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, January 23, 2011

Grateful Dead - Summer 1993

The year 1993 tends to get lumped into “the end” of the Grateful Dead. To some extent, of course, this is true: “Leviathan Dead” saw venues averaging a record 22.6 thousand seats, the lineup had reached its final incarnation, and the last of the logistical sound innovations had come about, specifically the removal of amps from the stage and the replacement of onststage wedges with Ear Monitors (the former had been a Healy idea, the latter an innovation by Future Sonics founder Marty Garcia introduced to the band during their 1992 tour with Steve Miller). These late changes were somewhat unpopular with audiences: there was the lukewarm reception to the new keyboardist, the impersonal nature of the venues, and the perceived disconnection between musicians and the audience corollary to each having his own sound-mix instead of reacting to the sound of the audience and stage.

In the same period, the concert-going scene had come to a rather ugly place. Gate-crashing became an increasingly common phenomenon, and hard drugs on the periphery brought an increase in crime along tour stops, prompting an attitude among police and security that was stressful across the board. All these factors could contribute to an unpleasant experience.

But the line has become blurred between these factors, real as they were, and the quality of the music. In the course of exploring the band’s later years, I listened to seven consecutive shows from the summer of 1993: the last five of the June tour and the next two in Oregon in August. Through these dates at least, the apparent association of the final stage as a whole (92-95) with the band’s increasingly erratic musical performances and Garcia’s ultimate decomposition, is unwarranted.

On the musical front, a few things might turn off Deadheads who prefer the raw, bare-bones sounds of the seventies and eighties. First of all, Bob Weir was using a lot of distortion in his playing, something perhaps born of his side-work in the eighties. Secondly, Vince leaned towards a very different sound than either Bruce or Brent. He seemed to favor a somewhat harsh, harpsichord-like sound with lots of overtones that filled out the spectrum. Combined with Healy’s detailed control, it could make for a very slick, saturated sound.

And yet all these factors notwithstanding, the quality of the music in the middle of 1993 was very solid. By the following September (I listened to the Boston Garden run for context), the early signs of decline were more noticeable: Garcia flubbed the odd change, forgot more lyrics, and his time wavered a bit. The band also tended to play without a lot of dynamics, so that the overall energy was rather flat. If one pays close attention, those elements were present under the surface in the summer. Cumberland Blues and China Cat Sunflower in Washington are good examples: they’re relatively easy up-tempo tunes and everybody gets carried away, yielding a frantic energy with little room to maneuver. But this overplaying was still the exception to the rule (and having Bruce at that show added to the clutter).

What is most striking is how crisp Garcia was that summer, and the effect it had on everyone else. He was still using the Irwin guitar (until Shoreline that August) but he had already started leaning towards the very sharp, almost twangy sound that was to characterize the last years. When used right, it was so sharp as to almost singlehandedly keep everything aligned. Women are Smarter from the first night at Deer Creek springs to mind, or Slipknot from the second night in Oregon. Both are worth listening to for just how intentional and directive he could be when he was on point.

Weir’s playing had become very confident. Healy’s imminent firing was brought on by a combination of things not the least of which, according to Phil, was his PA mix of Weir’s performances. There are certainly large fluctuations in Weir’s level within the mix, but he had come into a solid accompanying position with respect to Garcia. His tone was not nearly as harsh as it has become nowadays and he provided a broad tonal layer that underpinned Jerry’s (and Phil’s) more staccato approach. Perhaps it complemented Garcia’s pathological dislike of the spotlight, allowing him to feel less exposed in his solos…
I should note that while Bob’s guitar work was strong, his voice was less so. Throughout those last five June shows, and though he did not sing any less than usual, there were moments when it was very scratchy and strained. It reached a peak on the last night of the tour as he battled his way through Throwing Stones and then followed it up with One More Saturday Night to close the show, which he belted even more than usual. He sounded like he was going to tear out his throat.
He underwent surgery soon after for nodes on his vocal chords, though there might be some confusion as to just when. By August he sounded fine, as he did in Boston a month after that, but McNally writes that the surgery took place after the fall tour. In any case his troubles weren’t over: in April ’94 a medical exam found nodes in his throat.

Vince Welnick had now been the only keyboardist for over a year. Unlike his predecessors, he seldom played piano, or even organ, opting rather for a broad range of synthesizer sounds. His strength lay in coloring the music: his accompaniment to Lazy River Road was particularly pretty, and he threw out any number of nice noodles between tunes. Come solo time, admittedly, his time was not airtight, especially in the fast right-hand figures he liked. All Over Now, on June 22nd, is a case in point: the fills after Jerry’s solo are crisp and well-placed, but the solo that follows, though musically correct, slips around a little. In terms of singing, the only song I heard him take in those 10 shows was Way To Go Home, a solid pre-drums tune with a lot of energy that always went over well. He had been singing Baba O’Riley>Tomorrow Never Knows since May of ’92, got a verse on Maggie’s Farm, and would bring in Samba In The Rain (his only other original) in June ’94.

This seems as good a time as any to address that most unique Dead show quirk: Drumz. Originally little more than a drum solo, it evolved beginning after the hiatus into a nightly fixture fueled by Mickey’s unquenchable thirst for rhythmic toys and the band’s appetite for all manner of effects. This tendency was shamelessly enabled starting around 1987 by Bob Bralove. By the middle of 1993, Drums>Space stretched to almost 30 minutes (33 on August 22nd). Within the somewhat shortened shows of the later 90s, this amounted to at least a third of the second set, which, to be honest, seems excessive. It occurs to me that, had I not been warned, I might have been miffed to discover that 20 percent of the whole show was not music in the strict sense of the word. Even if it was a perfect occasion for a beer/bathroom run, half an hour is a long time. But they wouldn’t have done it if there wasn’t some good reason, some work in progress, so I make a point to listen to the whole thing every time.
I mentioned the drummers’ equipment in my last post, and though I am still incapable of naming more than a few instruments, it seems that Mickey in particular had become very systematic about sampling each of the instruments he owned for use via electronic pads. Explaining that a drum, like everything else, has a certain lifespan in which it sounds good, he says he would take each of them, break them in and then record them so as to be able to play any of them at any time without worrying about the wear and tear of the road or the deterioration of each instrument’s sound.

Sonic scientist Bob Bralove had come aboard during production of In The Dark, having spent eight years with Stevie Wonder and later worked on the Twilight Zone sessions with Merle Saunders. It was at that point that he hooked up with Mickey, and the two immediately bonded over sampling and manipulating electronically “anything that sounded cool and weird.” (Grateful Dead Gear p 228). By the nineties, Bralove was performing nightly, bridging the gap between Drums and Space with a few minutes of very cool atmospheric space sounds that the rest of the band played along with. Though I haven’t seen this stated explicitly anywhere, I suspect he’s also behind the demonic mid-Drumz swish effect, that fast left-right panning of the sound through the PA, always sure to get your brain in a twist.
In addition his contributions as a performer and effects guru, Bralove is credited on Way To Go Home, Picasso Moon and Easy Answers, as well as on six of the twelve tracks that make up Infrared Roses. He was working with Mickey at least through the Other Ones days, and is currently playing with Tom Constanten (as Dose Hermanos), recently recorded a solo piano album, and is working on a record called Psychedelic Keyboard Trio, featuring himself and TC and material recorded by Vince Welnick.

Dennis McNally talks about Space in terms of a unique piece designed to be played exactly once. He also explains that during Drums, Garcia and Weir would hole up in Parish's tent (where the "laughs begin"), and loosely work out a theme for the Space segment to follow. It's not clear how seriously this "theme" was ever followed, since it often sounded similarly haphazard. Surely facemelting given the right conditions, the occasional Space is nevertheless worth an independent listen. Garcia had an ever-growing collection of MIDI effects to sift through looking for something he liked, usually settling on trumpet sounds. Among the new effects available to each, ironically, were drum samples (see June 23rd and 25th). This only makes it even more difficult to figure out what each member was doing, but of course, that's part of the magic.

Long story short, while nightly performances would soon start to decline, the band continued to push the envelope, doing everything they could to keep things from getting stale. A Jerry ballad had made its way into the first set: He’s Gone, High Time etc had previously been typically second-set stuff. The Drumz slot had moved back a step by then, usually preceded by five songs and followed by three. 1993 saw eight new songs including Days Between, Broken Arrow, and Lazy River Road. (Corinna was another addition. While the main form is, in my opinion, one of their most boring – and the substantially reworked version one of RatDog’s most fun - the second half yielded some surprisingly cool jams).

Sting opened for the band a dozen times that year and the Indigo Girls opened twice. Bruce Hornsby, Huey Lewis, Branford Marsalis, Baba Olatunji, Ornette Coleman, Carlos Santana, Edie Brickell and Barney the Dinosaur all made guest appearances. Casey Jones was played for the last time.
Jerry broke up with one girlfriend and then another, then a third before shacking up with Deborah Koons and then divorcing Mountain Girl. Weir toured with Wasserman, played no less than three Clinton inaugural events, and published Baru Bay with his sister Wendy. Jerry, Bob and Vince sang the National Anthem at the Giants’ season opener. Mickey made the inaugural contribution to the Library of Congress’s Endangered Music Project. Bill spent a month sailing off Mexico on Bill Belmont’s 101-foot Argosy Venture. Editor Gary Lambert launched the first Grateful Dead Almanac. Dick released his first Pick.
It was business as usual for the Grateful Dead in 1993. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see “the end,” but there few clues that summer that the band had barely two years to live.


Up Next: I’m taking a break for a week or so (Phish NYE, 7Walkers NYE, Weir on Jam Cruise, maybe some MMW), then getting right back into the 90s with 8 shows from the Fall of 1994. Maybe more if someone posts some.

2 comments:

  1. Agreed that 93 was not nearly as bad as many make it out to be. I was at the Palace on June 6th and there was plenty of heat - the Help/Slip/Frank from that night is about as good as any I've heard, with Garcia's in superfine form. Plenty of other highlights from that year for sure. Thanks for the always comprehensive analyses.

    ReplyDelete
  2. wow bro, r
    Great read,

    thanks
    tw

    ReplyDelete