Today in Grateful Dead History: February 15, 1969 – Electric Factory, Philadelphia, PA

skeleton&rosesAfter listening to this show at an absurd volume for a workplace, I’ve deduced the following: on February 15, 1969, Jerry Garcia really, really wanted to play a ton of guitar.

This whole show, from start to finish, is really just one very long guitar exhibition.  I can’t recall, off the top of my head, another pre-1970 show of this length with this much soloing.  The only moments of respite take place during Dupree’s Diamond Blues and Mountains of the Moon, which are played back to back to open the second set.  Every other single song the Dead play tonight features Jerry just shredding repetitive trilling runs all over the fretboard at earsplitting volume with no concern for anything else around him.  While this approach could play havoc with a lesser band, everyone else seems willing to at least try to keep up.  They aren’t always successful, but that’s probably because they’re just as thunderstruck as the crowd.

I’m not exaggerating the amount of guitar, or the sheer force of the playing.  Are there highlights?  Sure – Cryptical Envelopment>The Other One>Cryptical Envelopment in the first set is a dank, dark, dangerous version.  St. Stephen>The Eleven is huge, but it’s also cut up.  But the coolest section, for me, is the end of Alligator moving into Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks), where Jerry plays the what one source calls a And We Bid You Goodnight Jam.  This is the music that usually comes towards the end of Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad.  Tonight, Jerry explores every possible iteration of this melody, the rest of the band contributes and the effect is a gorgeous, powerful display of playing during a night that can easily be overwhelming to listen to straight through.  And then there is this titanic Caution which is wild and threatening and, it must be said, pure awesome.

If you want guitar, this is your night.  There are other peak Jerry shows, but this is definitely in the pantheon.

Listen here:


Today in Grateful Dead History: February 14, 1970 – Fillmore East, New York, NY

skeleton&roses2/14/1970 exists in the enormous shadow of its older brother, 2/13/1970, a show that is often named as one of the top, if not the top, Grateful Dead shows of all time, primarily on the basis of a 90-minute Dark Star>The Other One>Lovelight.  (See, even in the first sentence of this review, I’ve written more about 2/13 than 2/14).  But trust me, tonight’s show is no slouch, and when you pair it with last night’s performance, this two-night stand at the Fillmore becomes truly one of the band’s iconic runs.

Like the previous night, the Grateful Dead played an early show and a late show tonight.  The early show is much shorter, but it packs a lot into its 70 minutes.  For starters, the opening Cold Rain and Snow is a smoker that leads into a gorgeous Dark Star.  This version of Dark Star has all of the bells and whistles that you’ll find in the previous night’s longer version, but some of the spaciest stuff isn’t here tonight, which makes it a little easier for novice listeners to digest.  From there, it’s the typical St. Stephen>The Eleven>Lovelight sequence, but it’s played remarkably well.  St. Stephen is filled with pure fire and brimstone and Lovelight never wanders like some other long versions do.  If you want to play a short show for someone to give them a real hint of what the Dead were about in 1970, this would be a great option.

After a break (for the Allman Brothers to perform . . . Jesus, what a night) the Dead come back out and play electric versions of Casey Jones, Mama Tried and Hard to Handle before unplugging for an acoustic mini-set.  Most of the songs here are covers that the boys have played for a while, so the quality is really high, and the harmonies, while not exactly perfect, are the best you’re ever going to hear the Grateful Dead sing live.  The acoustic evening ends, like it did last night, with Pigpen singing Katie Mae by himself with only a guitar, a haunting moment at the end of a great run of songs.

Then the Dead plug back in and turn on the jets, with a punched up version of Dancing In The Streets leading into a decent China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider.  The big power punch comes a bit later, with a furious version of Not Fade Away that stands up there with the very best from this era, Mason’s Children in full-formed flight and a simmering Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks) that seems like it’s ready to explode but never really takes off.

If there is an overall theme for this night, it’s probably the slightly more laid-back vibe on stage compared with the previous evening (St. Stephen>The Eleven and Not Fade Away excepted).  This works out really well on the acoustic numbers and Dark Star, but it leaves you wanting more during Alligator and Caution.  I don’t want you to think that this isn’t an amazing show – it certainly is.  The band is relaxed and playing their hearts out for hours and hours of music.  Let’s enjoy every second.

Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: February 13, 1988 – Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, Oakland, CA

terrapinWelcome to the Grateful Dead’s first show of 1988.  It’s pretty representative of the year – short first set, not a lot of jamming in the second set and generally average.  Excited?

When I said this show had a short first set, I meant it.  It’s almost exactly 50 minutes long, and the only thing here that’s inspired at all is Sugaree.

So, that leaves us with a second set that starts thusly:  Iko Iko, Looks Like Rain, Gimme Some Lovin’>Drums>Space.  Looks Like Rain, once it gets over some initial issues, is the pick of this sequence, which says a lot about this show.  There is a jam, with no Jerry, at the end of Gimme Some Lovin’.  Bob splashes some color around for a few minutes, gets bored and then . . . Drums.

When the full band returns, it’s for a short The Other One into a good Wharf Rat with nothing really interesting to report in either song.  At the end of Wharf Rat, Bob wants to play One More Saturday Night but Jerry would prefer to do Good Lovin’.  Jerry wins but throws Bob a bone by playing One More Saturday Night next.  Neither song is worth arguing about.  Black Muddy River sends everyone home on a real positive note.

If you want to learn everything you’ll need to know about the other 79 shows the Grateful Dead played in 1988, just listen to this one.  Which you can do here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: February 12, 1969 – Fillmore East, New York, NY

skeleton&rosesThis short Grateful Dead show from the Fillmore East finds our favorite band opening for Janice Joplin, which must have been an incredible night.  (I wish we had her performance here).  With a slightly truncated set, the Dead got right down to brass tacks, killing it on every single song they played tonight, but none more so than The Eleven, which may be the best version of this song that I’ve ever heard.

Por que?  For starters, there is a very long passage prior to the usual Eleven theme.  This jam is simply savage playing – I can picture Jerry and Bob standing toe to toe throwing down on this song.  (I’m sure they didn’t).  I’ve never heard the Dead take off quite like this on The Eleven.  Mixed in with the guitar battle is T.C. (I believe it’s him and not Pigpen) on organ, who fits right into all of the important spaces tonight. As this segment progresses, Phil joins in and slowly rises to the top of the mix, playing lead while Jerry and Bob bomb away behind him.  Meanwhile, the drums just keep going at full steam, until everyone calms down – it sounds like they are going to play the rest of the song, but nope, the jam continues, swirling upwards.  This dropping in and out happens a couple more times, like a roller coaster – one lull leads to a Jerry solo of staggering, feedback dripping ecstasy.  And then we pick up The Eleven proper, with everyone honed in and tearing the song apart.  You can hear the drummers banging, harder and harder, before the guitarists really kick into gear, and then an explosion of music pounces and doesn’t let up until the end.  Towards the end, when you think they’re spent, Jerry speeds up (which is hard to do since they’re already going full steam ahead) and unleashes a barrage of notes that will make you punch the air in delight.  I’ve “complained” before about the difficulty in comparing some of these 1968 and 1969 shows, since the setlists are all pretty similar.  Well, this version of this song is a good example of the truly spectacular rising above the “normal” greatness of the Dead at this time.  It’s obvious, as soon as you’ve heard it, that this is the real goods tonight.

And that’s just The Eleven.  After a quite, brooding Death Don’t Have No Mercy, the boys launch into a killer Alligator.  The jam towards the end of this song take on many Allman Brothers qualities – it’s a rollicking display that transitions into Caution (Do No Stop on Tracks) which continues the intensity.  When Caution breaks down into Feedback, you’re not sure if the band has run out of time or if they’ve played themselves off the stage, but whatever it is, it’s a spectacular night.

Since I’ve got to complain about something, it’s that the recording fades into an in-progress Dark Star, and it is likely missing the first couple of songs of the show entirely.  But what we’ve got here is plenty.

Listen at least twice here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: February 11, 1986 – Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, Oakland, CA

dancing-bearThis is one bonkers show.  You’ve been warned.

It starts out with China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider.  That’s pretty unusual, but not unheard of. It sets a certain kind of tone for the night.

On Dupree’s Diamond Blues, Jerry sounds as if he smoked three packs, unfiltered, in the green room between the soundcheck and the show itself.  This isn’t hyperbole.  The playing here is good, though.

The boys end the first set with Bird Song>The Music Never Stopped>Might As Well.  The Bird Song is all right.  The rest is sloppy.  And now we come to the fun part.

