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.

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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.

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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.

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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: