Today in Grateful Dead History: December 20, 1968 – Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, CA

skeleton&rosesWe’re getting an early start today because today’s offering from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles is a truncated recording consisting of only a partial version of The Eleven, the debut performance of Mountains of the Moon and a relatively short Turn on Your Lovelight, which apparently represents the last three songs on a night where the Dead shared the bill with several other bands.

If the rest of the Dead’s performance was anything like these snippets, then it must have been a hell of a night, because both The Eleven and Lovelight rage.  The Eleven, which we join in progress, is one of those sixties songs that the Dead discarded as they moved in a different direction, but it always holds up – for a lot of fans of the band, this song (and the Dark Star>St. Stephen combination that frequently preceded it) represents everything pure about the Grateful Dead.  Thrilling, repetitive lines that change ever so slightly as the song chugs along.  Intricate rhythm (when played right).  Swirling interaction between Jerry, Bob and Phil.  Hippie dippy lyrics.  It’s all here and it’s beautiful.

Turn on Your Lovelight was a Pigpen showcase and he almost always delivered, driving the crowds crazy with his improvised raps and clearly feeling the music deep down in his soul.  The song died with Pigpen, only to be revived years later with Bob Weir attempting to fill the Pig’s shoes.  It was never the same.  And while many, many versions of Lovelight tended to stretch on too long, when the Dead got their claws into a shorter version, like tonight, the effect was breathtaking – a take no prisoners assault that never tried to be anything other than a old-school dance number to get everyone up and moving.  But since this was the Grateful Dead, you also get to hear Jerry and Phil race around the fretboards (much like in The Eleven), gleefully playing their hearts out as the drummers punished their kits and Pigpen added flourishes on the organ.

And then there is Mountains of the Moon, a song on AOXOMOXOA that would only be played live 13 times, including one infamous performance for the TV show Playboy After Dark where the Dead dosed a studio audience of Playboy bunnies and male models with what, for the band at least, were hilarious results.  For tonight’s debut performance we’ve got Jerry and his acoustic guitar and that’s it – you have to pump the volume up really loud to hear him at all, and it’s not a very clean performance (the lyrics are impossible), but it’s a first, so listen carefully anyway.

Let’s be thankful that we’ve got this partial recording of what was likely a great 1968 Grateful Dead show that gets the day moving in the right direction.  Listen here:


Today in Grateful Dead History: December 19, 1969 – Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, CA

skeleton&rosesGrateful Dead shows from the late 60’s usually feature a rotating lineup of the same songs (although a lot of new ones were being added during this part of 1969), and since the performance quality usually ranges from good to exceptional, it’s hard to tell these shows apart.  However, certain days stand out, like today, where Phil Lesh gets stuck in traffic (or so they say) and Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir take the stage alone for a four song acoustic mini-set during which they perform, all for the first time, Monkey and The Engineer, Little Sadie, Long Black Limousine and I’ve Been All Around This World.  Despite the fact that these are all first performances, Garcia and Weir sound remarkably proficient tonight, which leads one to believe one of two things: either the boys were already rehearsing this material in advance of the acoustic sets the band would play in 1970 or these are just a bunch of songs that the two guitarists liked to play with each other and knew inside and out.  Maybe it’s both.  In either case, they all make for good listening and distinguish this show from some of the other performances of this era.

When the full band arrives they pull off yet another first performance – Mason’s Children, a difficult song that, like the material that preceded it, sounds well-rehearsed tonight.  It also takes us in a completely different direction after the acoustic warm up – the sound of the complete Dead in full flight is nearly overwhelming here, especially with this seldom played and never officially recorded tune.  (Apparently, it’s about Altamont – the Dead would premier New Speedway Boogie, which deals with that debacle in a much clearer way, at tomorrow night’s show).

The Dead then launch into a bunch of relatively new songs which all debuted during 1969 – Black Peter, Hard to Handle, Cumberland Blues and Casey Jones.  They are all good, but not great, versions, heralding the progress to come.

From here we’re going to get the full-bore 1969 Grateful Dead psychedelic extravaganza – a blistering The Other One / Cryptical Envelopment, a short Uncle John’s Band and a 30 minute Turn on Your Lovelight that hits all of the usual notes.  When it comes to The Other One, things start slowly, and the lengthy drum solo in the middle is disruptive, but the second half of the song, included as part Cryptical Envelopment here, is where the action happens, with the musicians swirling notes around each other and Jerry and Phil chasing each other down the twisting musical pathways with no worries in the world.  It’s a pure distillation of everything 1969 in ten minutes.

This is an unusual one and portends good things for 1970.  Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: November 7, 1969 – Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, CA

skeleton&rosesSometimes it takes a little while for the Grateful Dead to start firing on all cylinders.  (Let’s face it, sometimes they never do).  At today’s show, the boys spend over an hour just going through the motions (although just going through the motions in 1969 is still a great Grateful Dead show) only to break out the heavy firepower during an epic Dark Star laced with an embryonic Uncle John’s Band jam.

Dark Star begins calmly, with the progression developing steam for the first eight or nine minutes.  But around this time, the drummers kick things into another gear, with the cymbals creating a wonderful racket and the rest of the band bumping the playing up several notches.  Things start flying from here, into what is usually called a “Feeling Groovy” jam.  But instead of sticking with it, the Dead launch into several disparate sequences that form the core of what would become Uncle John’s Band.  There’s no words here, and the pieces aren’t perfectly patched together, but the major elements of the song are here.  (The Dead would premiere the full tune on December 4th).  This is a full bore sonic exploration, and while not as uniformly great as some other Dark Stars from this era, it’s different enough to merit special attention.

At the end of Dark Star, the band sounds like it is going to make its fairly standard transition into St. Stephen, but instead it heads in the other direction with Cryptical Envelopment.  A short drum passage presages a monster transition into The Other One, which rages for a good long while.  The interplay between the various factions in the band is on full display here, with interweaving counter-melodies and Pigpen / Tom Constanten’s organ work holding things down at the back end.  When all of this wraps up with a furious crescendo, we’re off to the 26 minute Lovelight races, which is everything you’d expect it to be.

If you’re running low on time today, you’re not going to miss anything important if you just start with the Dark Star and listen through the end of The Other One.  This is a solid 40 minutes of peak Dead.

Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: August 29, 1969 – Family Dog at the Great Highway, San Francisco, CA

skeleton&rosesThe Family Dog was a small room in San Francisco that hosted 17 Grateful Dead shows over the course of nine months from August 1969 through April 1970.  The intimate vibe and hometown surroundings usually brought out interesting moments from the band, and while most of these shows aren’t the tightest of performances, they are a nice snapshot of the Dead on the cusp of a significant transition from psychedelic blues monsters to something much more nuanced.

There’s not a lot of nuance here, though.  Opening with an early version of Casey Jones and then moving into a powerful take on a brand new Easy Wind, the Dead have brought the power to this performance.  Jerry’s playing on Easy Wind, which was always a massive soloing vehicle, is already well developed here, even though this was only the third live performance of the tune.  A few songs later and we hear a couple of first time performances – New Orleans>Searchin’.  I don’t know the origin of New Orleans (try typing “New Orleans (song)” into Google and see what happens), but Searchin’ was a huge hit for the Coasters and the Dead cover both songs, which sound very similar, with gusto. Searchin’ leads into a trainwreck of a transition into Good Lovin’, with Jerry singing lead vocals, something I don’t recall hearing before or after (which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen).   An up-tempo, late 60’s Dire Wolf brings things into a folky vein for a minute before Pigpen rips the roof off on I’m a King Bee and the band follows up with a 30 minute Turn on Your Lovelight to close the night.

A couple of short musical notes about this show.  First, Tom Constanten’s organ is actually audible tonight, which is unusual and interesting to hear.  He definitely approaches things a little differently than the Pig.  Also, the drummers are well-miked, except at one point about 17 minutes into Lovelight when the crash cymbals really overwhelm everything else (and they’re definitely not keeping perfect time).  Be prepared.  Finally, the notes on the Archive hint at additional songs from this performance, but they appear to belong to tomorrow night’s show at the same venue, so if you came here looking for Dark Star, you’re in the wrong place.  Maybe tomorrow . . .

Listen here: 

Today in Grateful Dead History: August 21, 1968 – Fillmore West, San Francisco, CA

skeleton&rosesHow do you properly evaluate a Grateful Dead show from 1968 when they often played the same bunch of songs (give or take a few) every night at a consistently amazing level?  Well, I guess you can tell a bad 1968 show if you hear one, but, at least so far as it comes to this site, I’ve never heard a bad one.  I’ve never even heard a mediocre show from 1968.  They’re either otherworldly or really, really good.  This one is otherworldly.

The whole show is one big highlight reel – there aren’t any clunky moments at all.  Certain instruments stand out today – Phil, Jerry and the drummers in particular – especially the drummers, who are dialed into some other realm from the moment the recording kicks off, midway through Cryptical Envelopment.  The drumming in the brilliant Alligator is also ferocious, and what to say about where Jerry goes during that song?  You’ve got to figure it out for yourselves because my description ain’t going to work.  Phil, meanwhile, is everywhere, doing everything.

And this is only the first part of the show.  The second set has a gooey Dark Star (we had to listen to Dark Star on a day with a total American eclipse) and a St. Stephen>The Eleven that will melt your face, especially The Eleven.  Just when you think things can’t get any more intense, Jerry lowers the boom with a skull-burning Death Don’t Have No Mercy, and then it’s time for Pigpen.  And oh boy, do the boys let it rip behind Pigpen tonight, with a huge Lovelight (truncated on the tape, unfortunately) and an In The Midnight Hour encore that really brings Bob Weir’s guitar front and center for a time, which is unusual in 1968 recordings.

This is the real deal – play it loud:

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: