Listening to everything, so you don't have to

All the new stuff will be here: RatDog, Furthur, Phil & Friends... I listen to the rehearsal tapes that surface on etree, I watch the videos from Dime and Trader's Den. I also occasionally post little research projects on various periods and people that were pivotal in the life of the Grateful Dead.
Everything you never got around to checking out, I did.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Grateful Dead – Fall 1976

Thanks once again to Germain’s systematic uploads to etree, I managed to hear the entirety of the Grateful Dead’s midwest/east coast tour in the fall of 1976 and the two pairs of shows in California a week later. The band’s June “comeback tour” had consisted of 19 shows in the northeast and Illinois. They had played a six-show run at San Francisco’s Orpheum in July; and there had been two huge shows (24 and 30K seats respectively), again in the northeast, in August. After a seven-week break (and a cancelled show in London), the band started up again on September 23rd in Durham, NC, and played nine shows, wrapping up in Detroit, MI, on October 3rd. Two shows in Oakland and two more in Los Angeles would be the last until New Year’s Eve.

The band was recently back from its “hiatus.” Apart from the four shows the band played in and around San Francisco in 1975, they had also spent weeks in Weir’s new studio jamming and working up new material, released two GD albums and several more solo efforts, and got the Grateful Dead Movie under way. As McNally tells it, the break in touring was forced on the band by the sheer un-sustainability of the operation as it was in 1974. Not only was the Wall of Sound a financial sinkhole, but rampant drug use was becoming a real hindrance to both music and interpersonal relations and the laissez-faire business model had resulted in a bloated crew and inefficient management. As Danny Rifkin succinctly put it in a post-tour meeting in August ’74: “I’m not having fun any more.” The announcement within the organization was phrased in such a way as to encourage people to find work elsewhere, but notwithstanding Bill Graham’s “the last one” gimmick at the October 20th, 1974, show, not everyone expected the break to be permanent.

(Between October ’74 and June ’76, Phil met, married and divorced a woman named Lila; Rock Scully was arrested over a drug deal and would do some jail time (bunking with HR Halderman); Robbie Taylor – to this day Phil’s stage manager – came aboard, working at Weir’s studio; Garcia separated from Mountain Girl and moved in with Deborah Koons; Weir split from girlfriend Frankie, whom he’d been with since mid-‘69; Billy married his third wife, Shelly; Lenny Hart died of natural causes; and Mickey slowly rejoined the band even though he would not appear on Blues For Allah.)

By mid- ’76 the organization had been stripped down a bit and various changes made to booking and equipment use, but things weren’t perfect by any means. The biggest persisting problem was the band’s record company. Grateful Dead Record and the Round Records subsidiary were proving more trouble than they were worth. Despite creative and quality control, the band ran up against counterfeiters and had an insufficient distribution network that led to a partnership with United Artists. The whole self-production effort finally fell apart in July when Ron Rakow, on board since the Carousel days, author of the So What Papers and head of GD records, got wind of his impending termination and made off with $225,000 in distribution advance money from UA. On top of that, Rakow had invested in a dead-end Hell’s Angels film and borrowed money to keep the company afloat. Financially, the band was not in good shape.

They would sign and remain with Arista in September 1976, definitively abandoning GD Records (and UA).

That same month, longtime friend Rex Jackson died. He had originally come down from Hermiston, OR, through a Kesey connection, with Sonny Heard and Ram Rod in 1968 and joined up with the band as a roadie. After a stint on the Rolling Stones tour of November ‘69 he returned to the GD and worked his way up to manager (‘75-6). He fathered a daughter, Cassidy (as in Cassidy), by Eileen Law, and a son, Cole, by Betty Cantor. Ironically having incited a 1974 “drug bonfire” in Europe in response to the rampant cocaine use, Rex’s newfound free time coupled with his rock-band drug connections got the better of him and he drove off the side of the road one night on his way home.

Such were the conditions under which the Grateful Dead took to the road in late September 1976.

The band’s sound had changed significantly during the break. Perhaps most significant was the return of Mickey and new swing tempos. There was a very intentional and deliberate feel to the music in this period that I like very much: it left room for everyone to have a say and contributed, I think, to the adventurous nature of some of the tunes (more on that later).

Phil was playing a fretless bass this tour, as he would again on the spring ’77 tour. While the most evident manifestation was in the introduction to Scarlet Begonias, it also contributed a wider range in open-ended passages. He dropped that bass a little while later – I think because the fretlessness was unnecessary to his style – but was in rare form throughout the tour. Here’s a jaw-dropping little lick that will give you an idea what he was capable of (at 0:25). nor was he averse to throwing some chords around if things were getting dull.

But the most distinctive element of the sound in this period might be Jerry’s Travis Bean guitar. Recognizable by a T-shaped cutout in the headstock, it was the first of his guitars with an effects loop. He would hold on to it until he got a refurbished Wolf back from Doug Irwin in fall 1977. It had an unprecedentedly bright, clean midrange that was ideally suited to the fast runs of Samson or Big River, and defines to my ears the best days of Scarlet Begonias. It could get a bit screechy in the high end though.

