Monday, September 18, 2017

30th Anniversary of THE DEW in MSG

An excerpt from A Tale of Twisted Fate

Following their first two shows at Madison Square Garden, Garcia and Weir paid a visit to NBC Studios to appear on Late Night with David Letterman. Middleweight Champion Sugar Ray Leonard, who had just come out of retirement to upset Marvelous Marvin Hagler, was the other guest. It made for a nice pairing—Sugar Ray and Jerry, the comeback icons. With his sharp wit and jovial demeanor, Garcia looked good, but if you compare this appearance to his last appearance on Letterman’s show in April 1982, he appeared to have aged twenty years in just five. Weir hadn’t aged a day since 1982.
Garcia and Weir joined Letterman’s band, led by keyboardist Paul Schaffer, and played “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” I’ve always been baffled as to why Weir sang lead vocals on “Masterpiece.” He did a respectable job with it, but the Garcia Band version was much better. After some relaxed and witty conversation with the host, Weir showed Letterman an old parlor trick. Weir, Letterman, Schaffer, and Biff Henderson gathered around Garcia and gave TV land the illusion that they were lifting Garcia out of his chair—a bit of silly magic. What happened the following night in Madison Square Garden was truly miraculous.

Emotions were running high for Garcia’s first set of New York City’s performance since the coma, and the Friday night September 18 ticket was a hot commodity. The first set merrily rolled along, and after a strong version of “Birdsong,” it ended abruptly after six songs. Experienced Deadheads expected an eight- to eleven-song opening set, but shorter sets were no longer a surprise. Dead crowds were boisterous, optimistic, and appreciative on this tour, especially in New York.

On this evening, the packed house in the Garden continued to aid the band, and eventually all the emotion was returned in one of the most stunning live spectacles I’ve ever seen. As of the publication of this book, videos of 9-18-87 MSG can be found on YouTube. The show can also be found on the 80-CD box set, Thirty Trips Around the Sun, released in 2015 as part of the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary celebration. The massive box set contains one show from each of the Dead’s thirty years, and 9-18-87 MSG effectively represents a glorious year. However, if you really want to experience this show, I suggest listening to an audience tape. The audience in conjunction with the band is something to behold. 

The funky groove of “Shakedown Street” ignited set two. There was group singing, clapping, and dancing as a euphoric vibe gripped the crowd. It was a routine version, but NYC Deadheads embraced it as if it were a stairway to a new enlightenment. “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” kept the dance party flowing, and the audience was duly pumped for this popular but pedestrian tune. Weir screamed a solo chorus in falsetto that led to a resounding finish. The audience imposed its energy and will on the band and there was no turning back.

A split-second after the last “The women are smarter that’s right,” chant, Garcia strummed the chord progression of “Terrapin Station.” The aural sensation was as pure as heaven’s rain, and there was bedlam in the Garden. I was fifteen rows away, watching Garcia dig in, focused, judiciously channeling the excitement in the air. Every line meant something to almost everyone in the audience, and Jerry was the shaman, collectively getting everyone off. The ending refrain rang out like a royal rhapsody. Jerry and Brent chased each other with gleaming leads as Lesh, Weir, Hart, and Kreutzmann hammered the thunderous arrangement. “Terrapin” was excellent, but the energy in the building was absurd. You could sense something special was imminent after the Drums > Space segment.

 An ordinary “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” set the stage for “All Along the Watchtower.” This was my first “Watchtower” without Dylan, and there was a Garden roar as soon as the riff was identified. Garcia’s first solo made everybody’s hair stand on end, and Weir shrieked, “No reason to get excited!” It was at that point that I asked myself, What if they play ‘Morning Dew’? I flashed back to that time I saw my first “Morning Dew” in Philadelphia, and somehow, this moment would be bigger. After all Garcia had been through, and where the Dead were now with the success of “Touch of Grey,” did Garcia have the audacity to pull this off? The anticipation was unbearable. The thought of “Morning Dew” emerging from “Watchtower” was almost too much to bear.

 “Watchtower” fizzled into a few seconds of no man’s land. If the next song were “Black Peter,” “Sella Blue,” or “Wharf Rat”—Garcia songs that fell into that slot—it would have been a letdown, and it would have taken me a few minutes to get into it. The moment demanded the Holy Grail. Garcia had no path but the “Dew,” and he bent a warning note before striking into the sanctified anthem. To be in the thick of that audience, and to experience the collective euphoria, is the realization of the ultimate power of music, which is beyond anything from any other realm. It was as if New York was healing Garcia, and Jerry just announced that everyone had a winning lottery ticket.

Garcia delivered what we desired. He sang soulfully and spiritually, bestowing it upon his devotees like a soothing prayer. This is where the enthusiastic wisdom of New York Deadheads factored in. They knew every nuance of the song and treated it like a religious anthem, only expressing their joy in response to Jerry. You could hear a pin drop as Jerry growled, “Where have all the people gawwwwn TODAY!” And then the silence was parted by the unified approval of his followers. “Morning Dew” is an apocalyptical song of survival after a nuclear war, but hearing Garcia sing it after coming back from a near-death experience gave the anthem deeper resonance.

Phil’s bass rattled the arena as Garcia leaned forward and shredded a shrill solo. Singing from the heart of humanity, Jerry crooned: “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway” four times, each cry more sorrowful than the last, and each ensuing eruption from the audience, louder. The entire Garden was shaking from the last roar; it was as if a Knick just hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to win the NBA Championship. Usually Garcia builds his “Dew” solo deliberately, but due to the overwhelming emotional explosion, he went for the jugular—down on the lower part of the fretboard, a blizzard of notes. Standing there was surreal.

How was Garcia going to execute and extend this jam when he started with a climactic tirade? This is where the man excels, inventing pathways that never existed before. At one point he makes a circular motion with his hand as if he’s waving a magic wand, and then Garcia seemingly discovers a frequency that never existed before, the highest possible notes on the fretboard, and peels them off with speed and precision before the band joins him for the final fanning chord. The heroism is complete with a final: “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway.”

Weir cut the tension in the building, breaking into “Good Lovin’.” Halfway through the song there’s a subtle shift in the chord progression, and Garcia starts singing “La Bamba.” It was a great surprise for many on hand, although a healthy percentage of the audience knew they had done this combo for the first time a week earlier in Providence. The Grateful Dead were now featuring two top ten hits, because the Los Lobos version of “La Bamba” topped the Billboard charts a few weeks earlier. The crowd was thrilled and the band segued back into “Good Lovin’” and finished the show with a “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” encore. A Tale of Twisted Fate

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