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.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Rhythm Devils - July 2010

Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann have re-formed the Rhythm Devils. Starting on July 16th, the band played eleven shows in the Mountain region and on the West Coast, closing out the tour at the Gathering of the Vibes on the 31st. Venues were varied, from a drive-in theater in Idaho to the venerable Orpheum Theater in Flagstaff, with capacities from 700 to 6,000 (not including the Vibes), in the same circuit as Michael Franti, J.J. Grey or Yonder Mountain. They started a North East leg on August 21st; they will play Chicago’s House of Blues, the Sherman Theater and the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, venues frequented by RatDog and Furthur (the northeast has always been Deadhead territory).

The lineup has changed considerably since the Rhythm Devils’ last incarnation a few years ago, which had included Mike Gordon, Jen Durkin and Steve Kimock. The new personnel has jam-scene favorite Keller Williams on guitar and lead vocals, advantageous because he knows the words to a broad section of the Grateful Dead’s catalogue. The other guitar slot has been filled by 22-year-old Brit Davy Knowles, a founding member of Back Door Slam, who has shared bills with The Who, Government Mule and George Thorogood. The bass slot is held by Government Mule member Andy Hess (whose credits also include Tina Turner, David Byrne, the Black Crowes and John Scofield), and who filled in for Kreutzmann’s Seven Walkers band in June. Rounding out the lineup is talking drum master Sikiru Adepoju, a musical cohort of Mickey Hart’s since the mid eighties who recorded with Stevie Wonder and Santana and has played with Babatunde Olatunji for 17 years.

This tour’s rotation counted 45 songs, with a dozen originals forming the backbone of the setlists; the vast majority of the other songs are from the Grateful Dead catalogue. Aside from that, Davy Knowles contributed Sultans of Swing (the first song he ever learned on guitar, he says), they played David Crosby’s Almost Cut My Hair, Hey Bo Diddley (6 performances), and Neil Young’s Cortez The Killer. Unfortunately, very few shows trickled down through the usual channels: I only managed to get a hold of the Tucson show on the 28th and the Vibes show from the 31st.

The addition of Keller Williams gave the band the freedom to pick liberally from the GD catalogue, so that a lot of those tunes were only performed once or twice. This is nice for the band, and makes for a fair amount of diversity in the shows, but by the same token they did not have time to really work up the Dead stuff: there is nothing new or special about that material. On the other hand, their original material is pretty good. Without the thick sonic atmosphere boasted by previous incarnations, these Rhythm Devils have worked up some new arrangements for Fountains of Wood and Fire on the Mountain (mainly coming from Mickey, it sounds like), and the jam section of Strange World was great both times I heard it.

Overall, this is a young band in the sense that they have yet to really jell around a particular sound. For the moment, the Dead material sounds like it’s being played by a cover band, albeit a perfectly competent one. Davy Knowles has garnered a fair amount of praise for his talents, and knows his way around rock and blues. Andy Hess has all the experience you could ask for but comes off a bit stiff in some of the longer jam segments. Keller Williams plays great and sings well, though he doesn’t have the power and authority of Jen Durkin. It took me a little while to get used to it.

The 17 shows of the current tour, which runs though September 11th (Mickey’s 67th birthday) should give them time to work out an angle, and there are two more shows scheduled for early January 2011. I’m curious to see what happens to this band. There has already been a lineup change, with The Mother Hips’ Tim Bluhm replacing Keller, which begs the question as to what kind of commitment they’re asking of the individual members, and what kind of time-frame they have in mind for the life of the band. I’d venture that it’s not a long-term project, since it never has been in the past, and I don’t expect that they will work too hard at a seriously original sound; I think the drummers have too many other projects on the burner to commit to the Rhythm Devils.

Up Next: at the moment, I'm working through a dozen or so Miles Davis shows. I'm not very knowledgeable on that subject, so I won't post on it, but I think the next thing you'll see here is a review of the Grateful Dead's September-October 1981 European tour.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Furthur - Summer 2010

Furthur has settled into a groove of consistently solid performances this summer. Eighteen shows in the Northeast between June 25th and July 30th have yielded half a dozen new songs, most original; a fresh, non-formulaic setlist pattern; greatly improved vocal arrangements and very few meltdowns. And someone may or may not have slipped something in Weir’s drink at the Nokia Theater on July 28th.

Furthur’s catalogue for 2010 numbers 189 songs, more than the maximum for the Grateful Dead in any year (150 songs in 1987 including all the Dylan material) and even RatDog, who topped out in 2007 at 180. They’ve added a number of originals though they seem to have dropped Welcome to the Dance, which has not been played since February. Muli Guli first appeared at the festival in California and three more times since; Colors Of the Rain was first performed on June 30th and was the most frequent of this tour’s new songs (four performances); and Seven Hills of Gold was broken out in early July. Each of them is credited to “Furthur;” they trade verses on Muli, Phil sings Colors, and Bob handles Hills. Celebration is not a new song, but it had only ever been played by Phil & Friends prior to three performances in July. Aside from that, Traffic’s Feelin’ Alright appeared twice, though I suspect it won’t be a regular part of the catalogue, like Ryan Adams’ Bartering Lines, performed once in New York. I Fought The Law had not been done in recent memory but made a surprise appearance in early June.

Parenthetically, they’ve also started performing the other parts of Terrapin Station, which has a long and complicated history. Robert Hunter wrote pages of lyrics for different parts of an epic-poem-style Terrapin Station suite (see Box of Rain – Penguin Books 1990), most of which have never been performed. In 1977, the Grateful Dead recorded a musical suite including certain parts on the B-side of the eponymous album: Lady With A Fan>Terrapin Station>Terrapin>Terrapin Transit>At A Siding>Terrapin Flyer>Refrain. It may be that some sections were arbitrary cuts for royalty purposes. The At A Siding section was played live once in 1977 without lyrics and is labeled The Alhambra on the tapes that circulate but aside from that, the song was always limited to the first Lady/Terrapin diptych. In August 2002, RatDog started performing the whole suite, but it was not until the Furthur Festival that this was picked up by anyone else. Since then, Furthur have performed At A Siding>Terrapin Flyer>Refrain (or Terrapin Reprise) five times. The suite runs about twenty-five minutes, making it a bit unwieldy, but they have also played the first diptych and the second half separately.

Pardon the digression.

The summer tour kicked off in Brooklyn, and though reviews were generally very positive, I couldn’t help but notice something that persisted through the first half of the tour at least: Weir’s volume. His level has always been rather low, and the Weirheads out there, myself included, often wish he would turn up. This is only advisable up to a point. Often times during the tour his volume was the loudest on the stage. Now, insofar as he and Phil are the backbone of the group, he ought to be prominent in the mix, but his tone and the structure of the music make too much Weir detrimental. First of all, he often seems to play at the very highest limits of the human auditory spectrum, a sound bordering on screechy, which even his guitar tech admits sometimes needs to be rolled off. In the context of the Grateful Dead’s sound, with a pretty full tonal range, the high end can be the only place to find some room to play. However, if he is too loud, it can obliterate the upper midrange and the high end distracts from everything else. Secondly, the Garcia element of the Dead’s music involves a consistent, flowing lead sound to tie the other rhythms together. Weir has a way of nudging a groove along by picking moments to interject: if he is playing at lead volume, there’s nothing to nudge and it breaks up the flow.
He was pretty intentional in his volume level, as I recall, at times turning up further if Kadlecik stepped up. I imagine he’s either working on developing a way to lead with his guitar voicing, or trying to carve out a greater directive presence. I personally don’t think he can lead with guitar alone unless he plays a straighter rhythm. However, he definitely came down as the tour went along, so whatever he was going for, he seems to have found it.

Since Furthur started up about a year ago, there has been some experimentation with vocal arrangements. Specifically, Weir and Kadlecik are trading verses (Tennessee Jed), couplets (Half-Step) and in some cases even lines within a verse (Touch of Grey). When this first started, it felt disorganized and unnecessary but they have gotten quite good at it, so that it’s not that noticeable any more (Touch in Ottawa is a case in point). Jeff Pehrson and Sunshine Becker are still at times an integral part of the vocals, as opposed to embellishments or chorus: The Eleven is a good example, with substantially rearranged vocals, and Pink Floyd’s Time relies heavily on their contribution, though Phil sings as well. The a-cappella tunes like Attics and We Bid You Goodnight could not happen without them.

Some songs are noticeably being tweaked. Hard to Handle (7.8) jumps right out. There is a funky new introduction, and long centerpiece jam, and the end goes into a vamp with some Weir vocal ad-libs. Shakedown Street’s “shake it down” vocal vamp and modulation was not done the same way twice this tour. Once they did a long a-cappella vamp before the shift, once they did it like RatDog: twice around on the vocal line into the change; and there was also an occasion on which they added a vamp before the end of the modulation. It’ll be interesting to see what they settle on. Ashes and Glass has a new chord progression towards the middle at “Nothing left to say,” and Weir added some words at the top of the Jack Straw jam in Philadelphia. While on the subject of Weir’s singing, I’d like to point out two tracks in particular which showcase the roar he can still muster despite his age and reputation. Admitting that he has off nights on which he sounds a bit weak, check out Satisfaction in Philly (7.10) and Death Don’t Have No Mercy at the Nokia (7.29). I’ve never heard him belt one out quite like that last one.

Keyboardist Jeff Chimenti continues to be in top form though he takes fewer leads than he did last tour (Weir takes more). Unbroken Chain (their best song, for my money) relies most heavily on JC’s contribution but he takes relatively frequent solos and almost always has something interesting to say. Note that he has a bit more freedom to come up with something original than Kadlecik, who tends to be confined to the Garcia mood for given sections. Joe Russo is solid as always. I noticed a few things: first, he’s the only guy on stage who moves much. Those of you who saw that viral video of the wedding band drummer twirling sticks and pumping his arms will have an idea of what Russo is doing, albeit on a lower scale. It’s not too showy but it is noticeable compared to the generally staid attitude of the front-line guys. Second, he’s very tight. There are numerous transitions with Furthur (the “.>” stop-go kind, as opposed to the China>Rider type) and he never misses a beat, which is something that Bill and Mickey never quite got the hang of. His facility with fills is most noticeable on the latter Terrapin sections and on Slipknot, both of which have drum-fill portions that he always nails.

To finish up, I’d like to throw in two cents about the Weir incident at Nokia on July 28th. The by-now-familiar video of El Paso shows Weir a little unsteady on his feet, shaking his head, and completely unable to remember the words to a song he’s been singing for 40 years. Trouble started during the previous tune, Brown-Eyed Women, in which he flubbed the end verse. There were some more blank moments in the second set, though not as painful as the 5-minute El Paso vamp (Music and Cassidy). Some say he was drunk, others say he was dosed, and Phil implied the latter by way of an introduction on the following night (detractors argue that it could be a plausible lie to cover for him). I know that Weir has had issues with drinking, though not in any detail. Nonetheless, I cannot imagine that a career musician would do something quite so unprofessional. For a guy whose livelihood is so squarely and intentionally based in performance, it doesn’t seem logical to get drunk before a show. Additionally, he didn’t appear impaired in any way on the Shakedown opener, nor did he sound stumbling-around-drunk on any of the other tunes he sang. Being dosed before the show and thrown for a loop at the onset of the trip a few songs in seems to fit the performance. I have no inside info, no expertise on the psychotropics going around, but I don’t think he was drinking.

Anywho, that’s it for this installment. There is a lot I didn’t cover (setlists, for example), favorite shows (I’ve heard Herniker a lot, but I’d say Nokia 7.29), etc., but this seems quite long enough. Thank you for indulging me.

Up next: I heard a few Rhythm Devils shows from this past tour. I’ll have a short post on those within a few days.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Carol Brightman: “Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead’s American Adventure”

Carol Brightman was a political activist in the late 60s and early 70s. She edited the underground Viet-Report on the US’s involvement in Vietnam, and later won a National Book Critics Circle award for a book on author/activist Mary McCarthy. In the early nineties, her editor – and the fact that her sister had long worked for the Grateful Dead – convinced her to write a book about Deadheads. The end product came out differently: Sweet Chaos mainly chronicles the counter-culture years of the late 60s, using as lenses the Grateful Dead and her own experience.

Carol’s sister Candace had been working at the Capitol Theater in 1971 when Garcia came through with his band. He liked her work and asked her to join the GD crew (“A lot of people work for us for nothing,” he told her when she asked about pay). She started in New York at the Academy of Music in March 1972 and aside from a couple of years when she quit in a huff (‘74-’75 – Parish had refused to let Carol backstage), she was a full-fledged family member. Carol, on the other hand, was heavily involved in political activism, and had relatively little contact with her sister at the time. She makes no claims to be familiar with the inner workings of the band and admits that their a lot of their music sounds the same to her.

The book opens with the only really historical analysis of the burgeoning hippie culture of the mid-sixties. Rather than focusing on the Haight and the Summer of Love, she traces the Beat generation’s gradual demise, the emergence of a secondary coffee-shop scene and the fabrication of the “hippie” identity (noting that at the time of the S.F. Chronicle article coining the term, “hippie” referred to high-school-age Beatnik wannabes, an unflattering term hotly resisted by those involved).

The book’s centerpiece places the late-sixties activism in which Brightman was involved against the Grateful Dead’s origins and early identity. There are chapters devoted to the Weather Underground, her time at Viet-Report, and with the Brigadistas, those American youths who descended on Cuba to aid in the revolution by harvesting the sugarcane that would finance an independent government. While the connections with the GD’s world are not made explicit, she ties them together under the umbrella of the government’s efforts to curb the counterculture. The Dead were busted and hassled, of course, and Brightman discusses the extensive files on her own and others’ political activities, and chronicles the spate of clashes between National Guard and college students in 1970.

The author argues that in the early 70s, both political activism and the Dead’s early counter-cultural identity petered out. Though she is not particularly clear on the details, it is true that Lenny Hart’s exit was more or less the last straw in a series of failed in-house initiatives, and that thereafter there was a reorganization of the band’s financial and touring affairs that effectively brought them more in line with the mainstream music business. She is more eloquent on the demise of political activism: the sheer number of factions and angles made an actual solution difficult to articulate, and it became clear that the cost of further encouraging resistance (i.e. Weathermen attacks and campus clashes with the National Guard), was unacceptable.
In my opinion, the comparison is not altogether very convincing, even if the two phenomena were coeval. It seems to me that they were reactions to different mores of mainstream culture – loosely speaking, social vs. political – and that there was little direct connection between the two movements.

There is a break in the narrative around 1971-2 (like everyone else, she focuses disproportionately on the band’s first five years), but the initial intention to write a book on Deadheads provides her a wealth of interview material. A cross-section of fans, some there for the music, others for the drugs, provide a look at Deadhead culture upon which she bases some illuminating commentary: the escapism provided from mainstream culture and politics, the development of the Deadhead identity, the flowering of the secondary merchandise and parking lot scenes etc. She also gets a fair amount of information from Candace and Chris Brightman (their brother, a set carpenter for the GD in the nineties and later for the Furthur festival), providing a glimpse of the culture backstage and among the crew: jealousy and petty battles, Garcia’s unavoidable cult status, mistrust of anyone on the outside, etc. These are not great revelations, though nonetheless authoritative. The ensuing discussion is original and very useful in explaining the Grateful Dead phenomenon to the uninitiated, giving a broad overview and some insight into the “why-on-earth” questions elicited by the band’s admittedly obsessive fandom.

Sweet Chaos is, to my knowledge, the only historically contextualized book on the Grateful Dead’s early years, and it does more than most to address the varied elements of the band’s social appeal. That being said, it dwells on episodes of the author’s experience whose relevance is unclear and whose weight is unwarranted considering the book’s title The original angle about Deadheads comes through but meanders somewhat, as though the author could not pick out a unifying thread. The political counterculture parallel to the social upheaval surrounding the Dead in the late sixties is relevant to the band’s origins and this book juxtaposes them nicely, but it is only the beginning of the work to be done in that area.

Up Next: I know I’ve been promising a post on Furthur’s summer shows. I’ve had a rather fragmented schedule recently with very short commutes, so it has taken me much longer than usual to hear those shows. You should get something within a week.