On this day of American independence, it’s not surprising that the greatest American band, the one that marched to its own beat and opened the boundaries of live music, had several revolutionary performances that matched the spirit of the celebration. Their first July 4 bash features the band at an early creative peak in Chicago’s Electric Theatre on 7-4-69. It would be twelve years before the Dead played again on July 4. Garcia’s band, Legion of Mary, celebrated July 4 with a sensational show in San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall in 1975. However, the most heroic July 4 performance from Jerry was in Buffalo’s Rich Stadium, when the Grateful Dead opened for Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
On a whim, I took a plane from Newark International to Buffalo the night before the big show on 7-4-86. The Dead and Dylan alternated opening and closing on this tour. The Dead kicked the Buffalo festivities off with the all-American classic “Jack Straw.” Jerry was picking away nicely when Bobby abruptly cut him off. The show rebounds nicely with “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” in the two-hole. And then this six-song set slides south, ending with “Brother Esau” and “Touch of Grey.”
It’s been documented that Garcia was dealing with an abscessed tooth and suffering from dehydration on this brutally hot summer tour. Three days after the final show of this tour in RFK Stadium, Garcia lapsed into a diabetic coma. I’ve seen several heroic moments from Garcia through the years. What he did in Buffalo before Drums in set two was miraculous.
Odd weather near the end of intermission cast a surreal atmosphere over set two. Ominous clouds appeared and briefly splattered thick raindrops upon us. The rain suddenly stopped as skies darkened and howling winds swept over Rich Stadium. On cue, the Dead opened with “Cold Rain and Snow.” Jerry was wearing a red t-shirt as he bopped to the beat and his gray mane billowed in the chilly gusts. Supernatural energy was pouring in from Lake Erie and Garcia channeled it.
Paying tribute to the fickle Buffalo weather, Garcia charged into an up-tempo “Fire on the Mountain.” It was the first time I’d seen “Fire” without “Scarlet,” and it was impossibly exhilarating. I can’t say the same for the first time I saw “Scarlet” segue into something besides “Fire.” In the middle of the second solo of the 7-4-86 “Fire,” Jerry strikes some petrified leads and then finds a way to turn it up a notch. As I shuffled in Buffalo, I was stunned by the outburst, and knew Garcia wasn’t finished. Garcia sang the last verse with certainty and picked up right where he left off in solo two—searing/slashing notes followed by a climactic run. And then Jerry changes direction, and puts the lid on the boiling pot. KABAM! The jam explodes—lava flows as our hero takes this where no “Fire” goes. There’s a One More Saturday Night > Fire on the Mountain from 7-13-85 that’s equally as compelling as the Buffalo Cold Rain > Fire. The Ventura “Fire” is brilliantly crafted and leisurely paced. The Buffalo “Fire” is pure combustion, desire, and hustle.
“Samson and Delilah” feeds off the whirlpool of energy hovering over Rich Stadium—extra effort in every solo. Cold Rain > Fire > Samson is followed by another outstanding three-song combo. As the band begins to spin “The Wheel,” Phil welcomes “Farm Aid TV” and Weir says, “America is at its backbone an agrarian nation. Let’s keep it turning.” This three-song segment was simulcast on the second Farm Aid, a benefit to help American farmers. The benefit concert came about thanks to an offhand remark from Bob Dylan about helping American farmers at Live Aid. The tone of Garcia’s guitar is rich as Lesh and Weir make their comments. The Boys step up their game and execute flawlessly as “The Wheel” rolls into “I Need a Miracle.”
Weir sings “Miracle” assertively, as if every line is an essential revelation for mankind. The timing and tempo of the song, and the explosiveness of the jam, is right on. The only thing that would keep me from ranking this the best “Miracle” is the lack of a powerful outro jam, which was typically absent during this period. But for a TV audience tuning in to watch the Dead on Farm Aid, this was a perfect rock-and-roll moment, and it climaxes with a smooth transition into “Uncle John’s Band.” Jerry nails every line and Bobby and Brent harmonize in unity as Buffalo sings along. Garcia’s solos blister and the tone of his guitar is glorious. There’s no mis-steps, hiccups, or sour notes during this telecast. When the cameras are turned off, the Dead tank after Drums.
This is another situation where the Dead debunk the myth that they blow “The Big Ones.” The Cold Rain > Fire > Samson may have been the most heated jam of the year. And then the televised Wheel > Miracle > Uncle John’s Band is as perfectly crisp as the Grateful Dead can sound. As ill and dehydrated as Garcia was at the time, this segment is truly heroic, and the last great jam before the coma. The combination of sensational jamming early in the set and the exhilarating song execution has made this show one of my favorite listens.
Star-spangled Dead highlights were created on July 4, but Garcia’s best Independence Day performance came with Legion of Mary on 7-4-75 in the Great American Music Hall. The second set of this show starts with the finest cover of one of Dylan’s most underrated tunes, “Tough Mama.” From Garcia’s earliest gigs with Merl Saunders and John Kahn, covering Dylan songs such as “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” and “Positively 4th Street” became one of Jerry’s beautiful obsessions. At the end of ’74, Dylan released his seminal work, Blood on the Tracks, and from that album, the Jerry Garcia Band would cover the first two tracks, “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate.” Earlier in ’74, Dylan released Planet Waves, an album that went to number one on the charts. Despite the commercial success of Planet Waves, the critical praise for Blood on the Tracks made people forget about Planet Waves. Garcia adored Planet Waves. JGB would cover “Forever Young” years later, and Jerry’s current configuration was performing “Going, Going, Gone,” and of course, “Tough Mama.”
In addition to Saunders and Kahn, this Legion of Mary configuration included Martin Fierro (sax and flute) and Ron Tutt (drums). In two days, Legion of Mary would play their last gig. On 7-4-75 they are peaking as a band, comfortable as ever in their collective skin. The Legionnaires sound self-assured and loose as they launch “Tough Mama” to open set two. Every sax note is perfectly pitched and placed. Garcia is smitten with Dylan’s brazen language as he croons:
Tough mama, meat shaking on your bones.
I’m going, going down to the river and get you a stone
Papa’s on the highway, that steel driving crew
Sister’s in the big house, her working days are through
Tough mama, can I blow a little smoke on you?
On Planet Waves Dylan sings “Tough Mama” with all the sexual swagger he could muster, and The Band backs Dylan with a bronco-busting arrangement. Garcia picks up on that Wild, Wild West vibe as he takes “Tough Mama” for a ride. Blazing through the opening passage, Garcia’s axe whips up a dust storm. Ron Tutt, who formerly toured with Elvis, lays down intricate drum fills, ensuring happy trails for Garcia. The synchronicity of the band is stunning. At times Legion of Mary was longwinded, and Fierro’s sax shrieked too much, but the second and third instrumentals, featuring Saunders and Fierro, respectively, flow with the certainty of an ancient river. Before delivering the knockout blow, Garcia sings:
A day in the countryside was hotter than a crotch
I stood alone upon a ridge and all I did was watch
Tough mama, must be time to carve another notch
Dylan’s lyric is, “Sweet goddess, must be time to carve another notch.” Lyrical accuracy be damned, because Garcia’s riding “Tough Mama” in his own sweet style. This last jam storms out of the gate, and the momentum spirals from there. Garcia’s phrasing is accented by sharp tones and rapid-fire licks. After three euphoric melody loops, Garcia has executed a masterful solo, but inexplicably, he adds another round, and in doing so, he challenges himself to play something more climactic than before. And as he pulls off the impossible crescendo, the normally chill Frisco crowd goes berserk. The roar’s clearly audible on the soundboard recording. The Great American Music Hall explodes like Madison Square Garden.
Enthusiasm surges through the final verse. Garcia’s voice tingles, “I ain’t hauling any of my lambs to the marketplace anymore.” A tasty guitar flourish follows—“beedle-bee, beedle-bee, beedle-boo.” Garcia: “Prison walls are tumbling down, there ain’t no end in sight. I gained some recognition but I lost my appetite. Tough Mama, meet me at the border late tonight.” Jerry fires away; the promise of another solo is in the air, as crazy as it may seem, and then it’s suddenly aborted. The band pulls the plug with jaw-dropping precision.
A decade after Garcia’s death, Rhino Records released Legion of Mary, a double CD of performances from various shows. It’s a pleasing collection that reflects favorably upon the Legion of Mary stint. The 7-4-75 “Tough Mama” is the opening track of this compilation, and it’s my all-time favorite Dylan cover.
Legion of Mary’s set lists didn’t gel as smoothly as they did in other Garcia configurations. “Little Sunflower,” a lovely jazz tune penned by legendary trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, follows “Tough Mama.” Garcia whittles away early on, establishing a Wes Montgomery-like groove as Kahn counters with coy bass runs. It’s an easy listen with a Sunday brunch at the bistro feel, but there’s a complete disconnect from the intensity of “Tough Mama.” After Saunders does his thing, Fierro takes over and thus “Little Sunflower” becomes a more potent sleep aid than a double dose of Ambien.
“Every Word You Say,” the fourth selection of the second set, is a tune that I can usually skip, but on this night, Garcia’s sculpting masterpieces. Sensitive singing and bubbly vocal inflections roll from Jerry on this Jesse Winchester love ballad. Musically, this song resembles the Grateful Dead’s “It Must Have Been the Roses,” except Garcia infuses the 7-4-75 “Every Word You Say” with a pair of penetrating solos. Solo two is manic, almost reaching the earlier majesty of “Tough Mama.” Once again, those gathered in the Great American Music Hall erupt in awe of the Great Garcia.
Legion of Mary opens this 4th of July show with a bang, playing King Floyd’s “I Feel Like Dynamite.” Saunders’ prime-time performance is an ideal way to ignite the Independence Day revelry. Tutt’s staggered drumming imbues “Dynamite” with a funky New Orleans flavor. Later in the set, Garcia and Saunders keep the funk flowing as they cover Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie on Reggae Women.” Merl was a phenomenal musical soulmate who helped Garcia explore new music, but his baritone/monotone singing didn’t enhance these tunes.
Legion of Mary lifts the music to higher ground with the third number of the night, “That’s All Right Mama.” Kahn opens with a bluesy bass riff similar to the one he plays in “That’s What Love Will Make You Do.” The band displays their diversity on three distinctive instrumentals that explore elements of blues, jazz, and rock. The pace isn’t as relentless as most “That’s All Right Mama” assaults, but the flawless musical navigation is special. If you crave a blistering guitar solo, the third one is wicked—another sublime flash of inspiration from Garcia on Independence Day.
On the heels of “That’s All Right Mama” comes a “Mississippi Moon” that’s as mellow as it gets. The music actually ceases for five seconds before Jerry belts out the chorus—complete silence! It’s a lovely lullaby that only a Garcia enthusiast could enjoy. Don’t try turning your heavy metal friends on to this one. “Mississippi Moon” went through a successful metamorphosis in the early ’80s when Garcia added a fetching chord riff that made the arrangement more substantial. One of the biggest differences between the Grateful Dead and Garcia Band was how the songs progressed through the years. A lot of Grateful Dead numbers like “Tennessee Jed” and “Wharf Rat” became slower and slower, and seemed to decay from indifference. On the other hand, most JGB jingles were on the rise as the band stormed through the early ’80s.
This swirling, shifting magpie of Americana (7-4-75) also features steady versions of the JGB classics “Tore Up Over You” and “The Harder They Come.” One of Garcia’s finest vocal presentations of the night is on the first encore, “It’s Too Late.” A blues ballad from Jerry’s wonder years, “It’s Too Late” was written and performed by Chuck Willis. Most classic rock fans discovered “It’s Too Late” on Derek & the Dominoes’ Layla and other Assorted Love Songs, where it’s sensationally sandwiched between “Little Wing” and “Layla.” Garcia sings this one with all the heartache he can bear to summon. This Independence Day experiment in the Great American Music Hall lives as an artistic testament to the grand improviser, the storyteller from the streets of San Francisco, one of the last authentic Western heroes, Jerry Garcia.
Here’s the other July 4 music extravaganzas explored in Deadology: The 33 Essential Dates of Grateful Dead History: 7-4-69 Chicago, 7-4-81 Houston, 7-4-84, Cedar Rapids, 7-4-87 Sullivan Stadium (first Dylan/Dead show), 7-4-89 Buffalo, 7-4-90 Bonner Springs
Enjoy my YouTube July 4 playlist