Monday, May 13, 2019

Eleven Elite Jack Straws

Jack Straw is the ultimate American adventure—graceful lyrics depicting old-school madness from sea to shining sea. And that volatile jam—euphoric and scary. It’s pure Grateful Dead glory in less than ten minutes. Jack Straw from Syracuse is the Undisputed Champ, and below I list the top-ten contenders. Like any list of contenders, positions can change, but this champ will never be challenged. “Jack Straw” was a beloved opener, but the greatest renditions of this song came after the band was warmed up, usually later in the set. Four of these elite eleven versions are discussed in my new book, Deadology: The 33 Essential Dates of Grateful Dead History. 


Undisputed Champ 10-20-84 Syracuse Carrier Dome: After “Birdsong” lands, Garcia’s restless fingers suggest “Jack Straw.” The opening licks sound like they could slice and puncture. The budding momentum is staggering as Weir howls, “Cut down a man in cold blood, Shannon. Might as well be me…Me!!!” Bone-crunching bass blasts are met with furious guitar strumming. The essence of the Jack Straw character firmly takes hold of Weir as he venomously hollers, “One’s for sport and one’s for blood at the point of a knife! Now the die is shaken. Now the die must fall!” As the song settles into the “Fourth day of July” verse, the upcoming rampage is palpable. Anyone with an ear for the Dead knows they’re about to witness something unforgettable.
Weir ignites the final assault: “You keep us on the runnnn, RUN!” A Lesh bomb that would have collapsed a smaller venue sets Garcia on the warpath. The licks are coming fast and furious as Jerry changes flow by adjusting a few knobs without interfering with the forward thrust. This is a group exorcism as they bash away in unison—physically letting it all hang out. Compressed and controlled pandemonium fills the dome. Jerry Bond 007 blazes away and creates a new guitar language. My friends told me that Jerry leaped in the air during this jam. I think I hear the thud at the 5:47 mark. Ho, ho, ho! There’s no traditional chord fanning as the band has passed the point of no return, and somehow, Jerry keeps the mojo rollin’. Phil’s relentless bass bombs set off seismograph detectors in central New York. This could be the most explosive and primal jam in Dead history. If you pick this “Straw” up mid-stream, it doesn’t sound like the Dead—or any other band. All the anger and evil inherit in the song is unleashed, and the effect on the listeners is cathartic and euphoric as it all rolls back to the starting point: We can share the women we can share the wine.
“We’re going to take a short break. Everybody move back,” says Weir, as if he’s Jack Straw and he’s still pissed-off. The Carrier Dome, which is louder than most indoor stadiums, is deafening. I can only imagine how ecstatic I would have been if I was there. I had caught all ten shows of this tour prior to the Syracuse finale. I had to attend my brother’s Bar Mitzvah on 10-20-84. There’s nothing I love more than a crazed “Jack Straw.” Instead, I was dancing the hora and listening to the Murray Fields Band. Goddamn it! I should have been there. With all the hard traveling and touring I put in, I earned that Syracuse “Straw.”

1)    8-30-80 Philly Spectrum: Here’s another Straw that closes an opening set, and it comes on the heels of Garcia’s hottest guitar solo ever in an “Althea.” Searing intensity bubbles throughout as Garcia wheels from segment to segment with brazing attitude and conviction. Extra effort dances with perfection as the band sticks a thunderous chord fanning finale. And the rowdy Philly diehards push the band beyond the brink.
2)    10-19-80 Saenger Theatre: This was the ninth anniversary of the first performance of “Jack Straw,” and the Dead delivered a definitive “Straw” to commemorate the occasion. It’s hard to believe that anyone in the band was aware of this historical tidbit, yet some force propelled this improvisational blitzkrieg. A successful “Straw” jam has two parts of varying length: the creative lead flow from Jerry, and the finale, where the band hammers a dramatic chord progression. Garcia and the Boys steamroll both parts more than sufficiently in New Orleans, and as Weir is about to sing “Jack Straw from Wichita cut his buddy down,” Garcia’s fingers slide south, uncorking a series of shrieking notes that redirects the jam. Ideas flow as he adds another paragraph to the musical narrative. For “Straw” fanatics, this is a must listen.
3)    12-31-79 Oakland: The New Year’s Eve revelers are 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. Straw segues into an equally unhinged “Franklin’s Tower.”
4)    11-6-79 Philly Spectrum: In the next to last slot of the opening set and in front of their Philly devotees, the Grateful Dead tear up the “Straw” jam. Garcia’s garrulous guitar gobbling is consistent as Phil’s bass blasts disorientate. These fall ’79 soundboards are phenomenal, you can clearly hear the fantastic playing of everyone in the band. Within this jam all contributions are vital and impressive. After Garcia unloads a connected series of quick-picking runs, Mickey, Billy, and Phil pound a foundation for the chord fanning crescendo. Weir and Garcia are strumming madly—it’s a frantic dance and a deadly duel, and Brent’s hanging in, chopping away at his organ is if his existence depends on it. The power of the jam is terrifying, and when the Dead return to the serenity of the final refrain, “We can share the women, we can share the wine,” the crowd’s roar can be heard clearly through the soundboard. 
5)    4-4-85 Providence Civic Center: A fiery Alabama Getaway sparks a frenzied “Straw” in the second spot. There’s extra length in the opening solo, and Jerry continues his piercing barrage in the alpha jam. Here again, usual placement benefits “Jack Straw.”
6)    1-11-79 Nassau Coliseum: There a bit of sloppiness and Weir cuts Jerry off too soon, but Garcia unloads an unprecedented quick-picking run that’s relentless—roman candles shooting across the Uniondale night—sonic waves hotter than Kung-Pao chicken. This “Straw” was the next to last number of the opening set.
7)    9-9-87 Providence Civic Center…Providence inspires another standout “Straw” in the two-hole after a “Hey Pocky Way” opener. The jam consistently gets hotter in digestible chunks until Garcia steps into overdrive. As it goes on and on, Jerry seems to toy with his devotees—this is what you love—I know how to push the buttons.
8)    3-25-85 Springfield Civic Center: The Dead came out as if they had a score to settle in Springfield. Like the 4-4-85 Providence “Straw,” the opening solo is extended. Solo two could ignite a barroom brawl in a peaceful space. Weir’s slamming the whammy bar and Garcia’s slicing and dicing. It’s a frenetic workout that sets the table for a bombastic “Sugaree.”
9)    4-6-87 Brendan Byrne Arena: Weir sets the aggressive jam in motion by howling, “You keep us on the run, -uh-un!” With collective aggression the band slams down a thunderous chord that rattles the walls and halls. A volatile outburst from Garcia is matched by tenacious input from Brent and the drummers, yet the tapestry is wonderfully weaved. The playing is very intense, and the jam reaches an early climax. The over ambitious crowd roars, the band is giving them everything as expected, and then Garcia extends the jam with a blistering run, unlike anything heard before in “Jack Straw.” All the Garcia aficionados howl in approval. Ironically, this twenty second segment starts at the 4:06 mark of “Jack Straw.” The rest of the band is moved and Bobby, Phil, and Brent take turns mimicking Jerry’s aggression as best they can. Garcia finishes the jam off with a chord fanning crescendo. We can share the women we can share the wine! And thanks to the tapes, we can share the spontaneous genius of Garcia and the Dead. This also was the next to last song of the opening set.
10)    4-14-82 Glens Falls: The band started late. Weir announced that “certain members of the rhythm section didn’t make it here on time.”  The “Jack Straw” opener more than makes up for the Drummer tardiness. The urgency in this “Straw” jam is unbelievable. It’s not long, but if a jam can start off as a ten, and maintain that breathless intensity throughout, then this is the one. Phil is blasting as Bob and Jerry strum madly. The music’s a demonic release—the percussionists are forgiven. The instrumental is at the same time elegant, and as subtle as a ballpeen hammer to the skull.
And you also might want to explore these “Straws:”
10-11-83 MSG… 11-6-77 Binghamton… 8-23-87 Calaveras County Fairgrounds…7-24-87 Oakland…9-2-78 Giants Stadium…Springfield 1-15-79…10-31-80 Radio City… 11-9-79 Buffalo 


Unknown said...

Yes, great list and review. Fierce Bones!!

Unknown said...

Halfway through the yourselves a favor pick this up...


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