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: 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 (UPDATE: The folks running the Grateful Dead corporate show agree with the commentators – this is the 1968 show in 30 Trips Around the Sun), 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: May 18, 1968 – County Fairgrounds, Santa Clara, CA

skeleton&rosesNOTE: This material was originally published in 2015 on my previous site. It has been updated and edited, sometimes heavily, and was posted in several batches in August, 2016.

This show is a very short blast of 1968 Dead at full throttle: Alligator>Drums>Alligator>Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks)>Feedback. When you need a 40 minute, high tempo, screeching fix, this is what you should reach for. (It also contains a very well-rendered Mountain Jam, so if you’re searching for one of the sources of the Allman Brothers’ song of the same name, look no further).

This show was taped by Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen either on or right next to the stage and the sound quality is not great. In fact, it’s pretty crummy and you can hardly hear the vocals at all. So why post it? I’ll let the Grateful Dead Listening Guide explain it for me. Enjoy.

Here’s the link to the audience recording:

Today In Grateful Dead History: December 29, 1968 – Gulfstream Park Racetrack, Hallandale, FL

skeleton&rosesThis short set from the Miami Pop Festival is the Grateful Dead at their thrashiest.

You see, back before they turned into cosmic cowboys, the Dead were turning out loud, slashing space music that often ended in feedback drenched decadence.  That was the late 60’s, baby, when the Dead were truly a dangerous, primal bunch of misfits who showed almost no ability to play “mellow” music, save the occasional dalliance with a jug band tune or And We Bid You Goodnight to bring people down after that Dexedrine blaze of hysterical power that had just spewed forth from one of the best sound systems ever devised (and this was before the band really started tinkering with the electronics).  This was a loud, rockin’ band of the first order, and if you heard them coming, you’d get the hell out of their way.

Since this was a festival set, the Dead didn’t have a lot of time to work through their typical trip, so everything they played today was revved up to full speed, which you’ll hear immediately when the recording cuts in five seconds into Turn on Your Lovelight.  Everybody is already flying straight ahead, and poor Pigpen sounds like he’s having a tough time keeping up.  Twelve minutes later we stop for air before boring down into a shrieking ten minute Dark Star that works really well as a slashing piece of rock n’ roll, but not so well as a “Dark Star” if what you’re looking for is a thirty minute jazz odyssey.  But here, at the Miami Pop Festival, it likely blew minds.

Oh, but all this was just the warm up, for where Dark Star ends St. Stephen begins.  This was back when the Dead were still playing the whole version of St. Stephen with the William Tell hippie poetics tacked on, which, in some interview I read, Jerry said basically drove him nuts.  You’ll understand why it could have when you hear the Dead bust out a blast of incredible, joyous noise only to transition into the pitter-patter trappings of mid-1600’s English folk music.  But that gets cut off right at the roots as the band rears back and just throttles the second half of St. Stephen until it pours into The Eleven, a pretty basic structure that allows Jerry to just keep wailing and wailing over the smashing caveman stomp the rest of the band is laying down behind him.

Drums airs things out for a minute, but then The Other One>Cryptical Envelopment wells up, and if you’ve never heard a particularly angry version of this song, get ready, because you’re not escaping this one.  This is pure nasty, aggressive music on par with anything the MC5 was putting out there.  Don’t let the trippy lyrics dissuade you.

And then And We Bid You Goodnight, because you need it.

Listen carefully here:

Today In Grateful Dead History: December 21, 1968 – Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, CA

skeleton&rosesThis is going to be a short review of a short show that has a little bit of everything for everyone.  Do you like your Pigpen rave ups?  The show starts with Turn on Your Lovelight.  How about your psychedelic late sixties Dead experience?  There’s an epic The Other One.

But the bar-none highlight of this whole little affair is Alligator>Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks), which rips down that sonic highway with pure 1968 power.  This is the real deal, folks, and worth the price of admission.

After all that, you need a palate cleanser, which the Dead provide with a nice, long And We Bid You Goodnight that ends with Bob Weir leading a sing-along with the crowd.

This show rewards multiple listens, which you’ll be able to do since it’s only about an hour long.  Enjoy the soundboard here:

Today In Grateful Dead History: October 12, 1968 – Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco, CA

skeleton&rosesThis is a show that I’ve listened to once before, a few years ago.  I forgot about it, which is a problem because had I remembered it, I would never have chosen to listen to it while doing some personal finance related activities on the computer.

Take this as a warning – when the show starts with Dark Star, and that song is the worst song from the show, you know you’re going way out there.  Every song in this show improves upon the one before it until, at the end, you’re left with literally nothing but Feedback.  It’s like the music ate itself.

One note before getting into it.  Pigpen wasn’t at this show.   Now I love me some Pigpen, but without him, you’ve got a lot more room, musically.  And the Dead take full advantage of the space.

So, begin with that Dark Star, which is fine by 1968 standards but nothing to write home out.  Dark Star winds down to almost nothing before launching in St. Stephen>The Eleven, and we’ve immediately gone off the rails.  There’s a pause after the William Tell section where you think everything is just going to stay calm, and then we’re straight into a pounding The Eleven that is everything you’d want it to be.  It’s also apparently everything the band members want it to be, too, because you can hear them screaming for joy during the expanding jam at the end.  Following that, we have a plaintive, massive Death Don’t Have No Mercy, with Jerry wailing the lyrics with all his heart.  And then we take a break before the main event.

I got about three minutes into the second set before I had to get out and go for a walk – there was no way to concentrate on anything other than this band at peak power, performing one continuous piece of music that looks like this: Cryptical Envelopment>Drums>The Other One>Cryptical Envelopment>New Potato Caboose>Drums>Jam>FeedbackCryptical>Drums is just a little warning shot before Phil comes crashing down into The Other One.  I’m honestly at a loss of words to describe what goes on here, but there is some rapid fire back and forth between Phil and Jerry and just a relentless marching beat behind the whole thing.  In the second Cryptical Envelopment, after the quite portion, when Jerry sings the “You know he had to die” chorus the third time, everyone explodes together and doesn’t let up for another five minutes.  This section stopped me in my tracks.

Then New Potato Caboose comes in, and instead of shutting things down like it tends to do, it just accelerates them, with the Dead performing the intricate passages as close to the edge as possible.  That closing jam wraps into another short Drums section before the band takes us out on a extra long jam that devolves, eventually, into a haunting seven minute Feedback that tapers out into nothing at all.  And we’re done.

There’s nothing more to say.  This is one of the best of 1968, for sure.  Go listen now:

Today In Grateful Dead History: September 2, 1968 – Betty Nelson’s Organic Raspberry Farm, Sultan, WA

skeleton&rosesYou notice the speed from the very first notes of Dark Star – the Grateful Dead are playing very fast today and there is no let up throughout this short performance from 1968.

It’s also immediately apparent that this is not a spectacular sounding recording.  The snare drums are so loud, the entire show sounds like a military parade and the guitars are blaring, drowning out all hints of Phil and most of Pigpen.  There are also a couple of horrible cuts and almost all of Death Don’t Have No Mercy is missing.

So be it.  The Eleven, in particular, is very good, as is The Other One>Cryptical Envelopment>Alligator>Drums>Alligator>Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks), and since this is three quarters of the show, I’ve got nothing to complain about.  I also haven’t found a lot to distinguish this show from a bunch of other ones from 1968, a year with a lot of very similar setlists.  So if you’re in the mood for a guitar and drum heavy dose of primal Dead, turn this one up loud.

Here’s the soundboard, with all its imperfections: