Tuesday, May 7, 2019

May 7: Billy's Birthday Bickershaw, and the Boston Half Step


            No one venue from the Europe ’72 tour has been hailed as an immortal shrine, but the venues, cities, and festivals have a collective mystical ring, as if they were carefully selected like words in a poem: Wembley Pool, Beat Club, Musichalle, Strand Lyceum; Newcastle, Bremen, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Rotterdam; Bickershaw. The Dead performed at the Bickershaw Festival on Billy Kreutzmann’s 26th birthday. Bickershaw, a tiny mining village near Wigan, England, hosted this three-day festival that featured a variety of musical acts including, The Kinks, Dr. John, Donovan, and the New Riders of the Purple Sage. The festival organizers scheduled this for the driest part of the season, but Mother Nature had other plans. The weekend was a foggy, rainy washout, and the area in front of the stage became a muddy swamp by the time the Grateful Dead came out to play on Sunday, May 7. 

            “Truckin’” and “Sugaree” launch 5-7-72 Bickershaw with striking confidence. Pigpen follows with “Mr. Charlie,” his first of six lead vocal performances. There’s a nasty bite to Garcia’s solo. This is my favorite “Mr. Charlie,” and perhaps it was too rowdy to be included on Europe ’72. Even simpler songs like “Beat it on Down the Line” burn with restless hunger.
            After “Chinatown Shuffle,” the band leads festival-goers in a “Happy Birthday” sing-along for Billy before busting into “China Cat.” The jam between Cat > Rider is offbeat, jazzy, and delivered with chutzpah. “Playin’ in the Band” is the pride and joy of this fourteen-song opening set. The jam lurches forward and sideways at the same time—geysers explode into the sky, escape through the ozone, and land back in the mud of Bickershaw. The swelling sound touches off vigorous physical and mental exercises—an amalgamation of outrageous creativity, energy, and group virtuosity, for exactly ten minutes. In temperature, texture, and tone, this “Playin’” reminds me of the revered 8-27-72 Venita version, except Venita’s twice as long. Pigpen’s marathon interpretation of “Good Lovin’” leads to a “Casey Jones” pleasure ride to conclude a bloody good first set.
            There was no backing down in set two as the Dead unleashed a “Greatest Story Ever Told” opener. Donna screams early in the jam as Garcia slices and dices and Phil clomps away like a racehorse coming down the stretch. Guitar licks scream and squeal in a steady stream as Jerry waits for Donna to scream some more. What possessed this savage performance on a chilly, soggy Sunday in Bickershaw? “Greatest Story” was followed by a trilogy of Grateful Americana: “Big Boss Man,” “Ramble on Rose,” and “Jack Straw.” “Rose” and “Jack” sparkle like the versions on Europe ’72.
            Playing for soaked English folk in a foggy haze, the Dead transcended atmospheric conditions by launching “Dark Star.” The voyage is smooth and soothing, a peaceful place in space. It could have literally been raining cats and dogs and nobody would have noticed due to the hypnotic potency of the music. It’s a steady sweep of sound that could have rolled on indefinitely. There’s a tantalizing guitar soliloquy before Garcia chimes in with the first verse, and then “Dark Star” tumbles into Drums.
            It turns out that “Dark Star” is merely a glorious prelude for “The Other One.” This is the only time that “D Star” and “The Other One” appear together in the same show in Europe. While “Dark Star” has that floating-through-space feel, “The Other One” blasts off like an atomic slingshot. It has the edgy energy of a ’69 “Other One”; the primal power is there, but in Bickershaw, the band masterfully manipulates the raging beast for ten minutes until Weir sings, “Spanish lady comes to me she lays on me this rose.” Then comes the weirdness.
            Methodic noodling wraps around Phil’s reverberating bass lines as the second “Other One” jam spins into heavy space—mind-left-body/Tiger territory. This is what it must be like to float in a tin can far above the world. At the twenty-five-minute mark, Garcia leads reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere with an intense jam that has “Dark Star” overtones. A few minutes later, Phil redirects the jam back to “The Other One,” and it’s more heated than earlier. “Escaping through the lily fields I came across an empty space,” sings Weir, ending a balanced spherical masterpiece.
            Those fans standing in the muddy field of the diminutive mining village of Bickershaw must have been stunned and stoned silly. Jerry croons “Sing Me Back Home” so everyone could collect their minds and rest their bodies prior to the fiery conclusion. Switching genres like Masters of the Universe, the Dead crunch “Sugar Magnolia,” everything from Weir’s fiery singing to the raging instrumental excels. “Turn on Your Lovelight” ensues after a false start caused by an equipment glitch. There are many long “Lovelights” with amazing Pigpen raps, but I love the blazing propulsion of this concise thirteen-minute romp. Kreutzmann’s drumming and Jerry’s butter-hits-frying-pan leads are guaranteed to satisfy. Garcia hits more notes per minute in this “Lovelight” than any other.
            “Lovelight” sounds like it might be bound for “Caution” until it veers into “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad.” Jerry and company are smoking and shredding the second solo, causing Donna to voice her approval with two shrieking rounds of “Yeah-yahah-Yahh” that in turn inspires another torrid run from Jerry. Noodling the outro jam, the Dead decided that a “Not Fade Away” reprise would be the perfect ending, even though they hadn’t played the song yet. Every instinct followed is a blessing in Bickersahw. “One More Saturday Night” is the thrilling encore. Yes, once upon a time, “OMSN” was irresistibly attractive. Bickershaw 5-7-72 is a noble giant in the thick of this fabled tour. 



On May 7, 1977, Bill Kreutzmann’s 31st birthday, the Grateful Dead played the Boston Garden, the legendary basketball home to the Boston Celtics, by far the most successful NBA team. The Dead’s show on 5-7-77 went on to became legendary, due in part to its relationship to the venerated Cornell show the following night. Some Deadheads feel that the Boston show, and/or the 5-9-77 Buffalo gig, are better than Cornell. I disagree with that line of logic, but we can all agree that the band was creating timeless music that will be forever cherished during this three-night stand.
Equipment issues plague the early part of the Boston show. As the Dead overcome these nuisances, it’s obvious the band is gaining momentum during spirited renditions of “Bertha,” “Cassidy,” and “Peggy O.” Before the Boston barrage that would ensure this show’s fame, Weir wishes Billy Kreutzmann a happy birthday, and jokingly warns the ladies that, “Billy likes to nail things.”
            On the seventh day of May 77, during the seventh song of the opening set, the Grateful Dead scale new heights as they perform their finest version of “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” to date. A bubbling, optimistic tone permeates Jerry’s singing, and the between-verse instrumentals are crisp warmups for the jam that will lead them to the Rio Grande. Keith’s dreamy synthesized twinkling sets a surreal mood as Garcia takes flight and Phil mixes rattling blasts with stealth carpet bombing. Jerry’s licks pile on top of each other, forming a euphoric wall of sound. It’s an intense musical paragraph, and the drummers accent it with a staccato flourish, upon which Jerry extends the moment by raising the pitch and intensity of his playing until it deflates and simmers into the exquisitely sung bridge: “Across the Rio Grande-ee-oh, across the lazy river.”
            A piercing “Half-Step” outro flows into “Big River.” The opening riffs are juiced; the music rumbles and roars. The beat’s irresistible—big country—a toe-tapping hoedown. Half-Step > Big River is a perfect match musically, lyrically, and geographically. This “Big River” is a great listen, but if you want to explore the best version of the year, try 5-9-77 Buffalo. A full-bodied “Tennessee Jed” completes the Old Weird America segment of this set—Grateful Dead mojo at its best; folklore meets boundless improvisation.
            “Music Never Stopped” fireworks appropriately close this set. The band flexes their instrumental muscle—twelve years of consistent live experimentation in varied settings and altered states of mind has its benefits. They drive home the last jam under the leadership of Garcia like a disciplined Navy SEAL unit. Everybody knows how to react to Jerry’s every whim within the framework of the song. One doesn’t have to be a sophisticated listener to ride the Dead train on this night. The group synergy is undeniable. And gig after gig throughout April and May 77, the band is able to build on what they did the night before as if this is an ongoing series that’s being scrutinized. The outstanding 5-5-77 New Haven “Music” is topped by the Boston “Music,” and then the 5-9-77 Buffalo “Music” improbably tops the Boston one. 

There's an abundance of sublime music from this day including, a free concert in Golden Gate Park on 5-7-69,  and a colossal show the following year in M.I.T. One could make a spectacular box set from this day in Dead history alone. Lokk at this!

May 7 Box Set 
May 7
Disc One Acoustic
I Know You Rider 5-7-70 Dupont Gymnasium M.I.T.
Friend of the Devil 5-7-70 Dupont Gymnasium M.I.T.
Deep Elem Blues 5-7-70 Dupont Gymnasium M.I.T.
Candyman 5-7-70 Dupont Gymnasium M.I.T.
Cumberland Blues 5-7-70 Dupont Gymnasium M.I.T.
New Speedway Boogie 5-7-70 Dupont Gymnasium M.I.T.
Uncle John’s Band 5-7-70 Dupont Gymnasium M.I.T.
On the Road Again 5-7-81 NBC Studio Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder
Dire Wolf 5-7-81 NBC Studio Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder
Deep Elem Blues 5-7-81 NBC Studio Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder
Cassidy 5-7-81 NBC Studio Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder

Disc Two
Iko Iko 5-7-89 Frost Amphitheatre
Jack Straw 5-7-78 RPI Fieldhouse
Me and My Uncle 5-7-69 Golden Gate Park
Cat > Rider 5-7-72 Bickershaw Festival
Mr. Charlie 5-7-72 Bickershaw Festival
Althea 5-7-80 Barton Hall Cornell
Black-Throated Wind 5-7-72 Bickershaw Festival
Peggy O 5-7-79 Alan Kirby Field House Lafayette, PA

Passenger 5-7-79 Alan Kirby Field House Lafayette, PA

Disc Three
Mississippi Half Step > Big River 5-7-77 Boston Garden
Tennessee Jed 5-7-77 Boston Garden
Music Never Stopped 5-7-77 Boston Garden
Birdsong 5-7-84 Hult Center
Playin’ in the Band 5-7-72 Bickershaw Festival
Good Lovin 5-7-72 Bickershaw Festival
Casey Jones 5-7-72 Bickershaw Festival

Disc Four
Shakedown Street 5-7-79 Alan Kirby Field House Lafayette, PA
Greatest Story Ever Told 5-7-72 Bickershaw
Terrapin Station 5-7-77 Boston Garden
Easy Wind 5-7-70 Dupont Gymnasium M.I.T.
Cosmic Charlie 5-7-70 Dupont Gymnasium M.I.T.

Turn On Your Lovelight > St. Stephen jam > Darkness Jam > China Cat > Jam > Lovelight 5-7-70 Dupont Gymnasium M.I.T.

Disc Five
Bertha 5-7-80 Barton Hall, Cornell
Big Boss Man 5-7-72 Bickershaw Festival
Ramble On Rose 5-7-72 Bickershaw Festival

Dark Star > Drums > The Other One 5-7-72 Bickershaw Festival

Disc Six
Estimated Prophet 5-7-77 Boston Garden
Eyes of the World 5-7-77 Boston Garden
Scarlet > Fire 5-7-78 RPI Field House
Sugar Magnolia 5-7-72 Bickershaw Festival

More on May and the other essential dates of Grateful dead History in Deadology

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