Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Deadology April 21

            Before dissecting the hottest “Hard to Handle” known to man, let’s rejoice in more Europe ’72. After playing Tivoli on 4-17, the band’s next scheduled gig was 4-24 in Dusseldorf, West Germany. During their brief break, the band filmed a performance at a studio in Bremen, West Germany, for the Beat Club TV show. Following a soundcheck, during which they performed “Loser” and “Black Throated Wind,” the band was introduced, and they proceeded to play for eighty-three minutes. Out of this dynamic set of music, only “One More Saturday Night” was aired on the Beat Club. Five decades later, the entire Beat Club video was shown in select theatres nationwide at the 4th annual Grateful Dead Meet-Up at the Movies in 2013. The video of this show was never officially released as a DVD, but the show can be viewed on YouTube (as of publication of this book).

            Jerry appears like a loveable bear in a black leather jacket as the band starts their set with “Bertha.” Garcia’s bushy black beard is neatly groomed, and his demeaner is stoic. A slow-moving tie-dye/psychedelic backdrop glides across the screen as the band jams. The closeups of the Dead are superb. As “Playin’ in the Band,” begins, Donna joins the festivities. One of the highlights of this video is watching Jerry unload early in “Playin’” as Donna softly sways. Donna looks amazed by the guitar virtuosity of The Bearded One. Pigpen’s vocals are powerful during an excellent presentation of “Mr. Charlie.”
The Grateful Dead had difficulty capturing the X factor in recording studios throughout the years. On this occasion in Bremen, they were essentially performing a concert without a live audience, and the results were fabulous. Fifteen years later, the Dead successfully used this format of setting up as if they were performing live when they recorded In the Dark.
            A lively “One More Saturday Night” is followed by a second serving of “Playin’ in the Band.” Redundancy is not an issue here as the band doles out another wild and wicked round of improvisation. The performance ends with Truckin’ > Drums > Other One. Phil’s blasts ignite a brilliant twenty-three-minute “Other One.” Garcia’s shrieking leads blaze a trail through a path of pounding bass detonations. The jam dissolves, reorganizes, and strengthens before Weir sings, “Spanish lady comes to me she lays on me this rose.” Between verses there’s an aural inferno before the jam dissolves into a dreamlike state, drifting in and out of consciousness—time out of mind terrain. With a subtle shifting of tempo, the jamming becomes more furious than before—Garcia’s searing leads spiral round and round in a tight blizzard of sound. “Escaping through the lily fields I came across an empty space,” howls Weir. On this day, Apollo 16 landed on the lunar highlands of the moon. All this cosmic improv captures the flavor of the day.
Back in Bremen, the Grateful Dead’s allotted studio time is almost done. Instead of an abrupt ending, the band noodles on as they resist the temptation of breaking into a new tune before improvising a climactic instrumental fanfare.
            April 21, 1971, was the first of twenty Grateful Dead shows in Providence, and the only one in the Rhode Island Auditorium. The other nineteen shows were in the Providence Civic Center, opened in ’72. Just like New York City and Philadelphia, the smaller Northeastern municipality of Providence brought the beast out of the Dead. A simple introduction, “Here’s the Grateful Dead,” is followed by an exhilarating dash through “Casey Jones.” If you ever need to remind yourself of why this is a cherished anthem, listen to this version. The pacing is perfect, and the band savors every nuance of the composition. Romping down the homestretch, Garcia sounds like wrestler Ric Flair: “Driving that train high on cocaine. Whoo! Casey Jones you better watch your speed.”

            In the middle of the set a Truckin’ > Drums > Other One > Wharf Rat combo sets the stage for improbable theatre. “Hard to Handle” was dropped into the right spot. The Dead are sufficiently warmed up, and they are feeding off the vibe of playing in this hockey rink. Pig delivers a potent vocal with a rap that doesn’t drag on too long. Lesh lays down a beat, and at the same time plays lead bass. Weir and Garcia strike up a soulful groove as Jerry latches onto a few riffs that he likes and will utilize later.
The jam becomes urgent around the 6:10 mark as the ascension to greatness commences. Garcia and Lesh are on the same frequency and they’re finishing each other’s ideas. Garcia’s en fuego, yet he’s holding back, building towards a sensational finale, and the rest of the band senses it. Bobby, Billy, and Phil break down the jam so Garcia could scale Mt. Everest. Jerry charges past the mountaintop and shoots towards the stars. The jam is as hot as can be, and then Garcia invents licks on a frequency that never existed before. It’s that ability to open doors where they logically don’t exist that separates Garcia from other guitar legends.
             There would only be fourteen more “Handles” with Pigpen, and from that batch, I’d rate 7-2-71 (Filmore West) and 8-6-71 (Hollywood Palladium) as the top challengers to the undisputed champ, Providence. Phil’s bass rattles the 4-21-71 “Handle” to its conclusion, and a few seconds later, he leads his mates into an infectious romp through “Cumberland Blues.” This tape is a must listen for Phil fanatics. “Birdsong” and a moving “Me and Bobby McGee” conclude this fulfilling set.
            The second set is charming, brief, and a preview of the band’s new direction. Hippie sweat dripped as Providence bounced to “Bertha” and “Sugar Magnolia.” NFA > GDTRFB > NFA ended a rocking set. It was the best performance of that combo to date, but it pales in comparison to the versions later in the year when Keith joined the Dead. The double encore of Uncle John’s Band > Johnny B. Goode was especially pleasing for those named John.
            During their first show in the Ark in Boston on 4-21-69, we can hear the roots of the segue connecting “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” and the “Not Fade Away” reprise emerging from the jam in “Alligator.” The band toys with this riff for several minutes as they connect “Alligator” to the last song of the opening set, “Doin’ That Rag.” The first set of 4-21-69 looks attractive, but the band’s performance wasn’t up to par with the high standard they set in April ’69. Set two was better, but this show is not as hot as the previously discussed second night in The Ark.

