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, April 9, 2011

Grateful Dead - Summer 1995

A few weeks ago I finished listening to a selection of shows from the Grateful Dead’s last outings between May and July 1995, including their final four performances. The generally positive feelings that have characterized the past few posts, as I worked through the band’s closing years, quickly turned sour. The last glimmers of hope I held for the band and Garcia flickered and died by the time I reached the penultimate run in Missouri. Not that there weren’t any interesting moments, but moments were all they were.

I had been rather optimistic about Garcia when I started this latest series. The first few, from the west coast tour, found him occasionally sounding better than he had the previous fall, and there were some shows during that tour when has was more or less competent, but overall, his performance in this last period is unacceptable. The band had been covering for him for some time, but the distribution of solos still left him a lot of leading to do and it was a rare occasion when he could. Lines he had played for decades were out of sync, muddled, missing notes. He couldn’t put more than a phrase or two together. He would slide off the frets and play a half-step too high or low, either without noticing or without being able to rectify it. His voice was weak and out of place, he struggled to sing, dropped words and forgot lines to everything. He was, in other words, often incompetent, and any other band would have let him go.

There were a few instances worth mentioning just to be fair to the old boy. The first set of 5/21 was pretty solid; his solo on Mexicali Blues on 6/25 was good, and GDTRFB, 7/5, saw some crisp leads (I have also read positive reviews for June 21st, though I haven’t heard it). But by far the best song I heard was the penultimate night’s Visions of Johanna: seemingly out of nowhere, Jerry pulled together a strong, beautiful, heartfelt version of the song, the last Dylan song he would ever perform.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Grateful Dead carried on without much enthusiasm. Some shows were good. There was little original stuff going on, despite the occasional interesting jam like Cassidy on July 6th or Bird Song on June 2nd, or an objectively solid number or two like Riverport’s Take Me To The River (7/6). While the band’s musical abilities were strong, the effort wasn’t there like it had been even a year earlier. There were times when the work-in to a song was sloppy and disinterested (So Many Roads, 5/21), or the time fell apart at the end (Me & My Uncle 7/6).

Perhaps the biggest indication of the band’s general listlessness is Phil’s Unbroken Chain. Today’s version is, to me, phenomenal. Furthur’s tight thematic progressions and bursting energy demonstrate the potential of that song, written in the mid seventies when the band was at a peak of compositional effort and complexity. The versions heard by crowds in 1995 were just terrible by comparison. Garcia was atrocious, but the rest of the band hardly put in the work either. After nine stabs at it throughout 1995, the band’s last performance of the song saw Phil leading all the way through, with very little involvement from Weir or Vince and little energy from the drummers.

I wondered what kind of mindframe could bring a band like this to perform with such mediocrity, resignation, even indifference. That summer’s blistering temperatures are often mentioned, Jerry’s general poor health is noted… The venues were as big as ever and summer was arena season, with as many as sixty thousand people staring back at them (or passed out in the grass, or crashing the gates). There was also the rash of misfortunes on this so-called “tour from hell:” two fans fell from the upper level on June 30th, death threats against Jerry forced a show with the lights up and metal detectors at the gates on July second (and a Dire Wolf: “please don’t murder me”). On July 3rd the show had to be cancelled when the police refused to secure the arena, citing gate-crashers. House lights stayed on July 5th as well and 100 people were injured at a nearby campground later that night when a porch roof collapsed on fans seeking shelter from the rain. It’s quite possible that these events, which must have affected the band members, further hobbled the already limping beast. It’s unfortunate that this had to be their last tour, if only because they never had a chance to go out on a high note.

But there is a silver lining. Amid all the listlessness of this final tour, Bralove and the drummers somehow escaped the quagmire, and Drumz was as solid as ever. Perhaps having non-bandmember Bralove at the controls gave a sort of grounding to the segment; perhaps the fact that there were only two or three people involved in the music, as opposed to six, afforded a degree of independence; perhaps Mickey’s boundless thirst for exploration provided an inspiration absent from the rest of the music. Whatever the reason, Drumz was a welcome break during those later shows, and I remember thinking that July 8th might have been the best version I ever heard.
The Gyuto Monks appeared as guests on June second. Tibetan Buddhist singers with a six-octave range and each capable of producing three-tone chords, they chant prayers intended to transport one to another plane, which Mickey naturally finds fantastic. Robert Hunter had given him a tape back in 1967, which he had listened to for several years before finding out what it was all about. In 1985, he and Dan Healy recorded selections of a Gyuto US tour; in 1988 and 1991, the Dead sponsored tours themselves, and June 2nd 1995 saw the monks perform five minutes onstage during Drumz.

