Today in Grateful Dead History: March 23, 1975 – Kezar Stadium, San Francisco, CA

stealieOooooooooh 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.

Listen here:


Today in Grateful Dead History: March 22, 1995 – Charlotte Coliseum, Charlotte, NC

dancing-bearI’ve got five minutes to post this, so I’m going to work fast.

This is a pretty good 1995 Grateful Dead show.

Lazy River Road allows us to hear Vince playing nicely and Jerry singing soulfully.

When I Paint My Masterpiece is one of those late-era Dead Dylan covers that almost always works well.  Credit to Bob Weir on this version.

The Music Never Stopped doesn’t hit all the notes but the feeling is there and the band’s heart is in it.

The lead in to Victim or the Crime, which opens the second half, is unusual – the song doesn’t start for at least a minute, with some weird drumming patterns and noodling first.

Foolish Heart>Saint Of Circumstance>He’s Gone looks strange on paper but it works here.  This is the best part of the show.

The rest is very short.  Like this review.

If you want something ok from 1995, this will certainly meet your needs.  And the audience recording is pretty nice, too.

Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: March 21, 1972 – Academy of Music, New York, NY

stealieThe Grateful Dead used tonight’s show at New York’s Academy of Music, along with the following six shows at that same venue, as the warm up shows (and funding source) for their much-heralded 1972 tour of Europe, which would start on April 7th.  Since this is 1972, the songs don’t need a whole lot of honing, and the band smokes throughout the night.

Tonight is also the live premiere of Looks Like Rain and The Stranger (Two Souls in Communion), two songs with very different histories.  Looks Like Rain is a Bob Weir staple that was played 417 times in every year from 1972 – 1995 except 1974 and 1975.  It also features one of the worst sets of lines of any rock song ever written: “Did you ever waken to the sound of street cats making love? You guess from the cries you were listening to a fight. Well you know, oh know, haste is the last thing they’re thinking of. You know they’re only tryin’ to make it through the night.”  It hurts just to type it.  BUT, having said that, Jerry Garcia seemed to love ripping frenetic background runs all over this song and it’s often a really good part of the evening.  For tonight’s debut, Jerry is unusually playing a pedal steel guitar and he tears it up.  So don’t skip it.

The Stranger (Two Souls in Communion), on the other hand, is a very rare Pigpen composition that was only played 13 times – 6 times here at the Academy of Music and another 7 performances in Europe.  It was never released on a studio recording.  It’s a searching, soulful blues number that Pigpen really owns every time he sings it.  I wish he wrote it a couple of years earlier – it would have been perfect in the 1970 – 71 repertoire.

The rest of this show is a typical beast of a 1972 performance – there is almost nothing bad about it.  The first set is anchored by a thrilling, 14-minute Good Lovin’, but all of the short songs are awesome.  The main course in the second set is Truckin’>Drums>The Other One>Wharf Rat.  Truckin’ doesn’t get totally out there, instead sitting firmly on the ground and rocking with a tremendous force.  The Other One feels like it is going to follow this same pattern, but midway through the jam really opens up into some abstract playing that is unusual there – the band is completely engaged and fluid, allowing the space to serve as another instrument.  Wharf Rat is typical until close to the end, when the band switches gears and rattles the walls with a power that the Dead rarely unleashed on this tune.

Some of the other nights from this run can only be found on horrific audience recordings or on Dick’s Picks 30, Dave’s Picks 14 and various bonus CD’s, so tonight is a good chance to catch the boys as they gear up for Europe.  Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: March 20, 1986 – Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, VA

dancing-bearAlthough no two Grateful Dead shows are exactly alike, each era in Dead history featured a fairly consistent repertoire of songs.  For instance, the late 60’s was the time of Turn on Your Lovelight, Dark Star and St. Stephen>The Eleven, while Althea and Lost Sailor>Saint of Circumstance dominated the early 80’s.  In the 60’s and 70’s, there were not nearly as many surprises in the setlists as there were during the 80’s and 90’s (the band hadn’t released as many albums).   Sometimes the Dead would play a song to death (for example, 79 Playin’ in the Bands out of 86 shows in 1972 and 51 Estimated Prophets out of 60 shows in 1977), only to dramatically scale back or completely retire the same song in subsequent years.  But on a whole, the core songs (like The Other One and Playin’) remained the core songs, with additions and subtractions here and there, throughout the Dead’s career.

