Today in Grateful Dead History: April 25, 1969 – Electric Theater, Chicago, IL

skeleton&rosesIn many ways, the Grateful Dead and the Velvet Underground (two of the three bands on tonight’s bill at the Electric Theater in Chicago) represent the two poles of the 60’s counter-culture.  (I’m liberally borrowing during this post from The Grateful Dead Guide’s excellent post on these bands and the comments posted afterwards).  The Dead were from the west coast, liberally imbibed LSD and were sponsored, to a certain extent, by Owsley Stanley and Ken Kesey.  The Velvet Underground were from the east cost, were widely associated with heroin and played as the house band for Andy Warlhol’s Factory.  Despite their glaring musical and lyrical differences, both bands, especially at this point in their careers, were famous for playing momentously long versions of songs, and this could often create problems when they were playing on bills with other bands.

Which leads us to a bit of (probably apocryphal) history about this show.  According to some accounts (which are contradicted by other accounts and further muddied by still others), the Velvet Undergound played a really long set prior to the Grateful Dead’s performance tonight, which forced the Dead to play the truncated, one-set show we have here.  In response, the Dead allegedly played a very long opening set of their own at tomorrow night’s show in order to keep the Velvets off the stage for as long as possible.  This story appears to have been debunked, but it’s pretty clear that the two bands were not exactly kindred spirits (although most of the hate seems to flow from east to west), so the energy in the room tonight must have been something to behold.

The Dead’s performance here is fairly ragged in comparison with a lot of their output from this point in 1969.  However, there is still that rugged Grateful Dead charm, especially during Doing That Rag and Sitting on Top of the World.  But the “jammy” numbers – in this case, Good Morning Little Schoolgirl and Turn on Your Lovelight – are not particularly impressive examples of the form.  Maybe the Velvets blew the Dead off the stage?  Maybe the mood wasn’t right?  Whatever it was, this isn’t a great 1969 Dead show (it’s not bad, either).  But the backstory is a pretty interesting one.

Listen here:


Today in Grateful Dead History: April 5, 1969 – Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco, CA

skeleton&rosesThis show, captured at the Avalon Ballroom at a time when the Grateful Dead were running off epic performances like their lives depended on it, features something for everyone – a few acoustic numbers, some blistering rock, Pigpen at the height of his powers and the occasional deep space feedback.

But on a night filled with fireworks of all kinds, my favorite moment is the bifurcation of St. Stephen and The Eleven, which were typically played together during this era.  But tonight, St. Stephen flows seamlessly into Turn on Your Lovelight, leaving the listener slightly confused, like when Scarlet Begonias doesn’t turn into Fire on the Mountain.  Please understand, substituting a 17-minute, well-played Lovelight for The Eleven is not a downgrade – it’s just unexpected.  But the true surprise comes about forty minutes of music later, when The Eleven does appear, after The Other One / Cryptical Envelopment, something that almost never happened.  And what an appearance this is, in the midst of a swirling, psychotic version of The Other One / Cryptical (tonight its somewhat difficult to determine where one ends and the other begins, although they are separately tracked on the recording).  So you’re already engaged and drawn in and then, out of the blue, as it were, The Eleven knocks you right on your ass for another 8 minutes of fury.  This is the kind of surprising, fluid playing that makes 1969 such a great year in Grateful Dead history.

But wait, there’s more.  Would you like a nice 1969 Dark Star with some syncopated back and forth playing in the the middle?  We’ve got that tonight.  How about a quiet Mountains of the Moon with Jerry on acoustic guitar that transitions into said Dark Star?  Or, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, a nine and a half minute Doin’ That Rag that may be one of the better ones I’ve ever heard?  That’s here too.  There’s also one of only twelve versions of It’s a Sin and an eight minute blast of Feedback to drive your blues (and your hearing) away.  You’re going to want to avoid Hard to Handle for the time being – the band is still working the kinks out.  Come back in 1971 for the really amazing versions of that tune.

Long story short, this 1969 show deviates from the norm in a lot of good ways.  I promise you’ll find something to enjoy here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: February 22, 1969 – Dream Bowl, Vallejo, CA

skeleton&rosesThis show is another in a long line of epic performances from 1969.  For me, what differentiates it from some of the others is the fascinating, delicate Mountains of the Moon that Jerry rolls out in the second slot, just a captivating performance of a song that normally doesn’t do much for me.  And then the band adds some flavor to the arrangement and gradually increases its strength until a gorgeous Dark Star emerges.

Unlike a lot of the 1968 Dark Stars, this one is a fairly gentle giant, especially at the beginning, something we’d see more and more in 1969.  The runs are quiet and the pace serene, never achieving that slash and burn intensity that the band perfected up until this point.  Things take their time tonight and it’s a wonderful run.

If you want that high-test Grateful Dead rocket fuel, you don’t have to wait long, because Dark Star moves casually into The Other One and things explode quickly.  It’s as if the band looked back on the gentle pace of the last 20 minutes and said “now, it’s time to rock”.  What a ride this one is, majestic and powerful and stretched out to no end.  The yin and the yang of this Dark Star>The Other One is a perfect combination.

The middle portion of the show is fine, but what stands out towards the end is the 18 minute The Eleven into a crushing Lovelight.  There isn’t much musically here that you haven’t heard before (if you listen to shows from this era, which you should), but the length of The Eleven bears noting – it just goes on and on, with Phil all over the place on the bass.  Keep this one in the back of your head when you go searching for a long-winded, epic journey with The Eleven.  It will satisfy.  As does the rest of this night, which is just another amazing 1969 Grateful Dead excursion.

Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: February 14 ,1968 – Carousel Ballroom, San Francisco, CA

skeleton&rosesLike yesterday’s show at the Fillmore East, tonight’s show from the Carousel Ballroom (soon to become the Fillmore West) often appears on lists of best Grateful Dead shows, and with good reason – the Alligator>Caution (Do Not Step On Tracks) from the second set of this show encapsulates everything that was brilliant about the Grateful Dead in the late 60’s.  It’s a raunchy, exploratory experience of such pure bliss that it’s hard to find its equal in the catalog.

But there is so much more going on with this show than just this one segment.  For starters, while the Dead played the Carousel Ballroom once in 1967, this was their first show at this venue since they decided to run it as a collective with Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother and the Holding Company.  So, obviously, the boys wanted to blow the hinges off the doors at their debut performance, and they succeeded with flying colors.   Second, the band was using material from this show (among others) to assemble Anthem of the Sun, their second album, so they were likely trying hard to capture a certain “something” for the album.  What that something became, apparently, was parts of the Alligator found on Anthem, but not a lot more.

Getting into the actual music, the opening combo of Morning Dew>Good Morning Little Schoolgirl is a powerful way to begin.  Schoolgirl, in particular, accelerates for what seems like hours until everyone comes together in one enormous blues explosion near the end.  After a short Dark Star, the band plays China Cat Sunflower into The Eleven, a combination that the Dead only attempted a few times during the first months of 1968 (and once in May 1969).  This is an exciting transition, especially if you’re not looking for it, and it could have held up on its own over time if the band had kept it intact, although I’ll take China>Rider and St. Stephen>The Eleven over this any day.

The second set is just one long exercise designed to push the audience’s sonic framework to as close to the breaking point as possible without actually shattering minds.  It opens with a mighty The Other One>New Potato Caboose and then this twists and turns through Born Cross Eyed and into an elaborate Spanish Jam, which begins sparsely and ends up sounding like Metallica playing Grateful Dead tunes for one of the longest Spanish Jams I can remember.  All of this pinwheels into the aforementioned Alligator and then things really hit the stratosphere.  Suffice to say, the Dead leave nothing on the shelf here – this is unbridled playing, uninhibited by anything or anyone – the music is truly playing the band.  After almost ten minutes of what is called Feedback (it should really be called Deep Space) Pigpen comes back out to lasso the crowd with In The Midnight Hour.  The band is gassed at this point, but the song manages to hold together until, finally, they bring things to a close ten minutes later.

If you are not used to 1968 Grateful Dead shows, this one is going to shock the senses.  The band’s tone is so much rawer than it would ever be again (even in 1969) and the energy is through the roof (see Jerry’s first short “solo” on Midnight Hour as a classic example).  But once you hear this, you can never go back to who you were before.  This is ear-altering stuff.

Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: February 6, 1969 – Kiel Auditorium, St. Louis, MO

skeleton&rosesThe Grateful Dead spent the night of February 6, 1969 as the opening act for Iron Butterfly at this show in St. Louis.  As you will shortly hear, I don’t think that this arrangement worked out very well for Iron Butterfly, as the Dead proceeded to torch the audience with ninety minutes of furious playing that any band (let alone the Butterfly) would probably have a hard time matching.

Things start off inauspiciously enough with a slightly junky version of Morning Dew.  (Remember, a below-average song in 1969 = the best song of the night in most years post-1979).  But we’re starting at the lowest point of the evening, as Dark Star quickly elevates the proceedings and the St. Stephen and The Eleven that follow it drop the hammer on the crowd.  The Eleven, as usual during this time period, is a beast from start to finish, bass intricacies piling on top of screaming guitars and towering infernos of drumming.  And once things calm down towards the end of the song, we’re straight into a nineteen minute Turn on Your Lovelight, with no pause in the action.  This is just the right length for this song on this night – we get plenty of great Pigpen moments and tons of jamming without wearing anyone out.

At this point, it seems like the Dead were probably supposed to stop playing.  But Jerry announces that the band still has time to play a little while longer.  This turns into a massive Cryptical Envelopment>The Other One that goes even higher than The Eleven.  This is a peak performance of these tunes and will peel your skull right back.  As if sensing that things might have gotten a little too far afield for the folks in the audience as Feedback rings around the arena, the Dead attempt reign in the crowd with And We Bid You Goodnight, which might have calmed things down a little, but I’m guessing that those who sat through the Dead’s full show probably didn’t have a lot left in the tank by the time Iron Butterfly took the stage.

For those of you who aren’t that familiar with the 1960’s version of the Grateful Dead, when they were a world-beating rock and roll steamroller, this show will provide all of the explanation you’ll ever need.  Sorry, Iron Butterfly.

Listen here:

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: