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: 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: 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:

Today in Grateful Dead History: August 16, 1969 – Woodstock Music & Art Fair, Bethel, NY

woodstockI’m not going out on a limb when I say that the Grateful Dead have a (sometimes self-described) reputation for not living up to expectations when the spotlight is hot.  Exhibit A is today’s show from perhaps the brightest stage of the 1960’s – Woodstock.

If you’re reading this, I’m pretty sure you know what Woodstock was, but just in case you missed rock history 101, here is the six sentence summary.  In August, 1969, hundreds of thousands of young people gathered on an old diary farm in upstate New York for a legendary concert that featured almost all of the important rock and roll bands of the time.  Originally a ticketed event, so many people showed up that they closed the interstate and let the ticketless masses in for free.  It rained.  A lot.  Massive quantities of drugs were ingested, some of them of not so good quality.  But yet, almost everyone had a good time and the festival became a touchstone of the hippie movement and an era-defining event.  In other words, Woodstock was built for the Grateful Dead.

Of course, if something was built for the Grateful Dead, the Grateful Dead had a bad habit of blowing it, which they did at Woodstock by showing up and doing what everyone else was doing – ingesting incredible quantities of acid.  Since the folks running the show were also dosed to the gills, things weren’t proceeding in a timely manner, which made everything a little glitchy to begin with.  I’ll let Jerry Garcia take it from here in a 1971 interview in Jazz and Pop Magazine:

The weekend was great, but our set was terrible. We were all pretty smashed, and it was at night. Like we knew there were a half million people out there, but we couldn’t see one of them. There were about a hundred people on stage with us, and everyone was scared that it was gonna collapse. On top of that, it was raining or wet, so that every time we touched our guitars, we’d get these electrical shocks. Blue sparks were flying out of our guitars.

So reading this you’d think, well of course Jerry was seeing sparks and thinking the stage was moving – he was on acid.  But apparently, all of this was true and then some.  The stage was so loaded with people and equipment that it literally moved across the mud and the wind blew the scaffolding like a sail.  Other, more sober people expressed serious concerns that the electricity was actually going to kill someone.  And yet the Dead soldiered on.

The band began their set with St. Stephen, which is truncated on every available recording of the performance on the Archive but can be seen in the various available YouTube videos of the Dead at Woodstock.  Then they played a passable version of Mama Tried, with Bob Weir blowing the very first lyric of the song and never really recovering.  After a ten minute delay replete with lysergic poetry screaming and  general confusion, the boys actually managed to string together a decent Dark Star that has several interesting passages in the middle third.  This muddles into High Time, not exactly the uplifting choice that a festival audience might crave at eleven thirty on day two of a three day bender.

Which leads us to Turn on Your Lovelight and Pigpen.  Now Pigpen, unlike his band mates at the time, was a boozer, not an acid head, which made him the defacto captain of the sinking ship.  So it fell to him to try and salvage whatever he could by doing what Pigpen did best – seizing the reins and fronting a forty-seven minute blast of pure blues power.  Really, forty-seven minutes of Lovelight.  But unfortunately for Pigpen, one of the countless freaks on the stage (rumored to be Ken Babbs, one of the Merry Pranksters), grabbed a mic and rambled before, during and after Pigpen’s initial Lovelight rap.  Which just made things fall apart even quicker.  Then, about thirty-five minutes into the song (I can’t believe I just wrote that), Phil’s bass amp started broadcasting radio signals into the PA feed, melding the voices into the performance itself.  It’s as bad as it sounds.

But it’s not as bad as I thought it would be.  That’s the takeaway here, folks.  Yeah, there are countless performances from 1969 that are better than this, but I swear to God this show is not nearly as bad as some of the half-baked nonsense I’ve heard from the mid 90’s.  At least there’s some energy and feeling here.  In spades.  Which makes it deserving of a listen.

Once you’re done with the Grateful Dead’s night on the big, wet stage, make sure that you check out the other, good performances from Woodstock.  Like Hendrix, the Who and Santana.  This was the high water mark for the hippie movement. The Dead, incidentally, would also play a role at Altamont, when the tide rolled back out.  But that’s another festival, and another story entirely.

Listen to the magic here: