Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Deadology September 3: Englishtown and Boulder

The legendary gigs of May ’77—Boston, Cornell, Buffalo, St. Louis, Tuscaloosa, and Atlanta—were too recent to have impacted most Deadheads pouring into Raceway Park, Englishtown, New Jersey, on 9-3-77. For those who didn’t see any of those shows, or didn’t have quality taper connections, there was still a major buzz surrounding this Englishtown extravaganza featuring The New Riders of the Purple Sage and Marshall Tucker Band on the same bill. The Grateful Dead movie debuted in theatres in New York City and Los Angeles in June, and their latest studio album, Terrapin Station, was released in July.
The Summer of ’77 was a horrific and chaotic time for New York City, just forty-nine miles north of Englishtown. Serial killer Son of Sam was shooting lovers in parked cars, arsonists set Bronx buildings on fire nightly, and the infamous New York City blackout of ’77 led to a night of terrifying looting and violence. Worsening a grave situation, it was one of the hottest summers on record.
And culturally, the music scene in New York City was fragmenting as Studio 54, home of the world’s grandest disco party, opened in April ’77. Down on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the punk rock scene was raging at CBGB’s. With 150,000 Deadheads and Southern rockers descending on Englishtown, people wondered if this scene cold remain peaceful, or was an Altamont-like disaster looming.
As Raceway Park sizzled below a tenacious late-afternoon sun, John Scherr introduced the performers individually and then announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the finest band in the land, the Grateful Dead!” A polished “Promised Land” kicks off the extravaganza. The band’s in fine form, but after a three-month break from touring, they play it safe by following up with “They Love Each Other” and “Me and My Uncle.” Weir then urges the surging crowd to take a step back as the entertainers play a light-hearted shuffle. This is a game-changer. For some reason, the “Take a step back” plea is often a prelude to a transcendent masterpiece, as it is here in Englishtown. The Dead confidently advance into one of their signature gems of ‘77, “Mississippi Half-Step.” Jerry’s trembling voice merrily sings the verses, and his solos ignite a mass dancing frenzy on a track built for drag racing and funny cars. Jerry belts out the chorus one more time, “Half-step Mississippi uptown toodeloo. Hello baby I’m gone good-bye. Have a cup of rock and rye. Farewell to you old Southern skies, I’m on my way, on my way, on my way-ay-eee!” Immortality beckons.
            This instrumental revs into high gear as if it’s feeding off the acceleration and burnt rubber expended on this gnarly turf. Harnessing the abundance of energy at their command, the band slams into a quick climax, and then Keith and Jerry take a sharp left turn and charge the mountaintop again, doubling the exhilaration. Phil’s bass bubbles brilliantly between the aggressive drumming. Already, this is one of the finest pre “Rio Grande” jams. Swept away by the rapture of the music, the crowd hoots and hollers as one.
            The musicians take a moment to soak in the love of their smitten fans as they ease their way towards the bridge. Inspiration strikes the gifted hands of Mr. Keith Godchaux. He begins to twinkle a lovely melody. Garcia’s listening, and he’s pleased with what he hears. He bends his strings to mimic and play off of Keith’s notion. A sonic rainbow is forming—the aesthetic is gorgeous—cooling waterfalls—grasshoppers and butterflies in a dewy meadow. Phil’s bass rumbles like a yawning lion. Billy, Mickey, and Bob assimilate to the sublime sound and guide the jam until it hits the sweet spot. Group wisdom vetoes another rousing crescendo; it would have cheapened the allure of this masterful creation, which is unlike anything they had conjured up during any previous “Half-Step.” A monstrous audience roar fills the humid skies over Englishtown as the instrumental simmers.
            The “Rio Grande” bridge is harmonized to perfection and followed by a dazzling outro. There was a myth floating about that the Grateful Dead failed to rise to the occasion when the bright lights were shined upon them on the biggest of stages. It may have been partially true, but that myth was officially debunked during the fourth song of set one on 9-3-77. The Englishtown “Mississippi Half-Step” is that great.
            A ninety-minute BASF cassette tape of 9-3-77 Englishtown was my first bootleg tape. A few months prior to that I was blown away by Europe ’72 the first time I heard it, and I went out and acquired a bunch of Dead albums. I was a fan of the band, although I couldn’t comprehend why people worshipped Garcia until I heard the Englishtown “Half-Step” and “Eyes of the World.” They blew away the studio versions from Wake of the Flood and unlocked the secret world of the Grateful Dead. I was seventeen at the time, and I would spend the formative years of my life collecting tapes and chasing the band across America in pursuit of the next great jam. Englishtown changed lives, even if you weren’t among the 150,000 who were there.
