Friday, July 26, 2019

Deadology Brent Mydland Tribute

On the 29th anniversary of  Brent’s death, here’s a tribute  that contains excerpts from Deadology, and quick thoughts on some of his most memorable performances.

Brent’s Debut
            Brent Mydland’s tenure as Grateful Dead keyboardist began in Spartan Stadium, San Jose, on April 22, 1979. Brent was in Weir’s solo band, and he had two weeks of studio practice with the Dead before his debut. Some Deadheads have identified 1977 as the year when the group began to pursue a more conventional arena rock sound, although stamping these sonic crusaders with a label as banal as arena rockers is absurd. But the music was transforming with the times, and a more structured motif of Grateful Dead weirdness emerged.
            Mydland’s Hammond B-3 organ and superb backing vocals energized the band. During his era, there were minimal creative innovations for the Dead, and there was a limited amount of new original songs compared to the abundance of new compositions from the Keith era. Although, this had nothing to do with the change at keyboards. With the help of John Perry Barlow, Mydland contributed seven new tunes to the Dead’s last three studio efforts. However, Brent is best remembered for his live contributions during his eleven-year run, which ended with a fatal drug overdose on July 26, 1990.
            The Spartan Stadium show on 4-22-79 is a solid performance and extended workout as the band introduced Brent to standard material. They played twenty-four songs, four more than the average for the year. The biggest surprise of the night was the double encore of “U.S. Blues” followed by a crisp performance of “Shakedown Street.” The overall sound was more synthesized, but the rest of the band seemed unaffected by the change, carrying on as if it were just another show. Brent’s vocals and Hammond B-3 blended in effortlessly, although it took some Keith fans years to get used to Brent, and some were never fond of his sound at all.
            After opening set two with I Need a Miracle > Bertha > Good Lovin’, Scarlet > Fire is the hottest performance from Brent’s debut. The “Scarlet” outro fizzled prematurely into “Fire,” and it was here that Brent and Jerry bonded as the intro jam materialized. Garcia boiled, bobbed, and weaved on the swishing, cushioned mound of Brent’s organ sound. The mingling of the Mu-Tron III filter and the Hammond B-3 added an extra dimension to one of the band’s great rhythmic numbers.

Madison Square Garden 9-21-82            The transition into “Crazy Fingers” is magic, one of the coolest segues I’ve ever heard. These ’82 versions of “Crazy Fingers” are richer than the ’76 offerings, and Brent’s keyboard is an important ingredient in that mix. This instrumental intro has an abracadabra, sprinkling pixie dust aura. Garcia’s moved as he restates the opening theme. Half of the Garden is cheering, the other half is breathless in suspended anticipation. “Your rain falls like crazy fingers.” As Jerry lets Hunter’s lyrics fly, Madison Square Garden is the happiest joint in the galaxy. “Crazy Fingers” has all the ideal and idiosyncratic Grateful Dead ingredients: evocative lyrics, a fleeting and hypnotic melody, and pure Jerry on guitar. After Garcia’s melancholy between-verse solo, he starts singing the wrong word for a split second, recovers, and delivers the remaining chorus as beautifully as he’s ever sung. The almost blown lyric is a lovely mole on a gorgeous face.
            The emotion in Jerry’s voice on the last verse stops time in its tracks. “Midnight on a carousel ride. Reaching for the gold ring down inside. Never could reach. It just slips away but I try.” The outro solo rides the enchanted vibe and virtuosity, and unexpectedly dashes into “Me and My Uncle,” the most-performed Dead song of all time. “Uncle” never received a grander intro than it did on this night.
10-12-84 Augusta, Maine
            “Cold Rain and Snow” and Lost Sailor > Saint of Circumstance provide an enticing start to set two. The next revelation of listening to this show was Brent’s performance of “Don’t Need Love” in the fourth spot. It’s an original written by Brent that was played a handful of times between ’84 and ’86. I was disappointed by this selection in the moment. After revisiting the tapes, I couldn’t get “Don’t Need Love” out of my mind. The tune has a haunting, hypnotic groove, and it features some heartfelt, bluesy singing by Brent. It’s a nice mood piece that could have become a substantial song if some lyrics were added or if the band took time to work on it.
3-29-90 Nassau Coliseum Eyes of the World

A euphoric buzz filled the coliseum as Deadheads knew a young lion was on stage with the band. Stepping into the first solo, Jerry’s sound is robust and spirited and at the same time, intentionally subdued. As Branford plays in rhythm with the band, Garcia’s solo shares the genetic makeup of “Eyes” with his musical brother. Everything Branford needs to know is there: the emotions, colors, texture, and temperature of the tune. All great improvisers are keen listeners. Although Branford wasn’t familiar with “Eyes” when he stepped on stage, he absorbed the professor’s lesson.
            Without any visual or verbal cues, Garcia steps off and Branford glides in at the 3:35 mark. The next 90 seconds comprise my favorite solo by anyone not named Jerry Garcia. With the ease of Coltrane, Branford’s blowing and everyone in the Nassau Coliseum is glowing. Branford’s connecting riffs and licks in a rapturous vacuum à la Garcia in a language that any Deadhead can relish.
After scaling crescendo mountain, Deadheads roar and Jerry and Brent pick up the conversation. Jerry throws out a lead, Branford answers, and Brent pounces on that cue. Brent’s at his best here. This sublime give-and-take lasts ninety seconds, and there’s a final blast of joy from Branford right before Jerry sings, “There comes a redeemer, and he slowly too fades away.”

3-31-88 Fire on the Mountain Brendan Byrne Arena
This is an extraordinary Fire on the Mountain. The Dead had a nice run of Fires in March 1988. Check out 3-16-88. The 3-31 Brendan Byrne Fire features a spectacular first solo from Jerry. Towards the end of the solo, Jerry unleashes a lightning run, pauses, does it again with a slight variation, and after another pause, lightning strikes a third time. In solo two it's the Brent and Jerry show. Jerry starts a sentence and Brent finishes his thoughts—an advanced call and response by two musical brothers who had a special bond on stage. I could listen to the 3-31-88 Fire repeatedly without ever getting bored.

9-24-82 Syracuse Far From Me
This is the night I discovered what a great little tune Far From Me is. In Syracuse, it was an entertaining prelude to Playing > Crazy Fingers to open set two. I loved Jerry’s backing vocals and the tune always seemed to have an uplifting quality. And with the exception of its first year, 1980, Far From Me was never overplayed.

6-29-84 Cuyahoga Falls Dear Mr. Fantasy

This is the second version of Dear Mr. Fantasy, and as it materializes, it's a shared lead vocal between Jerry and Brant. Jerry’s voice was sweet but a tad timid on this night. Jerry starts off the final verse and when he hands it off to Brent, Mydland emphatically poured his soul into an outrageous vocal, and Jerry responded with a stunning guitar solo. This was the night Dear Mr. Fantasy became a Brent tune.

7-7-89 JFK Stadium Blow Away

Many Brent fans will point to this as Brent’s greatest performance, and they’re right. Brent’s intensity is off the charts. This is easily the best Blow Away. I may not love the improvised words in Brent’s rap, but the performance is so powerful and emotional that he could have been singing nonsensical lyrics and it wouldn’t have mattered. Jerry’s tasty and perfectly placed licks enhance this minor masterpiece. Pure Brent. Chilling and poignant!

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Deadology July 18: Jersey City and Frisco

