And here we are, the Goddamn Grateful Dead.
Without the Dead we would have no bootlegs. Without the Dead there would be no Bootleg Country. Without the Dead my musical life would be much, much different, and a lot more boring.
Talking about why I love the Grateful Dead always leaves me twisted and tongue-tied. There are all kinds of reasons why I love the Dead, but in the end I always sound like a yelping dog, howling at the moon.
The old quote goes that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Well, writing about the Grateful Dead is like doing the hokey pokey for Helen Keller. The Dead’s music is often just something you have to get. Jerry Garcia has been quoted to say:
Grateful Dead Fans are like people who like licorice. Not everyone likes licorice, but the people who like licorice REALLY like licorice.
I don’t like licorice, but I freakin’ love the Dead.
Reasons I love the Dead
The Grateful Dead wrote some sacrilegiously great songs. Jerry Garcia and his lyricist partner, Robert Hunter, are on par with Lennon/McCartney in terms of song craft. And I’d give the upper hand to Hunter for writing insightful, poetic lyrics.
Add to that a dozen or so heart palpitatingly brilliant songs by the rest of the band and you’ve got a collection of songs that rivals just about anything in rock.
Let’s go ahead and admit it, the biggest chunk of the Grateful Dead’s studio albums suck. They are either too experimental or too over-produced, but they almost always are too awful to listen to more than once. But as any Deadhead will tell you, the beauty of the Dead don’t lie in their studio work; it’s the live stuff that counts, man.
Live, the Dead were the kings of experimentation, lords of improvisation. They constantly reinvented themselves and their music. Some nights they failed. Some nights they flew into the outmost reaches of the stratosphere. Every night they laid it on the line unscripted and always interesting.
Truly, there was nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.
Listening to a crispy soundboard recording of the Dead in concert is like Nirvana (and we’re talking about the spiritual state here, not the grunge band). Lives have been changed by less.
It is as if each member is the lead performer, playing music from the heavens. Yet somehow, on some cosmic connective level they weave in and out of each other creating music that is alive and fitted together perfectly.
Stream this show at Archive.org
The first several songs of the first set are marred by interesting sound problems. During “Sugaree,” Phil Lesh’s bass is over-miked, and overshadows the rest of the instruments and vocals. This allows for a very clear understanding of how Phil used his bass as a lead instrument. He truly plays like no other bass player I’ve ever heard. He drives the rhythm and yet steps outside to move the song in different directions. His playing is immediately recognizable and often outstanding.
In the next few songs both Keith Godchaux’s keyboards and Bob Weir’s rhythm guitar get the same miking situation. Again it is completely fascinating to fully hear how the musicians play their instruments in the context of the song.
1972 is one of the peak years for the Dead. They’d been playing as a band for 7 years and have by now fine-tuned their particular brand of improvisational psychedelia. They had left behind their early days of Acid Test house band and that absolute craziness in favor of strengthened song writing and craftsmanship.
With the release of their two classic albums, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, the Dead perfect the craft of storytelling in song and shed some of the cosmic dead persona they built during their early years. This is not to say they stopped stretching the limits of what we know as music, for, as indicated here, they still extend their songs into the stratospheric surf. But the songs they use to launch this manic weirdness are better crafted, more finely tuned than what they used before.
They, by this time, have also settled into a two-set pattern. As typical of the time (and ultimately the remainder of their 30 year career) the first set is exemplified by shorter, mostly straightforward songs.
Here they don’t get close to anything out there until the sixth song of the set, "China Cat Sunflower," and even then its coupling with "I Know You Rider" is still just over 11 minutes in length. Hardly the half hour plus treatment that grouping has received in the past.
Some of my favorite moments in Deadland come from the interchanges between songs. The Dead often would squish two or more songs together without stopping for a beat between them. These transitional sequences often created some of the most beautiful, amazing music my ears have ever listened to.
Many's the time I’ve sat with my ear phones on, trying to pinpoint exactly when one song would end and the other begin. The subtle change of melody, one movement at a time, can be a moving experience.
The transition here between "China Cat" and "Rider" is less than brilliant, but it’s still early in the first set, and as all good heads know, the best is saved for the second set.
The first set climaxes with a splendid 16 minute “Playing in the Band.” They leave all comprehension of the song and enter a magic field of improvisation. Garcia spirals into another dimension while Weir prowls and chases Garcia’s lead. Lesh keeps the backbeat moving with thunderous applause from his bass and we are transported to a forgotten time and space.
The second set of a Grateful Dead concert is where the band really takes off. Typically they quickly launch into interstellar overdrive and stay there the rest of the night. Sometimes as few as five songs would be played over 2 hours of music.
On this night, they play more songs with less chaotic madness. The highlights of the set are a beautifully mournful “He’s Gone” punctuated with an ending musical coda that is as touching as it is surprising.
This leads into a version of “Truckin’” that actually makes me rethink the song and maybe even like it. From there we move into a short Drums followed by the apocalyptic “Other One.”
Phil’s bass must have set off seismographs in other counties, it’s so bombastic. It is usually a song reminiscent of God’s thunder, and here it is nothing short of cataclysmic. Playing like that is not of this world.
From there the rest of the set is a bit of a let down. The show is not one of the Dead’s best, it’s not even a highlight of their 1972 run, yet I would still highly recommend it. It’s a great show that stands just below brilliant, a height the Dead reached so often; it’s hard not to feel the twinge of disappointment when they don’t create it again.
But even a less than perfect Dead show is light years beyond what most bands, those mere mortals, ever achieve. Even with its flaws, this is an amazing couple of hours of bootlegged music.Powered by Sidelines