            The other sublime performance from the opening set of 9-3-77 is “Peggy O.” The music has a lovely, hypnotic swing as Jerry serenades the faithful. And like some other versions from this year, this “Peggy O” features two sweet guitar solos. After a mellow “Friend of the Devil,” Englishtown comes alive as “Music Never Stopped” slams the set shut. It’s not an elite ’77 “Music,” but it provides a gratifying ending to an intimate presentation for an overheated horde of hippie humanity.
            As Deadheads baked between sets in Raceway Park, millions of Americans were preparing for an emotional evening of television. The final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show aired on this Sunday night. America had to kiss their somewhat wholesome girl next door goodbye. In the world of popular music, Andy Gibb’s “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” was dethroned from the top spot on the charts by The Emotions’ “Best of My Love.” And with all the great albums available in record shops, Barry Manilow Live was the bestseller of the week. For those who preferred debauchery and improvisational theatre over American fluff and puff, the Grateful Dead took the stage for act two in Englishtown.
            Bertha > Good Lovin’ gets the good times rolling again as Bobby preaches for good lovin’ in China and Russia. It’s aces back-to-back as the band smokes “Loser.” Garcia’s solo cries and moans. It’s a night of stellar Jerry tunes. You won’t find better offerings of “Peggy O” or “Loser” anywhere. Next up is Weir’s pride and joy, “Estimated Prophet,” and the stage is set for a transition into an “Eyes of the World” that would charm and bedazzle future generations of Deadheads.
The Englishtown “Eyes” features Garcia in his less-is-more mode. The musical landscape is plush as the band lands in aural paradise. Many ’77 “Eyes” come off as vehicles for virtuosity. In Englishtown, the band is wrapped in the glory of the song, and when Garcia steps out in the middle of the second solo and splits the tranquility with piercing leads, the impact on the listener is stunning—less is more.
Continuing to effortlessly display their diversity, the Dead romp through “Samson and Delilah” and glide into “He’s Gone.” Despite vocal flubs and having to replay the instrumental break because they missed the “Going where the winds don’t blow so strange” verse, it’s a fine performance. The transition into “Not Fade Away” is smooth as the Dead spend nine minutes building the anticipation for the first verse—games of cat and mouse—two steps east and two steps west, a sudden surge followed by a total retreat and the march towards “I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be.” Donna unleashes a primal scream after the first verse, setting the tone for the looming fire and fury.
            There’s a gritty, metallic grind to the instrumental that captures the vibe of the evening and the times. A massive New York/New Jersey crowd has endured a trying day of heat and overcrowding, and the Grateful Dead, aware of the fan commitment, are giving it their all. Both sides are in awe of each other. The music thunders, intense and dark, until it evolves into a crossroads where fusion, funk, and heavy metal meet.
            Out comes a whistle, and Bobby “Ringmaster” Weir blows it to ignite the first “Truckin’” in three years. The exhilaration of this breakout was magnified by this specific time and place in Dead history. Old-school Deadheads fondly embraced “Truckin’” as a gateway song to long, mind-bending jams, and the new wave of fans embraced this as the quintessential song from Skeletons in the Closet. And for historical purposes, the return of “Truckin’” was another notch of distinction for a show that was an instant classic. Weir’s in all his glory as he sings the chorus in a falsetto voice, much to the delight of the crowd. The band rips the instrumental fanfare rapid and rough, but Garcia’s sprinting on another wavelength. This is a Hall of Fame rock and roll moment. After Garcia goes berserk, Phil thumps bass leads on the road to an improvised crescendo ending.
            The exhausted crowd begs for more. Phil bellows, “All right! Woo-hoooo! All right, ladies and gentlemen, we’d like to play a little ditty from our newest album at your record stores currently.” Ah, the good old days, when we’d hustle on down to the local record shop and flip through album bins. The “little ditty” Phil is referring to is “Terrapin Station,” an eleven-minute encore. Showing no signs of weariness, Garcia calls upon the muses:
            “Inspiration move me brightly. Light the song with sense and color. Hold away despair. More than this I will not ask, faced with mysteries dark and vast.”
