Today in Grateful Dead History: June 15, 1995 – Franklin County Airport, Highgate, VT

dancing-bear In the “essay” I wrote in the “About” section of this site, I said:

[W]hat I’m generally aiming for here, is an actual discussion of the music, as recorded.  This means that sometimes I do have to comment on recording quality, like when important parts of songs are missing or where the only available recording stinks.  I’ll also touch on the band’s history, or the circumstances surrounding the show, when necessary to explain why things sound like they do.

I’m going to violate that rule at the end of this review, so if you don’t want to read the rant, please skip the part after the link to the show.  But before we get to the ranting, I’d like to say that although this show is almost universally loathed, the playing is not nearly as bad as it would become over the next month.  Things start sloppy with Touch of Grey and don’t improve much until Ramble on Rose, which is not bad. Black Throated Wind and Loose Lucy at least have some energy, as does the set-ending Promised Land.

The second set starts with the ironic Here Comes Sunshine (an upbeat song at a mess of a show).  Later on, we get a new song – the debut of Rollin’ and Tumblin’.  This is a very old blues tune that traces its roots to the late 1920’s, more than 20 years before Muddy Waters recorded what is probably the most well-known version in 1950.  You’ll notice immediately that the Dead have been playing this tune since the 60’s – they just changed the words and called it Minglewood.  Here, they have a go at the original, but Jerry is singing lead and he can’t remember any of the lyrics, which makes things go downhill quickly.  The rest of the night, other than a pretty version of He’s Gone right before Drums and a sentimental Standing on the Moon, is no better, however the Liberty encore is pretty cool.  But, to reiterate, if you just read the reviews, you’d think that, musically, this was the worst Dead show ever, and it’s not even close.  That doesn’t mean that you have to sit through the whole thing.

The audience tape from this show is well recorded – at points, you forget that it’s an AUD.  (Say what you want about 1995, but the quality of the audience tapes is really, really good in general).  Listen here:

So, having talked about the music, now we have to talk about the scene, because this show is always cited as the beginning of the tour of doom that included lightning strikes in Washington, death threats against Jerry at Deer Creek and ended with Jerry dying shortly thereafter.  If you read the comments on the Archive, you’re going to learn, in painful detail, exactly what was wrong at these shows – people who didn’t care about the music showing up just to cause trouble, gate crashing, folks arriving en mass with no tickets and no plans, ridiculous quantities of drugs and alcohol being ingested by people who couldn’t handle them.  It’s all right there in the comments section, written by people who sound like they still don’t care about what they did.

As I’ve said here before, I’m too young to have seen the Dead live in their heyday – my only in-person show was a few days after this one, at Giants Stadium.  I wasn’t that interested in the music when I attended that concert – I went, as a music fan first and foremost, to hear the Dead but also to check out the “scene”.  It was depressing.  As an outsider, I had developed a picture of a Dead show as a kind of hippie nirvana, a shining holdout from the glorious 60’s.  Instead, the vibe was nasty and clearly out of control.  This Highgate show was just the most obvious example of the problem.  And the worst part about all of these shenanigans is that Jerry was literally killing himself to keep the Grateful Dead on the road, not only to feed the massive army of Dead employees that needed the band for support, but because a ton of the people who showed up at these shows actually really loved the music and wanted to hear the band and he didn’t want to disappoint them.

Anyway, that’s all history now, and if you listen to this show without knowing the background, you would wonder what all of the negativity surrounding Highgate is all about.  But once you know, you won’t hear the music the same way again.

Today in Grateful Dead History: June 7, 1991 – Deer Creek Music Center, Noblesville, IN

terrapinCacophony n. 1. Frequent use of discords of a harshness and relationship difficult to understand  see also 6/7/91

The Grateful Dead circa 1991 were a massive band – two guitarists, two drummers, two piano players and Phil.  They could be slightly discordant at times.  Tonight’s show at Deer Creek was one of those times, as evidenced by the above referenced cacophony that blasts us right out of the gate during Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo.  There is just too much going on here for anything to work well, but somehow the Dead pull things off without going completely off the rails.

That’s the story for the entire night.  Lots of noise, lots of Bruce Hornsby (who is turned up very high in the mix), lots of conflict.  But sometimes, the conflict breeds interesting results, like during Loser, where Jerry plays off of Bruce, or in the transition between Truckin’ and New Speedway Boogie.  However, even the relatively quiet moments get the Wall of Sound (Phil Spector version) treatment, for instance, Standing on the Moon, which is solid but burdened with a lot of extra background notes.

