Oooooooooh boy do we have a doozy today. The Grateful Dead’s 40 minute contribution to the massive SF SNACK benefit concert is one of the jazziest, purely jammed-out pieces of continuous music the Dead ever performed in concert. And joining the boys (and it was just the boys – there’s no Donna here, because there’s no lyrics until the encore) on stage are two additional keyboardists – frequent Jerry Garcia collaborator Merl Saunders and Seastones creator and 1974 tour buddy Ned Lagin. This show is the Grateful Dead at the pinnacle of whatever attempt at jazz fusion they were working on in the mid-70’s – everything funky from 1974 and all of the complexity of 1976 mix together here in a swirling pot of pure bliss.
It’s really hard to even summarize what exactly is going on tonight: the band opens with a fairly pure rendering of Blues for Allah, the first time the band played this piece that wouldn’t actually be released until September, but this quickly stretches out into an almost ten-minute jam centered around the vaguely Arabic-sounding theme. Soon they transition into Stronger Than Dirt /Milking The Turkey (another premiere). Although snippets of this jam had shown up in 1974, this was another piece that would not be widely released until it appeared in truncated form on the Blues for Allah album. Here, the Dead launch a very tightly wound seven minute exploration before Drums intervenes for a few moments. When the full band resumes the song, everything is much freer – Saunders’ playing, in particular, drives this part of the jam to ridiculous heights. After nine minutes of almost-but-not-quite Miles Davis level work, the final section of Blues for Allah emerges, with the band “singing” together in harmony. The crowd goes bonkers. And then the encore: don’t sleep on this version of Johnny B. Goode – the added keyboard attack boosts this version far above the Dead’s standard treatment.
Keep in mind when you are listening to this that: a) the audience had never heard any of this music (other than Johnny B. Goode) before and b) the band had only been working on this for, at the most, a few months. Also, not everyone was convinced that the Grateful Dead were going to return as a touring apparatus – they were, after all, on hiatus, and this was their first appearance together since the “final” show at Winterland on October 20, 1974. So this performance was a “big deal”, and it was a massive change in direction for a band that was still firing off loose versions of classic Dead songs like China Cat Sunflower and The Other One back in the fall. And it was broadcast on the radio. So if you were a Grateful Dead fan in 1975, used to the “good ol’ Grateful Dead” and suddenly this monster jazz blast hit you right between the temples, I could imagine that it would have caused a little consternation in some quarters. But judging by the reaction of the crowd, at least as an in-person experience, tonight was an unqualified success.
So now we’re three-quarters of the way through the four shows of 1975 – as I’ve said before, they are all amazing performances. When it comes to this one in particular, it’s a great night to keep in your back pocket, when you’re looking for a short (in Dead land, 40 minutes is short) burst of amazing Grateful Dead music to get you through the day.
Listen here: https://archive.org/details/gd1975-03-23.sbd.miller.110126.flac16
This short concert from the Dead’s most consistently great year is also one of the best audience recordings you’ll ever hear. If you want to know a lot more about this show, you can check out The Grateful Dead Listening Guide’s post on it here, but instead of reading everything right now, I suggest that you jump right in.
The Dead get off to a rousing start with Help on the Way and Slipknot!, two very new songs, but instead of jumping into Franklin’s Tower like they usually will, they shut things down. After a brief pause, we get a terrific, sloppy version of The Music Never Stopped. You’ll notice that the band is very loose here, which is apparently due to them all being completely off their rockers on acid during the show. In any case, this show stands out from the other ’75 gigs due in large part to this free-flowing dynamic, which doesn’t let up throughout the entire performance.
Two songs later, we finally get our Franklin’s Tower and it’s another messy delight. After a couple more songs we arrive at Truckin’. Now, in his defense, before starting the song, Bob Weir warns the crowd that he’s not going to remember the words, and he makes good on his promise by not only forgetting most of them, but also forgetting to sing part of the second verse at all. No worries. The jam is great. You’ll hear all sorts of things here, including parts of King Solomon’s Marbles, before we get to an out of control Not Fade Away that dumps into a Going Down the Road Feeling Bad that is the polar opposite of its title.
As I said before, this is one of the all-time great audience recordings (not least because a woman is giving birth at the show and the band, tripping out of their minds, is trying to coordinate a doctor and ambulance from the stage) and is thus available for download. You should do that here: https://archive.org/details/gd1975-09-28.fob.menke-falanga.motb-0069.91769.flac16
I’m going to make a really dumb argument and say that 1975 was the Dead’s most consistently excellent year. They played four shows and they were all great.
I’ve put “Grateful Dead” in quotes in the title of this post because the band was actually billed as Jerry Garcia and Friends for this benefit concert for poster artist Bob Fried, who died earlier that year. But make no mistake, this is the full Grateful Dead.
On top of being important because it’s one of only four 1975 shows, this show also stands out because it’s the first time the Dead played Crazy Fingers, Help on the Way and Franklin’s Tower. It’s amazing to hear how good they sound, especially on Crazy Fingers and Help on the Way, which are two of the band’s more difficult pieces. Since it’s the first time these songs have been played before a live audience, the crowd response is muted and you don’t get the normal roars that you’ll hear in later years when Garcia sings “if you get confused, listen to the music play” in Franklin’s. But this just gives us more room to hear the band really jam out, and jam out they do, especially during Slipknot! and later during King Solomon’s Marbles and at the end of Blues for Allah.
If all of this wasn’t good enough, the band plays a stellar (but very slow) Peggy-O. Normally, I’d think that a tempo like this would be bad for a song with so many verses that is already pretty slow to begin with, but it just opens up the space for Jerry to solo and he plays a couple of beautiful passages during this song. It’s one of my favorite versions, despite the pace.
There are a lot of good versions of this show out there. I’ve included Rob Bertrando’s excellent audience recording here: https://archive.org/details/gd75-06-17.bertrando.unknown.233.sbeok.shnf