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, 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.