This isn’t to say that this is a “bad” show.  But the mix of instruments never really works and we’re left with a somewhat muddy evening of good Dead tunes.  Perhaps if Bruce wasn’t so loud, I wouldn’t complain about this so much, but that’s what we’ve got.

Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: June 5, 1993 – Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ

giantsstealieI went out on a limb and chose a hometown show from 1993 over what looked to be better options from 1980, 1970 and most definitely 1969 and was rewarded with the live debut of Easy Answers.

I’m only half kidding.  Easy Answers is pretty terrible, both here in its first incarnation and in each of the subsequent 43 versions.   To make things worse, the band drops this premiere right in the middle of what sounds like an OK version of The Music Never Stopped.  As in, as soon as Bob Weir sings “The music never stopped”, the band plays the three note bump, bump, bah, and then we’re treated to the opening notes of a new and almost universally loathed tune. So . . . strike two.  But after the boys work their way through this ragged performance, they transition very smoothly back into The Music Never Stopped, where Jerry gets to let his frustrations out with a ripping solo as if nothing had ever happened, which is a pretty cool way of dealing with things and makes for a interesting and unique listen.

As most devoted listeners know, the Dead really began slipping in 1993 and the success of the shows seemed to depend almost entirely upon which Jerry showed up – strung out Jerry or engaged and enthused Jerry.  Well, tonight’s Jerry came to shred, which he does with unfettered abandon for almost all of the 11 minutes and 45 seconds of Fire of the Mountain, a scorching bit of playing that stacks up very nicely against a lot of the fast moving earl 80’s Fires that we all love.  But that’s not all.  Tonight’s show also boasts an above-average-for-any-era Sugaree (clocking in at over 14 minutes) and a nicely done Candy Man.   There is also an Estimated Prophet that appears with a thud after a good Crazy Fingers.  This Estimated features some good keyboard atmospherics and a mid-song, full-band crescendo of sound that wells up out of nowhere and disappears a little while later having induced a double-take.  Near the end, the band even displays some beautiful jamming out of Space and into a chugging The Other One.

In fact, as far as 1993 shows go, this one seems to be pretty darn cool, which is surprising if you read most of the comments on the Archive, which focus on the rain and one particular guy who apparently jumped off the upper deck (and survived).  Someone purporting to be the jumper actually comments on the show – he’s still all about the music!  Unfortunately, none of the audience recordings are any good and the soundboard appears to be the monitor mix, with Vince turned up really high throughout.  Still, if you’re looking for ’93 Dead, this will satisfy and more.

Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: May 31, 1992 – Sam Boyd Silver Bowl, Las Vegas, NV

stealieI’ll be honest with you, faithful readers.  I was intrigued by today’s setlist, which features Help On The Way>Slipknot!>Franklin’s Tower, Bird SongScarlet Begonias>Fire On The MountainAttics Of My Life>Spoonful>The Other One>Morning Dew (with Spoonful through Dew featuring Steve Miller, to boot) and a Baba O’Riley>Tomorrow Never Knows encore.  But I was concerned about that ’92 hanging around.  No need to worry – this show delivered the goods.

The post-Drums segment of this show, which is often the dumping ground for a Jerry ballad and some Bob Weir rockin’, is an incredible performance, starting with a lyrically and harmonically adept Attics of My Life (one of only three played in 1992).  Steve Miller then appears on the scene as the band rips into Spoonful, which sets the table for a fascinating, pulsing The Other One and a magnificent Morning Dew.  Although Miller’s contributions here (like many other guitar playing guests during these years) are hard to hear in the mix at times, he definitely charges the band, forcing Jerry to up his game tremendously, especially on Morning Dew.  The Miller-less encores, which, if you know this band’s history with Beatles and Who covers doesn’t bode well, are actually really good – the Dead’s spin on Baba O’Riley in particular is worth hearing.

It’s funny that, given the heat (Vegas at the end of May – seriously?), the boys get better as the show goes on, but that’s definitely the case today.  The beginning of the night is okay, but Jerry is having equipment issues that seriously detract from Help>Slip>Franklin’s.  The quieter trio of It Must Have Been the Roses, Queen Jane Approximately and Bird Song are the best parts of the first set, as if the band is testing the heat and not trying to exert itself too much.  The Bird Song is appropriately exploratory but nothing special.

This leads us to the start of set two (this was a long show), with Scarlet>Fire among other songs, some good, some not so much.  So Many Roads into Saint of Circumstance seems like an odd choice, but Bob makes the most of it and this is the point where you can feel the energy start to shift, leading into a delicate He’s Gone and then Drums/Space.  If you don’t have a lot of time to listen today, start with Saint and go from there to the end and you’ll have a nice 80 – 90 minutes from a pretty darn good 1992 desert show.

Today in Grateful Dead History: May 26, 1995 – Memorial Stadium, Seattle, WA

dancing-bear Two posts from 1995 in one week.  How lucky are we?

Well, with this show, pretty lucky.  It far surpasses the May 24th Memorial Stadium show and ranks pretty high up there for 1995 shows in general.  Part of this is the setlist.  While there are definitely clunkers in there (I’m looking at you, Eternity and Easy Answers), the majority of this performance is full of epic Dead songs.  And the good news is that they aren’t train wrecks, even though there are many, many lyrical issues, as there always are with 1995 Jerry.

The show busts out of the gate with Help on the Way>Slipknot>Franklin’s Tower.  While the Slipknot! passages in particular are sloppy, the Franklin’s Tower is sweet spring time music.  Skipping ahead a little, Loose Lucy (lyrics!) is fun and Don’t Ease Me In rocks as hard as 1995 Dead are going to rock.  I know this isn’t a complicated song, but it was really nice to hear the boys turn it loose and seemingly enjoy themselves, and Jerry’s guitar playing was on point and uplifting.

So, speaking of setlists, the second set opens with Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain>Playin’ in the Band>Uncle John’s Band.  I hate always having to write this when it comes to this year, but, for 1995, this is great stuff.  The jam on Playin’ in the Band is interesting, the vocals on Uncle John’s Band are not bad, and the Scarlet>Fire is fired up, although it’s nowhere near as good as some of the commentators on the Archive seem to think it is.  Still, if you are looking for a good 45 minute slice of 1995 music, you would be hard pressed to find anything better than this.

A special note about Space here (Drums appears truncated).  This is a really delicate Space and worth listening to with your eyes closed.  Don’t let the fact that it pours into Easy Answers dissuade you – give it a quiet listen and enjoy where it takes you.  Other than this, the post-Drums highlight is definitely Stella Blue, which is its usual 90’s self – long chorus (is the phrase “Stella Blue” sung over and over again a chorus?  does this song have a chorus at all?  discuss) and a pretty guitar solo, which is the best you can ask for with this classic song.

I think that we’re going to have a hard time topping this for 1995 shows, but let’s stay on the journey and see what happens.  Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: May 24, 1995 – Memorial Stadium, Seattle, WA

dancing-bear A commentator discussing my old review of the 5/29/95 Portland Meadows show called this 1995 run of Pacific Northwest performances “GOOD Dead” and I’m inclined to defer to him despite my limited sample size.  While this show is short (a 49 minute first set and an hour-ten on the back side if you take out Drums/Space), there are several interesting explorations mixed in with the usual 1995 chaos.

You would be forgiven if you shut this show off based on the perfunctory Touch of Grey opener (Jerry lyrical flubs abound) that is followed by a decent Minglewood and another lyrically messy Lazy River Road.  But stick with this show through that and you’ll be rewarded with perfectly fine versions of Me and My Uncle>Big River and a set-ending Bird Song that deviates into the far reaches of space, breaking down almost completely before somehow coming back home at the end.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is your entire first set.

The first half of the second set is the main course here, even if it might not look like much:  Iko Iko, Saint Of Circumstance, Way To Go Home, I Want To Tell You>Estimated Prophet.  1995 Jerry seemed to like the vibe of Iko Iko and his playing here is excited and engaged.  Saint of Circumstance, which always sounds weird as a stand-alone song, even through the Dead played it that way all the time after the last Lost Sailor in 1986, rips once the band gets up to speed.  From reading the comments, you’d think I Want To Tell You is a complete mess (see how I skipped Way to Go Home there?), but it’s actually all right and the crowd seems to enjoy it.

This brings us to Estimated Prophet, which is the clear show highlight and one of the better mid-90’s versions that I’ve heard.  Everything works here, from Bob’s vocals to the pretty significant mid-song shredding from Jerry and Phil.  If you listen to nothing else from this show, listen to this.

After this, things seem to go a little bit south, although Bob’s energy through I Need a Miracle is good and the boys make a valiant attempt at stretching out on Wharf Rat, which is sloppy but still pretty emotional as only that song can be.

In summation, this is not a bad 1995 night and it offers a couple of definite listens that should assuage the mid-90’s skeptics.   Have a gander at that Estimated Prophet (and maybe some of the other breadcrumbs) here – it’s a serviceable but not great AUD: