Today in Grateful Dead History: June 27, 1969 – Veterans Auditorium, Santa Rosa, CA

skeleton&rosesIn this messy show you can really hear the beginnings of the country influences that were creeping into the Grateful Dead and that would become fully realized in 1970.  But in its embryonic stages, the Dead as a country band was an unwieldy beast, and tonight’s show, while interesting, is not very solid.

Part of this might have to do with Mickey Hart’s absence during the first few tunes (but probably not).  In his place, the Dead stuck Tom Ralston, the drummer from a local outfit called The Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band.  He holds his own, but nothing more.

I believe the real reason for the sloppiness tonight is that the Dead are testing out new, seldom played tunes and are also trying to incorporate Jerry on pedal steel guitar.  But since the Dead often “rehearsed” their new songs during their actual paid performances, things could get a little loose, as is the case on the newish tunes tonight.  And there are a bunch of them at the start of this show: Slewfoot (3rd time played and one of only nine ever played), Mama Tried (3rd time played), High Time (3rd time played), Casey Jones (2nd or 3rd time played, depending on who you believe) and Dire Wolf (5th time played, and with Bob on lead vocals none the less) are all in their infancy.  None are played particularly well, but it’s a treat to hear Jerry rip on Dire Wolf.

However, this is 1969 and there is always some magic about.  Tonight, that takes the form of a Dark Star that is clearly cross-pollinated with an uncredited The Other One.   Things start out lightly, but by the midway point, the band is really chugging along with The Other One jam (while still really playing Dark Star) and some very interesting melodic ideas take hold.  At one point, Phil Lesh attempts to move into Turn on Your Lovelight, but the rest of the band is having none of it and Dark Star marches on, a steam locomotive rolling down the track.  This is a unique version of the song and is clearly the highlight of the evening, especially since St. Stephen, where we end up at the end of Dark Star, is a rhythmic mess and the boys cut off what would typically be a pulsating The Eleven to swerve back into country mode for another rarity – The Green Green Grass of Home (one of only nine ever played).  Don’t get too attached to It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, since it’s severely cut.

While this is not a tape you’re going to play every day, it’s an interesting historical relic of that brief period of transition into the Dead’s very fruitful early 70’s dance with country music, and for that, it bears hearing at least once.  Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: June 22, 1969 – Central Park, New York, NY

skeleton&rosesIf you’re not tolerant of audience recordings, then you’d might as well skip today’s free concert from Central Park in New York City, because the recording of this show is sub-standard.  However, if you’re willing to listen through the hiss and the muck, you’re in for a nice treat – a powerful, dynamic performance by the Grateful Dead at the height of their psychedelic powers.

The actual playlist for this show is as murky as the recording itself – Deadbase says one thing, Deadlists says another.  But this audience recording (which was rearranged to match Deadlists) holds itself out as the complete version in the correct order, so accept that at your own risk.

Oddly, this show could also be the live debut of Casey Jones.  Why do I say could?  Because Deadbase lists June 20th as the debut, and Deadlists is non-committal.  Assuming that Deadbase is correct, this would be the second performance of this classic song, and, in that case, it’s worth hearing in full since it starts from a full out jam that doesn’t morph into Casey Jones proper for several minutes.  In addition, the rhythm of the song differs dramatically from what it would become, making this performance a relatively rare and raw version.

The Dead also play a couple of real rarities today – one of ten Silver Threads and Golden Needles (with Jerry on peddle steel) and one of twelve It’s a Sins.  Both of these aren’t perfect performances, but rarities are rarities, and, in the case of It’s a Sin, the song is stuck into St. Stephen right before the jam usually explodes, so don’t expect much there.  It’s also cool to hear Jerry sing the blues – he didn’t do it enough with the Dead.

If you’re searching for the power in today’s performance, you’ll find it in the heavy jams on Dancin’ in the Streets and The Other One.  These are both really strong efforts, if a little messy.  The show-closing Turn on Your Lovelight goes pretty far out and gets pretty loose, but hey, the Dead are playing to a free crowd in Central Park, so why not?

Once your ears get used to the audio, I think that you’ll enjoy what’s going on here.  But it definitely takes getting used to.  (If you don’t want your cubicle mates to hear a bunch of cursing, keep the volume low at the start – New Yorkers don’t like it when people get in their way, as you’ll hear loud and clear).  Listen to this unique performance in all its ragged glory here: 

Today in Grateful Dead History: June 8, 1969 – Fillmore West, San Francisco, CA

skeleton&rosesToday’s show is a mysterious beast with several special guests, a partially missing Jerry Garcia, the final performance of a classic song and two one time only tunes – just the right kind of off kilter 1969 show to keep this project interesting.

Theories abound (and are dealt with in detail in this great post on Lost Live Dead), but many people believe that this is the show that Phil Lesh was referring to in his book when he described a night when the band (other than Pigpen) was dosed with such a strong batch of acid that it was lucky that they ever made it onto the stage at all.  Several facts about this show support this conclusion.  First, Jerry isn’t on stage for most of the second set, leaving Paul Butterfield Blues Band guitarist Elvin Bishop to play lead guitar during the thirty-five minute Turn on Your Lovelight as well as two blues numbers that the Dead only played on this one night – The Things I Used to Do and Who’s Lovin’ You Tonight.  Second, Bob Weir appears to drop off for most of Lovelight too.  Third, while Phil manages to stay onstage, his playing – and remember, it’s his book that sparked this discussion – is way out there, even for Phil.  In addition, Wayne Ceballos, the lead singer of a Bay Area band called Aum, sings Lovelight, not Pigpen, who instead appears towards the end to introduce Ceballos.  Ceballos later confirmed that “we were ALL pretty toasted!” Think about it – while all of this makes for a strange night, the first three songs of the second set are some of the only lengthy non Drums/Space moments of recorded Grateful Dead that you’re ever going to hear that don’t feature Jerry Garcia.  Which makes this show pretty unique in and of itself.

The first set of the night, before the drugs presumably kicked in with gusto, is actually a really high quality performance that starts off with an exceptionally engaged and pulsating Dancing in the Streets.  The solos here soar and Phil plays right along with Jerry throughout.  This leads into a sublime He Was a Friend of Mind, a delicate tune that is lightly played, a nice antidote to all of the heavy music before and after.  China Cat Sunflower leads into the fourteen minute final performance of New Potato Caboose, a very complicated song that the band would never play live again after tonight.  This is one of the best versions, with a spaced out jam session midway through and some incredible bass work from Phil.

This is a historic night, with some excellent playing mixed in with a whole lot of chaos, which is just the way the Dead liked it.  Hopefully you do, too.

Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: May 23, 1969 – Seminole Indian Village, Hollywood, FL

skeleton&rosesToday’s show was the first night of the Big Rock Pow Wow, a three-day festival that also featured Johnny Winter, Muddy Waters and Sweetwater, just to name a few of the other bands.  The show has been officially released as Road Trips Vol. 4 No. 1.  According to the Dead’s official website, “‘Orange sunshine’ acid was everywhere.”

This disclaimer is important, because parts of the Dead’s festival set (not a very truncated one, either) are uneven, probably due to the “relaxed” atmosphere.  There are also some issues with Jerry’s guitar strings, which leads to some interesting passages.  Still, this is a 1969 show, so the overall quality of the playing is high.

Morning Dew is one of the clear winners today – a scorching attack on the song following a tricky Hard to Handle opener. The best part of Dark Star lies in the middle.  After the band works out some sound issues and distractions, they settle into a nice fluid pace, anchored by Tom Constanten, that winds out into a pretty nice space and some great Jerry runs before returning back to earth for St. Stephen>The Eleven.  This combination is almost always worth listening to, and today’s version is no exception.  While the playing does not reach the heights it sometimes does, we’re still in above-average territory.

The show ends with a thirty minute Lovelight.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – listening to a thirty minute Lovelight is brutal.  While it probably worked really well live, on tape, it’s problematic.  If you chopped this in half, you’d still have fifteen minutes, out of which maybe ten are exceptional.    In my opinion things really start to heat up around the twenty, twenty-two minute mark, so feel free to skip ahead.  That being said, it’s great that the Dead were able to stretch out at a festival, which they would do again the next night when they opened the show with a twenty-seven minute Lovelight.  Keep giving the people what they want.

This recording isn’t wonderful – shell out the money for the official release if this is your thing.  If you want to be cheap about it, listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: October 20, 1968 – Greek Theater, Berkeley, CA

skeleton&rosesTime is of the essence today, so I’ll keep this relatively short.  This is a normal 1968 show, so it’s good.  We open with Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, and the levels are all messed up, with Phil drowning out everyone in the mix.  But, you get to hear Phil lay it down with authority, which is a wonderful experience.  Phil levels off after this, but there are still problems hearing the vocals and Bob’s guitar throughout the show.

Turn on Your Lovelight is good in places but doesn’t overwhelm, and this Dark Star is a generic 1968 Dark Star, which is, again, very nice indeed.  On to St. Stephen, and, more importantly, The Eleven>Caution (Do Not Step on Tracks).  This is the meat of the show – a very spirited The Eleven and a huge Caution that carpet bombs the audience with sound.  Caution fades into Feedback to end the show.

As I’ve said before, when you’re dealing with the Dead in the 60’s, most of what you’re getting is good, and this show is no exception.  I disagree with the commentators who say this is one the best, but it’s a good 1968 show, and that makes all the difference.  (It’s also the last time that the Dead will play the Greek until 1981, so there’s that, too).

Check it out here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: September 15, 1967 – Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, CA

skeleton&rosesThis show makes the case for Jerry Garcia as a high intensity guitar shredder of the first order.  Now, obviously, this title could apply to Jerry in any era, but 1967 Jerry was young, fired up and ripping solos of incredible length and power.  I don’t think that there is ever a point where Jerry comes closer to Hendrix than 1967, and this show is the proof.

Before I go any further, please keep in mind that this is an audience recording from 1967.  Not 1976.  Not 1994.  1967.  So the quality is not at all pristine.  Before you accuse me of hypocrisy, I’ll admit that I complained to high heavens about the sound quality of yesterday’s concert in Egypt – a soundboard, nonetheless – but at that show the playing was just as bad as the recording.  Here, the playing is great, so you need to ignore the crappy sound quality.Get over it and appreciate that we have any record of this show at all, especially since 1967 is a notoriously thin year for recorded shows.

Before you start listening, please note that this version of the Grateful Dead does not feature Mickey Hart, who joined the band at the tail end of September.  So you’ve got Garcia plugged in and ready to wail, Bill Kreutzmann as the sole drummer pounding away, and Phil Lesh doing God only knows what all over this recording.  Phil is in another place entirely tonight, and even though he is hard to hear in spots, his presence is always noted, dipping in and out of the music like a jaguar stalking its prey.  Musically, Bob Weir doesn’t contribute as much as the others here, possibly because he’s buried in the sonic boom but more likely because 1967 Bob Weir was, according to Bob Weir, not musically on par with his band mates yet. And then there’s Pigpen, the heavyweight champion of the world, bringing the ruckus with all his might.

Viola Lee Blues is probably the musical highlight of the entire evening and it leads off this show.  This is Jerry Garcia in peak 1967 form.  Jerry’s solos at this time feature a ton of repeated lines, something that he would move away from in the 70’s and come back to, a bit, in the 80’s.  But nothing like here, where the sheer force of the notes seems to propel more of the same in an almost never ending feedback loop.  This is delirious, almost dangerous, music, and it’s like nothing Jerry ever played again.

Cold Rain and Snow and Beat It On Down The Line both cook in the lead up to Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, the first big Pigpen number of the night.  Remember that the Grateful Dead in 1967 were more Pigpen’s band than anyone else’s, and he lets you know it here.  If you concentrate really hard, you’ll hear Phil in the background moving this song forward with a relentless parade of bass, almost none of which has any relationship to traditional bass playing. This is truly out there stuff.

Then Morning Dew.  Pure Jerry, tapping into another level.  This is not a very long version of the song, and it’s not nuanced, but man oh man is it effective.  Once we’ve recovered, it’s back to Pigpen for the show ending Alligator>Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks) that will peel your ears back.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – when you compare the Grateful Dead in 1967 to any other band out there at that time, you won’t find a harder rocking outfit anywhere in the universe.  And you’re never going to hear Jerry play guitar like this anywhere other than 1967.  So tap into the magic, get beyond the crummy sound, and strap in for the ride.

Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: September 1, 1969 – Baton Rouge International Speedway, Prairieville, LA

skeleton&rosesIt’s hard to review shows from 1969 because the Grateful Dead were performing at a very high level and their setlists were often very similar from night to night.  If you pull a random 1969 show off the Archive, you’re likely to get something good.  There are obviously outliers, like last month’s show at Woodstock, but, in general, 1969 is a great year for the Dead.  This show, at the first New Orleans Pop Festival, with the Dead sharing the bill with several other Woodstock artists like Santana and Jefferson Airplane, is typical of the era and shows what an anomaly Woodstock really was.  (It’s also pretty short, given the festival’s time constraints).

The boys lead off their performance with Casey Jones.  The song has not yet developed its “proper” beginning, so we’re treated to a nice introduction that draws you in before the typical Casey Jones riff begins.  This is followed by a screaming, mighty Morning Dew.  Things cool off a little with Mama Tried and High Time before the band ignites for Easy Wind.  This song is deceptively cool, since the lyrical portion features an intentional but annoying tempo change and the words are nothing to speak of.  But the jam that follows is awesome and shows where the band is heading with this song in 1970.

Dark Star>St. Stephen>The Eleven is usually a show highlight and today’s show is no exception.  The middle portion of Dark Star is very loose and features some trippy organ work from Tom Constanten, the Dead’s unheralded 2nd keyboardist during this era.  It’s a slightly different version of a classic ’69 tune.  St. Stephen is nothing special, but The Eleven really blasts off today, running on for almost eleven minutes of bliss.  There’s nothing in particular to highlight about this version – it’s just nice to hear everyone churning out the tune together, in sync and burning down the road.  The Dead close their set, like they did at Woodstock, with Turn on Your Lovelight, but at this show they’ve shaved twenty-two minutes off the tune (it’s still a whopping twenty-five minutes long) and we’re all better for it.

Another 1969 show almost always means another good show.  Check this one out here: