The Grateful Dead have played with a bunch of horn players over the years (see September 10, 1991 for instance), but did you know that they actually brought a saxophonist and trumpeter out for eight days of a ten date east coast tour in September, 1973?
Lost Live Dead, a wonderful resource, has a great post describing how this happened, so I’m not going to get into the weeds about the circumstances surrounding the hiring of the horns. Suffice it to say, saxophonist Martin Fierro and trumpeter Joe Ellis, both fairly accomplished players but not exactly mainstream names, played on a bunch of songs at these September shows, typically during the second set during the jammier numbers.
I’m not going to pretend that this arrangement works very well musically, as you can hear at tonight’s performance from Syracuse, but it certainly has its moments. The first set is a standard 1973 Grateful Dead performance that never really goes “out there”. However, since this is 1973, all of the songs are well played, the recording does a good job of highlighting all of the instruments, and you get to hear some pretty creepy theremin-esque sounds from Keith Godchaux during Looks Like Rain, something I’ve never heard before.
We’re really here to talk about the second set and the horns. But before we do, we should also take note of the performance of Let Me Sing Your Blues Away, Keith’s only true lead vocal performance for the Grateful Dead and the sole Grateful Dead song that is credited to him (and Robert Hunter). Let Me Sing Your Blues Away was only performed six times during this period of 1973, so tonight’s rendition is an even rarer occurrence than the horn section. I actually really like this song, and it goes to show what Keith could do vocally. The band, saxophone in tow, really gets into the groove too.
Speaking of saxophones, now it’s time for the horns. At this show in particular, the horns do a pretty good job adding to the general atmosphere of the songs, contributing neat bumps and interesting lines in Truckin’ and Eyes of the World. They also do something to the tone of Stella Blue, which I guarantee you have never heard sound like this before.
My problem with the horns is not the atmospheric music, it’s the solos, which don’t add much to what the band is trying to achieve and typically just get in the way of Jerry being Jerry. You can make your own call, but take a listen to Let It Grow for an example.
So, this show is a weird one. It’s also a weird one worth listening to, and one of the better shows with the horn section that I’ve heard. (Caveat – I haven’t heard all eight). Check it out here: https://archive.org/details/gd73-09-17.sbd.cotsman.14473.d3fixed.sbeok.shnf