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.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Furthur, November 2010

Furthur’s latest tour, an eleven-date run between November 8th and 21st, took them through the West-North-Central and North-East regions. The Grateful Dead made a similar run every summer after 1982 (barring ’86), but it was Furthur’s first time in Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota or Missouri. (Iowa is a particularly rare stop: the GD played there 7 times, the last being in ’84. RatDog had been through seven times as well, and Phil exactly once.) The recent tour rounds out all of the major US markets except the South-Central region. I’ll be curious to see if they make it down to Alabama, Kentucky or Texas, all regular - if infrequent - GD stops.

This tour saw them add another few tunes to the repertoire, notably George Harrison’s Any Road. Kadlecik presumably brought that one in: none of the GD have ever performed it, but it’s in JK’s solo catalogue. It came up twice. Aside from that, two sets of lyrics were resurrected from the depths of the Dead catalogue. Spoonful made an appearance in Baltimore on the 17th, sandwiched within Smokestack Lightning. The songs are essentially the same: Weir sang the lyrics but the tune never changed (the same applies Women Are Smarter, Aiko Aiko and Day-O; see 7/6 and 12/31/87). They also resurrected Brent’s Hey Jude reprise at the end of Dear Mr. Fantasy, also in Baltimore. Again, the chord structure doesn’t change: Kadlecik sang the Fantasy lines while the others sang Hey Jude. Finally, the crowd at Madison Square Garden was treated to Furthur’s first performance of Weather Report Prelude>Part 1. The catalogue now stands at an unheard-of 197 tunes (though there is room for debate on the afore-mentioned Spoonful/Hey Jude front, or over how to count the Weather Report or Terrapin sections)

This tour marked a bit of a turning point for the band. First of all, there was an early element of “auto-pilot” reminiscent of Dead tours. The band is getting fully comfortable with each other and the material is well ingrained, which means that they can perform by the book relatively easily. Thus, the first couple shows were tight but conservative. There were also a few songs sprinkled throughout the tour with sloppy intros or iffy changes; a corollary, no doubt, of having such a large repertoire. The second thing was more pronounced arc to the tour compared to the more even quality of the last two outings. There was a high-water mark in Cincinnati, about halfway through, followed by a lull that did not really swing back up until MSG. It wasn’t a deep trough, but noticeable.

Phil’s comments in Chicago reveal something about the band’s more staid philosophy these days. The 11/12 show was, to my ears, surprisingly experimental (just as I had finished telling someone that I thought they were being too conservative…). When Phil came up for his Donor Rap, he thanked the crowd for indulging “interesting asides,” and sorta-kinda apologized for what “some might call … noodling.” In fairness, there were some loose moments in Dark Star and Viola Lee, but it was not so long ago that Phil was talking about how much he loved meltdown moments when anything can happen (Bass Player magazine, May ’09). Perhaps Phil has suddenly changed, but Weir has always run a real tight ship, and maybe Phil is coming around to the idea.

Speaking of Weir: the man has finally (finally!) developed the ability to power through a verse when he doesn’t remember the first line. For years, when he did not have the whole thing in his head, he would just not sing, shaking his head with a grin while the crowd inevitably cheered. Recently it’s been getting almost worrisome. Everybody forgets lyrics, but the solution is to sing whatever lyric comes into your head until you get the rest right. On one hand, the songsmith in Weir seems to demand that he tell the story correctly (In the RD days, he at least once stopped a tune altogether to start the verses over in order); on the other, since he steps to the mic, everybody notices when he doesn’t have it right and it interrupts the song (and gets him bad press in the bargain). Anyhow, this tour marked the first time I’ve noticed him singing whatever line comes up and catching himself after. And I can’t imagine that anyone walked out of the Baltimore show complaining that the third verse of Black-Throated Wind didn’t quite make sense. Overall, July’s Nokia show notwithstanding, Weir’s memory is much more reliable these days. There were as few flubs from Weir as from Kadlecik.

After thirteen years on the bus, Jeff Chimenti is the most consistently original member of the band. He took up piano at age 4 and he studied classical music for about ten years. He switched to jazz in high school and kept at it for another ten, eventually touring with Dave Ellis. That connection brought him to RatDog in 1997, and on to the Other Ones/The Dead starting in ‘02. (He has also played variously with Pete Escovedo, Dave MacNab, Les Claypool, and String Cheese) I’ve previously mentioned his solidity in the context of Unbroken Chain, Big River etc., but as a general rule, perhaps due to his broad background, his contributions are surprisingly fresh. Franklin’s Tower in Reading, Money For Gasoline in Baltimore, and the intro piece to Two Djinn at MSG are good examples. He had ample time to practice the latter piece over the ten-plus years it was in the RatDog catalogue, but he never really settles on a particular feel the way most players will. And he can get a crowd worked up like few others.

Furthur continues to experiment with setlist orders and song pairings. Longtime pair China and Rider are no longer necessarily a pair or even bookends; Viola Lee Blues, which has for over a decade been a sort of mortar-piece that ties most of a set together, was a single tune at MSG on the 21st; Caution and Turn On Your Lovelight appeared in first sets – and not as closers… Songs also continue to get tweaked here and there; Black Peter has a new background vocal arrangement in the jam segment, The Music Never Stopped now ends on a vocal line, Colors Of The Rain seems to change every performance, Dear Prudence has a new chord in the chorus, they’re reworking Hard to Handle… The new transition (>!, where the next tune starts on the 4th beat of the previous one) made a half-dozen appearances; and the Phil-led transitional jams are working better and better… Old dogs, new tricks.

The Reading show and the second MSG show were some of the best, in my opinion. A few other highlights: check out Big Bad Blues and Liberty in Ames, IA, Eyes in St. Louis, Dear Prudence in Chicago and Hard To Handle>Dear Mr. Fantasy in Baltimore. I can’t really link any of the transition jams, since they’re neither tracked nor labeled, but they’re worth keeping an ear out for.

Going forward, Phil and Weir are hosting the annual Unbroken Chain Foundation fundraiser in mid-December; Furthur will play San Francisco for New Year’s; Weir/Wasserman/Lane (also the Rhythm Devils) are scheduled on Jam Cruise 9 in early January; and Furthur just announced three February shows in Colorado.

Up Next: I’m listening to the Spring ’89 GD tour. It’s long, so it might be a few weeks before you get a post.