As they reach the final stages of the anthem, the crucial question is posed: “Terrapin, if it’s an end or beginning?” It may have been the end of a colossal concert, but for the band and their fans, it was the dawn of a new Dead era. With the mass exodus out of Raceway Park underway, thousands upon thousands of fans marched to their cars as the majestic “Terrapin” refrain echoed through the hot New Jersey night. It was an experience that any rookie or seasoned Deadhead would never forget. They would pass on tales of this day to anyone who would listen. Being at Englishtown was a badge of honor. And as the radio and audience recordings of this show multiplied, a new generation of Deadheads were born. Englishtown is a magnificent performance, as well as a defining event in the band’s mythology.
            On September 3, 1972, the Grateful Dead rolled into Boulder, Colorado, and performed a three-set show at Folsom Field that’s not as legendary as some of those before it; 7-18-72 Roosevelt Stadium and 8-27-72 Venita, and some that have followed it; 9-21-72 Philadelphia Spectrum and the three Stanley Theatre shows at the end of the month. That’s probably why I never fixated on 9-3-72 before.
Thanks to this endeavor, I’m now a devotee of 9-3-72 Boulder. The first eight tracks are available as an audience recording, and the remainder of the show is a soundboard with some audience recording patched in. The fourth through sixth slot of the opening set features dynamite versions of “Tennessee Jed,” “Black Throated Wind,” and “Birdsong.” The jam in “Birdsong” takes flight during this period in ’72. I love the way the first instrumental comes to a stop like a bird landing on a tree branch, and then soars towards the verse.
            A spunky “Mississippi Half-Step” starts the final segment of the set. The band cooks this early rendition. You can sense the song’s potential, although nobody could have imagined how great it would become by ’77. “Playin’ in the Band” kicks off the soundboard segment of the show. The “Playin’” jam excites with that unique mix of musical styles that only the Dead could blend. The quality of this performance isn’t a surprise, since they performed the greatest “Playin’” a week earlier on 8-27-72. The Folsom Field opening set concludes with a locomotive adventure courtesy of “Casey Jones.”
            Set two begins with technical difficulties and a few standalone tunes before the magic of China Cat > Rider jingle-jangles into the Boulder night. Later in the twelve-song set, there’s a fantastic He’s Gone > The Other One > Wharf Rat combo. “The Other One” merrily prances along until madness overtakes the minds of the musicians. Without losing its basic melodic structure, “The Other One” mutates into jazzy terrain—fragmented streams of consciousness—flashbacks, orgasms, and strange dreams. The unfathomable music, which seemingly is being orchestrated by heavenly forces, flows into a brief Kreutzmann solo before Phil brings it back to the beginning. Discover all there is to know and start over again. “Spanish Lady comes to me she lays on me this rose,” sings Weir after the seventeen-minute intro. Before this version is complete, thirty minutes vanish like a psychedelic dream. “Wharf Rat” and “Johnny B. Goode” lead to another break. If this were all the Grateful Dead played on 9-3-72, it would have been a gratifying show.
            Garcia’s exuberant vocals lead the charge as “Cold Rain and Snow” starts the third set. Four upbeat Dead originals ensue: “Sugar Magnolia,” “Deal,” “Jack Straw,” and “Ramble on Rose.” There were no dirges or lazy lullabies on this evening. The time was right for some “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu.” This was the fourth of five versions that the Dead would play, and Folsom Field receives a juicy presentation. Garcia’s vocal joy and his high-frequency guitar twangs make this an irresistible listen. I wish the Jerry Garcia Band would have adopted this tune. It would have fit right in with “Let it Rock,” “Money Honey,” “Mystery Train,” and “It Ain’t No Use.”
            Not Fade Away > Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad > Not Fade Away pushes this show into elite status. The transition into “NFA” and the opening instrumental is charming and worthy of an instant rewind. The Boogie Woogie Flu is pulsing through the band’s blood as they lay down an unusually funky “NFA.” Garcia’s running all stop signs and ignoring all exit ramps as he burns rubber on the second solo. This fuse is lit, and this “GDTRFB” explodes. The Dead can’t shake the Boogie Woogie Flu as they revel in an extended GDTRFB > NFA segue. It’s not as intense as the Halloween ’71 version from Columbus, but this version is indispensable. “One More Saturday Night” is the final ditty of a huge night for Boulder. 

For more on  the other shows from this essential date in GD History check out Deadology


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