Friday, February 28, 2020

Deadology: February 28

                                                       FEBRUARY 28
            Robert Hunter, bard extraordinaire, was officially a non-performing member of the Grateful Dead, and rightfully inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the band. Hunter recorded several of his own albums, but he never really came across as a live performer. His most famous live performance came on February 28, 1980, when he was invited on stage to perform a pair of tunes with the Jerry Garcia Band. This date also gives a stunning Garcia and Kahn performance from 1986. Both Garcia shows were recorded and officially released. To further bolster the mystique of this date, the Grateful Dead played four quality shows, and two of them were officially released.

            The early show of 2-28-80 Kean College begins with a blazing “Sugaree.” This Jerry Garcia Band configuration was a quartet consisting of Garcia, Kahn, Ozzie Ahlers (keyboards), and Johnny de Fonseca (drums). With a seating capacity of 953 and dynamic acoustics, Kean College’s Wilkins Theatre was a dynamic venue for experiencing the Jerry Garcia Band, who also played there in ’82 and ’83. Excellent versions of “Catfish John” and “That’s What Love Will Make You Do” followed, making for a potent opening sequence. A melodic and hypnotic “Simple Twist of Fate” gave the audience a chance to catch their collective breath. Jerry’s singing and guitar playing were fabulous on this night, and on most nights during February 1980. Adding to the allure of this show, the triple CD release of 2-28-80, After Midnight, is a dynamic live recording, one of the best of the Garcia catalog.
            “How Sweet It Is” precedes the early show’s royal rhapsody, a set-ending After Midnight > Eleanor Rigby > After Midnight. The first part of this trifecta is solid, and “Rigby” is perfection personified. Garcia first played “Rigby” on 1-20-80, although it was more of a suggestive tease than a well-developed instrumental. There are seven versions of “Rigby,” and they were all sandwiched between “After Midnight,” with the last performance coming on 3-7-80. The timing and execution of the melody line is exquisite at Kean College. I’ve never heard any jazz group play this poplar Beatles cover better, and many have tried. John Kahn was a jazz buff, and he must have been standing tall as the Jerry Garcia Band channeled the sadness and compassion of “Rigby.”
            “Rigby” was a surgical strike. Garcia eases his way back into the “After Midnight” reprise and sings the last verse softly, and then the urgency of the final jam builds steadily. The gloves are off and civility is out of the question as Garcia unloads. It’s a furious assault, as hard-hitting as JGB gets. The band logically moves to end the triumphant jam, but Garcia wants more. He rolls through the roadblock and opens a door to a new crescendo that smashes the previous one. His creative vision is unbelievable. The 2-17-80 version of this combo has more freewheeling jamming throughout, but this Kean version is crisper, and the last solo is rock and roll royalty.

            Garcia opens the late show singing his mantra, “I’ll take a melody and see what I can do about it. I’ll take a simple C, to G, and feel brand new about it.” Jerry and friends take the jam through the time-tested JGB motif: Two verses > Garcia explores > jam boils > keyboards > funky chord progression > guitar fireworks > final verse. The ensuing “Tore Up” received the same treatment, and you’d have to listen to many tapes to find hotter versions of either tune. Usually early and late JGB shows will have different feels, like first and second sets from a Dead show, but on 2-28-80 in Wilkins Theatre, there’s unflappable congruency between the early and late shows. It’s as if the Garcia Band never took a break, and the ambiance of the music never shifted.
            Following a thorough exploration of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come,” Garcia called Robert Hunter on stage for a couple of tunes. Halfway through this tour, Jerry invited Hunter to come along and open for JGB with an acoustic set. At the previous show in Providence on 2-26, Hunter joined JGB on stage for the first time and played the same two songs he would play at Kean College, “Tiger Rose” and “Promontory Rider.” The two-stepping do-si-do beat of “Tiger Rose” is juiced by a lively Garcia solo, and “Promontory Rider” comes off like a Rolling Stones song. Hunter, who’s not much of a vocalist, sounds Dylanesque, and these two songs are a welcome contribution on a classic JGB album. Stellar versions of “Mission in the Rain” and “Midnight Moonlight” close out Garcia’s Kean College debut.

            In 1986, Garcia and Kahn reconvened for an acoustic gig in front of 2,000 fans at the Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium on February 28, and the performance was released decades later as volume eight in the Pure Jerry series. This is a standalone acoustic performance, not part of a tour, but it comes on the heels of a Garcia/Kahn acoustic swing on the East Coast in January. For an official release, this is not a top-notch recording like the Kean College show, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying this excellent performance. Listening to the standard “Deep Elem Blues” opener, the meaty sound of Garcia’s guitar playing is noticeable. There’s a sharp twang to his fluid leads, and there’s a chunkier rhythm filling out the sound than in past tours. Jerry’s guitar picking had improved since his initial acoustic tours with Kahn in ’82, although his voice sounded better back then.
            This Garcia/Kahn presentation is gripping. The songs dwell in Old Weird America terrain—a mix of traditional folk tunes with Hunter/Garcia originals. “Friend of the Devil,” “Run for the Roses,” and “Dire Wolf” coexist beautifully with “Little Sadie,” “Spike Driver Blues,” “Jack A Roe,” and “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie.” In the middle of it all is Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” How did Jerry let Bobby sing this with the Dead? Nobody sings “Masterpiece” with proper reverence and emotion like Garcia. This was one of the last times Jerry sang it live.
            Garcia played two six-song sets on 2-28-86. “Birdsong,” the tenth number on this night, burns like few acoustic performances can. Garcia’s voice is off; he can’t seem to align with the tender spirit of the tune. The acoustic jamming is bumpy yet fulfilling. Garcia tries an assortment of different licks and melodies as Kahn’s bass thumps support and challenge Garcia’s ideas—a tangled tapestry of acoustic adventure. To the delight of everyone in the auditorium, “Ripple” follows “Birdsong.” This isn’t a great version. Garcia sang this better with the Dead backing him.
            Lo and behold, “Ripple” segues into “Goodnight Irene,” and Jerry’s crooning like a bluebird. Jerry salivates over every phrase; he loves the language and catchiness of this Leadbelly song that The Weavers converted into a number one hit in 1950. Americans were humming and whistling “Goodnight Irene” as the song remained in the top spot on the charts for thirteen weeks. I was flabbergasted when I first heard the 2-28-86 “Goodnight Irene” on the Grateful Dead Channel on Sirius Radio. Jerry’s snapping strings bounce off swinging old-school bass. For three solos, the poignancy of the jam matches Garcia’s gushing vocal delivery. This is the definitive “Goodnight Irene,” and probably the longest. After hearing this on Sirius, I immediately acquired this edition of the Pure Jerry series.

            While we’re on the topic of officially released material, the Dead’s show from the Salt Palace, Salt Lake City, on 2-28-73, is featured alongside the show from 2-26-73 on Dick’s Picks Volume 28. The Salt Palace affair opens with a gorgeous “Cold Rain and Snow,” and set one concludes with “Jack Straw.” There’s a snappy “They Love Each Other” in the second slot. These ’73 renditions are more compelling than the tempered ’76 remake of “They Love Each Other.” It’s a pleasurable set, yet it was short by ’73 standards, and the band saved their longer jam numbers for later.
            Salt Palace receives a blazing China Cat > Rider after intermission as Garcia shifts into overdrive following the fanfare licks of “Cat.” Billy’s drumming is unbelievable as a rock/jazz flow emerges. The band bolts through “Rider” with a ton of attitude. With the addition of the “Feeling Groovy” jam later in the year, Cat > Riders continued to confound and expand. After the Dead’s improbable highs of ’72, their avenues of fresh artistic expression continued to multiply. Following “Big River” and “Row Jimmy,” the Dead canonize 2-28-73 with a historic medley.
            The grand Salt Lake jam develops out of a spiraling “Truckin’” instrumental. Keith leads the charge, galloping along with an aggressive rhythmic piano sequence. Without overstating the jam, Jerry, Bobby, and Keith give way for a Phil solo with sparse accompaniment from Billy. From there, the band blasts into “The Other One.” The music surges and recedes as the band restates the theme several times before Weir, almost reluctantly, steps up to sing “Spanish lady comes to me she lays on me this rose.” Garcia dominates the remaining seven minutes. There’s a blazing mind-left-body feel to this operation, and when the flame dims, the band glides into “Eyes of the World.”
            The 3-28-73 “Eyes” begins to click after the second verse. The majestic new Garcia/Hunter creation is evolving into something special, and at seventeen minutes, this is the longest and best-developed outro jam of the early renditions. Later in the year and throughout ’74, the Dead turned the outro into a joyful expedition executed precisely and giftwrapped with a danceable groove.
            Out of the ashes of “Eyes,” the band eases into “Morning Dew.” The drama intensifies as the performance takes on the tone of a sacred service. Billy’s drumming syncs with Jerry’s subtle changes of pace in the middle solo. The ending jam starts off in a subdued whisper, and instead of methodical building, Garcia jumps into the apex chord fanning early. There’s a strong finish to this distinctive “Dew,” but it lacks the length and substance of an elite version. 

            “Sugar Magnolia” completes the set with a raging rush. Garcia plays cat and mouse by himself as he bends odd-sounding notes and chases them with sneaky, quick-picking runs. The nuance of his playing against the band’s powerful propulsion is masterful. This is the only time these songs were lined up together: Truckin’ > The Other One > Eyes of the World > Morning Dew > Sugar Magnolia. After the historic segment, the band walked away from their instruments and returned for an encore, blessing the crowd with a rare “We Bid You Goodnight” sing-along. 

For more on Feb 28 including a classic Fillmore West '69 show and Family Dog '70, check out Deadology, the 33 Essential Dates of Grateful Dead history

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