That struck me more than once last night as I listened to a truly amazing yet strangely under-recognized performance from one of the Dead's most heralded years and felt the need to trumpet its greatness. I'm talking about the last night of the Dead's London run in Sept 1974, released in small part on Dick's Picks which ignored the towering highlight. This short European tour seems pretty universally dismissed as a poorer run of shows, with one glowing exception (9/18/74), and in my own unscientific observation it seems like the three London shows are overlooked because of their official release status.
Confession: 1974 is seen by many as a high watermark for the Dead, and I agree in theory, but in practice I find a good deal of 74 to be a little too, well, I dunno, too coked out. It's still one of their best years and has some of their very best moments, but it also has a fair bit of spiky, edgy jamming that makes my gums throb and my cheekbones ache. Coupled with the flatter feel of many of those 1974 sbd recordings, I find myself gravitating more towards 1972-73 or 1976 these days (and yes, I'm aware of the irony of writing this on the anniversary of 6/18/74, one of the finest shows of the year). There's extramusical stuff that colors how I hear this year, too: the amazing but cripplingly extravagant Wall of Sound itself, the band's dissatisfaction with playing larger and more impersonal venues, the increasing intensity/insularity of the behind-the-scenes scene, the growing dependence on cocaine to keep the whole train moving. It all sounds like one hell of a pressure cooker, and I do think the music reflects that to a significant extent, as brilliant as it often was.
I bring this up because, according to various sources, most of these things came to head on this last night of their London stand. Someone's book (Rock Scully's?) tells a tantalizing and hopefully not too good to be true tale of the organization's collective coke problem getting so out of hand that one of the roadies finally called for everyone to empty all of their stashes onstage that afternoon and sacrificially light the whole pile ablaze. Ned Lagin picks up the story and relates how the band huddled up and agreed to reset the levels and engage in a little lysergic purification (he explicitly says so in the interview in Gans' book and hints at it here).
So inevitably that may color your listening to this, too. It certainly colors mine. There are a number of shows where folklore has it that the band were all tripping -- we seem to festishize some (8/27/72 and 5/11/78 come to mind) and don't make much of others, for whatever reason (I feel like this is rarely brought up about any of the Oct 74 Winterland shows). 9/11/74 seems to fall into the latter category. You go down a slippery slope once you start trying to identify indicators of pscyhotropic drugs that are evident in music. I don't know that the Dead sound different when they're suitably dosed vs. relatively sober (or on something else), but I dunno, there's just a different kind of a vibe. It may be pure conjecture, but this night feels like it has that vibe all over it.
Granted, another contributing factor may be the recording. I listened to this fine new matrix blending the meh sbd with an impressive audience recording. Let's hope these good people are able to put one together for the night before as well!
There are folks who don't get much out of 73-74 era first sets, and I get that, but this one seems to me like it shimmers a little more than usual. The matrix helps to really highlight some of the dyanmics that are usually missing many 1974 sbds, so that's certainly a contributing factor -- Sugaree is an example of a tune from this period that rarely jumps out at me, but the dynamic contrasts that are highlighed by the roomy ambiance here really bring it to life. Little details kept jumping out at me throughout: Donna's little patch of scatting (as opposed to oooh'ing glossolalia) in the crackling Scarlet jam, Jerry's daredevil little fills under Bob's vocals in Jack Straw, Phil's divebombing runs in Big River... all this stuff gives a very well-played set a little extra sparkle. Only Bobby McGee seems to wobble and struggle to stay upright. The closing Playing in the Band seems to deviate slightly but significantly from many other Playin's that characterize the year for me: the first half seems content to revel in its own environment rather than charge forward, but it never feels stagnant or dull to me. The second half builds a little more purposefully, but without the single-minded, teeth-clenched determination of many Playin' jams of this vintage. They push and pull at it, never too forcefully, gradually building a delicious kind of tension, which Jerry finally resolves with a little mini-Tiger rush at the end, although here it feels less like a harried, hard-won peak and more like finally letting steam out of a valve. Phew! Some ride.
The second set, though, is what puts this in the upper tier of 1974 jams, and, if pressed, I would probably say, of 1971-74 jams in my book. It could have been included on the Dick's Picks release (the sbd is under 74 minutes), but I guess I can see why it wasn't. I suspect most heads would prefer to pass on Phil & Ned's sets, and even if you're one of them, don't automatically pass on this one: many of them could be ear-splittingly jagged (like the next one on 9/14/74), but some could be softer, developing more organically and gently, and I would put this one with that bunch. The first few minutes seem like Ned alone, patiently sending synth waves spiraling and twisting slowly out into the void, almost curiously probing. It's not all smooth sailing, of course, but it never gets abrasive. Billy appears, then Jerry, then eventually Bob, and Ned seems to mostly abandon the synthesizers and moves to his Rhodes piano. This is pure Brain Moss Music, difficult to describe, palpably psychedelic, and deeply, deeply in a groove of its own. They never played like this after 1976. Eventually Eyes of the World appears on the horizon, and I love how it takes them seven more minutes to fully their get space together and begin it for real -- you don't often hear them find their way into a new song, cue it up, then back away so completely. In one of the rare instances that his contributions to a full-band jam is audible, Ned adds some acrobatic keyboard lines as Keith comps behind him, and while this Eyes doesn't quite take flight and soar like others from the year, it doesn't have to. They're already deep under the sea, so why bother to surface? Eyes works through its changes brilliantly, finds its way to another nameless jam for another full ten minutes, and winding down with Wharf Rat. Monstrous, leviathan, beautifully strange music, flowing and expanding in the moment as naturally as breath or speech or thought, up there with some of the best that the Dead created. And from the looks of it, it was a beautiful old brokedown palace in which to have this experience:
|the Alexandra Palace in 1974 (at an international darts championship!)|
Phil announces a break to break down Ned's equipment and adds a spacey little comment, "Everybody turn around, look at your neighbor, and smile or something, like naaaah..." Like whaaa? It definitely sounds like everyone could use a little break. The boys return for a perfunctory final mini-set, another half hour or so of reentry music to get everyone back on their feet and back in their minds. The first few tunes are actually pretty hot and energetic, but by the time they get to Sugar Magnolia, it's clear that they're absolutely spent. Phil takes the mic again, "Thanks a lot folks. We couldn't have done it without you."