Accompanied by David Bromberg, Bob Dylan was in attendance for the Dead’s three-set extravaganza on 7-18-72 in Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City. Primarily used as a Minor League ballpark since it opened in 1937, Roosevelt Stadium had a capacity of 24,000. Chicago played the first concert in this venue five days before the Dead’s debut on July 18. Right across the river from Manhattan, this stadium became a summer haven for fanatical New York City Deadheads as they had the opportunity to see their heroes play six shows there between ’72–’76. Roosevelt Stadium hosted a few championship boxing matches and fifteen home games for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but the stadium’s lasting legacy is the transcendent music performed by the Grateful Dead.
Pigpen’s final performance with the band was in the Hollywood Bowl on 6-17-72. Pigpen’s presence could never be replaced, but as the Dead moved into a new era, they had more than enough new material to fill the void. This Roosevelt Stadium appearance was their second since Pigpen’s departure. The show is off to the races with “Bertha,” and “Birdsong” soars. Garcia’s one with the universe as he sings and picks a tangy “Sugaree.”
After warm-up covers between the Hunter/Garcia compositions, Weir proudly performs one of his new gems written with John Perry Barlow, “Black-Throated Wind.” I first came across this as a filler on one of my earliest bootleg tapes. I flipped out over this version, listening to it repeatedly, not realizing it was from 7-18-72. A decade or so later, I acquired the Roosevelt show on four CDs, and when I heard “Black-Throated Wind,” I instantly knew this was the immaculate version. The tempo is scary-perfect; no other “BTW” moves along and creates this breathless anticipation. As Weir channels the first verse, the listener can stand in the narrator’s shoes and absorb “the highway, the moon, the clouds and the stars.” Weir sings the chorus with absolute conviction, bringing the song alive like a seasoned blues troubadour.
In response to “I left St. Louis, City of Blues,” Garcia’s guitar licks bleed the blues. The one blemish to this version is technical. Keith’s piano emanates a crackling sound as this verse plays out. It’s a recurring problem that’s remedied in time for set two. Weir’s passionate singing continues in verse three: “So I give you my eyes, and all of their lies. Please help them to learn as well as to see.” Keith chops away as Weir howls, “Going, going, back home that’s what I’m going to do.” Halfway through Weir’s repetitive pleas, Garcia makes a grand entrance, firing off breathtaking runs in response to Weir’s wizardry. Since I discovered the 7-18-72 “BTW,” I hoped I would find another one as gripping all the way through. There are many enjoyable renditions, but sometimes the timing’s off in places or it lacks the consistency of 7-18-72. “BTW” is a great song, but it never flowed easily like “Jack Straw.” Maybe that’s why the band dropped it from the rotation for sixteen years.
China Cat > Rider swiftly follows in the magnificent breeze of “Black-Throated Wind.” Jerry’s guitar has an ornery tone, yet there’s a mellifluous flow to the solos. With the twelfth song of the set, the band rolls out their third version of “Stella Blue.” Garcia sings Hunter’s new lyrics with a loving feeling—the words resonate. Unlike early, quick-paced versions of “Tennessee Jed” and “Wharf Rat,” “Stella Blue” rolls slow, like a soothing dream. “Casey Jones” steers the fourteen-song set to an exhilarating conclusion.
Set two commences with the debut pairing of Truckin’ > Dark Star. Roosevelt Stadium is reelin’ and rockin’ in the ragin’ “Truckin’” jam as Keith and Jerry mess around with some call-and-response. Garcia’s fixated on the simple pleasures of guitar playing, sinking his teeth into certain riffs and building them into powerful sequences using his repetitive lick-with-slight-variations motif against the band’s jackhammer groove. Simultaneously, Garcia’s conversing with himself, his bandmates, and the audience. After a reprise of the last “Truckin’” verse, a rocking crescendo suddenly collapses and pivots towards “Dark Star.” A sophisticated two-minute “Dark Star” prelude changes the ambiance of the ceremony, and then comes the signature lick that ignites the celestial exploration.
There’s a warm, embryonic flow early on as Garcia strikes with impressive runs that leave just enough open space to create that polished/hypnotic “Dark Star” vibe that they established on the European tour. But this is Dark Star Country—an outdoor gig on a hot summer’s night in front of zealous New York City Deadheads. This would be a sufficient opening jam if Jerry cut to the first verse after nine minutes. However, Garcia raises the stakes and unloads some of the hottest sustained guitar work in any “Dark Star.” The energy of the preceding “Truckin’” still burns within this jam. Garcia expands upon that earlier repetitive lick/slight variation mode as the band storms forward. Kreutzmann’s ability to sense Jerry’s intentions are essential to this masterpiece. The tension is released with the singing of the first verse after sixteen minutes. Dylan, Bromberg, and the fortunate Deadheads in attendance on 7-18-72 had never seen or heard anything like that before.
The second jam evolves into a more typical ’72 “Star” structure. Lesh and Jerry frantically manipulate their magic wands as cosmic energy swirls—minds leave bodies in Jersey City. After the psychedelic exorcism, “Dark Star” tumbles into the compassionate calm of “Comes a Time.” The four-song segment/set is closed out by the feelgood rush of a surging “Sugar Magnolia.” This timeless masterpiece of original compositions is balanced, beginning and ending with Weir’s rockers, and the Jerry tunes within go places only the Dead could dream of.
The mojo rolls on in Roosevelt Stadium during set three with a lovely “Ramble on Rose” opener. “Greatest Story Ever Told” is hot without Donna’s mid-jam screams. And then the band plays their second-ever version of “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo.” It’s a spirited performance with concise jams. “Sing Me Back Home” is delivered like a soft prayer, and Not Fade Away > Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad > Not Fade Away rocks the socks off Jersey City, blows it to smithereens. In any discussion of all-time great shows, 7-18-72 Roosevelt Stadium must be considered.
Four years later, one of the best shows of 1976 was played on this date in San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre. This show was among my first dozen tapes, and I can still recall my artistic red penmanship on the cover of that Maxell. However, over the last thirty years, I probably only heard this show a couple of times. I was sure of the tape’s excellence; however, this is a performance I really didn’t know, if that makes any sense. I was excited to put this show under the microscope for a reexamination.
“Mississippi Half-Step” starts the festivities on 7-18-76. The first significant performance is the fifth selection, “Scarlet Begonias.” There’s a danceable certainty to the groove that is anchored by Phil’s bubbling bass lines. Garcia gleefully channels Hunter’s poetic muse. The extended outro starts out serene and builds as Garcia snorkels along, a scuba diver observing a coral reef. You can sense the possibility of this taking off into something major (which it does the following year when it meets “Fire on the Mountain”). There’s a colorful, free-flowing aura to this jam. The penultimate song of the set, “Music Never Stopped,” is one the best versions in the year of its birth, when it was played frequently. A spry “Might as Well” closes the set. These versions from ’76 and the few from ’77 are the best. When the song was reintroduced into the lineup in the ‘80s, it had a cookie-cutter feel to it. Keith’s stealth piano playing was a major catalyst for “Might as Well.” loop de jour of 7-18-76 takes flight with the fifth tune of set two, “Let it Grow.” An unusual-sounding chord riff sets it in motion, and the fluid guitar work probes as “Let it Grow” lands in Drums and reprises back to the final chorus. As Garcia noodles the outro, Phil and Bobby strike up a jazz chord progression that spurs Garcia to intensify his noodling. The tantalizing jam slowly segues into “Wharf Rat.” As the band makes these transitions in ’76, some critics have noted that having two drummers made the process slower and took some of the energy out of the music. By ’77, the band was segueing in the fast lane. The profusion of distinctive styles within the same basic musical philosophy makes the Grateful Dead’s live archive eternally compelling.
A leisurely “Rat” outro fades into a drum intro for “The Other One.” This is the beginning of a St. Stephen > Not Fade Away > St. Stephen sandwich inside a majestic Other One loop: The Other One > St. Stephen > Not Fade Away > St. Stephen > The Wheel > The Other One. Swirling with a contained focus, “The Other One” merely sets the stage for “St. Stephen.” This is a rare pairing, and it’s the last time these songs were hitched. “Not Fade Away” is merely methodical inside a hot “St. Stephen.” Once again, the drummers lead the transition into an outstanding “Wheel.” In addition to reacquainting themselves with dueling drummers, the Dead were experimenting with weaving their new compositions into the mystical tapestry of their second sets.
As the rotation of “The Wheel” slows, Phil ignites a return to “The Other One.” This makes for a clean connection to a stunning “Stella Blue” with a pleasing outro, and “Sugar Magnolia” rocks the set to sleep. On the anniversary of the three-set 7-18-72 Roosevelt Stadium spectacular, the crowd ironically chants: “One more set.” The Dead encore with “Johnny B. Goode.” The 7-18-76 loop de jour earns an A+ for creativity, and an A- for performance and execution. While Deadheads experienced near perfection in the Orpheum Theatre, those watching the Montreal Summer Olympics on 7-18-76 saw Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci score the first perfect 10 from the judges in Olympic history.

For more on the other highlights from July 18, including the 1982 Crazy Fingers breakout in Ventura, and the awesome Deer Creek 1990 Morning Dew, checkout Deadology: The 33 Essential Dates of Grateful Dead History.

                                   Enjoy this July 18 Deadology YouTube Playlist


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