(Mickey’s solo career is not high on the radar of side-projects, despite its range. It is much less traded than Garcia or even Weir shows, and does not feature in Deadbase. Hart has written four books, and though he recorded or produced eight records during the band’s lifetime and several more since then, they were esoteric and rarely included any GD material. One can be forgiven for not being particularly familiar. Nevertheless, his contributions are undeniable, not only in terms of songs (The Main TenPlayin’; The Pump SongGreatest Story; Happiness is DrummingFire) but also instruments (the beast, the Beam, MIDI), and electronics (aided by Bralove). Mickey seems to have remained a believer as the Grateful Dead came to the end of the road, and his influence is most strongly felt during Drums.)


A few new tunes made their way into the repertoire in 1995: Weir’s Salt Lake City (once –it was the first time they’d played in that city since 1981 and only the second since the song was written in 1977), The Beatles’ It’s All Too Much, Unbroken Chain, Fogerty’s Take Me To The River, and Rollin’ and Tumblin’ (twice). None of them made much progress over the few performances, UBC least of all. There was a little jamming (into Drums, mostly), but nothing very exciting, and the shows were quite short (under two and a half hours). Nobody was trying very hard any more.

I’ve read several books on this band, and coming to the end of the story always leaves me sad: having followed the life of the group from its beginnings, one can’t help but regret the end of the journey, wishing that jerry had smoked a few less cigarettes, eaten one less burger, maybe stayed at Betty Ford or checked into Serenity Knolls a few days earlier. Maybe he would still be alive… they could have pulled through and reinvented themselves again. But listening to the end of the Grateful Dead’s touring life, I felt the opposite: I was irritated that they kept producing this sloppy, bored music and I lost interest in what the next show would bring, since they never seemed to bring anything. I don’t blame the band: the survival of so many friends and relatives depended on the GD touring machine. It was all they knew, it was all that was expected of them, and the fans never seemed to tire. Ticket sales certainly didn’t drop, and reviews weren’t too harsh. To this day you can read reviews from attendees talking about how magical the show was, how great Jerry sounded, what a wonderful experience it had all been.
By 1995, it was time to go. There was nothing left. The band was a bad imitation of its former self, with nothing to recommend it other than an obliviously cheery atmosphere in some parts of the Deadhead community. It was not a sustainable project. Mickey has said that friends and family took a back seat to the Dead in those days and that it caused problems in everyone’s homes; Deborah Koons quoted Jerry as saying the road was killing him. An attempt in late 1994 to put together another album hadn’t yielded a single finished track. The band hardly talked to each other, with individual green rooms and curtained areas backstage. Honest conversations were hard to come by, confined to sophomoric banter and sarcasm. After Jerry’s death, Bill couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

The Grateful Dead was a wonderful story but it died an ugly death. Thankfully we still have this music, fifteen years later, with those parting words still ringing “such a long, long time to be gone/ and a short time to be there.”

16 comments:

  1. Great article. Like you said, it was an ugly death of an otherwise wonderful story. I remember being in a general funk that summer, even before Garcia checked out. My friends too felt something ominous in the air that tour. I was stunned at how sloppy they were, especially Garcia, at memorial weekend shows in Portland. You very aptly put it - it was time for them to go.

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  2. Nice work, a difficult time in the long strange trip, but one that cannot be ignored. For me, in 94-95, I was less interested in how jerry's solo in half-step compared to a ripping 79 version (that would come later), but was occupied with meeting up with friends, sharing concert experiences and being a disgruntled teenager.

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  3. You're a fuckass moron that wouldn't know up from down if it blew a gram in your face. You stupid shit. You're hardly worth the time it takes to scold you. Go on home, your mama's callin' you.

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    1. I hope that one day you will find true happiness.

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  4. I was stuck in England all the time the above took place, the nearest I got hearing the above music was via a cassete tape through the post, though I saw them in the 1990 european tour, in London. In fact I read about the death of Brent Mydland in a newspaper standing at a Nottingham bus stop just days before the gigs. That was a surreal moment. I found your account of the latter years of The Dead gripping, and it is obvious to me that with the death of Brent the days of The Dead were numbered and being counted out.

    It struck me how the energy had drained out of the band when the 1996/7 5CD box set in the white box came out, called 'So Many Roads'. Listening to that and checking the dates on each live track, confirmed your opinion.

    It is merely and purely my opinion, but I believe that the band should have fulfilled all the commitments they had made with Brent, but refused to make any further commitments. That would have been going out on a high.

    They should have taken a year's break at least after that as well, to make the music more important than the atmosphere surrounding the gigs. But hindsight is a funny thing...

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  5. As a Deadhead from 1984 on, I'd say this is harsh but true, no point in trying to sugar-coat the last couple of years.

    But while the band stepped up to try to compensate for Jerry's disastrous plunge, weren't they the ones who kept pushing more tours on him in the first place? Someone in the band should have simply refused to tour anymore after 94 (someone other than a keyboard player or drummer, so it would have been final!)

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  6. Just saw Mickey Hart and band in Flagstaff,AZ I give it a thumbs up for scratching a neglected itch
    And we bid you good night...

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  7. I rarely listen to anything after 1990, but it's hard for me to be harsh on these last years given how quickly Garcia appeared to age and decline physically. I see the Grateful Dead as a living entity that went through various stages of growth, decline, re-birth etc. So when it started to fade it was heartbreaking, but not something I feel be critical towards. Everything dies, you know what I mean?

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  8. The one thing that you can say about the nineties is that they did manage to get together a good batch of new songs which they unfortunately never recorded in studio. Studio recordings of all 12 of the originals they broke out in the vince era would have produced an album superior to "built to last" "go to heaven" and "shakedown street" if not to terrapin or in the dark. The songs were strong, Garcia/Hunter's final two -- So Many Roads and Days Between -- were their best efforts in years. A live CD of all of their tunes -- like CD 5 of So Many Roads box but with the other missing new tunes -- would have been great too.

    For some reason, the audience never seemed to want to hear new tunes. My theory is the band first began to decline when they no longer had the pressure of writing songs for a new album every year or two, which more or less happened after Go To Heaven. They might not have made money on albums, and Deadheads might not have liked them, but they forced the band to create new pieces that took on a life of their own onstage and kept things fresh for everyone.

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  9. I was at the 6/2/1995 show. It all felt tragic to me at that point. I don't know how Altamont felt, but, yeah....darkness seems to have descended. On a lighter note, I saw Jerry Garcia band earlier that year in Oakland, and they were pretty fantastic. I guess taking a break or splitting up was not an option for the Dead. Anyway, I was not surprised that August.

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  10. "Take Me To The River" was not a John Fogerty song. It was a huge hit for Al Green and was recorded in Memphis. The Dead played it in the first Memphis Pyramid show for the first time. It was a nice tip of the cap to Memphis music. many artists that come through Memphis cover a classic "Memphis" song...something from Elvis, Al Green, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Otis Redding and on. Happens all the time and it was nice of the Dead to to do the same.

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  11. Very solid & Interesting
    Votre talent d'écrivain est indéniable...
    Merci de partager avec nous.
    Did U still live in Paris ?
    This is Aldo from Bordeaux to wish u a Great Xmas Time 2012/2013

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  12. I regret that I was turned off by the behavior of my fellow deadheads that were on tour in the mid-1980's and later. Their blatent solication of "doses" and the pushing & shoving were nothing like the shows I remember at Winterland in the 70's. It was so obvious that the cops became just as prevalent. Maybe the band became road weary, but I miss the hell out of them collectively. There is one thing for certain -- in their day, THERE IS NOTHING LIKE A GRATEFUL DEAD CONCERT. signed, Furthur_Dead

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  13. great blog and always like the observations and analysis, which is based on major knowledge of the band, its music, and the many different phases of the music's progression over the decades. regarding 1995, my last show, ever, was the three rivers show in pittsburgh, which was somewhat magical. those who were there to survive the most brutal rainstorm and deluge one can imagine will never forget the second set opener -- Rain -- which in true grateful dead fashion mystically coincided with the onset of the downpour... being my last show of about 180 or so, it was perfect, and loved the show.

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  14. Nice writing and analysis. Just happened by and have been enjoying the few I've read so far. I was at the Chicago 95 shows and the Visions of Johanna you cited was absolutely the highlight and seemed to come out of nowhere. At the start of the show, I remember being taken aback by Jerry's appearance in comparison to the 93 Chicago shows. He had turned white and looked frail. Sugaree made me wonder and then Althea confirmed that Jerry was off, listless, weak. I missed them in 94 and didn't realize this was the trend. All show I kept hoping, pulling for him, that he would find a spark. And then Visions. It was like things came into focus, first slowly, then with cautious optimism (from both Jerry and the crowd), and then full out. The climax was during the "Mona Lisa" verse, Jerry belted out "you can tell by the way she smiles!" while raising his fist in the air. And with that, everyone remembered that magic feeling, but it was of course a fleeting moment.

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  15. I saw a bunch of 95 shows and we all knew it was sketchy(I remember old heads leaving). Note that at one of the RFK june shows jerry played with dylan for takes a lot to laugh. I remember him playing a 1/2 step off most of the solo and thinking its weird for him to make that kind of mistake. even just a year before he was much tighter on guitar chops. but the shows were still fun just dark...

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