common these days, so I’m looking forward to seeing what happens. I’d also be curious to know how much rehearsal they do and how much serious conversation goes into the repertoire.

Next: as I said, I’m a little burned out on Furthur, so I’m going to go back to Weir’s solo work throughout the 80s. I have seven shows at two-year intervals from 1978 to 1990 lined up. It’s a start into a long-term look at how Weir dealt with the 80s, Garcia’s increasing unreliability, and the need for him to step up and carve out a leading position. I’m curious to see if his vocal and rhythmic presence changes significantly. Also, if anyone has a line on where I can get a hold of anything he played with Jaco Pastorius ("Nightfood," 09.86 - 05.87), I’d be much obliged. So long.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Furthur, Winter 2010 Vol. 2

Well, I’m thoroughly behind schedule; I’ve gotten through Utica, but eight shows in two weeks is below average. I promise to get through Portland sometime before May. In the meantime, the tour has rolled on almost as well as the first series I reviewed in Vol. 1. I mentioned then that the first set of the Feb 12th show was lackluster, and set two also proved under par. In Utica (20th), the first set was well-executed, high energy, and included a RatDog-style reggae passage in Dear Prudence (the second of the tour, after Amherst’s Knockin’ encore), and yet the second set ended disappointingly with an awkward Touch and We Bid You Goodnight. Other than those two exceptions, however, shows have remained consistently good. This will go down in my book as one of the best tours I can remember. While I try not to read reviews until after I’ve heard the show, comments here and there (mostly on etree) lead me to believe most people are pretty happy as well.

I mentioned last time that the GD setlist form was gone, but what has remained is the post-Dead tradition of having Phil lead the way through the second set with transition jams. It’s worth pointing out at this point that what we’ve all been referring to as “jams” are not so in the strictest sense of the word. If Phil has developed a particular skill since the GD days, it’s his ability to create careful and intentional transitional passages. While these take the form of successive vamps and therefore sound like jams, Phil is talking the band through changes in chords and tempo to get from one tune to another. I really don’t know what to call that sort of thing, but I think it’s worth paying attention to.
Though he is indisputably in charge when it comes to these jams, Phil doesn’t stand out much in the songs themselves like he did with P&F. That tendency, when he played with The Dead, could be a source of conflict. Recently, he has settled into a more musically equitable position within the band (though he stood out superbly on Utica’s Satisfaction). In contrast, he sings more, and is more vocal between tunes and sets. He now sings all of Eyes of the World, for instance, instead of just the “redeemer” verse like in recent years. He also has taken Franklin’s Tower, Peggy-O, Truckin’ and Bird Song (in addition to the usual Unbroken Chain, Box etc). These don’t add up to more that a song or two per show but it’s more than he has sung in the past. He and Bob banter more. While “We’ll be back in just a little bit.” used to be exclusive Bob territory, Phil now usually chimes in with something like “We’ll come back if you come back” or something to that effect. The overall effect is that they come across more as sharing leadership of the band. His Donor Rap is a bit more elaborate too. In recognition of the fact that they are playing a lot of new venues, he’s been saying things like “We’ve never been here/we like it here/we’ll be back/…” The rap itself now often opens with something acknowledging that most of the audience has heard this before (it had been ten years, after all).
(I also noticed that for the first few weeks, he sounded tired and the Donor Rap was a bit cursory. Weir noted in a recent interview that Phil has days where he’s slower than others, and Phil mentioned on a few occasions, during the Nokia runs in ’07 and ’08, that bouncing around on a bus was no longer his idea of a good time. I’m surprised that at his age he has the energy for a tour of this length and geographic breadth).
Weir, meanwhile, has vastly expanded his rap catalogue (rap in the Pigpen sense). He has come up with various ideas for Lost Sailor, Good Lovin’, Midnight Hour, Hard to Handle, Lovelight and Caution. This constitutes a departure from anything in recent years. One standount was from Good Lovin’ at Cornell. It starts out with his “Who needs it?” thing and goes from there. On this occasion, he rapped his way through a whole progression and opened a vamp: “and now we’re gonna stay on the One”, continuing “and now we’re gonna take it for a little walk in the woods,” which led into a very cool one-chord jam. Returning to the main theme, he quipped: “And now back to my original question: Who needs it?” This had never been done before and it was a treat to listen to. I know he doesn’t come up with these on the fly, meaning that he has spent a fair amount of time offstage working on these little interludes; they serve the overall early-Dead vibe that Furthur has been resurrecting.
I have tried to pick out Jay Lane’s role since the tour began, which is not easy since he’s not particularly prominent in the mix and his sound overlaps with Joe Russo’s. As far as I can make out, he sticks largely to cymbals and bongos while in the meat of the tunes. However the most distinctive sounds are those of his rain-stick and his shell-shaker. There is a time and place for that stuff but I have to mention the Cornell show when he broke out that damn shaker on three different tunes in a row. I guess you have to see what works. In all probability, it just happens to come through louder than intended since it’s a hold-up-to-the-mic thing rather than one with a permanent, leveled and EQd mic on it. He does like that rain stick though.
There have been a few one-off sound/equipment issues: Weir’s high end was feeding back in New Hampshire, there was some interference over Kadlecik’s lead in Utica, there was a grounding problem on the 14th and various technical glitches in PA on the 15th gave Weir an opportunity to screw up his “A duck walks into a bar” joke. In all fairness, it’s not a terrible joke, he just flubbed the punchline both times he told it. He said he'd work on it.
I want to discuss a few songs. First, Corinna, which for my money was the Grateful Dead’s all-time worst tune, though one of RatDog’s most fun. I’ve only heard one rendition and it came off pretty well. JK mostly played the GD/Garcia lines on it (particularly that introductory octave-slide), but the musical arrangement is RatDog’s: Mickey’s heavy rhythm part doesn’t lumber the tune down and there are more changes. I also though Ashes and Glass grew a nice new pair of legs, I’m looking forward to further performances. Hurricane is a great song that has evolved a bit and really came together in Buffalo. There is a space between verses that really wants to be filled, but they elected to save the trademark guitar lead for the very end, leaving the first part of the song a bit flat. In Buffalo, Weir began to turn up a bit and play fills in that space. They don’t function as solos but add tremendously. JK also finally has a solid handle on all the vocals, so that the tune is tighter, more complete. Finally, King Solomon’s Marbles struggled in its first few performances, mainly because it’s long, ridiculously complicated, and led by the guitar. Kadlecik has not gotten a solid enough handle on the progression and timing to keep the whole thing together, so in Amherst on the 19th, Chimenti and JK split lead duties. It changes the overall vibe a little but the song hold together better.

So the tour is running along well, things are evolving nicely. I’m looking forward to seeing what develops, especially with the RD tunes. A summer tour has been announced, counting 11 dates so far; I’m curious to see if they keep it short, leaving time for a RatDog tour as well (they’ve done two summer tours for the past few years). By the way, here’s a nice long CNBC/Weir interview worth checking out, recorded when they were at Radio City. Among other standard fare, he mentions how they’re trying to build an audience for Furthur (which seems unnecessary, somehow), and they go into the oddly high number of high-ranking DeadHead politicians.

Next: I have 10 shows to go, plus Phil’s birthday benefit (“Furthur and Friends”). With any luck I’ll have a final post up by the 18th. Cheers.