Today in Grateful Dead History: December 6, 1973 – Public Hall, Cleveland, OH

stealieWell, gracious listeners, I guess now is the time to enter into one of the great debates in Grateful Dead listening history – is the 43 minute Dark Star from the Dead’s 1973 show at Cleveland’s Public Hall a masterpiece or a disaster?

The answer to that question is going to depend entirely on the listener’s appreciation of feedback and its roll in the Grateful Dead’s music, since some of the deepest parts of this Dark Star are composed of strong, almost overwhelming, moments of atonal noise.

So, if you, like me (and apparently plenty of commentators on the Archive), enjoy the role that some well-thought out (but not Donna-related) screeching plays in the Dead’s musical catalog, then you’re probably going to like today’s Dark Star.  If you don’t like this kind of thing, then I’d still encourage you to listen to this show, but I’m not going to promise that you’ll enjoy the Dark Star.

Other writers far greater than myself have spent a lot of time documenting exactly how this piece of music evolves, so I’m not going to spend an hour rehashing every twist and turn.  But I would like to provide a slightly less detailed roadmap to this Dark Star so that you know what you’re getting into.

The band starts by tuning up, and, as others have made clear (ie complained about), there is no clear indication here that the tuning has ending and the playing has begun.  However, at a certain point several minutes into the song, Keith moves from his piano to an electric instrument and that’s where things really start to get moving.  I will say this about this Dark Star – Keith and Phil are, without question, the headliners tonight.  The first third of the song is driven almost entirely by Keith’s eerie stylings, which ebb and flow, but always drive both the pace and the tone of the piece.  After about ten minutes have gone by, Phil drops in and the feedback builds as the pace picks up.  These small squawks of noise are just a hint of what’s coming as the jam eventually slows down and then, towards the halfway mark, almost all of the music ceases.  Out of this silence comes a drone that builds and builds as layer upon layer of noise piles on top of it until the room is pulsating with energy and the crashing almost impossible to take sound of feedback at the upper limits of amplification.  As this dies down, Jerry Garcia finally gains command of the situation and wills the Dark Star theme out of the ashes.  Several minutes later, the first (and for tonight, the only) verse appears, momentarily grounding us before Phil wrestles control of the piece away from the rest of the band again and bludgeons us with an earth shattering bass solo that soon devolves into an almost Seastones-esque level of noise.  This is a thunderous passage and, while the other band members are still playing, it’s almost all Phil at this point, producing sounds that resemble a double bass being played with a bow through a broken speaker as the noise cascades over us.    Eventually, and I do mean eventually, the band picks up the pieces and limps over the finish line into a spirited (given the circumstances) version of Eyes of the World.

So there you have it – 300+ words to describe a 45 minute piece of music.  I obviously only scratched the surface, so if what you just read appears at all interesting to you, then imagine what this Dark Star actually sounds like.

Lest you think that this is the only good part of this show, we’ve also got a very nice China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider and a massive 17 minute Here Comes Sunshine that finds Jerry unable to stop soloing.  Unlike some shows from 1973, there aren’t so many songs tonight that you find yourself getting overwhelmed before you reach the pinnacle at Dark Star – it’s just the right amount of “normal” music to balance out the crazy.

The Dead actually released the China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider and Dark Star>Eyes of the World from this show on the Road Trips 4.3 bonus disc – I haven’t heard it there so I can’t vouch for the sound quality.  You can listen to the adequate but not incredible soundboard of this classic show here: 


Today in Grateful Dead History: November 21, 1973 – Denver Coliseum, Denver, CO

stealieWe’re back in 1973, so hold on to your hats – this one is going to be a doozy.

Why?  Because of this:  Mississippi Half Step>Playin’ In The Band>El Paso>Playin’ In The Band>Wharf Rat>Playin’ In The Band>Morning Dew.  (You didn’t think it was because of the ultra rare Me & My Uncle show opener, did you?  Maybe they started with that because of the line about Denver . . . )    Anyways, this is kinda the Dagwood of Playin’ in the Band sandwiches (and the Half-Step pickle on the side), with a huge opening section that would stand on its own, only to transition, delightfully, into a surprising El Paso and then back into Playin’.  The boys only give us a taste of that song before changing gears into a three minute transition to Wharf Rat.  Some copies of this show call this a Dark Star jam, and it does sound like that, but after the first minute it becomes clear that something else is going on and Wharf Rat arrives in all of its glory.  As the band plays out at the end of the song, they swing, on a dime, back into Playin’ in the Band again for the best part of the song, a very spacey denouement that is longer than the original intro.  Things go very far out for a Playin’ (this sounds much more like where Dark Star usually ends up in 1973) until Phil and Billy dial things in and the vocals come back.  At the end of the tune, just when you think the band is done, there is a quick down beat and then a surprising Morning Dew.  This is not a perfect Dew, but it is a perfect Dew in this situation – a cool drink of water after a scorching Playin’ and a completely insane way to end this hour of music.

Oh yeah, in case that wasn’t enough, there’s a minor pause and then: Truckin’>Nobody’s Fault But Mine>Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad>One More Saturday Night.  Jerry is clearly feeling frisky tonight and he sings along, momentarily, on the Nobody’s Fault section.  Otherwise, this is all hard rockin’ fun in Denver after the psychedelic explorations that came before.

It’s hard to believe that all of this is the second set of the show – a few years down the line, everything I just talked about would be the whole show.  But instead, we’ve got the entire first set to explore, and it’s also a good one.

For instance, there’s an always welcome, electric Dire Wolf.  It sounded so weird to hear it that I had to check my stats – the Dead only played Dire Wolf six times in 1973, all in November and December.  So all of those killer shows that we’re used to from earlier in the year – no Dire Wolf.  Which is why it was unusual to hear it come up now.  But a little further digging was revealing.  The band played Dire Wolf at least a couple of times a year, every single year (except 75 and 76), from 1969 until 1995.  So this is one of those rare-ish Dead songs that never really goes away completely, yet is always great to hear when it does come around.  In other words, it was a treat to have it here as part of this special night.

Here Comes Sunshine is also interesting today.  This is not the best version, or anything like that.  But the guitar tone and the space within the sound when the song starts is pretty interesting, and the jam is a solid one.  Check it out, and then move on to a good Big River and a great Brokedown Palace.  Finally, to close out the first set, we’ve got a full Weather Report Suite with a super-jammy Let it Grow.  1973 – the gift that keeps on giving.

This show was officially released as Road Trips Vol. 4, No. 3.  I listened a little bit on Spotify, and actually enjoyed this Matrix better, dropouts and all:

Today in Grateful Dead History: November 14, 1973 – San Diego International Sports Arena, San Diego, CA

stealieSometimes, when I read through a setlist at the start of the day, I’ll see a particular sequence of songs that just stands out as something to look forward to.  This morning, I saw this: Truckin’>The Other One>Big River>The Other One>Eyes Of The World>The Other One>Wharf Rat, and I was immediately excited for what the Dead had in store for me.  UPDATE:  Upon further review, I’m not alone in my excitement – this show is 1973’s entry in 30 Trips Around the Sun.

The band didn’t disappoint.  This run of tunes opens the second half of the Dead’s 1973 show at the San Diego International Sports Arena (go Clippers – but not in 1973), and it is a very unusual set of songs indeed.  I can count only a couple of other times that Big River ever followed a stand-alone The Other One, and I’m having a hard time locating any show that has an Other One that is interrupted twice before resolving.  So in and of itself, this setlist would be pretty epic, but it’s what the band does with the music that’s really important today.

If you’ve listened to even a fair number of Dead shows, especially ones from the 80’s and beyond, you’ll know that it’s sometimes difficult for the boys to transition between songs that are not normally paired together.  (This was not as a much of a problem in these early 70’s years when Billy was the only drummer, but it still came up).  Well, today those transitions in The Other One work spectacularly well, starting with the windup from Truckin’.  Unfortunately, Phil is not turned up very high in the mix, so we’re not treated to the thunder that often accompanies the start of The Other One, but the Dead slide into it like a warm bath anyway.  Likewise, after a very open jam, Jerry picks up the chortling beat of Big River and the band takes off immediately – there’s no hesitation and no train wreck, nor is there a problem devolving (on the beat!) back into The Other One at the conclusion of the song.  In between, the band is rocking and rolling through Big River with a special verve, as if they know they’re coming back to the spacey jamming soon enough.  The second part of The Other One basically keeps the pace from Big River, but we can tell that the band is looking for a more melodious space, so into Eyes of the World they go.  Like most of my favorite Eyes, this one does not linger on too long and it’s filled with lots of neat back and forth playing before we’re once again in The Other One for my favorite part of the night, the wind-down into Wharf Rat.  I can’t really explain what it is about this that hit me so hard, but the gradual transition into such a tender tune was pretty cool.  And the playing on Wharf Rat is top of the line.  At the end of the song, the band barely riffs on Dark Star with hints of Feelin’ Groovy, but the song slows to a gentle close instead, capping a great hour + of music.

This special passage is clearly the heart of the show, but don’t let that keep you from the first set, which has several ripping moments of its own.  For instance, Here Comes Sunshine is a little messy, but you’re not going to hear Jerry Garcia jam on this tune any harder than he does tonight – he’s bringing the fire.  The whole band gets into the act two songs later with a fast, free for all version of Cumberland Blues that barely hangs on to reality.  And the China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider is at its 1973 best.

This is an all-time gem of an Other One.  Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: November 9, 1973 – Winterland Arena, San Francisco, CA

stealieWe’re ping-ponging across the country this week, starting in California, moving over to New York and now back to San Francisco for this gem of a 1973 show at Winterland.

Fortunately for us, almost all of the Dead’s 1973 shows were awesome, however they tend to feature a lot of the same songs, so distinguishing between shows can be difficult.  Tonight’s show is uniformly good.  Some of the first set highlights include a scorching They Love Each Other (I say it all of the time – if you have only heard the slow version of this song, prepare yourself for a treat when you hear the fast one), a dynamic Row Jimmy (a clear example of the multiple lead instruments at play in the 1973 version of the band, with Phil and Jerry in complete harmony) and a sparkly China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider.   The highlight of the whole show comes at the end of the first set – a very strong, 20 minute Playin’ in the Band that really grooves around the six minute mark and never lets up for a second after that.

The second set is anchored by the opening Here Comes Sunshine, with an additional Jerry solo in place of the song’s typical resolution, and the first To Lay Me Down in three years.  The commentators on the Archive love the Weather Report Suite>Eyes of the World, but I think Playin’ in the Band is a much better song tonight.  This is not to say that you aren’t going to groove out during this 30 minute sequence – you are – just that the boys aren’t taking as many risks at this point of the night.  And who can blame them – they’ve already been going for close to 3 hours!

This show, along with the next two nights, was officially released as Winterland 1973: The Complete Recordings.  If you can get your hands on it, the sound quality on the official release dwarfs what you are going to hear on the Archive, but let’s be glad for what we’ve got – it’s all 1973 goodness, through and through.

Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: August 1, 1973 – Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City, NJ

stealieHappy 75th birthday Jerry Garcia!

If Jerry has taught me anything, it’s that we should embrace all of life’s strange little imperfections.  So, in his honor, I will freely admit one of mine – when I don’t know a lot about a certain subject, I tend to spew gibberish to make up for my lack of knowledge.  (Thank God I didn’t start writing this thing ten years ago)!

There have been many moments over the course of my experience with this band where I said uninformed, dumb things about their music, due, in a large part, to ignorance.  None was more absurd than when I said to a group of seasoned Dead fans, that Space was more interesting, musically, than Dark Star.  (Caveat – I was a true newbie when I uttered these unfortunate words).  After my friends stopped laughing, they put on Live Dead and remedied that little bit of stupidity.  I never bad-mouthed Dark Star again.  But it was this show from Roosevelt Stadium in 1973, which I only heard a couple of years after I made that ridiculous statement, that truly showed me what Dark Star could achieve.

Keep in mind that by the time we get to Dark Star in this show, the band has already played for an hour and a half (and this is after The Band opened the show), so the audience is a little wound up.  Up until this point, the Dead have been firing on all cylinders – the first set features a monumental Bird Song, a lacerating Sugaree and probably my all-time favorite version of They Love Each Other.  (For those of you who aren’t familiar with the pre-hiatus, fast-paced version of this song, stop right now and go hear it immediately).  The beginning of the second set is also sweet, with a great Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo and a subtle Row Jimmy.  But then the magic begins: Dark Star>El Paso>Eyes of the World>Morning Dew.  Hold on tight!

It takes almost 14 minutes to arrive at the first verse of Dark Star because, after playing the opening theme, the Dead make a sharp exit into an amazing, exploratory jam that seems to take off from nowhere and ascend to higher and higher peaks for close to ten minutes before gliding back down to the theme and, eventually, the first verse.  And once Jerry is done singing, we still have another ten minutes of mind-bending, freer music to go (at points, it sounds very much like the music from Apocalypse Now – which Mickey Hart, who isn’t present here, had a little something to do with) before saddling up for El Paso, one of those strange Dark Star segues that seem to happen a lot in 73 and 74.  But El Paso is just a little palette cleanser before the 21 minute monster that is Eyes of the World.  Like many longer versions of this song, things get a little repetitive over the course of the tune, but by the end the band locks into things and they stick the traditional, synchronized ending before Morning Dew emerges from the fusion wreckage.  And what a Dew this one is.  There is nothing subtle about this performance – it’s loud and proud, sounding like it belongs in this very stadium during last year’s thunderous show.  Oh boy, does Jerry wail on his birthday here, shattering the audience with blistering leads as everything else crashes and wails around him, concluding one of my favorite hours of Grateful Dead music.

If you are looking for a stellar 1973 show in a summer that is filled with them, and if you’re wondering what all of that Dark Star fuss is about, look no further than this show.  I promise that it will expand your perception of what this band was capable of.

Unfortunately, none of the recordings of this night are pristine.  This Matrix sounds fuller than the soundboard I’ve owned forever:

Today in Grateful Dead History: July 28, 1973 – Grand Prix Racecourse, Watkins Glen, NY

stealieThe Grateful Dead had a really bad habit of “underperforming” at their biggest shows (see Woodstock for a classic example).  However, on this particular day, on the largest stage they’d ever play, the Dead delivered, with two sets filled with fantastic playing and some otherworldly jamming.

As I explained in yesterday’s post, today’s show was a massive concert in upstate New York featuring The Band, The Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead.  According to estimates, 600,000 people attended this show, the largest crowd to ever witness a rock concert.  They were rewarded with a two hour Dead show to start the day, followed by two hours of The Band and three hours of the Allmans before everyone came together for another 45 minutes of jamming.  It must have been something.

After warming up with a legendary soundcheck the night before, the Dead sprinted right out of the gate into an upbeat Bertha and never looked back.  The first set is filled with the usual suspects, all well played.  Box of Rain is one of the highlights for me – this was a always a tricky song for the band to get right, and they played it often in 1973, sometimes to ill effect.  But today it simply sparkles and Jerry’s guitar work floats through the summer air as the band plays on and on.  The set ends with a monster Playin’ in the Band that erupts immediately and never lets up for almost 25 minutes, blowing many a mind along the way.

There are quite a few highlights in the second half, including a great Truckin>El Paso, a classic China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider and an intergalactic Eyes of the World.  The Dead took their time in front of this festival crowd and played it just like a real concert that they headlined, stretching things out and laying waste to Eyes with a psychedelic fury that is probably more fitting for 1972 than ’73.  (I know they didn’t play Eyes in ’72, but still).

And if that isn’t enough for you, this recording also has the closing jam featuring all three bands playing Not Fade Away, Mountain Jam and Johnny B. Goode.  This is not the best recording you’ll ever hear, but the Dead more than hold their own and the Mountain Jam is pretty massive, all things considered.

Well, if you want an example of the Dead blowing another big one, you’ve come to the wrong place today.  This show rocks.  Listen here:


Today in Grateful Dead History: July 27, 1973 – Grand Prix Racecourse, Watkins Glen, NY (The Watkins Glen Soundcheck)

stealieIn one of the more delightful ironies in a history filled with them, on this date in 1973 the Grateful Dead played one of their most legendary shows at a soundcheck on the night before they performed in front of 600,000 people on a triple bill with The Band and The Allman Brothers Band.

First, a little context.  This soundcheck came the night before Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, an enormous festival that was considered to be the largest outdoor pop festival of all time for many years.  According to Wikipedia (and confirmed by my elementary math), if the 600,000 person attendance figure is accurate, one out of every 350 people in the United States attended this concert.  So, as you can probably imagine, a huge crowd got there early, and The Band and The Allman Brothers Band each played short soundchecks in front of those intrepid souls.  But the Grateful Dead, because they’re the Grateful Dead, didn’t play a short soundcheck at all – instead, they came on, played for about 45 minutes, took a break and then came back on and did another 45 minutes, including the epic jam that made this show famous.

That the jam from this show is considered one of the greatest of all the Grateful Dead’s jams is a little surprising, seeing as how it was not a part of another beloved song like Dark Star, but instead evolved from a cold start and took off from there.  However, the lack of structure works here, allowing the Dead to go in several different directions, free from the shackles of a formal song.  And fly off they do, playing a brilliant 20 minute piece with at least three distinct themes – an opening, jazzier section, a second movement, beginning at the 14 minute mark, that could be the genesis for Fire on the Mountain (which wouldn’t come out for close to 4 years) and then a closing theme that resembles the transition into Going Down the Road Feeling Bad or I Know You Rider.  But, again, I’m just using these songs as musical reference points – the piece stands on its own.  (For much more on the jam and how this particular recording came to be, I strongly encourage you to read up on things at the Grateful Dead Listening Guide.  You can also hear it on So Many Roads.).

So, the jam is the thing here, but it’s not the only awesome musical moment – this is 1973, after all.  In fact, if it wasn’t for the jam, I think that this date would still be pretty well known because of the amazing Bird Song from the first “set”.  This is a very long Bird Song, one of the longest I’ve ever heard, and while it follows a fairly typical Bird Song structure, the playing after the halfway mark is remarkably free for a 1973 Bird Song.  There is also some thunderous bass work from Phil that drives the whole song, and Bob’s rhythm guitar, as usual, flourishes in and around Jerry’s amazing runs.  I love this one almost as much as the PNE Coliseum Bird Song on June 22nd and the much-hyped version from 1972’s all-time great show in Veneta.

Apart from these two songs, which are really all that you need, the Dead play a bunch of shorter material and a pretty good ten minute version of Wharf Rat.  I encourage you to listen to this show from start to finish and not skip around, in order to experience this amazing night as it builds towards that jam, just like the people who were there.

There are lots of recordings of this show – the AUD referenced on the Listening Guide gives you great bang for your buck, but is missing Sugaree.  That’s alright.  Listen here: