Sunday, December 10, 2017

Side Trips vinyl

I am not usually one for vinyl fetish commodities (hey now), but I couldn't resist snagging a copy of this Garcia/Wales Side Trips 2LP Record Store Day special on a trip to NYC this weekend.  There's not one smidge extra that wasn't already on the old CD (released, um, 19 years ago).  Nevertheless, four long jams over four sides feels like a more satisfying vinyl recreation than most of the awkwardly lopsided LP reissues of archival live Dead releases.  I'm feeling pretty pleased with myself.  Shout-out to the cool dude at Academy Annex in Greenpoint who steered me to this pristine open copy instead of the sealed ones that apparently arrived heavily warped.

There's an interview with Howard Wales, incidentally, that was posted a couple weeks ago at Aquarium Drunkard.  No huge insights, but hey, you were there but only in the moment, right?  I appreciated getting some background info on his early days.  Also: he was invited to join the band for Europe '72?  Really?  I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around that one.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

professionalism: solved

Apropos of the last two posts: there's lots to muddle over regarding the Dead and Garcia and notions of professionalism and to what degree they exhibited it.  Mid-muddling, I remembered Neil Gaiman's advice about what artists (including musicians) need in order to find work, keep a gig, whatever (from his popular "Make Good Art" speech)

People keep working [...] because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time.  And you don't even need all three.  Two out of three is fine.  People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time.  They'll forgive the lateness of your work if it's good and if they like you.  And you don't have to be as good as others if you're on time and it's always a pleasure to hear from you.

Sometimes the Dead and Garcia maybe had all three.  But two out of three usually did the trick.

Monday, December 4, 2017

12/4/73 a little sound and fury

I have been listening to bits of this, a show that's known for (if anything) being the runt of the last leg of the fall '73 tour: 12/4/73 at the Cincinnati Gardens, a shorter show due to the band's lateness and apparently some big dust-up with the local promoters.  Strangely, part of it was released as a bonus disc with the November 73 Winterland box set.  It's not as bad as some reviews indicate, although it's not particularly great.  Abbreviated plating time notwithstanding, Phil seems particularly ornery and really takes it out on his bass (not always bad thing, necessarily), and as gamely as Garcia tries to soldier through, the rest of the band seems distracted or out of sorts.  Musically, the standout is a big Eyes of the World that, unusually, wanders out of bounds and into a Phil-led meltdown that's cut from the same cloth as the 12/2 Playing in the Band and the 12/6 Dark Star.   You may have seen this less-than-impressed contemporary review floating around online (thanks gratefulseconds):

Cincinnati Enquirer, 12/6/73

Well.  To be fair, I wouldn't be too enthusiastic about a show either if I had to spend over two hours watching the crew assemble the PA beforehand (on a Tuesday night, no less), but “lots of sound and fury, little else”?  Yow.  How exactly did the manage to be late coming from Boston with a full travel day (12/3) between shows?  Is it a coincidence that the first Boston show a few days prior (11/30) was also delayed and extremely late in getting started?  What was going on with the promoters, who apparently both Bob and/or Phil were griping about onstage (according to some eyewitness reviews)?  5000 people in a place that held 12,500?  Yikes.

What gave me a smile, though, was this glowing piece by the same reporter about a Neil Young concert from earlier that same year (quoted from here -- I'm not finding the original Cincinnati Enquirer piece anywhere easily online)
You couldn't possibly have squeezed one more person into Cincinnati Gardens Wednesday night [Feb 14, 1973]. Not after slightly more than 12,500 had already traffic jammed their way down Seymour Avenue to pack the hall. All that for Neil Young, one of rock's superstars and Linda Ronstadt, who isn't quite a superstar, but ought to be. Ronstadt opened the show with what had to be one of the most thrilling performances in Gardens' history. Such a fantastic, beautiful performer. People may have been their primarily for Neil Young, but Ronstadt gave all the 12,500 their money's worth. And then Neil Young gave them more than their money's worth. Appearing behind a bank of amplifiers and a row of lights (it took three semis and a 22 foot van to get it all there. The van was equipped with a 32 track recording studio and a closed circuit TV system on which the concert was taped). Young began with some of his acoustical stuff, just him and his guitar. It was received madly. Wildly. Lovingly. Young kept his voice quiet, almost folksie and painted a very peaceful picture. With a slight twang, maybe even a slightly nasal quality, he came off quite relaxed. And then came the rock and roll. Neil Young's rock and roll is a carefully blended mixture of country sounds, folk sounds and soft rock sounds. His work comes off very controlled and sophisticated. It's hard to say just how beautiful he was, so thoroughly professional, so completely competent. It's easy to say that in over five years of concert going (that's a lot of concerts), his show was one of the best. Very easy to say it.  - Jim Knippenberg, Cincinnati Enquirer, Feb 15, 1973.

My dorkdom is nowhere near as fine-tuned for Neil Young as it is for the Dead, but I do know that this show is from the middle of Young's three-month tour behind the hit Harvest album when he started breaking down from the ravages of booze, drugs, money squabbles, fame, expectations, pressure, and all that.  The live album from this tour, Time Fades Away, was later nearly disowned by Young (quotes galore here or here), who refused to reissue it for over 40 years.  I love this whole “dark” period of Young's, but I'm not sure by what metric you would call it very controlled and sophisticated, thoroughly professional, or completely competent.  To each his own, of course.  Funny that Knippenberg didn't seem to notice all of the new songs Young was playing that apparently delighted very few in the crowd.  Young did also play some of his hits, at least.

Anyways, apropos of playing time (see last post), another thing strikes me.  12/4/73 is just over two hours of music and seems short only when compared with, um, other Dead shows.  12/2 Boston is about 3 hours 10 min, 12/6 Cleveland is just over 3 hours 20 min, 12/8 Duke is nearly 3 hours 40 min.  There's a low quality aud tape of this Neil Young 2/14/73 Cincinnati Gardens show out there (got mine here, if you really want it).  It's missing a couple of songs from from the electric set, but what's on tape isn't even 70 minutes long -- so figure maybe 90 minutes or so for his whole show, plus another hour maybe for Linda Ronstadt's opening set?  Jeez, even starting 2 1/2 hours late, the Dead still played for over two hours, not counting a (hopefully short) setbreak.  Can’t win ‘em all, I guess.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

10/24/78: floundering in the snow

This is a fantastic aud tape of a Keystone show that you could probably get along fine without ever hearing.  Just being honest.  But there a couple of things:

First, go John Angus and Scott Hart!  They put down a few other JGB shows on tape that month, and this one is a particularly sweet specimen: rich, full, balanced sound with just enough depth and flavor to really please these ears.

Second, the band is actually playing quite well, just content to cruise along in a lower gear.  Keith sounds like he’s in particularly good fettle, foreshadowing the wonderful interplay between him and Jerry in the more well-known 10/28/78 Seattle show.  Everyone sounds fine tonight, locked in and focused, but it's still a mellow, slippers-and-sweatpants kind of show.  There's not really much to review, actually.  Highlights, if you’re looking, would be a surprisingly tasty Love in the Afternoon (surprising since I generally dislike that song), a very nice Mission in the Rain, and the neat curiosity of Lee Oskar blowing some discrete harp on Gomorrah and Midnight Moonlight.

Third, and this is what struck me about the tape, there’s a telling little moment at the end of the first set.  This was a shorty warm-up gig tucked in between the Dead’s big “return from Egypt” Winterland run and a little JGB jaunt up to the Pacific northwest.  After a big Winterland blow-out a few days earlier, I’m guessing that only the most hardcore Keystone Social Club regulars had it in them for another JGB show (the fourth one that month, btw, plus two more in Palo Alto).  Were expectations high?  I really doubt it.  All of those shows had been short, mostly each with well under two hours of actual music, but tonight someone wasn’t having it.  After Jerry announces the break, Angus & Hart let the tape roll for another minute (inadvertently, I assume, since they’re pretty tight with the pause button between songs); someone hollers out, loudly, “You’re floundering in the snow! That was too short!” (at least, I think that’s it), prompting a couple more cries of “too short!” and “play more!”  At least one sage stoner intones, “it’s great, it was perfect, no problem.”  Then side B of Little Feat’s Dixie Chicken comes on the PA (“Fool Yourself”) and I’m wondering who was fooling who.  JGMF has written at length about the economics of Garcia shows w/r/t professionalism and bang-for-your-buck, with some particular attention to some pretty skimpy 1985 shows from a pretty low time in ol’ Jer’s personal life (see here among others).  I was a little surprised, though, to hear someone calling Jerry out on this in 1978.  Then again, though someone calls out “boring!” during a languid Russian Lullaby, so maybe it’s a case of the food was awful and the portions were too small that's at work here. 

Fourth, I’m realizing the the narrative has always put Oct-Nov '78 as a pretty low point for all concerned parties: burned out and tired, the Dead embark on an east coast tour that is cut short when Garcia is hospitalized, the Godchauxs’ marriage implodes, Keith's playing continues to go downhill, and then Keith is apparently fired from the JGB for dipping into Jerry’s stash (per Kahn).  Yet, on paper, a bunch of interesting things were happening: not only does Lee Oskar pop up at a couple of those Winterland shows (plus again on New Years Eve) and at this JGB show, but so apparently does Will Scarlett at two Keystone shows that we don’t have circulating tapes for (see for 10/11 & 12).  Two harmonica players in one month?  Earlier in October, before all this, Garcia reunites with Merl Saunders for a one-off gig with Merl’s band (which, in addition to being apparently a dry-run for Reconstruction, also sports some of the hottest playing Garcia did that whole month).  Then, as I assume you may already know, two of those Pacific northwest shows, 10/26 and 10/28, are among the best of the year and also happened to be shared gigs with Bob Weir’s band, whose keyboardist Brent Mydland was being keenly watched by all concerned parties (meanwhile, with Keith’s playing on 10/28 being widely praised, I wonder if he felt like he was essentially auditioning for his own job?).  And then there's the JGB show on 11/3/78 that's famous for its totally out of left field and out of character performance of Miles Davis’ So What. [edit: also can't forget the first acoustic GD performance in eight years that happened pretty off-the-cuff in Chicago on Nov 17].  That’s a fair bit of extracurricular activity for what I tend to assume must have been a pretty dreary time for all involved parties, but hey, maybe it was that post-Egypt buzz making them all try a little bit harder.

And hey, I’m listening to 10/24 yet again while I type this, and y’know, it’s actually not a bad little show.  Maybe it’ll grow on you.

What the heck does "floundering in the snow?" mean, anyway?

Monday, November 20, 2017

Feb 94 JGB: one last flash of greatness

"Very late era" (94-95) JGB is a corner that I'm guessing most listeners don't wander into.  '93 JGB usually never fails to ring my bell, but by most accounts the big guy's final decline came hard and fast, so I tread cautiously in those final years.  While there's a kind of dark beauty in the brief flashes of inspiration that broke through the fog at the very end, it's a game of diminishing returns for me to dig academically through shows that warrant, at best, a response like "this doesn't sound too bad given the shape he was in."  Time, strength, cash, and patience, ya know.  To be fair, some of it really isn't bad, but some of it is just awful.

I recently stumbled upon a real keeper, though.  Having run out of fall '93 JGB shows to listen to (um, other folks also have this problem, right?), I dug into his next run of Warfield shows in Feb of 1994.  These were the first nights out for new drummer Donny Baldwin, after David Kemper's dismissal.  Frankly, another thing that this gives this final period an unpleasant whiff is Kemper's inexplicable firing, after 10 years of exemplary work in the engine room (more info).  All I know about his replacement Donny Baldwin is what I've heard of him on these JGB tapes (and, um, the other stuff you can learn from Wikipedia).   But, to be honest, he sounds great: if anything, he doesn't sound different from Kemper in any major way, but -- as Kemper himself pointed out -- just keeping this particular engine running was more challenging that it looked ("one foot on the gas, one foot on the brakes" is still one of the best descriptions of this band's sound that I've heard).  The rehearsal that (I presume) was called for by Baldwin's arrival clearly did Garcia some good that weekend.  His singing and playing is pretty strong for all three of these shows.   As JGMF has noted, Garcia seemed to be paying more attention to his singing in this era, compensating for his raggedly worn chops with some extra attention to his phrasing and inflections, and it shows throughout these three shows, even with his voice past its late-period prime.  Three stellar quality aud tapes by Warfield super-tapers Chuck & Linda Vasseur exist, and (unusually) there are circulating sbds for 2/5 and the first set of 2/6.  Stick with the Vasseur auds, I say (although, see below).

2/4, the first night, is a pretty strong show, though not much jumps out as amazing or worth revisiting.  They sound tight, and any slight tentativeness seems to come, understandably, from everyone letting Baldwin settle into his groove.  The one major high point is a steaming Lay Down Sally jam:  Garcia's chugging along, sounding fine, and then decides to hit his distortion pedal and something clicks into place.  The audience feels it, Garcia responds, and you get one of those brief moments of aud-tape perfection as everything clicks into place.  Nice work, old man!  I also quite liked Strugglin' Man and Stop That Train.  He doesn't sound like he has it in him for Deal, though (either on this night or the next), and the second set mostly never gets into high gear.  It does seems like a bold move to break out Don't Let Go on Baldwin's first night, but his comfort level with turning the groove loose isn't there yet, so it stays pretty earthbound.

2/5 is more up-and-down.  There's nothing bad, but the inspiration doesn't seem to be there.  Notably, Garcia breaks out the first I'll Take a Melody since 1990 (which he would play only more time) and does a decent job with it.  He works up a good froth in a surprisingly hot Get Out My Life Woman and, later, in Tore Up, and sings wonderfully on a fine Lucky Old Sun.  Any lover of ol' man Jerry really going for it should check out how he belts out "lift me up to paradise!" around 3:25 in.

2/6, the final night, is what I would strongly recommend to the skeptical.  Is this the last great JGB show?  Garcia sure comes out swinging and doesn't let up.  His setlist choices play a big part my feelings for this one, as he's pushing himself and avoiding the obvious.  There's a fine jam in Cats, a transcendent first solo in Mission (and notice how Garcia takes more control over the tempo at the beginning), sharp stuff in Let it Rock, and a near perfect Like a Road.  Even Breadbox, a tune whose jam doesn't usually do much for me, gets a very strong, focused work-out.  The closing Everybody Needs Somebody blazes by at a faster past than the '93 leviathan versions, but not a note is wasted.  Amazingly, the energy is kept up for the whole 2nd set -- even some of the more powerful '93 shows tended to peter out in the last lap around, but not tonight.  Nice Harder They Come, a wailing Money Honey, and a textbook example of how sweet that pitch-shifting effect could sound in The Maker, which goes an extra few feet for good measure.  Lazy Bones was one of those late-era left-field cover choices, but even this is taken at an ideal tempo, with Kahn's extra long bass solo as the only blemish of the show, unfortunately.  Don't Let Go appears again, and although Baldwin still hasn't loosened up enough to let it soar, Garcia blazes through 17 minutes of it, tearing things up on his old wah-wah pedal.  I'm not enough of an effects geek to know for sure, but he seems to have brought it back in late '93 (see 8/14/93, another blog-worthy show that's coming someday), and he usually meant business when he turned it on.  He means it tonight!  A rare Gomorrah is a great call for the final ballad and Tangled Up in Blue is the perfect close to an excellent night.

There's always an element of added excitement at hearing the old man working with a full tank of gas this late in the day, but speaking as objectively as I can, I still say 2/6/94 is a fantastic 90's JGB show.  One last little moment to savor: on the sbd of 2/5, after a less-exciting version of Breadbox, one of the backup singers whoops out, "I love that song!" and Jer cheerfully responds, "yeah, that was great, man."  Maybe they weren't nailing every song, but they sure sound like they were having fun -- by 1994, I get the sense that that just wasn't the case very often, so it feels special to hear.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Thelonious Monk centennial

Monk, 1959, by W. Eugene Smith

I'm a few days late (no surprise), but it does seem appropriate that I'm posting on Friday the 13th.

I was a little disappointed that global media wasn't exploding with accolades and tributes for Thelonious Monk's 100th birthday on October 10 (Google's doodle for the day, if that's any indication, was for Fridtjof Nansen), so I'm doing my part in my tiny, barely-functional corner of the internet to salute one of the Giants of 20th century American music.  The influence of jazz on the Dead owes far more to the John Coltrane lineage, which held to a very different set of priorities than Monk's (despite the fact that he spent a few very important months playing in Monk's band), and while I would hope that some or all of the Dead were lovers of Monk's music, I don't know of any direct connections that exist.

My own exposure to Monk came young, courtesy of my father's record collection. His music didn't evoke the same states of heightened emotion inspired by Coltrane, Miles, and Mingus that appealed so much to me as an adolescent, and it took me a while to work out what was so appealing about it.  I am loathe to repeat all of the tired "ugly beauty" cliches about Monk, but there was certainly an element of that.  It wasn't music that I could immediately put my finger on, with its off-kilter rhythms and abrupt melodic about-faces that sounded both slick and archaic at the same time.  It didn't have much in the way of dynamic variety, but I came to really like how it ambled along, seemingly unconcerned with whatever else it could have sounded like.  The "eccentricities" of it -- really, the whole unique architecture of rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic elements -- always informed rather than distracted from every aspect of Monk's music.  Sui generis in the most literal and very best sense of the term.

In that sense, I suppose, maybe the Grateful Dead are kindred spirits.  I have been in a stage of not listening to much Dead or Garcia, but whenever I come back to their music, I'm struck by the ways that it contrasts with anything else I listen to.  The Dead's unique rhythm is, I think, the standout characteristic of their music that goes the least discussed, and it's maybe the most immediate thing that separates them as a band from their contemporaries or followers -- you can imitate Garcia's style, but no one's come close to really imitating the Dead as a unit.  They were a rock band, of course, and so they played with the dynamics and emotional range befitting a rock band, but there was always a kind of clunky element to their rhythm.  I don't mean clunky in a negative way, although I do think it's something that stands out prominently to people who don't like the Dead -- my wife, who prefers the JGB, once commented that the Dead sound like one guitar player and a bunch of drummers, and I've heard the joke more than once that the Mickey and Billy sound like sneakers in a dryer.  Garcia was always the most rhythmically centered of the band -- Phil and Bob, on the other hand, had some real clunk.  I think that the band's change from the rhythmic and sonic density of the "primal Dead" era to the more stripped-down sound of the early 70's made more room for Bob and Phil to develop their own particular kinds of of clunk.  Mickey's return in 1975 served to clunk up the sound even more -- again, something that many deadheads who strongly prefer 1971-74 can't always get down with.  None of this is meant to imply that the Dead didn't groove or swing: they most certainly did, but what reliably makes them recognizably the Dead is that there are always rhythmic hiccups and bumps jutting out at odd angles, that sense of something a little chaotic always churning down in the engine room.

In a direct musical sense, there's nothing particularly Monk-ish about it (and, going back to Coltrane, even Bob's clunk comes partially from McCoy Tyner).  I think it's interesting, however, that both Monk and the Dead were defined in part by their unique approaches to rhythm in their respective musical genres -- both were iconic figures in those genres and both are still, I would argue, relatively misunderstood given how famous their music is.  So many of Monk's songs are deeply embedded in the common repertoire of jazz, but much about his music remains misunderstood and misrepresented.  So too with the Dead, whose music contains dimensions that are misunderstood (or not engaged with?) by so many who claim their influence.   Both carved out paths through the landscape of American music, the kind that makes music better even for those who aren't fans of their music.  So in that sense, Monk and the Dead maybe aren't as far apart as you might think.

Then again, maybe I'm just having fun with this thought exercise.  But that's no reason not to go and listen to some Monk.  If you didn't get to it this week, that's cool: you have all of this centennial year to catch up.

bonus: one of my favorite jazz writers, the pianist Ethan Iverson, posted an unbelievably thorough overview of pretty much all thinks Monk: the recordings, the tunes, the critical writings, major tributes, and more.  Any Monk fan who wants to dig deeper couldn't ask for a better roadmap than this:

edit: Thanks to lightintoashes for reminding me that Monk did play the Carousel Ballroom in San Francisco on May 3-5, 1968, right in the middle of the short period that the venue was being managed collectively by the Dead and the Jefferson Airplane (I think Ron Rakow was doing the actual managing?).  Columbia Records and Monk’s management were looking to boost Monk’s low sales by courting the white rock market (his then-current album Underground was being heavily marketed accordingly), so Monk was booked to play a hip rock venue in addition to his usual Bay Area club and festival appearances.  Robin D.G. Kelley, author of the definitive Monk bio, has a good piece about this failed crossover bid here.  I wonder why Monk didn’t play the Fillmore for Bill Graham instead — maybe it was too last minute, maybe Monk didn’t want to be an opening act, maybe the Carousel paid better, who knows?  It’s not much of a musical connection, since the Dead were in New York and couldn’t even see Monk play (though lightintoashes points out that Bear did tape the Monk shows), but it’s worth noting.  Maybe someone from the band may fondly remember that their short-lived venture produced this unique Monk gig.

by Rick Shubb, with some info at his website

Sunday, August 27, 2017

9/29/77: two things for your consideration

…so, given what Garcia said in the interview about this show, of course I couldn’t resist checking it out: 9/29/77 at the Paramount Northwest in Seattle, a brokendown old 4000-seater that the Dead had also played in ’72.  What the bandmembers reportedly liked or didn’t like doesn’t usually line up with what I like or don’t like, but I can never resist checking out a left-field recommendation like this, particularly when its a show I had ignored in the past.  Overall, it’s a lovely Bettyboard tape of a solid ’77 stomper, nothing too fancy, save for two remarkable things:

The first set closes with an unusual powerhouse trio: Sugaree, Let it Grow, and Franklin’s Tower.  Um, whaat?  The Sugaree is marred by a nasty cut in the second jam which axes some prime moments of excitement, but there’s still plenty to enjoy.  Let it Grow is a nice exemplar of their fall ’77 strengths, and is remarkably good given that they hadn’t played it in almost a year (the last time was 10/2/76).  That's no small feat, but they must have been feeling good enough to roll out another 17 minutes of Franklin’s Tower!  It bounces and rolls along like the gentler ’76 versions rather than the raging spring ’77 ones, but it’s such a nice surprise and they sound so fully locked in that I loved every minute of it.  Despite some long cruising stretches, there are plenty of moments to treasure: try Jerry crooning around 13:30 over Donna’s and Bob’s soft backing vocals.

The first half of the second set is unremarkably well played, but the post-drums segment is worth a look and imho is the highlight of the show.  Truckin’ had recently returned to duty at Englishtown a couple of weeks prior, so it’s a little stiff at first, but they open it up into a strong jam with two nice peaks, then change gears and ease down into a great Stella Blue as smoothly as can be.  Stella is beautifully executed, with a gorgeous solo and a final jam that begins with Garcia on slide for a bit, then slowly brings up the intensity for another surprising yet silk-smooth transition into GDTRFB — the effect is similar to the more famous Stella>NFA from 12/19/78, if somewhat less powerful.  They’re flying high now, and after a satisfying AWBYGN coda they break off a final Johnny B. Goode and a sweet Uncle John’s encore, two songs that I hold to be signs that the band was acknowledging that something unusually special had just happened. 

There are plenty of ’77 shows that most anyone would understandably reach for before this.  But if — like me — it’s taken you this long to catch up with this one, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised by how sweet the band sounds during that last lap around.  According to Garcia, so was the band.