Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Deadology New Years Eve Part 1

Bob Weir and friends were passing by Dana Morgan’s music shop on New Year’s Eve 1963 when they were drawn to the sound of banjo picking. They entered the shop and one of Bob’s companions knew the banjo player, Jerry Garcia. The noodling musician mentioned that he was waiting for some students to show for lessons, although he was quite content to be playing by himself. Weir and friends found some instruments and had an impromptu jam with Jerry. They discussed forming a jug band, and shortly thereafter, Weir, Garcia, and Pigpen were performing as Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. In Garcia’s wildest thoughts, he never could have imagined that he’d be performing live music with Weir almost every New Year’s Eve for the rest of his life.
In addition to all the extraordinary music created by the Grateful Dead on New Year’s Eve, this is easily the best-documented day. The band played twenty-two times on this date, out of which there are twenty existing audio recordings, and many of these shows were filmed and can be viewed on YouTube. These year-end celebrations gave the band an opportunity to deviate from the unofficial rules of how a show was constructed in the Grateful Dead Universe.
Whenever the Dead resumed touring after New Year’s Eve, a new chapter in their archive took flight. And within any given year, the shows would seem to feed off each other and the tours would get hotter as the year went on. I believe that’s why October is the best-represented month in this book. New Year’s Eve represents an ending and a beginning. For Deadheads, it was the end of a musical odyssey, and a glimpse into what may lay in store. Each year the band seemed to create a distinctive sound that couldn’t be mistaken for any other year, and it all crystalized naturally. The band never significantly changed their philosophy or approach, but the music mysteriously evolved on a yearly basis.
One could write a book solely about the Dead’s New Year’s Eve history. Being that there’s so much material to consider, I’m going to discuss just the ten best shows from this date without ranking them. Closing out their most productive decade, the Dead opened their 12-31-79 New Year’s bash with a Jack Straw > Franklin’s Tower that’s as ferocious as any one-two punch they ever opened with on any night.
The excitement of the crowd is unreal in anticipation of their heroes taking the stage. When the Dead come out, the Oakland Auditorium Arena explodes as if it’s Madison Square Garden. Go to YouTube and watch this fantastic black-and-white video! The end of the decade and the raucous environment helped fuel this stunning opening, but I’d love to know what Jerry was smoking, snorting, or ingesting on this night. Garcia’s en fuego, and the sound of his guitar is terrifying.

The amped audience is enthralled with the “Jack Straw” opener. The music thunders, although the vocals are unusually subdued. Weir sings, “You keep us on the run,” without his trademark enthusiasm, but his guitar strumming’s fierce. The combined effect of Garcia and Weir’s playing comes off like a buzz saw effortlessly mowing down a forest. The jam is dramatic as the music ricochets across the auditorium. Jerry’s scalding chord-playing is wildly imaginative as Phil’s concussive punctuation accelerates the tension. The 12-31-79 “Straw” is one of the three best from a banner year for the outlaw from Wichita. The “Straws” from 1-10-79 Nassau Coliseum and 11-6-79 Philly Spectrum are the other elite versions.
            Even after the tenacious instrumental, the return vocals are somewhat timid—an odd distinction for a smoking “Straw.” The aural tidal wave rolls into “Franklin’s Tower.” The early part of this tune has a reckless edge to it, like a car speeding down the highway in the wrong direction. There’s a substantial solo before the first verse, and then Garcia takes the next solo into a realm no “Franklin’s” has ever traveled. Weir and Lesh are huddled on the right side of the stage, almost frightened to look at, or get too close to, the Great Garcia. The jam is so ridiculous that when Garcia returns to the mic, he sings the wrong verse.
The second solo scoots along, and just when you think the music’s returning to an ordinary flow, Garcia rips it up again. And before Jerry bids this “Franklin’s” farewell, he shreds one last brilliant solo. A swarm of killer bees couldn’t be any more tenacious. This was already a great show an hour before the New Year’s Eve countdown.
Garcia savors every syllable of “Tennessee Jed,” and slices and dices an attentive solo. The eight-song set ends with Alabama Getaway > Promised Land. This early performance of “Alabama” features two extended Brent/Jerry instrumentals. In 1980, the “Alabama” jams became more predictable. The set-ending “Promised Land” is a searing thriller. Through much of the 70s “Promised Land” had been a cookie-cutter opener, but the with right momentum, it could be a satisfying closer.
At midnight, a truck slowly rolled into the arena and Bill Graham was launched above the crowd in a butterfly costume—a very entertaining spectacle—and when he landed on stage, they played his favorite song, the Dead’s New Year’s Eve standard, “Sugar Magnolia.” The balloons were dropped, and the stage was covered with un-popped balloons as the band delighted the revelers with a Sugar Magnolia > China Cat transition. After “Rider,” Garcia’s on the rampage again during “Samson and Delilah,” and even Weir pauses to look at Jerry in awe. Lost Sailor > Saint of Circumstance >Deal closes set two. A third set is on the horizon because it’s New Year’s Eve.
During the third-set opener, Garcia sings the “You know this space is getting hot” bridge twice as he peppers this neophyte version of “Althea” with fluid guitar flurries. “Uncle John’s Band” in the third slot is the highlight of this way-after-midnight set. Following a healthy rendition, Garcia digs in and noodles the “UJB” outro theme until the sun begins to rise. John Cipollina grabs an axe and joins the Dead after Drums. The ensuing “Not Fade Away” is a snoozer of superfluous length. Stella Blue > Sunshine Daydream closes the “Sugar Mag” loop, and the “Good Lovin’” encore leads the Dead into what would be a trying and triumphant decade.
Halloween in Radio City Music Hall was the end of the Dead’s legendary acoustic/electric tour. Their final acoustic/electric show was on 12-31-80, back in Oakland. I’ve fixated on this acoustic set like no other, with the possible exception of the 5-5-82 Garcia and Kahn performance at Oregon State Prison. Garcia kicks off the New Year’s Eve acoustics with “Dire Wolf,” and his next selection is “To Lay Me Down.” It doesn’t get better than that . . . or does it? The show rolls on with Reckoning tunes. The last three songs of the set are transcendent, as fine as anything The Boys have ever played acoustically.
It’s easier to get the X factor rolling in an electric set as opposed to an acoustic set. By the time they hit the eighth song, “The Race is On,” the Dead are loving this last chance to revisit their residencies in the Warfield and Radio City. Weir croons this George Jones cover and attentively portrays the heartache as Jerry’s snaps a juicy solo. Jerry and Bob are in tune with the gods of harmony as they bring it on home. Without any delay, Garcia segues “Race” into “Birdsong.” It’s pure heart and soul as Jerry sings, “All I know she sang a little while and flew on.” He sings as if he’s in touch with a realm beyond. It’s acoustic-picking paradise as the “Birdsong” instrumental chirps from branch to branch. Garcia’s golden tones ease “Birdsong” to the peak performance, “Ripple.” The Dead, and Garcia and Kahn, have played many “Ripples,” but none are fairer than the last Dead jingle of 1980. Every second of this “Ripple” comes off like a measured masterpiece. It equals, and perhaps surpasses, the majesty of the American Beauty track. This is my go-to “Ripple.” Check it out on YouTube or download it from your favorite app or site.

Set two is completed before New Year’s Eve. It begins with Alabama Getaway > Greatest Story Ever Told and ends with Lost Sailor > Saint > Deal for the second year in a row. The band’s finest work comes during a mid-set Cat > Rider. With all the combos, this set looks like a Chinese menu.
The New Year arrives and here come the balloons, thousands of them, as they play Bill Graham’s tune. The Dead hammer this “Sugar Mag.” Weir’s in his rock star glory and Garcia’s licks are connecting the dots of aural euphoria. When the jam ends, Garcia noodles exotic transition licks, the ones that make you salivate for “Begonias.” The band taps out the “Scarlet” intro like a Morse code, one hypnotic layer pulling the next one in. A groove like this could entertain people like myself for hours. The stupendous Mag > Begonias instrumental is so stunning, you almost don’t want to hear Garcia sing. But he does, and it’s a very good “Begonias.”
John Cipollina joins the band during “Fire on the Mountain.” Garcia sets aside room for him to jam during solo two, but John’s guitar is low in the mix and the momentum fizzles. The rest of the set is meek, but the stuff that was great on this night is unforgettable, timeless, and up there with the best performances from New Year’s Eve.
Well, well, well, you can never tell. The New Year’s Eve ceremonies keep getting better as we look at 12-31-81 Oakland. “Shakedown Street” opens the last show of another hectic year (officially, the show starts with Joan Baez performing a short set with the band). Jerry dazzles the crowd with his wide smile as the music slides down a funky path. The band’s not going through the motions; they’re savoring the wonder of their distinct creation. The “Shakedown” jam has a fleeting quality that’s similar to “Feel Like a Stranger.” Sometimes the inspiration flows and the jam peaks and takes on a life of its own, and other times the direction of the jam gets lost as the band fills time within the funky perimeter. Even when the “Shakedown” jam isn’t popping, the groove keeps the merry crowd dancing.
As the New Year’s Eve instrumental develops, there’s a compelling cat and mouse exchange between Brent and Jerry. And then Garcia shifts into domination mode. The beloved bearded guru is on a mission as he strings together a series of beautiful ideas in an elegant musical passage—a splendid blend of emotion and execution. The focused band creates a vacuum that draws everyone into Jerry’s universe. The escalating intensity comes off like a stellar “Hard to Handle” jam. This is one of the most engaging “Shakedowns,” and a helluva way to kick off another New Year’s Eve extravaganza.
Following Uncle > Mexicali, there’s a fine “Cold Rain and Snow.” Garcia sings brightly as the band swings hard. Jerry’s voice has that angelic gleam as he eases through “It Must Have Been the Roses.” Bobby handled the return of most of the Pigpen classics to the rotation, but at the start of this run on December 26, Jerry sang lead as the Dead played their first “Big Boss Man” since ’72. Matthew Kelly joins the New Year’s Eve festivities by joining the band on harp for “Boss Man,” the last version until they break it out again two years later on the same date. The impressive opening set of 12-31-81 closes softly with “New Minglewood Blues” and “Don’t Ease Me In.”
A few minutes before the countdown, Ken Kesey is dangling from a wire above the revelers and leading a group gong bong before Bill Graham comes in riding the rocket ship USS COLOMBIAN to the stage. There’s a Steal Your Face logo on the ship’s tail. It’s a surreal scene as Graham and Kesey are hugging during the massive balloon drop and the Grateful Dead break into “Iko Iko,” interrupting a run of five straight “Sugar Mags” to celebrate the New Year. Joan Baez joins the jubilee by adding some vibrating harmonica sounds. Once a sufficient number of balloons are popped, Garcia and mates dig in for an uplifting instrumental.

