Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Eleven Elite Sugarees

Based on group synergy and aural ecstasy, I’ve ranked the best “Sugarees” from ’77 in their own group. There’s a pure executional brilliance on display as “Sugaree” emerged into a blockbuster performance in ’77.  The “Suagree” mojo appeared here and there in the years that followed, but these “Sugarees” are distinctive.
Top Five from 1977
1) 5-19-77 Fox Theatre: The fabled Fox “Sugaree,” comes on the heels of a “Promised Land” opener. There’s a slight shake to the velvety tone of Jerry’s voice. Garcia’s just walking the dog as he glides into jam one. The music’s unified, and a positive tension quickly builds. At the same time, the band’s playing it cool and bursting at the seams. Garcia’s guitar suddenly snatches a loud, soulful feeling. Somehow everyone on the stage can sense that a transcendent moment is imminent, but it won’t happen during this jam.
            Garcia croons the “You thought you was the cool fool” verse and passes the baton to Keith, who opens jam two. Sorry to interrupt Keith…here comes Jerry! Guitar licks fly as Phil rumbles, Weir strums, and the drummers bash. It’s getting intense, and suddenly, Garcia opens the door to a new realm of madness. It sounds like a million bluebirds are singing inside the funnel of a cyclone. The cohesiveness is remarkable. Garcia pulls the trigger and the band bites the bullet. If there was any means of measuring the sound, the Grateful Dead would be breaking world records for velocity and intensity. The band reaches the highest level they can, and they sustain it for as long as they can without giving an inch. The Fox roars, and Garcia sweetly sings, “You know in spite of all you gave, you still have to stand out in the pouring rain.”
            To be or not to be, that’s the question as Garcia steps in for his final licks. It begins insignificantly, as if the band might offer some nice atmospheric music before heading for an exit ramp. However, Garcia strums some choppy chords and the band is alert, aware that Jerry might go for the jugular at any moment. This jam escalates. Suddenly Garcia’s in beast mode and Billy, Mickey, Bobby, Keith, and Phil fan along on the same frenzied frequency. It’s a breathtaking sequence, and wisely, they simultaneously pull the plug to avoid coming off as overindulgent. As they reach the end of the line in synchronicity, Keith takes one last swipe at his piano, and the rebellious jam obediently drops back into the last verse. Incomparable perfection!
2) 5-28-77 Hartford: On the final stop of their legendary May tour, the Grateful Dead rampaged through a Bertha > Good Lovin’ opener. In lieu of tuning up, they segued right into “Sugaree” as if this was a holy mission. For those Deadheads in attendance who hadn’t seen the New Haven show, “Sugaree” was probably still an enchanting seven-minute song. “Sugaree” had undergone an astounding metamorphosis—a lovely tune was now a tour de force that would be worshipped evermore.
            Garcia rolls into the first solo and discovers a big, juicy note that pleases him, so he fixates on it, repeating it seven times, lovingly bending his guitar string in the same manner. It’s a beautiful moment, something that will capture your attention with every listen. Then Garcia starts racing through scales, his fingers tapping strings as if he’s Hunter Thompson pounding typewriter keys on mescaline. Chez Garcia tosses a psychedelic salad here as he effectively mixes fanning, strumming, and picking, and reins the jam in before it gets out of hand.
            Smooth piano rolls set jam two in motion. Keith’s intro’s longer than usual. When Garcia joins the fray, a wall of sound thunders—the collective will of the band guides the journey. The typical “Sugaree” funnel develops, and the band savors it as they inch forward at warped speeds. The music blurs forward, lurching and snatching simultaneously, and Garcia accents the jam with sharp hiccups and burps. This may be longer than any other “Sugaree” solo, but it’s never overstated. After the second jam, this Hartford version holds a slight edge over the one from the Fox.
            An attempt at another wild crescendo probably would have flopped, so the band eases into the third jam with some nice bass from Phil. However, Garcia’s in no mood to mail anything in. His noodling develops into a substantial solo without any fireworks, just pretty picking that’s focused. Garcia sings the final verse, and there’s a quick, climactic flourish before the final chorus—an exclamation point to the epic Hartford “Sugaree.”

3. 5-5-77 New Haven: “Sugaree” is the second song of the evening, and Garcia does his best to incite a riot. Something’s burning as the band gets pushy with the first instrumental. The solo escalates like a panic attack, and then dashes off to a fanning crescendo. This “Sugaree” is the embodiment of the powerhouse ‘77 sound—it will obliterate anything in its path.
Keith leads the way into solo two with a series of spicy piano runs. Phil’s bass bombs raise the tension as Jerry’s sharp twangs become the focal point. All lights are green—the music soars—torrents of compressed wildness are unleashed. The band rides an explosive and dangerous surge, yet they have control and power over the beast. Symphonic waves fill the coliseum. The pressure cooker jam advances logically until, stunningly, the plug is pulled, and Keith accents the moment with a brilliantly timed piano sweep. Back in the beautiful ballad Garcia sings, “You know in spite of all you gave, you still have to stand out in the pouring rain.” 
 Accomplishing all of their objectives with two blockbuster jams, the third solo is serene. Phil thuds some lead bass as soft piano and light guitar strokes gently swirl and float. 
4) 3-18-77 Winterland: There’s a whole lotta soulful picking in the first two solos. It’s compelling and satisfying, yet this never kicks in to typical “Sugaree” overdrive. Everything about the third solo’s wonderfully unique—the individual chords that Weir strikes throughout—the rich, almost comical sound of Phil’s bass—the banjo-like sounds of Jerry’s guitar as he strikes up an interesting conversation with Keith. After a gripping jazz moment, the “oom-pah” of Phil’s bass leads back to the final verse. Measured brilliance. Only in the Winterland!
5) 4-29-77 Palladium: Set two features a gripping “Sugaree” with major momentum shifts. Each succeeding solo is hotter than the one that precedes it, which makes this outstanding third solo one of the best of a legendary year for “Sugaree.”
The best of the rest
 Here are six rebellious “Sugarees.” When Garcia was in the zone, some of these jams reached and eclipsed ’77 peaks. Although, the seemingly easy group synergy of ’77 never re-emerged. I apologize to fans of ’78 and ’79 “Sugarees,” but Bob Weir’s slide guitar experimentations destroyed potentially great versions. I’m not a Weir disparager, but his slide work slashed into Garcia’s space and often killed the momentum, and made it difficult to follow Garcia’s creative advances.

1) 10-17-83 Lake Placid: Pumped to play in Olympic Center, the Dead came out blazing with “Sugaree.” Garcia seems particularly fired up as he steps into the opening solo. The next jam starts off hot, and after Jerry moves through several phases, nothing but molten lava pours out of his Tiger. The band’s doing their thing, but Garcia isn’t waiting for any cues as he breaks out the full assortment of quick-picking runs in his “Sugaree” arsenal. Garcia shifts into Beast Mode with petrified chord fanning and a sneaky/ornery run before singing, “You know in spite of all you gave. You still have to stand out in the pouring rain.”
            This would have been a great “Sugaree” even if Garcia mailed in the third solo. But Garcia was an American hero in an enchanted venue. There’s no hesitation or deception as Garcia attacks with the galloping chord > peeling onion lick motif. Garcia’s gone mad. There’s more guitar soloing in the Lake Placid “Sugaree” than any of the epic ’77 versions. The reason I give the nod of best “Sugaree” to 5-19-77 Fox Theatre or 5-28-77 Hartford is that on those occasions, the band is discovering how far they can go with “Sugaree,” blowing away any preconceived notions of the song. And the ’77 jams are crafted in a sophisticated manner where the band is improvising and clicking as one. On 10-17-83 Garcia is possessed, and clearly the most inspired musician in the band, and it’s a beautiful thing. If you place this masterpiece alongside the 10-12-83 Help > Slipknot! > Franklin’s (MSG) and the 10-14-83 Scarlet > Fire (Hartford), you’re looking at one of the special weeks in Dead history.
2) 9-6-80 Lewiston State Fairgrounds: In the city were Ali “shook up the world,” again, by knocking out Sonny Liston with a phantom punch in the first round, the Grateful Dead shook up those at the State Fairgrounds with a five-alarm “Sugaree” following an Alabama Getaway > Greatest Story opener. Jerry comes out swinging in the first solo. A substantial run is followed by the best Weir slide guitar in any “Sugaree.” Instead of clashing with Jerry, here he compliments him with a fine flourish to end jam one.
            Jam two is the end of innocence. It commences with playful ping-pong between Jerry and Brent. Garcia rips into some high voltage leads and the rout is on. It’s as intense as “Sugaree” can get. A bull stampede transitions into a Chernobyl meltdown as Phil’s seismic pounding can’t contain the madness. Jerry has one of those moments where he expands the improbable. This maybe the most impressive “Sugaree” jam. It’s definitely the scariest. The third jam is dreamy and brief.
3) 6-21-80 Anchorage, Alaska: The Anchorage “Sugaree” rumbles and rambles like the one from Lewiston. For years I’ve confused the two, yet the jam sequences are vastly different. 6-21-80 begins with “Sugaree.” A lean lyrical opening solo is followed by a spirited intro for jam two. Brent’s the catalyst and Jerry responds by stepping on the gas. There’s a gripping sweep to this segment which doesn’t overstay its welcome. High-velocity picking ignites the last jam. This “Sugaree” flows very organically, the jams materialize like a preordained rhapsody. Phil and the and the band drive the last part of jam three as Anchorage gets shaken down to the very marrow, evoking memories of the Anchorage earthquake of 1964.
4) 3-25-85 Springfield: This “Sugaree” benefited from the hot “Jack Straw” that preceded it. A determined surge permeates the first two solos, and the searing run at the end of jam two hints at Garcia’s intentions. Jerry’s scratchy voice doesn’t have much bark, but his leads inspire the as solo three ascends. Garcia breaks the jam down, but he’s just playing with the listener. His repetitive leads regenerate and charge ahead full steam. And there’s no chance this can get boring as his guitar velocity mathematically escalates with slight scale variations—skittle-skattle-squared! It’s mad dash—clinically insane—on and on, faster and faster—a stunning hypersonic collage of sound.
5) 6-17-82 New Haven Coliseum: There are several outstanding JGB “Sugarees” deserving of elite status, but I chose this one to represent the pack. The night after a legendary performance at Music Mountain, Jerry, Kahn, Seals, Kreutzmann and crew rolled into the New Haven and unloaded a major presentation of “Sugaree” to kick-off the festivities. There are JGB versions with more impressive solos, but collectively, this “Sugaree” is a masterful showcase. Garcia mixes mathematical precision with extra desire and hustle. There’s an unusual intro solo before Jerry sings the first verse, and each succeeding solo becomes hotter and longer. In each jam, Garcia reaches a logical ending point but decides to add a fiery bonus round. The congruency of this version is stunning, and the last jam unfolds like a high-flying trapeze act.
6) 4-12-82 Nassau Coliseum: Here’s to the wizardry inside a subdued “Sugaree.” This is song two of the second set. As usual, the band loosened up with the first solo, and Garcia rallied with impressive virtuosity towards the end of the second solo. To solo or not to solo? That was the question facing Garcia, and those hardcore Deadheads who obsessed over the tapes. I haven’t done any official research on the topic, but I’ll estimate that Jerry skipped playing a third solo of any substance 75 percent of the time in ’82. A two-solo “Sugaree” isn’t necessarily better than one where Garcia strikes three times, but more usually equals better with Jerry.
            Solo three materializes softly as Garcia repetitively chord-fans at a low volume against mesmerizing keyboards from Brent. There’s a sizzling/bubbling undercurrent to the sound. The rest of the band deftly mirrors Garcia as they incrementally increase volume, tempo, and intensity. This instrumental has a relaxed, masterful vibe that reminds me of the 3-18-77 Winterland “Sugaree.” As the solo rolls on, Garcia breaks out of the controlled fanning mode and delivers a resounding finale, turning this “Sugaree” into a jamming jubilee. 
Other noteworthy JGB Sugarees: 12-21-79 Keystone, Palo Alto, 2-20-80 U Mass, 2-5-81 Lehigh, 5-29-83 Bushnell
Other Noteworthy GD Sugarees: Almost all ’77 versions, 10-15-76 Shrine, 7-1-79 Seattle, 9-2-80 Rochester, 3-14-81 Hartford, 10-10-81 Bremen, 4-23-84 New Haven 


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