Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Deadology outtake: April 29

After thirty-eight spirited performances in Bill Graham’s Filmore East on Manhattan’s lower east side, the Grateful Dead and their zealous fans bid farewell to this hallowed venue in April 1971. The Dead were a Bay Area phenomenon, and before they become a beloved American band with the releases of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty in 1970, they developed an East Coast fanbase hungry for Haight Ashbury hippie culture. As the war in Vietnam continued to tear the nation apart, the Grateful Dead experience provided a distinct hedonistic escape, especially for peaceful souls in liberal strongholds like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. There was a swirling liveliness in the band’s music that struck a nerve with East Coat fans. And the band tapped into the combustible energy and enthusiasm of their Eastern devotees to elevate their music to higher ground. The Fillmore East was an essential breeding ground for the Dead’s massive popularity. The last concert in the Fillmore East was on June 27, but the Dead’s last stand in Uncle Bill’s Church was a five-night run that ended on 4-29-71.

            In stark contrast to the band that played mind-melting jams and primal blues during their six-song Fillmore East debut in June of 1968, the Dead played thirty-one songs on 4-29-71. The opening set features a pair of stellar Pigpen performances, “It Hurts Me Too” and “Hard to Handle.” April ’71 was a sensational month for the Dead’s version of Otis Redding’s tune. It went from being an enjoyable cover that didn’t distinguish itself from the other Pigpen songs, to emerging as a showstopper—the most explosive rock jam on many nights, as it was on 4-21-71 in the Providence Civic Center. The “Handle” solos became longer and more intense as they band constructed a groove with movements where Garcia could build a dramatic crescendo. This “Handle” from the last night at the Fillmore flows with consistent energy. It was one of the hottest solos of the night, but it didn’t explode like the one from Providence.
            In the opening set of Fillmore farewell, the band rolled out some of their finest new compositions, “Truckin’,” “Cumberland Blues,” “Casey Jones,” and “Ripple.” It was the last time “Ripple” was played until the Dead opened their acoustic/ electric run of the Warfield Theatre in 1980. This eclectic evening of song also featured the final performances of “Alligator” and “Second That Emotion.” Jerry Garcia Band would later revive Smokey Robinson’s “Second That Emotion,” and perform a more soulful and substantial version than the Grateful Dead.
            Set two commences with a crisp “Morning Dew” and is followed by the last performance of “New Minglewood Blues” until 1976. “Minglewood” became a regular in the rotation again, but it never regained the reckless nature of the song’s early days—Weir’s fiery vocals, and the urgent rush of the music. This 4-29-71 “Minglewood” is a firecracker that reminds me how exciting this song could be.

            Out of Alligator > Drums the jam teases “The Other One,” “Not Fade Away,” “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad,” and “St. Stephen,” before splicing into a GDTRFB > Cold Rain & Snow combo. The evocative mix of songs continues with Cat > Rider and Greatest Story Ever Told > Johnny B. Goode. The triple encore of “Uncle John’s Band,” “Midnight Hour,” and “We Bid You Goodnight,” finished the Dead’s final Fillmore East jamboree and signified the end of a musical era for the band. With the impending addition of Keith Godchaux, the sonic terrain of a Grateful Dead concert was completely overhauled and raised to another level by the time they played the Musikhalle in Hamburg, West Germany, a year later on this date.

            The first set of 4-29-72 Hamburg is typical for Europe ’72. On this tour, typical equals excellent. Tight versions of “Mr. Charlie,” “Big Railroad Blues,” China Cat > Rider, and a Pigpen powered “Good Lovin’” set the stage for “Cassy Jones” to end the set. The following set is light on tunes but there’s an abundance of high-octane improvisation. In ’71 “Greatest Story Ever Told” was a nice addition to the lineup, but the revamped version that launches set two of 4-29-72 is outrageous. Phil’s jackhammer bass lines combined with the screeching genius of Garcia’s solo turn “Greatest Story” into a rock and roll dream. The fourth live rendition of “He’s Gone” follows and clocks in at a quick seven-and-a-half minutes. It’s a refreshing change of pace to hear these snappy versions.
            “Dark Star,” Musikhalle’s masterpiece, exquisitely lifts off to explore the cosmos, and eventually eases into an early “Feelin’ Groovy” jam, a rarity prior to the opening verse. Time is suspended as the band melodically noodles its way back through the cosmos until Jerry sings. It seems masterfully orchestrated as if the band’s playing from sheet music. This sophistically executed improv was indigenous to the Grateful Dead. They didn’t adhere to musical rules as much as they were obeying the natural laws of physics in the universe.
            A frisky tone arises as the Dead soar into the next segment of “Dark Star.” The mood’s heavy as Jerry, Phil, and Bill play with intense patience on the same frequency. Kreutzmann’s stunning drumming at the same time supports the band and leads the voyage in new directions. This dark jam carries on until it unexpectedly leaps into “Sugar Magnolia” at the twenty-nine-minute mark. The segue into “Sugar Magnolia” isn’t as lengthy or euphoric as the one they played in London three weeks earlier. The Dark Star > Sugar Magnolia > Caution trifecta was played in that order three times on the Europe ’72 tour, and the tour also features two other combinations that include those songs in slightly altered variations. Pigpen, who was ailing throughout this tour, sings boldly on the 4-29-72 “Caution (Do Not Stop On the Tracks),” and as always, the jamming on this number is incendiary. This cocktail of connected Dead is as sublime as anything the Grateful Dead created. The premier Dark Star > Sugar Magnolia > Caution is 4-8-72 London, which will be dissected in the chapter on that date. 
            Jumping from Europe ’72 to the most revered East Coast tour of them all, the Grateful Dead began their five-night residency at The Palladium in New York City on 4-29-77. The show opens with their latest triple shot pride and joy, Help on the Way > Slipknot! > Franklin’s Tower.” It’s a strong rendition with a gripping transition into Franklin’s Tower that enthralls the New York City faithful. And here lies the problem of truly enjoying this show. The best existing recording of 4-29-77 is a noisy audience tape, making this an ugly duckling amongst the beautiful Betty Boards of ’77. Betty Cantor’s splendid soundboard recordings from this year set the standard for dynamic sound and listening pleasure. The rough sound of 4-29-77 will keep this performance from receiving its fair share of praise, but that doesn’t diminish what they did. The opening set ends with a resounding version of “The Music Never Stopped.”

            There’s good news from set two of 4-29-77 because soundboard recordings of three tunes were released on Volume 10 of the Download Series which features the entire concert from the following night at The Palladium. One of the salvaged songs of 4-29-77 is a stunning version of “Sugaree,” during which, each succeeding solo eclipses the previous one in length and intensity. It’s one the best “Sugarees” in a year when that tune blossomed into a masterpiece. The other soundboard treat is a rare Scarlet Begonias > Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad. It’s an interesting choice because the band had just discovered the joys of Scarlet > Fire.  However, there’s a rebelliousness to the Begonias jam that steered it away from a segue into “Fire.”
            On 4-29-80 the band executed a professional show in Atlanta’s Fox Theatre. Everything about this show ranges from mediocre to good.  The playing’s crisp and there are few vocal flubs, yet there’s no reason to get excited about the performances. This makes for a compelling contrast for the next April 29 show.

             On the thirteenth anniversary of their farewell to the Fillmore East, the Dead were back in the New York area playing at a much larger venue, the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, Long Island. 4-29-84 Nassau was the next to last show of their East Coast spring tour, a tour I witnessed in its entirety. Garcia’s physical appearance was troublesome. His ashen skin, rotund stomach, swollen legs, and unkempt frizzy beard and mane should have been extremely alarming, but by 1984, Deadheads were used to seeing Garcia put on ten pounds and age three years each tour. His guitar virtuosity contradicted his appearance, making him seem like the grandfatherly Buddha of rock and roll.
            There’s impressive soloing from Garcia on the first two numbers, “Feel Like a Stranger” and “Friend of the Devil.” Jerry’s voice was diminished all tour, and this night his singing is stronger than it had been at the previous shows in Providence. “Birdsong” makes a surprise appearance in the fourth spot, and Garcia’s guitar work is mechanically prodigious. It’s undeniable that Jerry’s appetite for smoking Persian was poisonous to his wellbeing, and consequently, his woes trickled down to the health of the band, but on occasions like this “Birdsong,” Garcia would meander endlessly and create unbelievable music. And then a song or two later he might just plod ahead in a robotic stupor. After a lackadaisical middle segment, the opening set concludes with a hot but disorganized “Let it Grow.” The second set was a nice workout for the band and audience as the Dead served typical second set treats, although they didn’t build or sustain much momentum along the way.
            There are several shows from the fall tour that are better than 4-29-84 Nassau, yet there are worthy jams sprinkled about. Communication and comradery between band mates may have been at an all-time low, but their collective virtuosity was intact, and unmatched in the world of music. At its best, the jamming from Nassau is more advanced than the last night at the Fillmore East, but you can’t compare the overall quality of the performances. The Dead were masters bogged down in a muddy quagmire in 1984. On their final night in the Fillmore East, the Grateful Dead kissed goodbye to a shrine that was an essential part of their rise to fame. Groundbreaking innovation beckoned.

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