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.

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.