Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Deadology: April 8

As compelling and innovative as Grateful Dead shows were, the routine could become predictable, for both the band and hardcore fans, although songs were rarely repeated at consecutive concerts. Certain tunes fit in certain slots, and if you followed the Dead for a few years, the process could seem mechanical at times. I imagine the band may have had an informal discussion on this topic before they took the Philadelphia Spectrum stage for the last show of the 1985 East Coast spring tour on April 8. Between the audacious song selection and the juiced pacing of the performances, 4-8-85 unfolded like a surreal dream.
            The festivities commenced with “Midnight Hour.” It was the first time the Dead had opened with Wilson Pickett’s classic since 1969. I was caught up in the overwhelming excitement that night, as was soundman Dan Healy, who had carte blanche to play with the vocals as he pleased. The turned-up echo and reverb gave Garcia’s froggy voice a cartoonish texture as he sang counterpoint to Weir’s shrieks. The crowd went bonkers as “Midnight Hour” transitioned into “Walkin’ the Dog.” Aided by reverb, Garcia handled the first two verses, and Weir took the last one after a spirited solo from Jerry. This was the fourth of six Dead versions of “Walkin’ the Dog,” a signature hit for Rufus Thomas that was debuted by the Dead in 1970.
            The show took on the feel of a Pigpen tribute as Jerry sang “Big Boss Man,” the fifth “Boss Man” since Pig’s passing. This uncanny three-tune opening was a present to their flock of fanatical followers. The gesture was enormous, and Healy and The Boys were having a blast. In a subtle manner they were whetting our appetites for the summer tour…Get your tickets now, folks! The set settled back into a semblance of normalcy with a Me and My Uncle > Cumberland Blues combo. “Cumberland” rocketed by like a shooting star. Although “Supplication” jams usually disappointed me because they no longer played “Lazy Lightning,” the “Supplication” jam on 4-8-85 smoked into a set-ending “Might As Well.” Never had such a good time in my life before / I’d like to have it one time more / One good ride from start to end / I’d like to take that ride again / Again.
            “Revolution” to start the second shocked the crowd again. The Dead played this Beatles anthem eleven times, and 4-8-85 was the first time it opened set two. “Revolution” made nine appearances in the encore slot. Healy’s effects continued to aid Jerry’s creaking/croaking voice. The guitar solo is crisp, and Weir chimes: “Shooby doo wha!” a few times during the final chorus. There’s a wonderful handoff to one the Dead’s up and coming tunes, “Hell in a Bucket.” Pure fire rains from Garcia’s guitar and Weir’s vocals—a thunderous performance in the thick of a high-risk show. “Touch of Grey” follows, and the messaging of the first three songs is oddly congruent. You say you want a revolutionbut you know it’s going to be alright; Were going to hell in a bucket, but at least I’m enjoying the ride; A touch of grey kind of suits you anywayWe will get by, we will survive.
            Based on the pace of “Eyes of the World,” it sounds like the musicians slipped away one by one during “Estimated Prophet” to hit from a mound of performance-enhancing white powder. The 4-8-85 “Eyes” has more zip than most of the quick-paced “Eyes” that were the norm in the 80s. Garcia’s voice is shot, and the song doesn’t have much aesthetic value until they romp into the second solo and Jerry transforms into the Energizer Bunny. Garcia’s speeding leads have a seductive ring to them even if they are repetitive. There’s just enough nuance in there to keep it interesting, and it soon becomes a faceoff. Who will blink first, the band or Garcia? The speed and repetition reach an improbable pace as Garcia pinches every conceivable high register note from his Tiger. After several scorching minutes, the bottom drops out of the rhythm. But it ain’t over until the Bearded One sings, and he keeps on pecking and poking until he strikes a beautiful chord dramatically, and his mates are off and running again. There’s a heroic quality to Garcia’s playing on this solo—superb technique combined with heart and will. Yet, Jerry’s frail voice makes this a bittersweet “Eyes.”
            On the other side of Drums, the band’s frenetic playing doesn’t enhance “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Band.” Surprisingly, they segue into “Stella Blue.” The gesture and sentiment of the touching tune hit home if you were there. However, Jerry’s voice renders this forgettable if you’re listening on tape.
