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 18, 2015

One for the history buffs

[I wrote most of this article some time ago; my brother runs a website called Cultural IV and asked me for some original content. For various reasons, it never went up, and and it's been sitting around for a while. A couple of weeks ago, with all the Chicago ticketing madness, I slapped a new introduction on it and pitched it to some online magazines. Nobody picked it up so here it is, in case any of you fine folk like it. Enjoy!]

          People on StubHub are asking upwards of 100,000 dollars for tickets to see the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary shows in Chicago, 20 years after they played their last show there with Garcia. What is it with this band? Answers abound: it’s the music, it’s Jerry’s voice, it’s the improvisation, it’s the variety, it’s the mass availability of the band’s recordings, it’s the hybrid nature of the music, it’s the atmosphere. These all have a part to play, but one factor is hardly ever evoked: the band was a uniquely American institution not only as a musical phenomenon, but also a historical one.

 The existing literature on the Grateful Dead, (something on the order of fifty publications of varying quality, accuracy and focus) deals with them primarily as a rock and roll band, and secondarily as a socio-cultural phenomenon. Only one book to date places them in a historical context [Edit: Peter Richardson's recent "No Simple Highway" does so as well; as of this writing I had not read it]. Carol Brightman’s Sweet Chaos juxtaposes the countercultures she and her sister Candace were involved in (Carol was an activist and Candace was the Dead’s lighting designer on and off for 20 years). Brightman argues that the Grateful Dead represented a specific current in the youth society of the 1960s. This begs the question as to whether, after the psychedelia fad (Strawberry Alarm Clock, anyone?) and the Woodstock moment, the band remained a reflection of American culture. Ultimately, a significant factor in the the band’s cultural legitimacy is the fact that for 30 years, they reflected the experience of Baby Boomer America.

 Only one founding member of the band properly belongs to the Baby Boom (Weir, b. 1947). The rest of the band were born in the first half of the decade to a generation that had lived through the Great Depression and would constitute the maddeningly cautious and conservative authority figures of the 1950s and 60s. Just old enough to be looked up to by the Boomers, band members came of age in the era of Rock n’ Roll and Beat poetry, and graduated high school at the turn of the 1960s, determined to challenge everything that characterized the wartime generation.

 Perhaps the best-known experiment of that era began in a Victorian enclave of San Francisco that had fallen into disrepair during the planning phase of a highway that was never built. In the mid 60s, the now-cheap Haight-Ashbury neighborhood filled slowly with newly independent young people of few means and unusually varied backgrounds, a community of erstwhile beatniks and bohemians that included Weir, the adopted son of a wealthy Atherton couple who ran off to - in his words - join the circus, Pigpen, a grimy young drunk from East Palo Alto, and Jerry Garcia, an army reject immigrant's son who had grown up in San Francisco waterfront taverns.

 Outside the world of these proto-hippies, the US government was busy waging the Cold War, which notably involved a program called MK-Ultra that tested mind-altering substances for possible applications in espionage. A branch of the program operated across the bay in Berkeley; more than a few struggling young people signed up to earn a few bucks acting as guinea pigs. Some of them were given LSD, notably One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest author Ken Kesey, who founded the Merry Pranksters, and Robert Hunter, who would be the Grateful Dead's first and most prolific lyricist.

 American Rock n’ Roll had more or less died at the end of the 1950s. Elvis joined the army in 1958; a plane crash killed Richie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper in 1959. Chuck Berry was in serious legal trouble, accused of kidnapping a 14-year-old girl; Jerry Lee Lewis was blacklisted after marrying his teenaged cousin; Little Richard quit music to become a minister. The void was filled in 1963 by the British invasion and a new, irreverent and exciting form of Rock n’ Roll far from the polished, reasonably family-friendly fare of the preceding decade. In the Haight-Ashbury, it would spark an explosion of music combining rock n' roll, folk, blues, pot and LSD.

