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.

10/2/77: "I'd be back here talking to the walls"

I was checking out the recording of a backstage “interview” with Garcia from 10/2/77 (Portland, OR), looking for info about his guitar strings, and I wound up listening to the whole thing.  It's about 36 minutes and actually not much of an interview, more like Jerry waiting around and making small talk in his dressing room with a couple of guys and a woman, who sound maybe like they’re music students at Reed College.  They’re all doing coke and swapping stories about cops, travels abroad, food, and so on.  One of the guys wants to book the JGB at Reed but can’t get a hold of Richard Loren, which Garcia doesn’t bat an eye at: “He’s a lot like me, he doesn’t want to know about anything, he doesn’t want to work fundamentally.”  There’s some talk about the upcoming Egypt trip, which at that point sounds far from definite and seems to be kind of a finale to their planned European tour (also, “Bill Graham’s trying to hustle a scene where we’d play for free in Red Square in Moscow”!).  Garcia is dismissive of their rusty playing at Englishtown, but says that the band -- unusually -- loved their performance in Seattle on 9/29.

There were two things really stuck with me, though.  The first is some of the guitar talk.  Garcia says that he's playing his newly-returned Wolf guitar instead of his Travis Bean.  Deadbase notes that the last time Garcia played the TB was on 10/16/77, so I had always assumed that the Wolf came back into action for that final Oct-Nov leg (and may have been a contributing factor to those mostly particularly amazingly hot shows).  But apparently not.

Then they get on the subject of guitar strings.  For a good bit of the conversation, Garcia is restringing and tuning his guitar while he talks.  He tells them he's playing pure steel strings (Vinci’s), so they rust quickly and need to be changed every show, sometimes twice a show.  “Jeez, I hate this,” he gripes. “This is really the most miserable part of music, tuning.“  A few minutes later, while he’s still working at it: “I hate this, this is so fucking boring.”  I’m sure most every guitarist out there would agree with him.  But what rock star of Garcia’s caliber changes his own strings?  Isn’t that what guitar techs or roadies are for?  I’d think that would be the first thing you would hand off to a crewmember, but nope, here’s ol’ Jer twisting away and bitching about what a pain in the neck it is to change your strings.  Hmm.

The other thing is how casual Garcia is about the whole encounter.  Again, I don’t know who these folks were, but Jerry doesn’t seem to know them very well, yet is perfectly happy for the company.  This was a guy who, by all accounts, was pretty constantly swamped by hangers-on, friends-of-friends, and every other character who had something to get off his or her chest or needed something from him (remember the "do you give banjo lessons?" lady).  Eventually he’s summoned for the soundcheck, and his guests take their cue to leave.
JG: This has been great fun.
?: Thank you very much for your time.
JG: Yeah, it’s cool.  My time is not… I mean, y’know, I’d be back here talking to the walls if I wasn’t… you guys don’t have to leave if you don’t want.

He sounds completely genuine, and offers more than once to get all three of them on his guest list so that they can stick around backstage.  Between that and the guitar strings, he really comes across as the antithesis of any kind of celebrity or even professional musician.  That probably comes across as no surprise to anyone reading this blog, but still, it’s intriguing to hear it unfold in real time, particularly given what we know about the nature of band’s behind-the-scenes scene, what it had already resulted in, and where it would all lead him.

edit: jgmf once posted a comment made by Bob Weir about the nature of Garcia's life offstage w/r/t celebrity, ca 1980.  I assume it couldn't have been all that different three years earlier, yet Garcia doesn't seem guarded or even put-out in any way in this (admittedly maybe non-representative?) exchange with some fans.

Monday, July 24, 2017

4/9/83: quickie check-in

Just a quick snapshot of a fun second set that got me through some tedious home repairs today.
  • the first show of the April east coast tour.  Hampton.  Yes.
  • the east coast breakout of Help>Slip>Franklins.  Baboom!  I like how Phil drops a giant bomb @3:17 in the Slipknot jam to avert a possible trainwreck as they stumble into the closing melody.
  • the jam after Truckin has very clear Spoonful and Smokestack Lightnin’ teases, then finds its way into an Other One jam, Jerry bails early, and Brent picks up the ball with some weird electric piano sound — nothing far out, but his tone reminds me of Sun Ra for some reason.
  • the same kind of thing is happening in the Throwing Stones mid-song jam: 80’s keyboard haters won’t like it, but I think it sounds pretty cool.  Go Brent!  Nice climax here.  Then it ends with a little transition jam: at 7:46, Jerry starts playing a little chromatic thing that sounds like a mini-Mind Left Body jam, though it’s probably just a clever way for him to get into Black Peter.
  • a post-drumz Jerry twofer with Black Peter > GDTRFB.  Well played, sir.
 Fun set.  The China>Rider that closed the first set was mighty nice itself.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

4/17/79: we in church today!

wrong Nicasio gig, but I love this poster

Good gravy, this place was tiny!  According to jgbp, the Rancho Nicasio was a resturant/bar that held all of 150 people, in a tiny, idyllic Marin County enclave.  Their site has some nice pictures (funny coincidence, but Peter Rowan and the Rowan Bros are playing there tonight.  Anyone got an extra (plane) ticket?).  I assume the place was far enough off the beaten path that most Bay Area heads wouldn’t have bothered (I get that sense from posts like this about west coast deadheads’ willingness to travel in the late 70’s).  But thankfully taper Phil Jaret did, and his recording is the only one that we’ve got at the moment (the newer transfer is pitch-corrected).  It’s a pretty good, upfront recording that sounds fine on headphones.  Not pristine, but it hits all the right spots and is plenty satisfying, and the music makes it well worth it.

The main reason to sing its praises is another (heretofore unknown to me) version of the mighty Sama Layuca, mislabeled in both filesets as Welcome to the Basement.  It’s not quite as wild as the nutso 3/30/79 performance (ahem), mainly because only Ed Neumeister and Garcia take solos (Ron Stallings, Merl, and John Kahn all get moments in the 3/30 version).  But holy moley, they throw down hard here.  Garcia’s chomping at the bit, but Neumeister goes first.  The band grooves hard underneath him, slowly loosens their grip, lets it get wild and hairy, then locks it back down, then loosens up again, and so on.  I don’t know if Stallings was having a problem with his horn, but there’s a bit of float-time after Neumeister’s solo until Garcia steps up to bat and just nails it.  After the same wild back-and-forth, it spills into some loud noisy space — listen close to how seamlessly Gaylord Birch snaps back into the groove of the song as the return for the ending.  He’s such a fantastic drummer: over a very fast tempo (like 175 bpm), he easily shifts from tight control to unhinged freer playing with nary a stumble.  Impressive!  I associate him mainly with funk and R&B, but he more than holds his own in a freer context like this.

The rest of the show is pretty hot, too.  Less than a week before the Dead debuted with Brent Mydland [edit: there's a long rehearsal tape that circulates dated 4/16/79], Garcia sounds like he’s pushing harder than usual.  He’s particular on fire during a breathtaking tear through Another Star — very fast, but precise, and totally synched up with the horns’ accompaniment that structures the solo.  He comes to a great (and perfectly timed) climax, then basically starts over immediately for a second go-round!  He also seems pretty fired up for a long Soul Roach, not a song that usually registers for me, but he’s really belting here.  Linda Chicana, Mohican and the Great Spirit, Long Train Running; all the instrumentals sound great, and they dig in pretty hard on the vocal rave-ups Lovely Night for Dancing and Make It Better.  After the a cappella ending to Lovely Night, Merl says something like, “yeah, we in church today!”  Amen to that, Merl.

postscript: if you're inclined, take a close listen to Ron Stallings' sax solo in the show-closing Long Train Running.  That sounds like a soprano sax after his tenor solo, but the transition sounds way too fast for it to be Stallings switching horns (he does play soprano in Sama Layuca, though).  Could it be a guest musician?  Jaret's aud tape is tightly edited between most songs, so if something was said, we don't have it.  It's no big thing, but it's worth noting.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

7/3/77: throw the windows open wide

1/13/77, courtesy David Brady

While 1977 was a storied year for the Dead, the JGB wasn’t hitting the same stride.  There seems to have been some experimentation with personnel — pedal steel guitarist John Rich was apparently offered a spot in the band and played three gigs with them in Dec 1976 (he turned down the offer), and there is an unknown rhythm guitar player who plays at a few shows in early ’77.  Keith was also experimenting a bit with a Moog synthesizer, which didn’t last for long (he also played it intermittently on some of the earlier GD spring tour shows).  The Dead were working on Terrapin Station in Los Angeles and playing their typical amount of shows, and Ron Tutt was also on the road a lot with Elvis in the first half of ’77.  My guess is that they just weren’t in their usual groove, and I think this shows in a lot of earlier ’77 JGB shows, most of which leave me pretty cold.  Given how up in the air things seem to have been, I can see why there weren’t a lot of sweet spots.

Not that there aren’t any: the 6/23/77 benefit gig and the first Pure Jerry release from July 1977 have their moments, and I’ve always been partial to 8/7/77 (this older source).  For the past couple of days, I’ve been relistening to 7/3/77 at the Keystone Palo Alto, a wonderful Bettyboard tape of the second set, and it’s as sweet as can be.  It’s not perfect, but it’s got a lot going for it, particularly if your summer priorities are pretty modest.

It's five songs in just under 70 minutes.  The Harder They Come is a tune that doesn’t always do it for me — more than other songs, it often seems to reveal the weaknesses of whatever lineup was playing it — but this one is, oh yes, just exactly perfect to my ears.  Ron Tutt must been brushing up on his reggae chops and sounds excellent here, throwing down like, well, not like Kingston’s finest, but about as well as a first-call Nashville session guy in 1977 was going to sound on this stuff.  Jerry and Keith are both in top form, and, unusually, Maria Muldaur appears to be providing the sole backing vocal.  I believe Donna was recovering from an illness and didn’t make the band's brief east coast trip a few days later, and she appears to have skipped these two Palo Alto gigs as well (July 2 and 3).   Muldaur was no stranger, of course, but I don't think she had sang onstage with Garcia since '74.  She was still involved with John Kahn, but maybe she was also returning the favor for the band's appearance at her recent benefit?  I wonder if her presence did something to inspire them tonight.  Simple Twist is also a cut above: again, Tutt rises above his usual excellence, keeping things dynamic and interesting, and Jerry gives it his all vocally (check the “he woke up, the room was bare” verse).  Mystery Train chugs and simmers like the best ’77 GD Big Rivers in slow motion.  Knockin’ is the only blemish: it sounds like they were still ironing out the kinks in the newer arrangement that the JGB played for the rest of their career (straight tempo verses > reggae chorus), and, like most other versions, it doesn’t really need to be 16 minutes long, but all is forgiven when Jerry starts pouring out his heart in those solos.  An early Tangled closes the night, with a much lighter feel than later versions, and some quietly strong solos that are hitting the spot for me today.  Three Dylan tunes out of five?  That may be some kind of record.

Did I mention that this tape sounds fantastic?  Thanks again, Betty!

Muldaur's then current album

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

7/17/82: a little beach music

This isn't exactly a rave review, but this show's setlist inspired some curiosity while I was puttering around at work, and, frankly, I'm ready for the beach myself.  The FOB aud quality is very, very good.  And who doesn't like their Dead with some palm trees in the background?

courtesy Airplane Life

1982 shares the dubious honor with 1986 as being my least favorite year of the Dead’s “early Brent” pre-coma period.  Unlike other fallow periods, there’s nothing egregiously “wrong” with it, but -- for me -- most of the performances occupy a kind of gray zone between the sharp, creative playing of 1980-81 and the ragged, hare-brained (and, yes, hirsute) intensity of 1983-84.  Jerry was still keeping it together, Phil wasn’t quite back in the saddle yet, Brent ditched his older electric piano for a faux-acoustic one, and it all sounds, I dunno, a little too polite; I don't want to say autopilot, but there's not a lot of sweat in the music.  There are certainly a few shows that prove me wrong, but they’re outliers.  And yet, perversely, I’m periodically drawn back to it, partly to see if I can pin down what exactly I don’t like about it (who has time for that? I do, apparently) and partly just for the pleasure of rooting around for some undiscovered gem.  This show, sporting an attractive setlist, isn’t exactly that.  But it’s a nice show.

The first set is model '82: no clams, no shamefully bad vocals, a decent performance all around, and almost none of it stuck on me.  Althea has a heavy groove, but the only other standout was the surprising (unprecedented?) call of Truckin’ as the set closer.  Huh?  Not only that, but they rock it for almost 11 minutes and, a couple of slips notwithstanding, it's pretty strong.  Towards the end it almost feels like they’ve forgotten that they’re not deeper in the 2nd set, before yanking back for a big explosive finale.

To be fair, they did get creative with some setlist choices in 82, often structured around Playing in the Band.  Here’s a vintage example of a “Playin’ sandwich” kind of set: they forego an opening rocker and dive right in, swim around in it for a bit with an airy, vaguely ominous feel: clear and nicely textured yet shallow waters, perhaps.  It sounds like China Doll is coming, but Jerry switches things up with China Cat instead, another very unusual selection.  Not bad!  The guitars are way up in the mix here, making for an extra changly jam, and Phil seems sufficiently roused by the time Rider comes around.  Ol’ Jer belts out a good “headlight” line, and at the end they make a well-timed drop right into Estimated.  Not much to note here; it’s a typically fine one with one flub coming out of the bridge (“like a swiss watch,” Bob quickly quips) and a decent jam that trails off into the early 80's standard Jerry-less jam with Bob and Brent (and briefly Phil) splashing around for a few miunutes.  Not bad as those things go.  A brief Drums, a briefly noisy Space, a long Wheel complete with lengthy prelude and a pretty outro (an ideal groove for this show, actually), back into Playin’, then a goofy Bob closing twofer, and it’s all over now, baby blue.

This music, like a lot of the year, wafts by pleasantly without really getting its hooks into me; it’s got toes but no claws.  Or, to borrow from Thom Gunn, “the music comes and goes on the wind / comes and goes on the brain.”

I’m ready for summer.

(these shows, incidentally, were the first of several years' worth of "weekend at the beach" shows in Ventura)