Things stabilize with “Playin’ in the Band,” and just when it sounds like Drums are forthcoming, Jerry strikes up a “Terrapin.” There’s a dreamy flow to the royal anthem as Deadheads swoon and sway. The instrumental refrain has a resounding eternal ring to it, perfect for the turning of a new year. Once again it sounds like the drummers are ready to take over, but The Boys are dishing out thrills as they decide to passionately close out the loop with a “Playin’” reprise.
On the other side of Drums, mediocrity arrives in the form of Not Fade Away > The Other One before Jerry takes over with “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad.” The second solo is a bull rush that elevates the stakes—this wheel’s bound to explode. The silky outro unwinds into the foreboding bass blast for “Morning Dew.” Oakland was blessed on this night in an era when “Dew” was still relatively rare. This is a solid version that helps build the case for 12-31-81 as an all-time classic, but you probably won’t go back to these tapes solely for “The Dew.”
The third and final GD set is launched by the first “Dark Star” in almost three years. This is also the first time “Dark Star” and “Morning Dew” have been played in the same show since 1974. This version’s fifteen minutes of unexpected bonus bliss, but “Dark Stars” after ’74 don’t have that magical celestial patience and atomic fusion of their predecessors. Regardless, everyone inside the coliseum is overjoyed. After the second verse, “Dark Star” darts into a Bertha > Good Lovin’ dance-off finale.
The marathon evening comes to an end with an “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” encore. Joan Baez is back to join Jerry for a heartfelt performance of an anthem from their mutually revered peer, Mr. Dylan. It’s a strange clash of legendary voices—the wise guru singing sweet and true against the bleeding heart/operatic wails of Baez. Their love for the song is a touching tribute to the man who wrote it. This is a one-of-a-kind “Baby Blue,” symbolic of a goodbye kiss to the end of a year and the start of a new one—Strike another match go start anew. It’s all over now, Baby Blue
                 More Deadology New Year's Eve tomorrow  


Friday, December 6, 2019

Dark Stars Over Montego Bay

                                                        Thanksgiving 2019

Vacationing in Montego Bay, Jamaica for Thanksgiving weekend, I embarked on a mind-bending musical rendezvous. I’m currently working on my new book, Deadology Vol.2, a study on the evolution of the Grateful Dead’s essential jam anthems. Since I’d be lounging around at a five-star resort with no sightseeing agenda, this was the ideal time for me to expand my research on Dark Star.

This Dark Star expedition began as I was herded through the rat maze of disorientation heading towards the security checkpoint in Newark Airport. Along the way, I passed the inspection of a bomb sniffing dog. Once through the metal detector, I resumed listening to the 9-16-72 Boston Music Hall Dark Star. After the opening verse, the band breaks into a riff that sounds like the Mission Impossible theme. And then Garcia goes on the offensive with a blistering display of electric guitar virtuosity. If you pick this up mid-stream, it resembles Jimmy Page cooking on a live Dazed and Confused. The post-verse jam is distinctive, and it will be examined in more detail in Deadology Vol. 2. From ‘71 -78, the Dead rocked many memorable performances during their fifteen shows in Boston Music Hall.

I loosened up for the early morning plane ride with a muscle relaxer and a pint of Allagash at the airport bar, and consequently I slipped in and out of consciousness during the awesome 2-27-69 Fillmore West Dark Star (Live Dead). After going through customs, checking in, and napping, I made it out to the beach for my first seaside listening session: the 2-26-73 Dark Star > Eyes from Lincoln, Nebraska. This is a deviation from the more dominant ‘72 Stars. The boundaries are pencil-thin, and the Dead improvises as a jazz band—great stuff, but not an elite version.

Watching waves splash on shore as the sun began to shine over Montego Bay, I started Thanksgiving morn with set two of 7-18-72 Roosevelt Stadium: Truckin’ > Dark Star > Comes a Time > Sugar Mag. Everybody is a star individually and collectively during this D Star. After a rippin’ Truckin jam, the energy regenerates and pulsates into Dark Star. It’s euphoria for eleven minutes and then Jerry cranks it up a notch. Garcia’s in repetition paradise with five runs, each one fiercer than the one that preceded it. This is a contender for best version ever. And then it was off to the gym for forty minutes of aerobics inspired by 11-7-71 Harding Theatre: NFA > GDTRFB > NFA, Johnny B. Goode, Uncle John’s Band.
Breakfast was followed by a Red Stripe brunch on the beach featuring the 8-27-72 Dark Star. It’s a version that somehow matches the intensity and brilliance of Roosevelt Stadium. I followed that with the Not Fade Away, Dark Star > Morning Dew from 9-10-74 Alexandria Palace, London. I have to listen to this incredible Dark Star again, but I know with certainty that the NFA and Morning Dew are elite. I continued to roast in the sun and baste myself with Red Stripe as I listened to the first set of 3-23-86 Philly Spectrum—my 100th Dead show. Oh that Gimme Some Lovin’ > Deal opener, and Candyman! The way Jerry sings “Hand me my old guitar, pass the whiskey round. Wont you tell everybody you meet that the Candyman’s in town” sent shivers up my spine once again, as it did that night.  
There were few reminders of Thanksgiving in Montego Bay, but I ducked into a sports bar to watch the Buffalo Bills embarrass the Cowboys in Dallas. Yes, this was a blessed Thanksgiving. Before heading to dinner with the fam, I returned to Roosevelt Stadium circa ‘74 and heard the undisputed greatest Eyes from 8-6-74. After a pleasant dinner in an Asian establishment without any hints of turkey meat, I concluded a Grateful day of music with a segment from 8-6-74: Sugar Magnolia > He’s Gone > Truckin’ > Other One. I love the plinko/planko chord fanning to end the Mag jam.