A word about Keith and Donna: they were far from a new addition to the band, but I haven’t really paid attention to their contributions pre-hiatus. Keith was never particularly high in the mix, but I think part of it was on purpose. He was a very colorful player but also very self-effacing. During the first few nights of the tour, he had a few real pretty absent-minded noodles between songs that showed off his abilities, but there were rather few instances where he took off in his solos, preferring instead to play safer, chord-based lines. Nonetheless, he was still alert and tight – it would be another year at least before he started to fall flat in his contributions. It's apparent, meanwhile, that Donna had a very beautiful melodic range but could not cope with the louder stuff. She sang beautifully on most ballads, particularly High Time and Looks Like Rain. Songs like Dancin’ or Playin’ In The Band demanded more power than she could comfortably put forth, and she was often both straining and low in the mix.

The fall tour was atypical in that it took longer than most tours to get rolling but didn’t taper off. I noted in my last post that the band wasn’t always tight: a certain disorganization persisted for about half the tour, with confusion in the arrangements and the odd blown change. I also noticed that there were 1-to-2-minute breaks between tunes, suggesting either technical issues or uncertainty about how to structure the sets. It is difficult to pinpoint when these breaks got shorter because many of the circulating recordings have had them removed. By the time they wrapped up in LA, however, things were moving smoothly. Over those three weeks, the band’s facility with the material improved steadily and there was none of the usual end-of-tour fatigue: perhaps the relative shortness of the tour and the several days of rest between the last two pairs helped sustain the energy.

The long pressure-free jam sessions at Weir’s had yielded a lot of new material. The Music Never Stopped, for example, grew out of repeated workouts on a Weir progression called Hollywood Cantata. Aside from Music were Help-Slip-Frank, Samson and five other new songs. They also rearranged Dancin’, St. Stephen, Minglewood and All Over Now, which had been absent since ‘71. This material would provide the backbone of late-1976 setlists, with many songs – especially Dancin’ – making near-nightly appearances.

While the relative novelty of the material meant the occasional pitfalls, it also meant that the band had an experimental approach to a large proportion of the material they were playing. Music is a good example. The thematic succession that makes up the second half of the tune had two parts: a bridge and a jam on the main theme. At one point (9/30), there was a miscue in the change that led to a sort of awkward jam before everyone came back to the same page. As the tour went on, that awkward moment was repeated intentionally, cued by Phil, and made for a third theme. By the last show, it was gone again. Another moment materialized out of haphazard noodles, becoming what was labeled Orange Tango Jam on Dick’s Picks 20. That being a favorite jam of mine I waited for it as I was listening through the tour and I noticed that the odd lick or effect reminiscent of that jam were peppered throughout, both before and after the night of the jam itself.

A different sort of improvisation stemmed from the new Drums interlude. Drums were a new addition to the sets: usually confined to a few minutes and involving little more than the regular drum kits, they were not always a nightly fixture. Nevertheless, they were regular enough to occasion experimentation with respect to the set: they floated around, generally in set II, and served variously as interludes within a song or as transitions. On September 24th, they split up Slipknot and increased the tempo significantly. As the band came back in, there was a nice little jam on the faster Slipknot theme before they worked the tempo back down into Slipknot>Franklin’s.

To a certain extent, improvisation of this sort was common currency, if not a trademark, of the band’s music throughout its career. This period was nevertheless exceptionally experimental in that department.

Finally I’d like to say a word about venues. We modern-day Heads are spoiled by the circulation of so many soundboards, but it’s a double-edged sword: while it makes for great listening, it also means we often don’t get a sense of the actual rooms the band was playing in. It struck me during one of the longer audience patches that many of these places were big concrete cubes with few acoustic qualities and little intimacy. The Wall of Sound and other financial constraints had engendered the need to book ever-bigger halls. Without including Watkins Glen, the average venue in 1973 held 13,500 seats, up from 5,900 in ‘71. Even with the European tour, 1974’s average was 10,500. In ’76 they were able to go back to smaller venues in the spring, but the fall tour still took them through gyms, event centers and arenas.

All this points to the fact that this band was still struggling. They were making completely unique music for a very dedicated fan-base and that put them on a solid foundation, but they were constantly chasing their bank balance. In 1976, after ten years on the road, there was nothing to indicate that this would ever be anything more than a hand-to-mouth exercise in survival for all those involved. They were famous in their own circle but had not gained any kind of cultural notoriety in the wider world. Nobody was writing books about them (except Hank Harrison, the Warlocks’ “manager,” who published a semi-fictional account of their early days in 1973), and none of them had a retirement fund.

Here are a few highlights from the tour: St. Stephen, 9/25 (interesting stuff in the jam); Looks Like Rain, 9/27 (Keith and Donna both sound lovely); Minglewood, (for Jerry’s solo), and Johnny B. Goode from 9/28; Around and Around, 10/03 (with the double-time ending of that period); Music 10/03 (with that middle bit), Scarlet and Lazy Lightning>Supplication 10/09; and Dancin’>Wharf Rat>Dancin’ from 10/10. As a general rule, shows got better as they went along, and I would say that the tour as a whole is most interesting for its experimental aspects. It yielded two Dick’s Picks: 20 (9/25, 28) and 33 (10/09, 10). Personally, I‘m most partial to DP 20 and the Detroit show on October 3rd.

There you have it. Happy listening!

Up Next: I'm listening four Rhythm Devils shows from the most recent tour; I'll have a word about that up shortly.