The Grateful Dead played twenty shows in November and December of 1973; half of them appear on official releases, including Dick’s very first Pick. Starting with the Winterland run, I listened to seventeen of those shows, and heard a very interesting interview taped during the three-night run in Boston.
These shows come at the end of a four-year period during which Sam Cutler managed the band. Formerly the Stones’ manager, he had washed up at Mickey’s after Altamont in December of ’69 and put his experience to work with the Dead. During his tenure their schedule started to coalesce from a sort of perma-tour – gigs year-round with never more than a week or so off – to a much more structured arrangement where shows were booked in series with a more logical geographic distribution and longer breaks between outings. The early seventies saw the band become a professional touring outfit, even if drugs, logistics, and the 45% hike in gas prices with no concomitant ticket-price increase would eventually make things untenable. A January 1974 band meeting would see the dismissal of Cutler in a move led by Ron Rakow and Richard Loren, perhaps ironically on the grounds of being too focused on “more, bigger, more professional.”
Musically, the band was certainly in great form. Their catalogue was well-rehearsed: of the 445 songs they played, there were only 56 different ones, and 21 of those were played at more than half the shows. Big River, El Paso, Mexicali Blues and Row Jimmy were almost nightly fixtures. Wake of the Flood having just been released, Weather Report Suite and Eyes were also frequent. On the upside, this means that almost all the shows were, technically speaking, real good; on the downside, one can sense that there is an element of going through the motions, where songs are performed perfunctorily. Big River illustrates the point: the form was solid every night: chorus>verse>Jerry solo>verse>chorus>Keith solo>verse>chorus>Jerry double solo>chorus>tag. Getting this together is a walk in the park, but the occasions were few when all those solos were up to par (12.01 comes to mind). That being said, I have to admit this might be my favorite period for Big River: fast and still thoroughly country.
In the mid-00s, Weir made much of the fact that RatDog had such a large catalogue and that they might thus only get a stab at a song every few weeks or even months. By contrast, when you know a song will come back the next night, and likely the night after that, there is less urgency to put forth the effort every time.
I would argue that the band was feeling a little bored in November. The December leg saw some departures from the usual fare, notably the appearance of full-on Space segments, often prompted by Phil. The first of these came out of Playin’ on December 2nd, and there were a few others thereafter. Cincinnati (12.04) saw a rather awkward interpretation of Eyes of the World with Phil slamming a few notes, Bill throwing in an off-beat riff, and a hesitant return to the main theme. There was also a rare Drums segment on the 18th. Considering the fact that the band had only had a week off since mid-October and had since then crossed the country back to front and top to bottom, road-weariness is only natural.
This was not confined to the band. The crew, never the most diplomatic of characters, had a run-in with the local Union in Cleveland, according to Parish. Accustomed to their own rhythm and methods, the GD crew had set about the task of unloading the trucks and setting up the stage, all the while ignoring the local Teamsters whose job it ought to have been. The latter, no more diplomatic than their counterparts, returned 150-strong with bats and at least one gun to explain their grievances. Pissing contests between the Dead’s crew and local hands were a common occurrence, but this escalation was perhaps indicative of something more systemic.
The post-show interview in Boston, in the early hours of December 2nd covered a broad range of topics, one of which was partying. One story involved Ron Wickersham (electronics guy working for Alembic, on board since ’68): on the first night of the run, an overenthusiastic fan had run through a plate-glass window in the lobby of the Boston Music Hall and landed in the arms of Wickersham, who was hurrying to the stage to address some electronic issue or other. The police arrived pretty quick, carting off both Wickersham and the glass-riddled fan. As the story goes, Wickersham had been up for two days (reasons un-named but guessable), which prompted the police to release the fan and hold Wickersham, sending him to the hospital for detox.
The second thing involved Phil. On two occasions, a listener asked a question about how many Heinekens Phil had consumed during the show. The first time, the question was more or less deflected as one of the assorted crew/band-members present offered a minute-by-minute, ounce-by-ounce report on the whole evening, concluding that the total was somewhere near four and a half. The second time the question came up, however, Weir guessed somewhere around eleven. The fact that the question came up twice suggests Phil’s drinking was common knowledge, and the fact that Weir would even ballpark that number – consumed over the course of three hours – implies that Phil was already more than a casual drinker, notwithstanding the assertion in his book that he “wasn’t drinking or using drugs” in that period.
The quote above, from Searching for the Sound (p. 218), referred to the Wall of Sound era. Most of the time, the Wall of Sound is held to have existed only in 1974 (and perhaps Phil quit drinking that year), but it had been in development since early 73. Several sources talk about a Wall of Sound “false start” on February 9th 1973 – an experiment at a Palo Alto show using various elements of the future wall, including a system for “pinking” the room to detect its acoustic properties and tailor levels accordingly. By way of explanation for the two-hour delay in starting the show on the first night, the Boston interview includes a description of the sound system. The amps and PA had been unified and stacked up behind the band. Aside from its size, this was really the defining feature of the Wall. While this incarnation was a smaller-scale prototype of what would come later, the rig was large enough that they had significant trouble fitting it into the Boston Music Hall, a venue much smaller than most of the others of the time. The January ’74 meeting that saw Cutler’s firing also yielded the decision to fund a full-scale system, but the late-‘73 version offered a glimpse of the future, and shows that the Wall did not appear out of nowhere in February 1974.
A few other items worth noting in the interview: Watkins Glen, the mammoth July show starring the Dead, The Band and the Allman Brothers, was generally considered too big – a large number of the six hundred thousand attendees simply couldn’t hear anything. Mickey was widely discussed, even though he had left the band almost three years before: among other things, Hunter’s Tales of the Great Rum Runners had been recorded in Mickey’s barn/studio and made use of his talents as a horn arranger. The last part of the interview focused on the various solo efforts coming out of Round Records: Rolling Thunder, the Garcia/Saunders record and Old and In The Way. The Grateful Dead Records experiment was unique and innovative and consequently got a lot of airplay.
The second leg of the tour centered on the east coast. Donna Jean stayed home for these ten shows, pregnant with Zion to the point where it wasn’t “advisable to be running around on planes.” These are the only shows without her during her tenure (unless you count the tour closer in February 1979, the last show before the Godchaux’s official departure). She returned to the band in February ‘74, but presumably because of her new-mom status, the Spring schedule was uncharacteristically light, with only 4 Bay Area shows through April instead of their usual East Coast and Midwest tours. They also took the opportunity to record at least part of Mars Hotel, at CBS Studios in San Francisco.
It’s unfortunate that Donna’s most noticed contributions seem to be the Playin’ howl and the screaming she and Bob did on the end of Sunshine Daydream. Nobody would argue that both are more strained than melodic, and the desire to give the end of the show some kick sometimes got the better of them. I’ve previously noted the impressive credentials in her pre-Grateful Dead career and her harmonization talents, so I needn’t revisit that point; however, it was a bit of a relief to have a less strain in those moments, even if it meant less harmony on the ballads.
Keith, on the other hand, seemed to loosen up somewhat in his playing. While he would regularly sprinkle in beautiful, whimsical little fills and harmonies, solos would find him retreating to the safety of chords. Big River saw one of his only regular solos, and only in December did I notice Keith really stepping up and asserting himself. Who knows if having a little “guy time” wasn’t good for him? Road-stress did almost destroy the Godchaux marriage, so time off couldn’t have been entirely negative.
As I said above, late 1973 was musically a very solid period. Flubs and false starts were rare; the band moved through their sets quickly and easily, and there was a very broad range in the music, from the very tight (Mexicali Blues 11.17) to the exploratory (Dark Star 11.11). Here Comes Sunshine got a good workout during November. China>Rider was frequent and Weir had a lot to say, depending on the night, during that transitional jam – I’m partial to 12.10 (here at 10:50). Garcia would still solo over the whole song in Weir’s cowboy tunes. Phil tended to get a bit loud as the night went on; Weir often did too much screeching at the end of Sugar Magnolia. Peggy-O was added to the repertoire on December 10th. The general atmosphere was still jovial, with the odd fire-marshal warning, an occasional go-nowhere joke from Weir, banter from the stage. Phil still got a solo in Eyes or even Dark Star. Good times, warts and all.
If I had to pick some favorites, I think I’d agree with Dick in pointing to 12.19 in Florida, and I’d throw in 11.17 in LA. I love the Here Comes Sunshine vibe in November.
Considering the number of official releases, the most for any period save the upcoming Europe 72 release, I can’t be alone in appreciating the overall quality of late ‘73. That being said, hearing this stretch of shows has given me an appreciation for the later development of the band as the repertoire grew and they were able to play different songs more frequently. There is a reverence for certain early periods in the context of the quality of the music – the ’69 Live Dead era, the 72 tour, etc, but it’s easy to forget that the band was often playing the same songs night after night, so that hearing one show is bound to be rewarding but listening to several is often more of the same. There is an oft-quoted maxim that the Dead never played the same show twice. In terms of the music and solos, of course, that’s true, but I would not be surprised to find some very similar setlists. Listening to long stretches of shows becomes more rewarding in the late 80s and 90s when they could play five or six shows without repeating a song. A song’s development is more marked when one hears it a week apart rather than every night, and I can only assume it was more interesting for the band as well.
Up Next: I’ve been real slow in getting these written and posted, but in my defense, I was getting married ☺. I’ve started into the first half of 1983 (everything through May 13 so far), so that ought to be next. I’m going to take a little breather after that and listen to a half-dozen Rush shows, because I’ve never really paid any attention to them before, and then I suppose I’ll do the Furthur tour. Cheers.