Friday was like any ole day in Montego Bay: 85 degrees, Caribbean winds 15 MPH, sunny skies with a few clouds for decoration, and no chance of rain. With my toes in the sand I kicked the day off with Playin in the Band and Morning Dew from 9-16-72, and revisited that immense Boston Music Hall Dark Star. Since the Dead played Montego Bay on 11-26-82, I decided to listen to the entire show on the beach. I swiftly aborted that mission after two flat songs, and after I realized the Scarlet > Fire was under twenty minutes. I’m a fan of the crisp ‘82 sound, but this was an off night. I got my head back on the right track with a Sailor > Saint > He’s Gone > Caution Jam > Spanish Jam from 5-6-81 Nassau Coliseum.
11-26-82 MONTEGO BAY
After recovering from a Red Stripe lunch with a nap, I made it  back out to the beach after sundown for the Dark Star > Sugar Magnolia from Halloween ‘71 in Columbus, Ohio. This electrifying twenty-three minute Star is a compressed amalgamation of the ‘69 and ‘72 styles. If you want to turn a non-Deadhead on to Dark Star this is the vehicle. It’s a focused rendition featuring a Tighten Up jam that magically careened through the Jamaican night. As crickets chatted back in forth in rhyme and palm trees danced in the light breeze, I closed this session out with the bombastic 10-31-71 NFA > GDTRFB .> NFA.

Saturday, my last full day in Montego Bay, commenced with the forty-four-minute Dark Star from 12-6-73 Cleveland. The methodical, hypnotic, intro is tantalizing, as calmly resounding as the waves crashing on the shore. Phil pounds out probing bass in search of life in another dimension. Time rolls on as a jazzy jam eventually splashes into Eyes. I hadn’t heard that Dark Star in years, but it was as impressive as I expected. However, I confess to not knowing this show well. I was blown away by the sixteen-minute Here Comes Sunshine, easily the best version. And the Sugar Mag is a torrid affair, similar in style to the superb Winterland version on 11-11-73. For the most part, I spent the rest of the day basking in these versions and the entire Cleveland show.
On my final morning in Jamaica, I closed out my weekend in paradise with the 4-8-72 London Dark Star > Mag > Caution > One More Saturday Night. These versions were a quantum leap from anything the band had previously done. The brilliance of the Star somehow captures the sweep of European history. Civilizations past and present rejoice. It’s a grand rhapsody, and the flamboyant transition into Sugar Mag is unparalleled.
On the plane ride home, I drifted in and out of dreamless sleep listening to the colossal 2-13-70 Dark Star. On this weekend expedition, I also heard Dark Stars from 4-22-69, 6-24-73, and 11-11-73. I still have research ahead as I prepare to write my Dark Star entry for Deadology Vol.2. But this is a start. And anytime I want to transcend back to Thanksgiving 2019 in Montego Bay, I’ll let the music of 12-6-73 take me there. One Love, one life, let’s get together and feel alright.

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