 The Grateful Dead itself was properly born in June 1965 when Phil Lesh, an avant-garde music geek freshly fired from a job at the post office joined the Warlocks, a mediocre bar-band with a talented lead guitarist and a grungy frontman, who were playing a limited repertoire of old blues and rock and roll - with louder instruments - in singles bars and pizza parlors. Their influences had initially been bluegrass and jug band music, but the Rolling Stones’ American debut, combined with Pigpen’s Blues sensibilities, would give their sound a new direction. They had recently added a drummer named Bill Kreutzmann and gone electric. In December they changed their name from the Warlocks to the Grateful Dead, connected with their friends in the Ken Kesey scene and played some house parties for the Merry Pranksters' Acid Tests. Later immortalized by Tom Wolfe, this fateful union would lend them an indelible legitimacy that launched their career and followed them through the mid 1990s. For several early years, however, they waded on unremarkably in the burgeoning San Francisco music scene. In the summer of 1967, the media started to direct attention to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood: the San Francisco Chronicle coined the (derogatory) term "hippy," Harry Reasoner, Life Magazine, and 60 Minutes brought national attention, the Baby Boomer generation took notice, and the hippie identity was born.

 The two waves of hippies described by Brightman (largely conflated in the popular consciousness today) can be called escapists and activists. They existed at the same time and were comprised of the same generation, often in the same trappings, reacting to the same cultural rigidity, but on one side were those who set out to change the status quo by militating against it: the anti-war protesters, the sitters-in, the Weather Underground; and on the other, those who tried to create an alternate way of life by refusing to engage at all, represented by Easy Rider, communes, and the Grateful Dead. For several years, the band would rely only on themselves and their entourage. They played free concerts, recorded spacey, avant-garde, unconventional albums and played ambassadors of the “San Francisco Scene,” courtesy of legendary promoter Bill Graham, from Vancouver to Florida. Outside the youth scene, the same period had seen the emergence of a high-profile, organized and largely peaceful Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King. Jr., yielding several significant pieces of legislation. Hippie or not, there was a feeling of optimism among the rising generation: change was possible; change was happening.

 This prevailing optimism suffered some significant blows around the turn of the decade, however. Martin Luther King had been assassinated, his pacifism yielding to more aggressive activism marked by the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers. The euphoria following Woodstock was rudely shut down three and a half months later when a shoddily arranged concert at Altamont Speedway saw the stabbing death of a gun-wielding fan by Hell's Angels. Six months after that, four student protesters at Kent State university were shot by the National Guard. The activists turned serious, the escapists withdrew. These sharp doses of realism began to turn the tide for the country and the band. 
 In a deeply personal betrayal, the Grateful Dead's manager (second drummer Mickey Hart's father) absconded to Mexico in early 1970 with his mistress and a hundred and fifty thousand dollars of the band's money. This dose of reality yielded the decision to have the Stones' former manager Sam Cutler, who had washed up at Hart’s ranch after Altamont, lend some professional managerial experience to the band's affairs. The laissez-faire, come-what-may, non-stop party that was the Grateful Dead touring machine reluctantly gathered some semblance of order: organized tours, per diems, albums considerably more conservative (and successful) than the first few.

 Beyond the band's world, the financial and moral cost of Vietnam were exerting a sobering influence on America's sense of rectitude and exeptionalism. News of the My Lai Massacre had broken in 1968, the New York Times started publishing the Pentagon papers in 1971; the dirty world of politics was laid bare by Woodward and Bernstein starting in 1972; strategic imperatives prompted involvement in the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. The American military was reviled, the President of the United States resigned in disgrace; the Arab oil-producers embargoed the country, engendering a devastating energy crisis.