The second set opens with the Grateful Dead and the Neville Brothers drumming their way into Iko, Iko.  This would be the first time that the two groups would play together and it wouldn’t be the last.  Now, from the Grateful Dead’s perspective, I can completely understand why they would want to play with the Nevilles, because the Nevilles are an amazing amalgamation of all that is good about the New Orleans musical tradition, a tradition that the Dead are steeped in (see Dupree’s, et al).   And if I’m guessing, I’m sure that the Nevilles were interested in playing with Jerry Garcia, because he’s Jerry Garcia, and I bet that they enjoyed exposing a few new Dead fans to what they could do.  But when it comes down to it, I can’t imagine that the Neville brothers sat down, listened to Billy and Mickey doing their thing with Phil not exactly grooving along, and decided that they wanted to be a part of it.

Because here is the thing.  The Neville Brothers have rhythm.  The Grateful Dead have “rhythm”.  These are not the same things.

Would you like an auditory example of what I’m talking about?  Try out this Iko, Iko.  (I will say that it’s a lot of fun to hear ALL THOSE DRUMS during this song).  If that isn’t clear enough for you, move on to Eyes of the World, which comes next.  (I’m not sure why everyone starts off this song in the wrong time signature, but there it is).  After a little more drumming, the Nevilles retreat and the Dead play around Space followed by a sloppy Truckin’ and then a nice messy Stella Blue.  (Even in this form, with Jerry wheezing away, this song always gets me).  And then the Nevilles, having not learned their lesson, come back out for more adventures in polypolyrhythms – Not Fade Away into Bo Diddly (which they Dead haven’t played since 1972 and won’t play again, ever) into Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad.  At some point during this last sequence, which is ostensibly the encore, Phil just gives up.  Which is for the best.

I like the energy here.  I like both bands’ senses of adventure and I appreciate their desire to take risks.  I’m not going to let those things cloud my judgment about the music they played tonight, which is garbled and clearly un (or possibly never) rehearsed.  But I bet it was quite the party if you were there.

Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: February 8, 1970 – Fillmore West, San Francisco, CA

skeleton&rosesSince the beginning of the year, we’ve spent quite a bit of time in 1970, which has made for some great listening.  Today’s show from the Fillmore West, the culmination of a four night run at this venue, is a pretty representative early 1970 show – rugged in parts but always a good time and containing quite a few moments of bliss.

We can hit the bliss first.  This version of Sittin’ on Top of the World is a really solid one.  The song is not exactly designed for great feats of improvisation, but Jerry’s guitar playing shines very brightly here and the band is pumping out a lot of energy.  It bears noting that while this song was a popular choice in 1969, the Dead only played it six times in 1970 and even less thereafter, so savor this one  while you’ve got it.

Our second moment of bliss is the Pigpen-led Smokestack Lightning, a song that he only sang 17 times (Bob Weir resurrected the tune in the 80’s, but it wasn’t exactly the same).  Now let’s not kid ourselves – there is really only one person who truly owns this song, and it’s Howlin’ Wolf.  So we shouldn’t compare Pig’s singing here to the Wolf, because that isn’t fair to Pig.  But if you deal with this song strictly in terms of the Grateful Dead’s performance of it, this is certainly one of the better ones.  Pigpen is still in great voice and he’s feeling it here at the start of this show.  Likewise, with the band laying down a swampy vamp behind him, Jerry Garcia is free to rip into his solos, which he does consistently over the course of almost 15 minutes of playing.  Put this version on your Smokestack bucket list.

Our third blissful moment is Dark Star.  This is a really interesting version of Dark Star that heads into the outer limits relatively quickly – by about six to seven minutes in, we’re starting to get lots of crashing and bashing and over the next ten minutes the Dead are all in on cymbals and gongs and strange electronic noises.  The song coalesces again into a pulsating heart of darkness before resolving into St. Stephen.  The playing here is not exactly perfect, but if you like the really spacey Dark Stars, you’re going to love the middle of this one.

The end of the show, from St. Stephen through the closing Turn on Your Lovelight, is pure power Dead.  Please check out the end of Not Fade Away as the band transitions back into St. Stephen.  Bob Weir continues to sing Not Fade Away as everyone else begins playing St. Stephen.  It sounds like a mess, but it actually works!  I think (without checking) that this period of 1970 might contain the longest versions of Lovelight per outing than any other period of Deaddom,  and I’m not saying that to be complementary.  20 minutes of Lovelight is excessive and this one is 35.  Still, it’s a fun ending to this enjoyable evening.

Warning – the recording is an audience / soundboard composite and the audience parts are not great, sound-wise.  It’s still a fine listen, but the contrast is jarring.

Listen here: