Saturday, May 11, 2019

May 11 Deadology

            During one of the last great stands of his career, Pigpen sang lead vocals on eight tunes in the Civic Arena in Rotterdam, Netherlands, on 5-11-72. Ron McKernan, who would perform with the Dead for the last time two months later, belted out “Mr. Charlie,” “Chinatown Shuffle,” “It Hurts Me Too,” “Good Lovin’” (with Garcia on organ), “The Stranger (Two Souls in Communion),” “Next Time You See Me,” and Caution > Who Do You Love.
Rotterdam is introduced to a state of immediate disorientation with the “Playin’ in the Band” opener. The Grateful Dead were smitten with the Netherlands; the liberal attitudes of the citizenry, and those who governed them. They rocked Amsterdam the night before, and now they would mesmerize Rotterdam with four hours of advanced song and dance. From “Playin’” to “Casey Jones,” the fifteen-song opening set was stocked with the usual Europe ’72 suspects: “Sugaree,” “Mr. Charlie,” China Cat > Rider, “Brown-Eyed Women,” “Jack Straw.”
            After not being played since 8-6-71, a stretch of fifty-nine shows, “Morning Dew” kicked off set two in Rotterdam. This was Keith’s first “Dew” with the band, and Jerry’s voice warmly embraces its return. There’s effective spacing as the jam glides forth—Jerry’s turning up the heat in sync with Keith and Bobby’s rhythmic playing. They’re on the path to a stellar rendition when the momentum suddenly bottoms out and Jerry sings, “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway.” Garcia then announces that Bobby had to change a string. That explains the sudden crash. Few, if anybody, in Rotterdam, knew that was the first “Dew” in fifty-nine shows. Those who knew the tune were probably only familiar with the version from the band’s eponymous first album. The Grateful Dead had an uncanny ability to be in the moment as they seemingly played for a future audience.

            “The Stranger (Two Souls in Communion),” Pigpen’s poignant blues composition, appears as song number three in the second set. From Pig’s moving vocals to Jerry’s screeching solo and Donna and the band’s supportive harmonies, this is a remarkable performance. I’m surprised that one of these Europe ’72 versions of “The Stranger” didn’t make it onto the album. A swinging “Tennessee Jed” and “Next Time You See Me” are prelude to another presentation of transcendent masterpiece theatre.
            Snapping strings sing over twinkling keys and rattling percussion as another “Dark Star” probe ascends. The moody and truculent jam surges as Jerry noodles. The band’s deep in “Dark Star” motif, yet there’s no move towards the opening verse. Fourteen minutes of jazzy mischief leads to a Kreutzmann drum solo. This is a forty-seven-minute “Dark Star,” with thirty minutes still left after Billy’s solo. Phil leads the band back into the fray, and Jerry crafts a run of gorgeous melody lines before he sings.

            The band moves into a heavy space. The veracity and velocity of Lesh and Garcia’s playing is off the charts. How much psychedelic intensity can an audience endure? This was a sonic Acid Test on Rotterdam. This is an epic adventure with relentless effort—perhaps more notes than Garcia had ever poured into any one song, if there was a way to measure that. Eventually, this needs to resolve into another song. “Truckin’” and “Caution” are teased before they bull rush into “Sugar Magnolia.” What a joyous release this is! “Sugar Magnolia” dazzles as it continues to blossom with each outing. This rapturous Rotterdam segment concludes with Caution > Who Do You Love, both appearing for the last time. Pigpen’s days with the Dead were almost numbered. It’s a phenomenal final “Caution,” and Pigpen’s best show of the year. 

Five years after Rotterdam, the Grateful Dead pulled into St. Paul Civic Center, on the heels of the legendary shows in Boston, Cornell, and Buffalo. A bit of a falloff was inevitable, but in any other month or year, 5-11-77 would be royalty. There was a “Big River” in the fourth spot for the locals: “I met her accidentally in St. Paul, Minnesota.” This is a charming first set with fine renditions of “Jack Straw,” Peggy O,” “Ramble On Rose,” and Lazy Lightning > Supplication. The thirteen-song affair concludes with a “Sugaree” stampede. Garcia strikes early in solo one with shrieking leads that promise a major adventure ahead. And Jerry delivers as he shakes all the fruit from the “Sugaree” tree. This is a masterpiece in a mine shaft of May gold. The “Sugarees” to come in Atlanta and Hartford before the month is over are the ones that thrive in Grateful Dead immortality.
            Scarlet > Fire appears after three standalone numbers in set two. This combo was last played in Cornell, and as hard as the band digs in, the majesty of 5-8-77 is unapproachable. Garcia fills both “Scarlet” jams with hotshot picking on this more than adequate version. However, if you’re intimate with Cornell, you know what St. Paul lacks. Every note of the Cornell Scarlet > Fire is perfectly placed. The beat in St. Paul is slightly off; Jerry’s tasty picking isn’t as hypnotic, Donna’s improv doesn’t fall into the right spot, and no final “Fire” jam would ever come close to Cornell.
In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on 5-17-77, there’s a masterful Scarlet > Fire, the second-best of the year. It wasn’t until late in ’78, when a third verse was added to “Fire,” that this duo stepped up to a new level. By 1979, there were versions that surpassed Cornell in length, and the intensity was there, but they never had the gushing excellence of Cornell. The other impressive Garcia combo from 5-11-77 is an Uncle John’s Band > Jerry Space > Wharf Rat nugget—absolutely hypnotic.

            The following year the Dead chuckled, howled, and tripped their way through a show in the Springfield Civic Center on 5-11-78, a gig preserved as Dick’s Picks Vol. 25. According to various reports, the band experimented with potent mescaline sulfate for the show. After graduating from the Acid Tests, the Grateful Dead liberally indulged in a cornucopia of mind-bending intoxicants, yet it’s rare when they played a show where fans can conclude that they were peaking on psychedelics strictly based on their singing. This is the exception.
            Jerry’s emphatic vocals during the “Cold Rain and Snow” opener are a telltale sign of what was in store for Springfield. The mescaline rave gives us a tape of crazy group vocal embellishing, but the actual music suffers as the band can’t seem to convert the energy into extended and worthwhile instrumental creativity. Outside of the hysterical group singing at the end of “Fire,” the Scarlet > Fire is functional at best. Jerry delivers some primal lead guitar during “Dancin’ in the Street,” but the group races forth, unable to play off or build upon musical ideas. Donna, Jerry, and Bobby yelp and yodel through the sing-along finale.
            After Drums there’s a searing “Stella Blue” outro. On another night, Jerry may have developed it more patiently, although this is still impressive. “Werewolves of London” was the perfect encore for this night. Jerry attentively delivers the first two verses in a coy and restrained manner. The beasts are unleashed as the band growls and roars the final chorus, and Phil grunts a few rounds: “Ah-hoooo! Werewolves of London.” Phil adds, “Thank you, thank you, thank you…a thank you a very much and a goodnight.” Deadheads refused to leave, and their heroes rewarded them with “Johnny B. Goode.”
            There’s more commentary on other shows from this essential date in Deadology.

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