In 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.