 The Grateful Dead plugged on, playing college gigs and developing an audience in the middle of the country (the coasts had already been more or less in the bag, thanks in large part to Bill Graham). One of their most celebrated successes was their 1972 tour of Europe. The trip would yield no less than seven releases (40 years after the fact, a $450, 73-disc set of the entire tour sold out in four days). The band also pioneered a gargantuan and still-unique PA system know as the Wall Of Sound that rose some 30 feet into the air behind the band, eliminating the need for individual amps or monitors. But the band was clinging to an outdated optimism. The road crew, consisting of anyone who wanted to join regardless of qualifications, was inefficient and costly. Setting up the massive Wall Of Sound required two sets of scaffolding that would leapfrog from show to show, adding considerably to expenses. Cocaine replaced marijuana and LSD as the drug of choice: productivity went up but so did emotional volatility.  Finally, placing community over business despite rising costs, the band resisted raising ticket prices. As gas prices tripled in the wake of the OPEC embargo, the band finally saw the writing on the wall and went on indefinite hiatus in October 1974.

 The Ford years were something of a black hole for the United States, marred by a crippling economic downturn, a Presidency forever tainted by the Watergate scandal, and a humiliating Communist victory in Vietnam. American music had also stagnated… the best-selling hit of 1975 was The Captain and Tenille's Love Will Keep Us Together. Band members tried their luck individually with a handful of solo projects, none of which rivaled the Grateful Dead. The band took back to the road gingerly in the summer of 1976, at about the time the American public decided to give the Democrats another chance and disco took center stage as the American musical genre of the moment.

 There was a brief uptick in the American psyche in those final years of the 1970s, but it proved illusory. Carter, the genteel American everyman whose presidency is the only one so far not to see any wars, fostered the Camp David  accords, easing the Cold War proxy-conflict in the Middle East, and the economy revived. The Grateful Dead saw a period of relative success: the spring tour of 1977 is considered one of their best (notwithstanding the flirtation with disco!), to date yielding official releases representing almost half the tour.

 The optimism was short-lived. Hard drugs took root in the Grateful Dead entourage, a more aggressive form of escapism that was reflected elsewhere in American culture, where sci-fi fantasy ruled the box office with films like Alien, Star Wars and Star Trek. Disco faded, replaced by New Wave, in turn given a serious run for its money by the garish hair-and-makeup bands of the early eighties. The Iranian revolution of 1979 brought both another reminder of American vulnerability and Carter's famed "crisis of confidence," a crisis that nevertheless had serious economic repercussions. Carter also made the decision to involve the United States in Russia's Afghan venture. John Lennon was unceremoniously murdered on his own front step; former Grateful Dead keyboardist Keith Godchaux died in a car accident. By the early eighties, the party was over. Carter had perhaps seen it coming: "if we succumb to a dream world," he had warned, "then we will wake up to a nightmare."

 The Grateful Dead would spend the first half of the 1980s fighting irrelevance. They wrote very little music; their improvisational and experimental style faded somewhat in favor of more rudimentary rock and roll fare. Aside from Rock Scully’s morbid discussion of Garcia's drug problem, the literature on the Grateful Dead is virtually silent on the first half of the decade. By and large, the entire band was struggling with substance issues - as was the United States as a whole, with the hugely popular Miami Vice reflecting the staggering trade in cocaine sweeping the country. Ronald Reagan's reforms had yet to produce results: the economy was stagnant, unemployment was high, morale was low, AIDS was rampant. There was little notable cultural innovation.

 1984 saw the modest beginnings of economic recovery and Reagan successfully campaigned for reelection on the slogan “Morning in America,” tapping into a cautious optimism among a chastened boomer generation now in their thirties. The feeling in the band was analogous. There was a change of management in 1984, following allegations of enablement and embezzlement. Sometime around 1985 tour bonuses were instituted as part of an overhaul of the organization’s finances; several band-members stopped using hard drugs (at least temporarily) in 1985 and ’86. 1985 saw the band gross an unprecedented $11.5 million. By the end of1987, as Wall Street hit theaters, the Grateful Dead was on the rise again: the album In The Dark had gone platinum, mostly on the strength of the band’s first and only top 10 hit, Touch of Grey. They negotiated a multi-album deal with the highest royalty rate in history thus far. Everyone in the band bought a new car.

 The United States meanwhile, freed from financial uncertainty, seemed to grow something of an ecological conscience during the 1980s. The “Save the Whales” movement finally bore fruit, with a moratorium on commercial whaling (the fixation yielded the plot of 1986’s Star Trek IV, wherein the mammals are found to be the key to earth’s salvation). The concept of “sustainable development” was first defined in 1987 and deforestation became an issue, particularly in the Amazon Rainforest. By the late Eighties, the band began to reflect a sense of wider social responsibility. The band’s original fan base were entering middle age and were a notable factor in political discourse; Garcia would describe the band as “citizens who have a constituency.”  In 1988, They began to militate for conservation, appearing before the UN, playing a major benefit concert and doing a spate of interviews. The following year, Garcia, Hart and Weir appeared before the Congressional Human Rights caucus.

 The band’s (and the country’s) fortunes improved steadily into the early nineties - unemployment dropped through the end of the decade, per capita GDP rose, and the Grateful Dead became the world’s highest-grossing touring act in 1991, the same year the United States won the Cold War. Their average venue size had increased by about 40% and their income had tripled since the middle of the 1980s. Garcia once memorably quipped that the Grateful Dead were "like bad architecture or an old whore: if you stick around long enough, eventually you get respectable.” For good or ill, the Grateful Dead became quite fashionable in their final years, and they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. Phil Lesh was invited to conduct the San Francisco Philharmonic Orchestra. Some of their boomer fan-base had done quite well for themselves: Al and Tipper Gore gave them a tour the White House; Senators Barbara Boxer and Patrick Leahy invited them to lunch at the Senate. Since then, Weir and Hart have both been invited to the exclusive and secretive annual retreat at Bohemian Grove, with the crème de la crème of American government, industry and culture.

 Most fans will tell you that the final years of the Grateful Dead were not all roses and recognition, that Jerry Garcia’s health and chops faded palpably in the last years, that shows were marred by gatecrashing, drugs and police presence. Smashing success had not brought lasting stability, rather an unsustainable hubris among fans and a crushing pressure for the band to continue indefinitely. George HW Bush’s “New World Order” led by the United States, seemed poised for indefinite triumph in the wake of the Soviet collapse, but the by the middle of the decade, a new terrorist threat fueled by decades of American interventionism in the Middle East began to jell. It would definitively shatter the illusion, whole since the war, that the US was, if not invincible, at least immune to catastrophe. Garcia’s ignominious death of heart failure in a rehabilitation clinic drove that point home for Deadheads; the US embassy bombings in Africa, the attack on the USS Cole, and the destruction of the Twin Towers would do the same for the America in the years to come.

 For some of those currently cashing in their 401Ks to see (most of) the Grateful Dead one last time, this is about more than good vibes or hearing a final Dark Star; there is no other band whose trajectory so closely reflects the life experiences of the Baby Boomer generation. Ever modest, Garcia’s “old whore” analogy sells the band short. Longevity alone is not enough to earn a place as a cultural fixture; one has to represent that culture in a tangible way. If demand for tickets to Chicago this summer (estimated to be in the millions) is any indication, there are a great many people in the United States who feel that this band, of all bands, is their band.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Grateful Dead: November-December 1973

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.

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.”

Monday, February 21, 2011

Grateful Dead- Fall 1994

I recently heard twelve shows from the fall of 1994, starting with one of the pre-tour Shoreline shows and finishing with eight consecutive nights at the end of the tour. I heard a handful of pretty solid shows, a few mediocre ones and only three terrible ones (the Landover run). Here’s the story.

An explicit distinction is rarely made between the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia. Not that anybody confuses the two, but the when people talk about attributes of a particular show or run, the central reference point tends to be Garcia. This is logical insofar as for the majority of the band’s career, Garcia was the musical leader of the group. Despite the party line that the band had no leader and Garcia’s consistent denial that he was in charge, he carried the principal burden. From the very earliest rehearsals, he arranged songs and gave directions; the improvisational nature of the music often depended his contributions; he was responsible for fills and transitional passages; and his solos provided much of the music’s attraction. He was the central, formative element of the band’s sound for most of its career and for that reason an explicit distinction between Garcia’s work and the Grateful Dead sound could arguably be irrelevant. However, by the fall of 1994 this was an important distinction to make: by and large, the band was good and Garcia was not.

That Garcia was in not in good form in 1994-5 is well documented. The medical exam forced on the band in April revealed serious long-term damage, besides which he carried himself poorly, his memory was weak, and he had recurring carpal tunnel problems. But what is less often noted is how wildly variable his performances were. It’s impossible to systematize precisely what the issue was: from one night to the next, his voice might be strong and his playing weak or vice versa; there were nights when he just couldn’t pull anything together, when every note was a struggle, when the audience seemed to stand around waiting for just one lick that was on-key and in time (Bertha 10.09). The rest of the band would chug along as he played his solo and then faded into the background again. On other nights he might be present and tight and then, inexplicably, completely blow a whole tune, like Cumberland (10.05), or, on the contrary, pipe up out of nowhere and nail a song when he had been sloppy and quiet all night.
On those bad nights, nobody could expect anything of him. Maybe he’d hit his fills, maybe he’d remember the changes, maybe he’d get a solo together. The band played on with or without him (Samson 10.09), and Vince stepped up to cover the important lines (Slipknot intro 18/10). The most worrying moments were when he seemed to lose track of a song altogether, rushing ahead as in the middle of Terrapin (10.10) when he skipped a full beat or two and the band had to catch up. On other occasions he would play almost random lines, as if he didn’t know what he was playing. He forgot at least a few words to almost every tune, and it’s a real shame that he often never bothered to learn the changes to new songs like Samba In The Rain [10.11], a solid, fun tune inevitably gutted by a disastrous solo.
On the other hand, he still brought original things to the music when he was awake. There are some interestingly fresh licks on Easy Answers [10.15]; some new melodies on the vocal vamp on Fire on the Mountain [10.01]. He could belt the vocals to So Many Roads [10.01]; he occasionally displayed disproportionate stamina in some longer jams like the 31-minute Scarlet>Fire on October 14th, and once in a great while, there was a flash of the young sprightly Garcia: take a listen to MSG’s Mama Tried and US Blues.
All the things said about Garcia in this later period are true, but not all the time: it is unwarranted to write off his abilities in that era altogether.

The result of Garcia’s inconsistency is that the band learned to fill in around him. They apparently gave up waiting or expecting him to get it together and figured out how to play whether or not he was on point. This is part and parcel of the more general trend of not listening very hard to each other any more, safely ensconced in their personal sound mix, but it had the advantage of solidifying the music precisely because nobody was waiting for cues. When everything was going well the band was a powerhouse, and Jerry was no longer integral to the quality. Minglewood Blues at MSG is perhaps the best example (despite some horrible equipment noise at the beginning): the band was rock-solid and Vince took a double solo. Not that the process of playing around Garcia was easy: there was some messiness, as during Stagger Lee on the 9th when Bob and Vince both tried to cover the Garcia lines. The distribution of duties had to be worked out.

Jerry was not the only one to rush the beat. Eyes of the World (9.29) started nice and slow but slowly crept up to regular speed. Big River (10/09) felt rushed too. As a general rule the band played faster than they had before, except maybe in the mid-eighties, but there were moments when the tempo increased palpably. Weir was the most sensitive to this: at Shoreline in July he had refused to play an encore because of it, getting in an argument with Garcia and then writing his band-mates a letter to explain himself.

The fact of having their own mix impacted the dynamics of the band in two important ways on nights when they were not really working at it. First, there was little volume variation as a general rule (with the notable exception certain ballads like He’s Gone or Stella Blue): the band played at more or less full volume throughout the show. Even slow or spare tunes like Days Between has a certain flatness of energy with no real arc or swells. Secondly, the longer, jammed-out tunes could lack any real interplay between the band-members. Whereas each had once picked moments to interject, suggest a theme, react to what the others were doing, or follow each-other into interesting asides, it now felt like the musicians were just playing along. This did not preclude interesting things from each member, but there was no sense of building anything. The 20-minute Eyes of the World on the 11th illustrates this point well.

I do want to point out that while Jerry was at a very low point (May of ’95 would find him in slightly better shape), the rest of the Grateful Dead were playing very well. Phil was rock-solid; listen to Hell In A Bucket [10.09] or Althea [10.10]. He also had some new songs this year: If the Shoe Fits and Childhood’s End (I didn’t hear either of them particularly well executed, but Shoe [10.11] had some potential). Weir had become even more of a leading presence, with a more sustained, melodic approach than usual. He had also begun playing a tune or two in the first set on acoustic guitar. It was not always mixed loud enough, but it did give a different vibe. The drummers, though perhaps a bit eager, were in lock-step. Vince had tightened up considerably compared with the previous year, and handled more solos now that Garcia was sometimes not up to it. A couple worth as listen: the afore-mentioned Minglewood, West L.A. Fadeaway on October 14th and Wang Dang Doodle on September 29th.
One way to look at the band’s overall vibe in late ‘94 is that, rather than experimenting and pushing boundaries as they once had, they were consolidating their sound. They were less risky but tighter, more businesslike or even (gasp) professional.

Much is made of the fact that it’s impossible to forge a connection with a crowd of twenty thousand people, and it did have an impact on the band’s music. On the 9th in Landover, Weir stepped up to the mic after Big River telling the audience that the band couldn’t decide whether the preceding bit of feedback had come from the guitar or the drums. He tried to poll them as to which they thought it was and got some half-assed, incoherent hollering, to which Phil cracked “Hey, thanks for your help.”
The band and their audience had grown apart. Testimony from heads of the time often indicates that the attraction was more in the scene than the music: “the show was outside the show,” one Oakland native and 90s Head recently told me. When Bill’s father fell ill and the band cancelled a show in Orlando, the crowd rioted. The following night, shut-out deadheads tried to break in to the arena, prompting police dogs and tear gas. At around the same time, according to Dennis McNally, Weir fell into a deep depression. The trend that had been developing since 1987 was only getting more pronounced, and the writing must have been on the wall for most of the band: they were just another supergroup now; the intimate connection that had defined their scene and their approach to music was no more and they were going to have to reconcile themselves to it.

The fall of 1994 might have seen the band at their worst in the very general sense that the lows were at their lowest. Of the shows I heard, however, more were solid than bad. I’m aware that the sample is imperfect, since there is more reason to trade good shows than bad and I’m therefore more likely to have picked up better ones. That being said, I’d point to the first three MSG shows (10.13, 14,15) and at least the first set of Philadelphia 10.05 as worth listening to. The highlight might be October 17th. By contrast the Landover, MD, run will give you a glimpse of the opposite end of the spectrum. The band was generally solid and tight, even if they tended to barrel through some songs without much feeling. Garcia was all over the place; rarely great, occasionally disastrous, most often competent but uninspired.
It seems Garcia and the band had grown apart too. After years of earnest support and love, and at least two serious interventions, might this latest bout of drug abuse and sloppiness have begun provoking a tinge of resentment? Perhaps they just decided he was on his own.

So mixed feeling and contradictions abound, but it would be simplistic to say that it’s not worth listening to any ’94 dead.

Up Next: I’ve started in on the last run of this series of posts: to wit, eight shows from the end of 1995, including the last four. So far, the band sounds considerably better than they did in late ’94. After that I’m thinking December-January ‘73-’74. If you have a better idea, let me know.

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.

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.