            A three-minute “Foxy Lady” jam kicks off the 4-21-69 second set. It’s an interesting, one-time-only instrumental, and a prelude to another gleaming presentation of Dark Star > St. Stephen > The Eleven > Lovelight. Perhaps the finest performance of the night was the “Viola Lee Blues” encore. There’s a jovial tone to the big jam early on, and after substantial virtuosity from all, Phil leads the band into a cascading avalanche of sound—a fantastic conclusion for pioneers revolutionizing the concept of live music.
            This day in Deadology also gives us the Dead’s second performance of Warren Zevon’s
“Werewolves of London.” On 4-21-78, a day before “Werewolves” entered the American top 40 charts, the Dead encored with “Werewolves” in the Rupp Center in Lexington, Kentucky. It was a blast for the musicians to perform and the audience to hear, but the band never found a way to explore “Werewolves” and make it a worthwhile keeper in the rotation. Playing in the legendary basketball arena for the Kentucky Wildcats, Garcia and mates unleashed an intricate, funky, and superb jam in “Music Never Stopped” to end the opening set. However, it was another ’78 show where the band performed well yet seemed disinterested in set creativity or playing long.
            One of the pitfalls of having fans record every note of your music isn’t the off nights—those are to be expected—but the dreaded embarrassing moments, which were few and far between for the Grateful Dead, which is remarkable considering they performed consistently for the better part of thirty years. On April 21, 1986, in the Berkeley Community Theatre, Brent Mydland had an unfortunate meltdown in the second set.
            A brisk dash through “Mississippi Half-Step” opens 4-21-86. It seemed like the driving force behind this performance was finishing it in under seven minutes. Remarkably, this “Half-Step” clocks in at 6:56. Still a pleasurable tune to hear, “Half-Step” was a shell of the masterpiece it was in the ’70s. Although, “Half-Step” had a nice resurgence in 1988, thanks to some impressive outro solos courtesy of Señor Garcia. On paper, the opening set looks good, with selections like “Cumberland Blues,” “Desolation Row,” and “Ramble on Rose.” However, the playing is sloppy, and the main culprit is Brent. His keyboards are too loud in the mix, and his playing clashes with Jerry. The set-ending “Let it Grow” becomes a Brent showcase for the first time. His licks are pretty good, but he steps all over Jerry, and consequently, the performance suffers.
            An uneventful “Eyes of the World” is the third song of set two. Jerry, Phil, and Bobby leave the stage for the Drums > Space segment, but like a drunk who won’t leave the bar, inebriated Brent keeps twinkling the keys. He stepped over most of Jerry’s solos, so it makes sense that he would blow up the drummer’s showcase.
             Brent introduced his new composition, “Maybe You Know,” in Burlington, Vermont, on 4-13-83. It was a bluesy tune with impassioned singing that was played five times on that tour. And like most Brent tunes from that era, it was promptly dismissed from the rotation. On 4-21-86 in the Berkeley Theatre, it sounds like Brent’s loosely approaching that song. Several minutes of fiddling around prevented the drummers from taking off on their destination, so Brent starts playing and singing “Maybe You Know” without the rest of the band on the stage. His voice is filled with despair and rage, and the drummers aren’t sure how to accompany this booze-induced emotional breakdown. The music comes to an odd pause. The crowd is too stunned to encourage Brent. Out of the lull Brent vents again, his tormented soul screams, “Maybe you know how I’M FUCKING FEELING! But maybe to you it don’t seem so real!” The song continues to drone on, yet there’s no way to get this back on track. Jerry, Bobby, and Phil return and immediately launch into “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad.”
            Trying to salvage the show, the band segues into “Morning Dew.” Jerry sings with deep feeling, and the final solo is good, but Brent pounds his B3 with too much force during the climactic finish. “Around and Around” is followed by a surprise “Not Fade Away.” It was a nice rally by the band, but the Brent breakdown overshadowed any musical developments.
            Between basketball and hockey, the Philadelphia Spectrum was booked solid in April of ’84, so the Grateful Dead played three shows in the Philadelphia Civic Center. I attended all three shows and was in the second row, right in front of Jerry on the second night, 4-20-84. Garcia appeared unhealthy and immobile, but this was the show of the tour. The song selections and performances were outstanding, despite Garcia’s ailing voice. The Scarlet > Fire is brilliant as Jerry methodically and creatively jams in every solo and segue. And a hot “Morning Dew” was played towards the end of the set. The last night in Philly was bound to be a little bit of a letdown for fanatics like myself who rightfully take this stuff seriously.
            I wasn’t thrilled with 4-21-84 as it was happening, and probably never listened to the tape more than once. On rediscovery, I enjoyed potent versions of the first three tunes: Alabama Getaway > Promised Land and “Friend of the Devil.” The middle part of the set was bogged down in mediocrity until the final jam of the set in “Deal.” Garcia poked and pecked this way and that way, velocity streamed side by side with creativity as he dealt a winning hand with the nonchalant accuracy of a Vegas blackjack dealer.

            Philadelphia received all the desired, big-time, second set combo openers. On 4-19, China Cat > I Know You Rider started the journey; on 4-20, it was Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain, and 4-21 featured Help on the Way > Slipknot! > Franklin’s Tower. Garcia and mates tap into the uplifting spirit of Hunter’s lyrics and roll the good times into a relentless “Slipknot!” Unlike the dark “Slipknot!” ambush on 4-17-84 in Niagara Falls Convention Center, this Garcia foray boils smoothly. I suggest checking out the extremely powerful Niagara Falls “Slipknot!”
The congruency continues in Philly with an attentive “Franklin’ s Tower.” After returning this beloved Blues for Allah trifecta to the rotation in ’83, just about every version in ’84 is desirable.
            Set two carried on with Playin’ > China Doll. Jerry’s achy voice butchered this version, robbing the poignant lullaby of its potency. After Drums > Space, the Dead beat a hasty and lazy retreat with Wharf Rat > Throwing Stones > Not Fade Away. “Throwing Stones” was a new Weir tune that hit a nerve, captured a real political fear in the air, and it was morphing into a better song tour by tour. “Not Fade Away” was a complete commercial copout. Garcia’s jams didn’t offer much, and the whole exercise seemed simply designed to lead the crowd into a “Not Fade Away” chant. As much as the band was encouraging crowd anticipation, they were taking the road of least resistance. “Not Fade Away” was once a tremendous jam anthem. Now it was nothing more than a dog and pony show. The year 1984 had its share of frustrations, as well as exclamation points. It’s all part of the improbable and mythological history of the Grateful Dead. 


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