Because so many shows from a given era have similar songs (albeit with vastly different arrangements and in infinite combinations), many dedicated Grateful Dead listeners crave the unique live moments where new songs emerge or where old songs reappear after long absences.  And one of those legendary bust-outs occurred at tonight’s show, when Box of Rain, a beloved song from the early 70’s, reappeared for the first time since July, 1973, a gap of 777 shows.

Box of Rain is one of my favorite Grateful Dead album tracks.  Live, it’s a wonderful moment, but there is almost no room for jamming – one live Box of Rain typically sounds like the rest.  This is perfectly fine – another one of my other favorite Dead songs, Brokedown Palace, is the same way.  But because the lyrics to Box of Rain are so meaningful, and because the music can truly transport you, I’m always hoping that the Dead don’t blow it when they play it.

So it’s a little worrisome when the Dead break this one out tonight.  After all, this is 1986.  And the Althea which immediately precedes it is an atrocious train-wreck.  And they haven’t played it live in almost 13 years.  But, all that being said, this is a pretty good version of Box of Rain.  Yeah, Phil gets a little tripped up at the beginning, but the song is about his dad dying, so he’s more than forgiven.  And once the Dead get rolling, the song just takes over and the music plays the band.  The boys must have been happy with how it went, because Box of Rain would never drop out of the regular rotation again.  In fact, it would be the very last song that the real Grateful Dead would ever play together on stage.

As for the rest of the show, it follows a similar pattern to last night’s performance in Hampton.  The first set kinda rolls along, with good tunes played without serious issues (other than Althea, which is truly a mess).  The second set is pretty weak, although Bob’s hysterical, soundboard assisted yelps at the end of Estimated Prophet do get pretty far out there.  The second set highlight, for me, is the four-plus minutes that Brent spends on stage with the drummers jamming out before Drums.  The three of them produce some excellent noises together.  But a post-Space, 1986 Wharf Rat>Throwing Stones>Not Fade Away?  Nah.  The boys were probably looking forward to the backstage buffet, and it shows.

Come for the Box of Rain.  Stay for the rest here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: March 19, 1986 – Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, VA

dancing-bearWe’re going through one of those stretches where work / weather is making posting difficult.  Sorry about all of the gaps last week – there will probably be more to come.

Today’s show is the first of three from Hampton, Virginia that opened the 1986 spring tour after some scattered California dates in February.  Given the time between shows and the year in question, it’s actually pretty remarkable that the Dead play anything well tonight, but they manage to absolutely crush China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider>Playin’ in the Band to open the second set.  Jerry, of course, is the catalyst here and he rips and roars for a couple of minutes during the China>Rider transition, which is enough good playing to ask “why can’t he do more of this”.  I think we all know the answer.

The first set features the first ever Grateful Dead performance of Visions of Johanna.  A few of the commentators on the Archive really love this version, but I just don’t think it’s good at all.  This song is simply too slow and too lyrical to work well with Jerry in this condition. Feel free to complain if you want.

Other parts of the first set are fine, but no highlights really grab you.  The setlist itself is larded with good tunes, so if you are in the mood for mid-80’s Dead, you’re not going to get a bad song tonight (maybe C.C. Rider isn’t for everyone).  But, in general, the 20 minutes of 1986 “magic” occur at the start of the second set and then it’s quickly downhill from there.  Truckin’, for example, is a disaster, due, in part, to problems with Bob’s mic, but he messes up the words to this tune 95% of the time anyway, so you can’t use that as an excuse.  I think the boys are just gassed post-Space, although they recharge enough to lay down about 45 seconds of bliss at the end of Black Peter.  But hey, it’s 1986, and the band has big plans for tomorrow’s show.  Maybe I’ll even write about it . . .

Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: March 8, 1992 – Capital Center, Landover, MD

stealieAfter playing a couple of shows in Hampton, Virginia, the Grateful Dead packed up their 1992 tour and moved north to the D.C. area for two shows at the Capital Center.  Tonight’s performance continues the trend from Hampton – a lot of keyboards, some good but not great playing and almost no serious jamming to speak of.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time discussing the second set of this show, because these are the songs that the Grateful Dead played during that set:  Samson & Delilah, Way To Go Home, Foolish Heart>Looks Like Rain, Wave To The Wind>Drums>Space>All Along The Watchtower, So Many Roads, Throwing Stones>Not Fade Away.  So, about this.  In the best of times, this wouldn’t be a very good list of songs, and this is not the best of times (although it’s pretty good for the post-Brent years).  So Many Roads hits all of the appropriate Jerry ballad notes, so it’s a fine listen, but everything else is simply pedestrian – not bad at all, but not dynamic in the least.

At least the first set has some good songs: Touch of GreyBlack Throated WindLoose Lucy and Big Railroad Blues are all ok tonight.  The other first set tunes are alright as well.  I wanted a lot more from the set-closing The Music Never Stopped, but Jerry can’t decide if he wants to play a guitar that sounds like a guitar or a guitar that sounds like a horn, and that makes everything pretty sloppy.  Oh well.

Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: March 7, 1970 – Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Santa Monica, California

skeleton&rosesThis forceful performance from 1970 runs very short and it’s clear that at least one or two songs are missing.  Since the Dead were on the bill with at least one other band tonight (it’s all, apparently, very murky), it’s quite possible that this recording really represents most of the Dead’s performance, but there’s always the chance that there’s a whole other chuck of this show out there somewhere.  So, if you’re reading this, and you have your hands on any other music from this night, I’m begging you, put it out there, because the show that we do have is sweet from start to finish.

This period of 1970 marks such a massive transition for the Grateful Dead, as their raucous, ear-splitting sixties sound was ever so slowly morphing into a somewhat quieter, subtler kind of music.  This shift would take all of 1970 and some of 1971 to come to fruition, so we’re just at the cusp of a lot of momentous changes for the band, changes that really began in earnest with the departure of Tom Constanten in February.

What this means for the music tonight is that you’re still going to get the raw, blistering sound of 1969 Grateful Dead, applied in some cases to much calmer songs like High Time and Black Peter.  If this doesn’t sound appealing, then your mind needs to be slightly adjusted, which this recording will likely accomplish right off the bat, as the aforementioned Black Peter swings through.  Yes, it’s still the same old Black Peter you’re familiar with.  But the tone is rugged.  You’ll know what I mean as soon as you hear it – Jerry and Bob sound like they are trying to tear the strings off their guitars, just pulsing out the chords.  China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider is very fast and almost overwhelmingly loud, but stupendous all the same.  High Time is a revelation – the boys are screaming the chorus as if they mean every single word.

After some horrible cuts, we’re dropped into the middle of the rest of the show, which is Not Fade Away>Drums>Good Lovin’>The Other One>Not Fade Away>Turn On Your Lovelight.  Crazy, no?  The Good Lovin’ into The Other One is obviously the weirdest thing about this sequence, but, not surprisingly for the Dead at peak early 70’s form, it works great – a throbbing bass line, the guitars join in and then the tempo changes completely to get us into The Other One – this requires everyone to be in perfect sync and the Dead deliver.  This Other One, by the way, is a tour-de-force.  It’s only six and a half minutes long, but that’s because there’s just no way the boys can keep playing this quickly for much longer.  The power never waivers during the transition back into Not Fade Away and then we’re just launched into Turn on Your Lovelight.  The crowd goes bonkers, and rightfully so, as the Dead just continue to wail away on this piece until Pigpen does the Pigpen thing and we reach even greater heights.  Unfortunately, the song (and the show) cuts off before the end, but the twenty-four minutes we’ve got are mind-blowing enough.

As I write this, I’ve already listened to this whole thing twice – I’m considering just leaving it on repeat for the rest of the day.

Listen here (it’s an interesting AUD):