Oooooooooh boy do we have a doozy today. The Grateful Dead’s 40 minute contribution to the massive SF SNACK benefit concert is one of the jazziest, purely jammed-out pieces of continuous music the Dead ever performed in concert. And joining the boys (and it was just the boys – there’s no Donna here, because there’s no lyrics until the encore) on stage are two additional keyboardists – frequent Jerry Garcia collaborator Merl Saunders and Seastones creator and 1974 tour buddy Ned Lagin. This show is the Grateful Dead at the pinnacle of whatever attempt at jazz fusion they were working on in the mid-70’s – everything funky from 1974 and all of the complexity of 1976 mix together here in a swirling pot of pure bliss.
It’s really hard to even summarize what exactly is going on tonight: the band opens with a fairly pure rendering of Blues for Allah, the first time the band played this piece that wouldn’t actually be released until September, but this quickly stretches out into an almost ten-minute jam centered around the vaguely Arabic-sounding theme. Soon they transition into Stronger Than Dirt /Milking The Turkey (another premiere). Although snippets of this jam had shown up in 1974, this was another piece that would not be widely released until it appeared in truncated form on the Blues for Allah album. Here, the Dead launch a very tightly wound seven minute exploration before Drums intervenes for a few moments. When the full band resumes the song, everything is much freer – Saunders’ playing, in particular, drives this part of the jam to ridiculous heights. After nine minutes of almost-but-not-quite Miles Davis level work, the final section of Blues for Allah emerges, with the band “singing” together in harmony. The crowd goes bonkers. And then the encore: don’t sleep on this version of Johnny B. Goode – the added keyboard attack boosts this version far above the Dead’s standard treatment.
Keep in mind when you are listening to this that: a) the audience had never heard any of this music (other than Johnny B. Goode) before and b) the band had only been working on this for, at the most, a few months. Also, not everyone was convinced that the Grateful Dead were going to return as a touring apparatus – they were, after all, on hiatus, and this was their first appearance together since the “final” show at Winterland on October 20, 1974. So this performance was a “big deal”, and it was a massive change in direction for a band that was still firing off loose versions of classic Dead songs like China Cat Sunflower and The Other One back in the fall. And it was broadcast on the radio. So if you were a Grateful Dead fan in 1975, used to the “good ol’ Grateful Dead” and suddenly this monster jazz blast hit you right between the temples, I could imagine that it would have caused a little consternation in some quarters. But judging by the reaction of the crowd, at least as an in-person experience, tonight was an unqualified success.
So now we’re three-quarters of the way through the four shows of 1975 – as I’ve said before, they are all amazing performances. When it comes to this one in particular, it’s a great night to keep in your back pocket, when you’re looking for a short (in Dead land, 40 minutes is short) burst of amazing Grateful Dead music to get you through the day.