            Around and Around > Turn On Your Lovelight closes the show. On most nights I loathed seeing that combo. “Around and Around” had become a complete cookie-cutter segue primarily used as an intro for “Good Lovin’” or “Lovelight.” Pigpen’s “Lovelights” were enormous. When Weir brought back “Lovelight,” there were several hot versions, but eventually the rest of the band seemed to be going through the motions as Weir had his showcase rave. But here’s a few Weir versions guaranteed to satisfy: 10-16-81 (Amsterdam), 7-7-84 (Alpine Valley), 10-20-84 (Syracuse), 6-21-89 (Shoreline Amphitheatre), and of course, 4-8-85 (Philly).
            As they transition into “Lovelight,” there’s an explosion of energy. The zesty tempo couldn’t be refused. The infectious groove swallowed the Spectrum and put everybody in motion. Garcia sparkles early and often as the band exercises supernatural control over the tempo. Weir leads the band as they weave through a pair of high-octane jams. There’s a sudden de-escalation of tempo as Weir steps to the mic for his moment of glory. His controlled falsetto singing builds a bridge for the band to stage a climactic finale. Weirs shrieks: “Shine on me!” one last time and Garcia hits the sweetest “Lovelight” licks as his mates stick a dramatic fanfare conclusion. A sustained euphoric roar fills The Spectrum as the greatest band in the land pulls off another distinctive musical extravaganza.
            Thirteen years earlier, the crowd in London’s Webley Empire Pool on 4-8-72 was tame compared to the wildness in Philadelphia. What London Deadheads witnessed was beyond anything they could have imagined, and the best parts of this show may have been beyond any audience’s ability to comprehend and appreciate at that moment in history. I’d like to know what members of the Grateful Dead were eating, drinking, smoking, ingesting, reading, and listening to between their last show in the Manhattan Center on 3-25-72, and 4-8-72, the second night of their European rendezvous. The Dead’s sound continued to evolve throughout their first nine years, but what happened in Europe ’72 from the time they left New York constitutes a quantum leap in artistry. Possibly, the excitement of bringing their innovative music to Europe, a land where so many jazz and blues artists were more appreciated than back in America, had the band feeling like they were on a musical crusade. With Keith on piano, Billy solo on drums, and Pigpen on board for his final extended tour, this was the ideal lineup. The Grateful Dead were on the verge of creating some of the most sophisticated and mind-blowing music the world would ever hear. And it all went down without much hype.
            The “Bertha” opener on 4-8-72 has more swagger than usual. “Black Throated Wind’ the Weir/Barlow tune that debuted a month earlier, was delivered confidently in the fifth spot, and two songs later, the band storms through a definitive “Cumberland Blues.” This is the alluring lead-off track on the triple album Europe ‘72. You can hear the collective brilliance of the Grateful Dead, and the virtuosity of the musicians individually. The Dead had a plethora of new originals at their disposal, and most of these tunes crystalized magnificently during their European adventure.
            There’s an enchanting flow to the 4-8-72 “Brown-Eyed Women,” and “Tennessee Jed” pops—Keith’s piano runs are superb. A bull rush of sound clears a path for Garcia during the eleventh song of the set, “Playin’ in the Band.” It’s the first long, relentless jam of the night, in a song that’s incrementally becoming longer and more intense each time it’s performed. Rhythm and blues burn with psychedelic power during “Good Lovin’.” “Looks Like Rain,” the other new Weir/Barlow tune, follows. “Black Throated Wind” is the stronger of the two tunes at this point, but “Looks Like Rain” was the survivor, going on to be one of the most played Dead tunes. “Casey Jones” drives this loaded set to its final stop.
            “Truckin’” open set two. Manic energy flows as the band operates with breathtaking confidence. I’ve concluded that this performance, and the 4-8-72 encore “One More Saturday Night,” were too hot to be released on Europe ’72. The Dead pound out authoritative renditions of “Big Railroad Blues” and “It Hurts Me Too” prior to delivering a segment of music that’s one of their definitive masterpieces.
            Some folks swear by ’69 “Dark Stars,” but I worship these ’72 “Dark Stars.” They exist on a higher realm of musical consciousness, and the majestic sweep of “Dark Star” peaked through 1974. Jerry, Phil, and Billy pounce on the opening of the first European “Dark Star” in Wembley Empire Pool. The music’s obscene, and it emerges like a heavenly rhapsody—possessed jamming with a séance-like vibe. It sounds as if they’re channeling the ancient footsteps and spirits of Europe. The band has more flexibility with the addition of Keith and the subtraction of Mickey, T. C., and the limited role of Pigpen. The clutter is gone, opening possibilities. Sometimes it’s what you don’t play that helps a jam take off, and Garcia and mates steer this through a cosmic black hole and turn through the pages of European history: Plato, Marx, Napoleon, and Hitler; it’s all there. The mood is mysterious and dark, and the music’s packed with wisdom. The Dead’s previous “Dark Star” was two weeks earlier in the Manhattan Center. The London “Dark Star” is in another dimension of existence.
            The music radiates for eleven minutes until Garcia sings, “Dark star crashes, pouring its light into ashes.” London’s casually ripped out of their comfort zone. The band continues their individual forays into the unknown, yet there’s an invisible force pulling everything together. There’s a seductive flow to this unconducted symphony. Maybe the band needed to leave America to get out of their comfort zone and step their artistry to its highest possible ground. Jerry’s a beast towards the end of this version as the band suggests “Sugar Magnolia.” Suddenly, they are in segue paradise as they erase the borders between “Dark Star” and “Sugar Magnolia.” The negotiation between the two Dead anthems is enthralling. All the uplifting powers of spontaneous improvisation shine brightly. This transition is three of the greatest minutes of music that I’ve ever heard.
            “Sugar Magnolia” is the perfect landing tune from a deep “Dark Star” voyage—Southern love and sunshine daydream—a blissful rocker. Mind left body, and now body defies gravity as the audience bounces and shakes to the groove. The Dead rock this hard, yet it seems like child’s play after the sophistication of “Dark Star.” “Sugar Mag” dazzles with a more than adequate jam, and the Sunshine Daydream coda rams into “Caution (Do Not Stop on the Tracks).” “Sugar Mag” is the perfect springboard for “Caution.” The Wembley “Caution” travels like a speeding bullet for seventeen minutes. There are many insane “Cautions” from ’68 and ’69, but there’s a smooth trajectory to this version that’s not as grungy as past performances, but it still has the stuff that will bust your brains out. The symmetry and magnificence of this first Dark Star > Sugar Mag > Caution in the Wembley Empire Pool is remarkable.
            “One More Saturday Night” is the encore. On the surface this may not seem like a thrilling development, but on this evening, it’s insanely satisfying. Feeling triumphant after an outrageous set of music, Weir and the band rock this little ditty as if their legacy depends upon this one performance. Bobby’s howling and saliva’s flying. Leading to the final singalong, he advises the band: “Easy now…Wail away!” Keith and Billy heed his advice and hammer the groove. “One More Saturday Night” can’t rage any harder. There are few four-song conclusions that dare to compare to what the Dead pulled off in London on 4-8-72.
            The year before, The Boys were in Boston Music Hall on 4-8-71. Set two took flight with a two-verse “Dark Star” that was completed in fifteen minutes. Don’t let the brevity fool you, because Garcia’s focused guitar playing sparkles all the way into “St. Stephen” which segues into NFA > GDTRFB > NFA. This is an enjoyable segment, hotter than other shows from this period, but not on the level of what they were doing later in the year when Keith joined the band. A tender version of Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” followed the powerful opening sequence. The Dead debuted “Sing Me Back Home” three nights earlier, and Jerry’s melancholy singing captured the spirit of the lyrics.
            In the opening set, the band played Smokey Robinson’s “I Second That Emotion” for the first time. It’s a pleasant offering, but it doesn’t compare to the awesome versions from the Jerry Garcia Band through the years. With Merl Saunders and Melvin Seals on keyboards, Jerry better explored the Motown groove. The Boston Music Hall tape is a great listen, and a solid representation of the band as they transitioned to a more song-orientated format. 

For more on April 8, and the other essential dates of GD History, check out Deadology

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