Fifty years ago today, Bickershaw!!! An excerpt from Europe 72 Revisited:
On May 7, 1972, the Grateful Dead performed on the last day of the Bickershaw Festival. Bickershaw, a tiny mining village near Wigan, England, hosted this three-day festival that featured a variety of musical acts including The Kinks, Dr. John, Donovan, and the New Riders of the Purple Sage. The festival organizers scheduled this for the driest part of the season, but Mother Nature had other plans. It rained for the better part of the festival’s first two days. The rain had subsided for the Dead’s performance, but the festival grounds had become a massive mud pit, and the chilly weather further exacerbated the miserable conditions.
There were 60,000 fans on hand for the festival, and many of them got in for free because the fencing had been torn down and there was little security on hand. Yes, this was flashback terrain for the band—a mini-Woodstock. Before introducing the band, the announcer, Sam Cutler, tried to reunite Angela Brown with her missing baby who was at the police station. And then he said, “For all our muddy friends, the Grateful Dead.”
This wasn’t 1969; the band would not bomb as they had in Woodstock, or flee the mad scene as they had at the Altamont Festival. The Grateful Dead were on the mother of all rolls in Europe, and they were celebrating Billy Kreutzmann’s 26th birthday. They were back in familiar territory, playing an outdoor festival in front of an English-speaking audience.
A truculent “Truckin’” makes the opening statement: Our long, strange trip has endured everywhere in America, and now we’re flexing our musical might in Europe. This performance is rowdy, but equipment issues kept the jam from going overboard. There was a giant heater on the stage to combat the cold May weather, and this was causing the band’s instruments to go out of tune.
Harsh conditions and equipment issues be damned! The Dead surge forward with spry renditions of “Sugaree” and “Mr. Charlie.” Garcia’s “Charlie” solo comes off with attitude and funk. Battling the chilly air brought the best out of the band. “He’s Gone” impresses in the fifth slot. Following “Chinatown Shuffle,” the band leads the crowd through a “Happy Birthday” singalong for Billy before busting into China Cat > Rider. The “Cat” is offbeat and grungy. Garcia rallies late with sweet and sour licks to make this a standout version from this tour.
“Playin’ in the Band” is the pride and joy of this fourteen-song opening set. The jam lurches forward and sideways at the same time—geysers explode into the sky, escape through the ozone, and land back in the mud of Bickershaw. The swelling sound touches off vigorous physical and mental exercises—an amalgamation of outrageous creativity, energy, and group virtuosity, for exactly ten minutes. In temperature, texture, and tone, this “Playin’” reminds me of the revered 8-27-72 Venita version, except Venita’s twice as long. Pigpen’s marathon interpretation of “Good Lovin’” features a lot of tasty band jamming. This fetching “Good Lovin’” warms up the crowd and leads to a “Casey Jones” pleasure ride to conclude a bloody good first set.
As the band tunes up for set two, Cutler politely asks people to come down from the light towers. Bob Weir backs him up with a direct demand. “You don’t want to cause a blooming catastrophe so get the fuck down!” The scene’s chaotic. Somebody’s shooting off fireworks, but the show must go on. Garcia unleashes his fireworks as the band attacks with a “Greatest Story Ever Told” opener. The band and Jerry are in step as the jam sizzles incrementally and Donna screams twice with the music, not over it, as the jam peaks. This “Greatest Story” beats the scorcher that opened the second set on 5-3-72 by a hair.
The Dead deal a dose of Jimmy Reed to Bickershaw with an inspired “Big Boss Man.” And then they show off two of their tunes, “Ramble on Rose” and “Jack Straw.” The “Rose” is fiery and close to perfection. The song sequencing is magical at Bickershaw. I believe equipment issues played into the final decision not to select any tracks from Bickershaw for Europe ’72.
Between “Rose” and “Straw,” Weir says, “I don’t know what you’re burning out there, but it smells rotten.” A listener can see, hear, smell, and feel the scene simply from the band’s banter. It’s a nasty grind out there, but the music’s obviously worth the hassle. The time has come for the Grateful Dead to weave their magical time out of mind and body spell. For the next hour, Bickershaw will experience some of the finest improvisational music ever created.
The “Dark Star” voyage begins. Garcia strings together beautiful runs as the band splashes sound on the musical canvas. At the last show in Paris, the opening “Dark Star” jam was unusual. The Bickershaw opening jam is fifteen minutes of extreme beauty—a steady symphonic sweep that could have rolled on indefinitely. There’s a tantalizing guitar soliloquy before Garcia chimes in with the first verse. Musical weirdness follows and tumbles into a drum solo by the birthday boy.
This night should have been an “Other One” night based on the band’s alternating masterpiece schedule. Nobody at Bickershaw could have possibly been thinking along these lines, but the band will deliver both masterpieces on this night. Billy’s beat leads the way to “The Other One.” The blastoff commences with Phil’s bass and the jam roars like rolling thunder—an atomic slingshot—polished primal power. The first ten minutes before the “Spanish Lady” verse are urgent and glorious. The only Dark Star > The Other One of the tour is bound for glory.
Phil leads the way with what sounds like a New Age symphony as Jerry’s methodic noodling raps around Phil’s bass. All jamming leads to a mind-melt deluxe. This is what it must be like to float in a tin can far above the world.
At the twenty-five-minute mark, Garcia leads reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere with an explosive jam that has “Dark Star” overtones. A few minutes later, Phil redirects the jam back to “The Other One,” and it’s more heated than earlier. “Escaping through the lily fields I came across an empty space,” sings Weir, ending a balanced spherical masterpiece.
“Sing Me Back Home” gives the musicians and audience an opportunity to get their bearings and drift back to Bickershaw. Switching genres like Masters of the Universe, the Dead crunch “Sugar Magnolia.” The segue to “Turn on Your Love Light” gets derailed by a loud buzzing noise. The issue is instantly fixed. The band quickly regroups and roars down the “Love Light” fast lane. Garcia’s en fuego, one of the great power jams of this tour. On the awesome 4-26-72 “Love Light,” the band leaves the song’s framework with an astounding jam. In Bickershaw, Pigpen is singing great, and the band hammers the “Love Light” blues during the next instrumental. After another Pigpen verse, it sounds like they’re heading towards “Caution” until Jerry veers into “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad.”
Hallelujah! This is easily the best “GDTRFB” of the tour. Bobby and Jerry strike transition gold as they exchange leads prior to the chorus opening. Garcia and mates smoke the second solo, causing Donna to voice her approval with two shrieking rounds of “Yeah-yahah-Yahh” that in turn inspires another torrid run from Jerry. This great set of music is put to rest with a “NFA” reprise and a “One More Saturday Night” encore. I’ll stick to calling the last section of “NFA” a reprise, even though it’s not literally a reprise since they hadn’t played “Not Fade Away” yet. Billy’s 26th birthday bash was a raucous celebration, and one of the great peaks of the Grateful Dead’s most fabled tour.
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