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)

Monday, June 5, 2017

hirsute heroics

A Monday morning moment of zen, courtesy of an old NYT article (on a free Airplane/Butterfield/Dead show in NYC's Central Park on 5/5/68) that I dug up at lightintoashes' behest.

The other chuckle is that many of the hippies in attendance were apparently throwing "lollipops" onstage to show their appreciation.  Crazy kids.

Kifner, John.  "6,000 in Park Rock to West Coast Sound."  The New York Times, 6 May 1968.  Web.

In hirsute pursuit of virtuosity: at Columbia two days earlier; courtesy Rosie McGee

Friday, June 2, 2017

July 74: nothing's weirder than coming to New York

July 74, Bottom Line, unknown
[edit: apparently this dating has been hotly debated]
I had been meaning to give these two July 1974 Bottom Line shows a relisten for a while, but was prompted to do so both by an unknown comment asking about Garcia's performances without Kahn and also by a small discovery that turned out to be pretty well-documented already.  The Garcia/Saunders band came to New York for the second time on July 1-3, 1974, at the tail end of a Dead tour; the first time in Sept 1973 was similarly affixed to a larger Dead tour, but otherwise it wasn't typical for Garcia's side projects to piggyback like this on the Dead's road schedule.  My understanding was that these 1974 shows were booked because Garcia had just released his Compliments album a week earlier, and that that making the gig happen was relatively easy: the Dead's tour ended in Springfield, MA on 6/30, so Garcia, Kreutzmann, and the crew could scoot down to NYC for a couple more gigs; Kahn was already in the area performing with Maria Muldaur, and Saunders had to hop on a plane.  Martin Fierro was either still a too-casual addition to get the call, or he was engaged elsewhere (he doesn't play on the band's next two July gigs in San Francisco either, but he's on every other recording from the year).  But I had overlooked the fact that the Dead's tour wasn't actually over: they had another show booked at the University of Wisconsin, a planned Fourth of July blowout with Eric Clapton and the Band.  Panicked locals shut it down, and the remainder of the band and crew spent four days running up hotel bills, getting up to no good (see Ned Lagin's entry for 7/4/74 here), and scandalizing the local Kiwanis Club.  It makes no real difference in the big picture, but it does paint a slightly interesting picture of Garcia and Kruetzmann heading out to work while the rest of the band was waiting around in a hotel in Wisconsin, but anyway.  Given all that, you might think that these would be big shows in the minds of many listeners, but my sense is that they aren't.

Some more sources fill in some more coloful context.  Thanks to JGMF's detailed reading notes from manager Richard Loren's book, I learned second-hand that
"On the Fourth of July weekend, the Garcia-Saunders Band was playing in New York at the Bottom Line on West Fourth Street in Greenwich Village. The Dead had just finished an East Coast tour, and Jerry's Compliments album had been recently released. The owners of the Bottom Line had contacted me back in February, offering a four-show engagement for the Garcia-Saunders Band, and we'd accepted. I arranged for John Kahn and Merl to fly in, and John brought along his girlfriend at the time, Maria Muldaur, who was riding high on her hit single "Midnight at the Oasis." She sat in as a guest vocalist, and the group was hot. Word got out, and lines stretched around the block for every show. The Bottom Line was the happening place to be in the city, and all sorts of people were showing up."
and I found this review in the New York Times [1]
"Last Friday [June 28] it was announced -- on radio only -- that something called Merl Saunders and friends would be at the Bottom Line Monday and Tuesday [July 1-2]. The place was immediately sold out, another show added late Wednesday, and security guards engaged to repel the hordes. Scalpers reportedly enjoyed a field day outside the door. For Dead fans know that Merl Saunders and friends include not only Mr. Saunders, a first-rate organist, electric pianist, and synthesizerist with an impressive jazz background, and John Kahn, an excellent bass player, but also Bill Kreutzmann, the Dead's drummer and Mr. Garcia on guitar."
stub courtesy lostlivedead

Unlike later Bottom Line appearances (in November '74 and April '75), these July gigs weren't early/late show arrangements.  Steeleye Span headlined the early shows, and "Merl Saunders & Friends" had the late shows.

The music is good, but most of it (with one notable exception) doesn't do it for me the way that a lot of '74 Garcia/Saunders does.  Part of it, admittedly, has something to do with the recording: given the circumstances, Jerry Moore's tapes of 7/2 and 7/3 are about as good as it was going to get, but it's still a recording made with mics hidden on a tabletop in a packed nightclub.  I also miss Fierro.  His playing polarizes a lot of listeners, but I think he was a talented player who fit well with the music and added some welcome color to the front line.

The Bottom Line was, at the time, the premiere rock & roll club in Manhattan, and, while I'm sure that a vaguely billed Jerry Garcia show (vaguely promoting an album on his own independent label) wouldn't have been the industry feeding frenzy that other Bottom Line showcases were, I'll bet that a whole mess of freaks came out of the woodwork.  I think the Bottom Line and the Keystone were roughly the same capacity rooms (400ish?), but the difference in atmosphere was probably night and day.  As Corry put it, "it was actually on the East Coast where the Dead became really huge, and Garcia became larger than life... the Dead could headline Madison Square Garden, and a few weeks later Garcia would play this bar [in Berkeley] where he had to walk through the crowd to get to the stage."  In addition to a hearty number of rabid heads who hadn't seen a local show in a while, the NYC chapter of the Hells Angels must have also been out in full force, not to mention anyone else who wanted a piece of Jerry (hell, John Lennon showed up drunk and belligerent when they came back in November).  So while it wasn't the Wall of Sound, I doubt it was a real relaxing time, either. Maybe all that's projection or conjecture that's unfairly coloring my impressions of this tape?  My impression is that they hit some high moments but don't really settle into the kind of sustained groove that was easier to conjure on more relaxed home turf, that vibe that carries the music along with it, until the second set of the final night.

We have no recording of the first night, and although there's a setlist, I wonder if any official tape exists -- Kidd Candelario had been taping the Dead's shows, but he probably would have been with the crew in Wisconsin, and I don't think Betty was working this tour at all.  For what it's worth, the NY Times review (above) liked it:
"The early show on Monday fulfilled the wishes of most of the Dead's fans present (and the late show that night apparently went even better). Mr. Saunders was satisfying virtuosic [sic], Mr. Garcia unleashed his customary brand of introverted and extroverted blues guitar, Maria Muldaur bounced onstage for a song, and in general the group blended jazz, blues, country and Dead funk in satisfying proportion." [1] [note: I think he means first/second set instead of early/late show]

7/2, the second night, has its moments, but I find it to be an inconsistent performance.  The first set is mostly strong but unremarkable.  My Funny Valentine gets the frothiest: after a fairly tame start, they get looser and woolier as they roll through its 23 minutes, but there's a bummer of a cut as Garcia is moving to the top of one his solos (@11:40ish).  Still, they slowly unmoor themselves from the song itself and boil to a spacey, tumbling climax, with Garcia trilling heatedly before walking down neatly back into the melody.  Very nice!  Roger "Jellyroll" Troy appears in the 2nd set to sing How Long Blues.  As far as guests go, he was an infrequent regular: we have tape of a couple of earlier sit-ins, and he was in the Howard Wales group that Garcia toured briefly with in Jan 72.  I'm not a big fan of Troy's singing style or his more aggressive bass playing (it reminds me a little of Jack Casady), but he was clearly a strong musician who was welcome onstage with some heavies (I see that Troy also guests on a Mike Bloomfield/Al Kooper Bottom Line recording from a few months earlier).  Garcia peels off a really nice solo in It's Too Late,  but nothing else in the set does much for me: After Midnight seems to never get off the ground, and My Problems Got Problems feels good but is much shorter than most other versions.  Garcia introduces Troy again at the end of the set, so maybe he's also sitting in for the closing How Sweet It Is?  A word for the audience, though: Moore's recording captures a crowd that's clearly hanging on every note, but is also listening hard and respectfully, with very little of the usual "Jerreee! Casey Jones! Dark Star!" hubbub.

Roger Troy 1/29/72 - courtesy GDAO
The last night, 7/3, is where something special happens.  The first set kicks off in high gear, but fumbles a bit at the end with a fairly leaden Mystery Train and a pretty sloppy but spirited Harder They Come with Maria Muldaur chipping in (I'm not hearing any second female vocalist like some setlists note).  The second set, however, is pretty unusual for the year, and is worth hearing both on its own terms and as a complement to some of the Dead's June 74 music.  Roger Troy returns for two more blues numbers, again with some questionable (imho) vocals but with ample space for Garcia to dig into some heavier blues, which sounds excellent.  But then Troy launches into a more upbeat bassline, kicking off a freeform (though not particularly spacey) jam that everyone pounces on.  The G/S band weren't strangers to exploring uncharted waters, but by '74 it had become less of a common practice, so this stands out as a late example of Garcia being willing to push the limits -- not surprising, given how often the Dead were doing this over the preceding weeks.  For as outsized as Troy could be on the straighter blues tunes, he's a great fit for the funky but less structured expedition here, just as he was on the 1/26/72 tape of the Wales/Garcia group.  While it's not at the superhuman levels of many of the Dead's June 74 improvisations (ahem), it's not just a funky blues vamp either, and they take enough twists and turns over the next 17 minutes to keep it interesting and consistently engaging; Garcia and Saunders pass the baton back and forth, Kreutzmann gets a solo, and after all of them dive back in for more, Garcia ends it masterfully by threading everything into an uptempo instrumental Summertime, a rarity that we have no recording of him playing since Jan '73.  How Sweet it Is closes the night again, this time with Muldaur joining on backup vocals and wishing everyone a happy Independence Day once it's done.  I can't tell if John Kahn returns to the bass or not, but either way, it's very unusual to hear nearly a whole set without him, particularly given how exploratory a lot of the playing is.
Garcia & Troy, 1/29/72, courtesy GDAO

For as far from the Keystone or the Lion's Share as they were, it's fitting that Garcia managed to end what must have been a pretty grueling tour with a return to the unstructured, after-hours club vibe that gave birth to this band in the first place.  Like the guy said years earlier, "nothing's weirder than coming to New York."

A final bit of color: here's another nugget from the NY Times on the Bottom Line, from a slightly later puff piece on the club's classy amenities and high-end sound system.  "Big acts like Jerry Garcia or Leonard Cohen have been guaranteed from $5000 to $7500,” reports the Times (not bad for a 400 seat club?), who also reserve a few words for the Bottom Line's kitchen. "For West Coast rock and roll, like Jerry Garcia, ordering will be heavy on pizza, french fries, and Heinekens." [2]

[1] Rockwell, John. "Dead's Fans Know Who a Friend Is."  The New York Times, 5 July 1974. Web.
[2] Walker, Gerald. "The Rock Road Leads to The Bottom Line." The New York Times, 4 May 1975. Web.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Vitamin D JGB (Jerry outdoors)

Like I said in my my last post, Garcia's various solo endeavors didn't get outdoors very often for most of his career.  The magic of the outdoor show is a big part of Grateful Dead folklore and iconography (Haight Street, Veneta, the Frost and the Greek, and so on), but Garcia's side projects usually kept to far less idyllic locales.  But still, upon drawing up this little list, I was surprised just how few outdoor gigs he played during the Keystone era (1970's-1987).  In 1987, Bill Graham took over Garcia's solo bookings and he started playing some bigger outdoor venues both in California and on tour.  Before that, though, I think this is it:

10/3/71 -- Frost Amphitheatre, Palo Alto, CA.  Garcia/Saunders were on the bill at the Pamoja Jazz Concert (a benefit, I think?) with jazz artists Big Black and (wow) Bobby Hutcherson. (no recording).  Note that Garcia apparently also played later that night with the NRPS in Berkeley.  [see jgmf].

6/8/73 -- Warrenton Bluegrass Festival, Lake Whippoorwill, Warrenton, VA.  Old and in the Way.  Jerry Moore taped it and reported that the stage was a platform set up a few feet out in a lake.  Garcia's gig the following day also happened to be outdoors: a little shindig at RFK Stadium with the Dead and the Allman Brothers.

9/5/73 -- S.S. Bay Belle, New York City Harbor, NY.  Garcia/Saunders at a Hells Angels party.  No recording, but there's a brief clip of them in the Hells Angels Forever doc (starting @25:30ish; nsfw), and it looks like they're playing outside on the deck.

4/11/74 -- Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA.  Garcia/Saunders.  I wonder what the occasion was? (no recording)

4/27&28/74 -- Golden State Country Bluegrass Festival, San Rafael, CA.  Garcia played both with Old and in the Way and the Great American String Band.  jgmf has a series on the entire festival.

5/25/74 -- Campus Stadium, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA.  The Great American String Band was one of the opening acts for the Dead (apparently unbilled, along with the NRPS and Maria Muldaur).  How many times after 1971 was Garcia a part of his own opening act?  How did that banjo sound, pumping through the Wall of Sound?
5/25/74, source

9/2/74 -- Marx Meadows, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA.  Garcia/Saunders played the finale of a three-day People's Ballroom concert series (so, presumably, some sort of a benefit).

10/13/74 -- Santa Barbara Bowl, Santa Barbara, CA.  Garcia/Saunders with Maria Muldaur.  No recording, but the sky is visible in this nice picture:
10/13/74, courtesy Merl Saunders Jr. via jgmf

5/30/75 -- Marx Meadows, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA.  Garcia sits in with the Diga Rhythm Band (Zakir Hussein, Mickey Hart, et al) who were opening a free concert by the Jefferson Starship. [see lostlivedead].
5/30/75, via, courtesy Ron Draper?

6/8/75 -- El Camino Park, Palo Alto, CA.   "The Institute for Non-Violence Presents, A Day in the Park" on a Sunday afternoon with Merl Saunders & Jerry Garcia (technically not the Legion of Mary, since Ron Tutt was MIA) and Kingfish.  David Gans' photos of G/S are here and one of Kingfish here.

10/17/75 -- Concord Pavilion, Concord, CA.  JGB with Kingfish and the Keith & Donna Band.  A very similar bill had played Winterland four months earlier (there was no JGB yet, but "Jerry Garcia and Friends" headlined).  It turned out to be a surprise Dead show, so I'm sure everyone in the pavilion was salivating tonight, but no dice.  I don't know what the occasion for this was, but all three bands were touring the east coast shortly after this show, so maybe this was a convenient way for everyone to road test some gear in a larger venue and make a little more money than individual local club gigs would bring?

8/12/77 -- Pier 31, San Francisco, CA.  A Greenpeace benefit, with some well-known photos but no circulating recording.  This was may also be the last gig that Ron Tutt played with the JGB until 1981?
8/12/77, under a blue blue sky

9/7/81 -- Concord Pavilion, Concord, CA.  KMEL-FM's Labor Day concert [see lostlivedead].  A buck to see Jerry on Labor Day?  Might as well, might as well.  I think this show is very good, better than average for the period.  Kruetzmann was (briefly) back on drums and is really kicking things along here, and Garcia responds accordingly.

6/16/82 -- Music Mountain, South Fallsburg, NY.  JGB on tour with Bobby & the Midnights.  This is a rightfully well-known show, one of the very best from the 1981-82 lineup.  Attendees report a sunny evening during Jerry's set and a downpour during Bobby's (and look at Kreutzmann's little kit in front of Billy Cobham's monster setup!)

10/30/82 -- Mesa Amphitheater, Mesa, AZ.  Another JGB/Bobby split show (the Midnights played first this time): a solid, workmanlike set by the new lineup on the first night of their southwest/east coast tour, but nothing to write home about.  Judging from pics of the venue online, this is definitely outdoors.

7/24/83 -- Nevada County Fairgrounds, Grass Valley, CA.  JGB at the Sierra Sun Music Festival.  Another excellent, high-energy show, and one of David Kemper's first as a bandmember.  The Dead also played here two months later.
The Band gets top billing; they would open for the Dead on NYE that year

5/18/84 -- Irvine Meadows Amphitheater, Irvine, CA.  This show is smokin', but it was an unusual venue for the JGB to play in '84.  The Dead played here regularly in the mid 80's, and the JGB played here again in '89, '92, and '94, but what was the occasion for this particular show?  Robert Hunter opened, and it was also a radio broadcast.

8/11/84 -- Caldwell College, Caldwell, NJ.  "Concerts on the Hill."  While this JGB tour definitely had its moments, imho this show was only okay -- but it was outdoors.  [see jgmf].

8/18/85 -- Dunsmuir House & Gardens, Oakland, CA.  Garcia & Kahn acoustic.  No comment about the music, but this lovely photo reveals it to be both outdoors and quite sunny.
8/18/85, courtesy Tim Schonholtz

That's 19 times [more?*] in over 15 years, though I'm sure there are a few more from the early days that we don't know about.  In August 1987, the JGB played two back-to-back shows at venues that were both about as idyllic as it could get -- French's Camp on the Eel River and the Greek Theater -- and a new period began.  Call it the era of Vitamin D JGB?

* some questionables:

7/7/74 -- Shorebird Park, Berkeley Marina, Berkeley, CA.  An uncertain Great American String Band gig at an event that either never happened at all, or the GASB didn't play, or something else.  [see jgmf].

3/3/76 -- Lane County Fairgrounds, Veneta, OR.  Unlike another certain faire ground in Veneta, this one appears to have indoor facilities, so I assume it was inside.  But I don't know. [edit: the poster advertises the venue as the Lane County Fairground Auditorium Building, so that answers that question.  Note, however, that this is another Acidophilus Productions/Springfield Creamery show that, as far as I know, has gotten next-to-no notice in the GD/JG world.  c'est la vie.]

9/15/76 -- S.S. Duchess, New York City Harbor, NY.  Another Hells Angels party, but this time it looks pretty clearly like they're playing inside [youtube].

8/10/84 -- Rocky Glen Amusement Park, Moosic, PA.  I don't know if this was an outdoor venue or not.  There was a Rocky Glen Music Hall in Moosic, but there was also an outdoor music venue at the local amusement park too (or at least there was in the 1950's-60's, thanks to this old footage).  fwiw, unlike the next night, I think this is a strong show with some standout performances.  Stump your friends at your next GD Trivia Night with this one: name two adjacent years where Garcia played at an amusement park.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

9/2/74: it's nice to be back in the park

Quick [edit: ha!] hat-tip to this fantastic show, the mid-74 Garcia/Saunders band playing a one-set outdoor benefit in Golden Gate Park's Marx Meadow, lovingly recorded by Betty-Cantor Jackson.  As tempted as I am to make a big deal of the fact that it's a rare solo Garcia outdoor show, it's probably not that big a deal: Garcia/Saunders had played in the park that April (no tape), at the Santa Barbara Bowl in October (no tape), and at El Camino Park in Palo Alto the following June (tape!).  But Garcia's side bands usually were confined to indoor clubs until he outgrew them in the late 80's, and I suspect that being able to play out in the open would fire him up a bit more than usual.  Another thing worth pointing out is that the contrast between the GD world and "Garcia solo" world is particularly wide here: while the increasingly insular/unruly/semi-dysfunctional Dead organization had been dragging their Walls of Sound (two of them!) around the country and were about to take the whole coke-fueled circus to Europe in a few weeks, Garcia's side band was wrapping up a month's worth of local club and benefit gigs with an afternoon outdoor performance at his old stomping grounds in Golden Gate Park.  I think it's safe to assume that the guy was more than happy to be there.

Wall of sound...
6/30/74, courtesy James Anderson (no hard feelings, I hope)

vs. toadstool of sound?
9/2/74, courtesy Ed Merrin, though I've also seen this dated April 74?
Local color is supplied by this Berkeley Barb review, and amazingly there's a 4 minute clip of video (see jgmf) that reveals a remarkable amount about this gig.  We know for sure that Billy Kreutzmann is drumming (I would bet money that he was also drumming the night before, officially released in the Pure Jerry series, which erroneously credits Paul Humphrey), and that there's a second guest saxophonist that may be Snooky Flowers, and that there's at least one major equipment breakdown, which may indicate why this tape seems to have more buzzes and glitches than the average Bettyboard (given that it was probably a funkier technical situation than the usual circuit of Bay Area clubs?)

Anyway, the music is just wonderful: "simple precision and mountain lake clarity" indeed.  I presume it was a more-or-less 90 minute set, if Second That Emotion was the first tune (it sounds like Betty's getting her mix settled, so I'm assuming it was).  Expressway to Your Heart particularly soars -- as much as I love this song, I find G/S performances of it tend to be a little draggy as often as not, but this one really cruises along at a smooth pace from start to finish, and Garcia is in prime form.  The video reveals that Sitting in Limbo breaks down midway, stopping dead due to some technical issue; on the tape this is edited and sounds like a tape cut, but you can hear Kreutzmann and Garcia restarting the song as it's fading back in.  Until I saw the video, I had never noticed the baritone sax, which is very low in the mix and nearly inaudible at times compared to Martin Fierro, but Flowers(?) is a cool and unusual addition -- this band was pretty open to guests, but as far as we know, those were rarely saxophonists (for whatever reason, mystery trumpet player(s) were less unusual).  He sticks around for Neighbor, Neighbor and Mystery Train, both of which are outstanding versions (Billy K knew how to really swing Mystery Train), and Fierro and Garcia glide through a top-notch La-La, a tune that sounds made for a late summer afternoon in the park.  Jerry drily announces that the permit time is up and closes up with a fast, very energetic How Sweet It Is.

Summer '74 was a good time for this band, and I have to think that the exaggerated contrast between the Dead's unsustainably huge touring setup versus the casual local nature of these gigs must have played a part in that.  The June '74 shows with Tony Saunders on bass are outstanding, and I also particularly like 8/15, 8/30 (another shorter show in excellent sbd), and 8/31.  Then the great Paul Humphrey joined in October-November on drums, which is another story for another post.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Bird Song, 1970-1973

OK, so: years ago, I posted a version this on a now-defunct GD forum.  My plan was to create comprehensive overview of Bird Song, as performed from 1971-1995.  Life interfered, and I made it as far as 1988, but I’ve been feeling inspired to revive this dormant project (okay, and a certain all-star GD blogger has been politely reminding me for some time to get back to it), so I will begin by reposting what is already done. 

The idea was just to listen to every single version of Bird Song, take some notes, and make some observations on how the band’s approach to performance seemed to develop over time, with an ear to versions that stood out for whatever reason.  Rather than share all of those notes, I distilled them down into specific overviews for each year.

edit (the first of probably many): lightoashes mentioned this in the comments, but I wanted to put it up top: he recently posted an excellent piece that Hugh Barroll wrote in 1999 (unpublished) for the Taper's Compendium that covers the same ground as this, all the way to 1995.  I intend to get there eventually -- I get the sense that Barroll didn't undertake the fool's errand of relistening to every single version, which is what I'm attempting to do (maybe especially foolish, given that he and I seem to reach many of the same conclusions).  I don't remember ever seeing his piece before, and I'm not going to peek ahead and read his account of the years I haven't reached, but he did an excellent job.  Take a look:

THE BIRD SONG PROJECT, part 1: 1970-1973

7/31/71, courtesy Jim Anderson

Robert Hunter said that Bird Song was written in memory of Janis Joplin (who died Oct 4, 1970), but I don’t know if Jerry had the music worked out before that.  The earliest known recording is the Crosby/Garcia/Lesh/Kreutzmann(?) rehearsal tape that is typically dated 12/15/70 (info).  Among the tunes that the quartet runs through are fifteen minutes of work on the still un-debuted Bertha and three minutes of Bird Song, but neither of these tunes are performed on the group’s one known live recording.  It's tempting to think that Jerry may have messed around with Bird Song some more during Crosby's Planet Earth Rock & Roll Orchestra (PERRO) sessions in Jan 1971, where we hear the earliest versions of Loser, but it’s not on those tapes either.

A rehearsal tape dated Feb 1971 is the first time we hear the the band (or at least Bob and Phil) performing it, apparently still in the process of learning it: they run through the tune a few times and work on its rhythm.  It's particularly cool to hear Jerry explaining to Bob exactly how he wants it to go, then hearing the groove click into place.  Strangely, the drummers don't seem to play on this Bird Song at all, while they do play on all of the other new tunes being rehearsed.

Bird Song’s live debut was on 2/19/71 amidst a host of other new songs.  I'm not sure what to make of the fact that they didn't play it on 2/18, Mickey's final show -- given how sparse Billy’s part was at first, it's a little hard to imagine how it would have sounded with two drummers -- maybe Mickey would have stuck to light percussion?  The arrangement was still being settled on during the Port Chester run, but the general structure of the tune was an intro (around 30 seconds of strumming and the riff), the full song (two verses and the "don't cry now" bridge), a short jam based on the main riff, a full run-through of the song again, the first verse repeated a third time, and finally a short outro consisting of the riff and minimal jamming.  The debut on 2/19 has nearly no full-band improvisation at all, but they began to invest more and more in the jam as the run progressed, and on the final version on 2/24, Jerry begins extending the outro as well.  These initial versions all range between 6-8 minutes, with later versions stretching towards 9 minutes on the strength of the second outro jam. (also Three From the Vault)

The overall mood of these early versions is meditative and incantatory, an effect created in part by the repetition of the verses and by Billy's understated, almost solemn drumming, which he restricts mostly to his tom-toms with some light time-keeping on his snare or hi-hat.  He opens up a bit more during the jams, but in general his playing on these early versions feels pretty restrained.  Phil is an active voice from the very start, while Bobby seems a little less certain, shifting between his usual style of chordal rhythm accompaniment and just playing the riff repeatedly, depending on the version.  Pigpen, unfortunately, is usually nowhere to be heard, though we occasionally (2/23, 2/24, 4/17, 4/21) we get hints that doing something quietly at the organ.  Ironically, it’s only on 8/23, the last known version that he played on, where his contribution hints at maybe something more.

Unlike any of the other new songs, Bird Song then disappeared for 16 shows between the Port Chester run and it's next appearance, in the middle of the April east coast tour.  The next two versions, 4/14 and 4/17, introduce a second small jam/interlude in the middle of the song (full song > jam > full song > jam > 1st verse > outro jam), which they played intermittently for the rest of the year, though not always.  4/21 is a particularly confident version that really nails the groove and feel of the song, and it really starts flowering during the last three shows of the April Fillmore East run.  Interestingly, though, it's really the end/outro jam that's flowering -- the mid-song jam is still often a minute or less, while the outro got the extended attention: 4/29's outro is over four minutes long, almost double the length of the song itself!  The Fillmore East versions don't seem to have the same gentle lift-off as some of the earlier ones, though, and Bird Song seems to have gone back to the drawing board again after the April tour.

Jerry's first solo album was recorded in July 1971 and Bird Song was slightly altered once again.  On the album it begins with a big D7 chord, played loudly on a Hammond B3 (by Jerry) as the other instruments fall into place.  The meditative/drone effect is more pronounced, and Jerry runs through the song and only extends the ending, which slows down with a pronounced decrescendo as it reaches the conclusion.  Bird Song reappeared onstage on 7/31 (out of Dark Star) with elements of this album arrangement -- the opening chord and slowed down ending -- but also with a brisker tempo and a less reserved, brooding feel.  Apparently, though, he still wasn't getting what he wanted out of it, since they only played it live twice more.  8/5 also has elements of the album arrangement, and sounds more assured than 7/31, but then 8/23 disposes both with this newest arrangement and with the original riff altogether!  During the jams, Jerry seems to be heading towards the feel of the ’72 versions, but Billy’s drumming remains primarily heavy on the toms and it still doesn’t quite get there. (also Road Trips vol 1, no 3)

Bird Song made one last known appearance in 1971, in rehearsal with Keith, on a tape that circulates dated 9/29.  Keith is barely audible, just unobtrusively accompanying on the Hammond B3, but this is an interesting and promising version since Jerry's playing in the outro jam is opening up in a way that he would expand to greater lengths in 1972 (particularly that descending run he begins at 6:38).  Billy is also playing jazzier stuff on his cymbals, though still committed to that tom-tom groove.

But, unfortunately, nothing would come of it for a while.  Bird Song never made it out of rehearsals and was missing for the next few tours.  Looking back over 1971, it seems evident that they never managed to iron out all the wrinkles in the arrangement and the general groove of the song itself, so maybe they just set it aside to focus on the latest batch of originals being prepared for the fall 71 tour?  Intriguingly, Bird Song did make an isolated cameo before its return, when Phil teased the riff prominently at least twice in depths of the mammoth Dark Star from 5/11/72, though with no results.  At some point, though, Bird Song underwent the necessary surgery, because when it came back that summer, it came back with a vengeance and the band played the hell out of it accordingly.

the list:

Of these early ones, my favorite versions are 2/23, 2/24, 4/21, and 4/29.  2/19 has a breathtaking stillness that I find very attractive, and 8/5 is the best of the final versions. 

2/19: (also Three From the Vault)


8/27/72, Sunshine Daydream still

Bird Song returned to the repertoire on 7/18/72 early in the first set, where it would stay for a while.   It’s an unintentionally poignant moment when, as Jerry begins the introduction of this first performance in 11 months, Bob mentions to the crowd that Pigpen "ain't feeling well."   Some major changes had been made and everyone must have been satisfied because there would be no more tinkering with the arrangement for the next 14 months, and they started performing it with much greater frequency.  The most immediately noticeable difference is in the drumming, which shifts the groove from the solemn tom-heavy beat to an airier, more flowing, jazzy feel ("jazzy" in the sense that Billy is keeping time more on the cymbals than the drums, freeing him to be more rhythmically inventive and responsive to the rest of the band with the rest of his drum kit).  Keith's piano, of course, also adds a new layer, though neither Bobby nor Phil seem to particularly modify their approaches -- rather, Keith seems to find a space in between, providing additional accompaniment and embellishment, which becomes more interesting as the year goes on.

They also simplified the song’s structure, which now remained consistent: a 30-40 intro starting with Jerry lightly strumming the D7 chord and setting the tempo > the introductory riff > the full song > the main jam > the full song again > the outro jam.  The meat of the song is now the mid-song jam, which has a more clearly defined structure and another significant change: the mid-song jam ends with a reprise of the riff (four times), a "false ending" with a long drum fill, then a dramatic return to the jam (usually very brief, without much soloing) and a transition back into the song’s verse -- this whole jam is now typically 3-4 minutes total.  The outro jam initially had the most variation in ’72, ranging variously from fairly perfunctory (under a minute) to quite majestic, sometimes equaling the main jam in scope and power.

Even allowing for the first few versions being somewhat tentatively played, the general quality of these new Bird Songs is very consistent -- and this is true for much of the year -- and what distinguishes a great one from a good one are little particularities, usually Jerry rising above the usual flow of the solo.  The average Bird Song jam could sometimes ease back into a lazy, rolling pattern of Jerry slowly climbing up the neck, making wide bends as he goes.  Other times, he shows more focus and determination, or unleashes a few surprising runs, which gooses the overall intensity of the jam.  Of the summer versions, 8/12 and 8/25 are particularly fine examples, but the famous 8/27 Bird Song really does take it a notch higher, marked by some divinely inspired work with nothing extraneous or uncertain. (also Sunshine Daydream)

Fox Theater, Oct 1972, courtesy Charlotte Lyons

As 1972 went on, they kept a good thing going, really wringing everything the could out of Bird Song.  The famous east coast leg of the fall tour, for example, had a Bird Song every night, save one (9/28).  Timings were still pretty variable, typically in the 10-11 minute range, but ranging from as few as 8 minutes to as many as 13.  But, in a sense, these Bird Songs are all “the same" from a general perspective.  Jerry's approach tends to favor some staple devices (”tricks" maybe seems unfair) to augment his usual flow of melodic improvisation: the huge string bends that he builds on successively to create momentum, and the clipped harmonics he uses to vary the texture.  One interesting feature is that it's not unusual at all for him to find one improvised melody or a run of notes and repeat it a few times, which wasn't a typical feature of his soloing.  He tends to end the jams in three basic ways: logically "coming down" melodically from his solo and taking a pause before playing the riff; or by repeating one melodic phrase multiple times and sliding right into the riff; or by returning to the riff as the climax of his solo. 

Quantity obviously doesn't equal quality, but longer does seem to be better in many cases (barring technical problems), either because the groove seems extra sweet and Jerry seems to want to let it breathe, or because he’s coming up with more and more to say creatively.  It's a good sign when Jerry extends the little instrumental segment after the drum fill, before the second round of verses, and solos a bit more rather than just grooving.  The same goes with longer outro jams -- more is usually better, though occasionally they'll cut a better-than-average version short(er) because someone's gone out of tune (I'm inferring this if they cut the end jam short and Bob or Jerry immediately begin tuning up).

The next major version is 9/10 Hollywood, which captures the dreamy, magical summer night feeling perfectly (ahem)-- and is almost 14 minutes, even with a cut.   10/2 is the other standout of this bunch, with maybe the most altogether satisfying jam segment.  Other noteworthy versions are 9/21, where Jerry breaks a string mid-jam and Keith fills in with a fairly lengthy solo of his own (although Jerry's soloing here isn't particularly remarkable), and 9/26 for being a particularly strong exemplar of Jerry's general creativity.  Dick Latvala singled out 9/17 as another special one, and both Dick and the Taper's Compendium praised 9/19 as being particularly strong, though the horrible aud quality does a lot to deaden the impact (although a sbd is apparently in the Vault, hint hint).  But it's worth stressing how consistently good nearly every version is! (also Dick's Picks Vol. 23) (also Dick's Picks Vol. 36)

Tapes from later that fall are problematic because of inconsistent sound quality, missing sbds, and some very off-kilter mixes (possibly feeds from different bandmembers’ monitors).  As far as Bird Song goes, there are currently no recordings at all for 10/27 or 12/10, only auds for 10/24 (so-so) and 10/30 (much better), and some general quality/mix issues (11/12 is the most egregious, with a very imbalanced guitars-only mix).  Since our perspective of the finer details is blurred, it's harder to stack this batch up against September.  On 11/12, for example, it sounds like Jerry's really spitting fire, but the mix has nearly no drums or piano.  10/30 also seems like a cut above, but there is a chunk missing from the main jam.  Nevertheless, as the tour progresses, the overall tone gets a touch more aggressive, which seems to be a general trend for a lot of the jamming in October-November.

Jerry, however, also seemed to find more expressive (and subtle) ways to approach his soloing and became somewhat less reliant on his bag of tricks, namely those gigantic bends and the passages of clipped harmonics that characterize many of the September versions.  The jams don't necessarily become "better" and even become slightly shorter, but it's more of a sign that Jerry was becoming more comfortable in this improvisational space and was developing a larger vocabulary that fit this particular song.  More subjectively, it feels like his playing, at its best, feels more "liquid": 10/21, 11/17, and 11/19 are good examples of every note dripping off the fretboard. (also Dave’s Picks Vol. 11)

Also, starting on 10/24, Keith begins consistently using a wah-wah pedal more prominently -- since joining the group, his only onstage instrument was a Steinway grand piano that had been fit with a pickup, which let him feed the signal through effects pedals.  It's a feature of every version after this one, and sometimes he uses the pedal nearly start-to-finish.  It's a cool sound that sounds very much like an electric piano to my ears (I don’t think Keith began using an additional electric piano until May 1973), but it's impressive how smoothly Keith shifts back and forth between the “pure” and wah'ed piano sounds.

the list

These are too similar for me to have a clear order of preference, so here's a roughly-in-order best of for 1972.  Again, bear in mind how reliably consistent they were: there are very few versions from '72 that I wouldn't recommend as being wonderful!
8/27: (also Sunshine Daydream)
9/26: (yes, imho more than 9/27)

honorable mentions -- sound quality isn't helping matters any, but these are worthy of attention:

Also of note, 9/21 and 10/19 both have Keith solos in the main jam (9/21 is the better one), although outside of that fact, neither is a particularly remarkable version. (also Dick's Picks Vol. 36)


7/28/73, courtesy Grant Gouldon

1973 didn't initially bring much in the way of structural or textural changes to Bird Song.  Jerry was still primarily playing his Strat and Keith was still only using a grand piano, although the crew were making continual adjustments to the PA system (moving towards the Wall of Sound) and Jerry was no longer playing through a stack of Fender Twin amps, as he was in ’71 and ’72.  While most listeners make a clear distinction between the "72 sound" and the "73 sound," the first Bird Songs of the year don't particularly bear this out.  The Dead scaled back on performances of the song — not surprising, considering that they had added another bushel of originals to the repertoire — but the handful of versions from the spring pick up right where they left off in ’72.  The one substantial difference was that, as Jerry continued to build and develop what he did with the jam, so too did Bob and Keith seem to be pushing in new directions as well and getting more creative with their contributions.  It was nothing strikingly different, but it does feel like the jams became more group efforts and less like Jerry leading and everyone else following.  3/16/73 and 6/10/73 are great examples of this: it's like they're really talking to each other, not just responding to Jerry’s lead.

Noteworthy variations to consider are 3/30/73, marred by a poor quality aud recording, where Billy opts not to do his drum fill mid-jam, then appears to drop out for a few bars afterwards, giving the jam a spacier feel for a few seconds.  6/10/73 is the only version that starts with the riff itself rather than 15-20 seconds of vamping on the D7 chord.  Like 3/30, this Bird Song also gets particularly loose in the transition from the jam back to the vocals, with the band appearing to have forgotten where they are in the song.  7/27 has the longest Bird Song of the 1971-73 period, pushing 16 1/2 minutes.  Given the informal nature of the performance, it's a little looser and sloppier, but it deserves more praise than it typically gets, living as it does in the shadow of the same night’s famous "soundcheck jam."

The major change for the year comes with 6/22/73, a popular favorite and rival of 8/27/72 as "the best Bird Song" of the 70's for many, in which Keith’s Fender Rhodes electric piano is featured prominently for the first time.  The new keyboard appeared onstage for the first time in May (no Bird Songs), and the Bird Song on 6/10 features some Rhodes, but was still primarily played on grand piano.  While Keith’s doesn't play anything particularly different with the Rhodes on 6/22, its trademark chiming sound is an ideal fit the airy vibe of the song -- and, at nearly 14 minutes, they make the most of every second.  7/27, for some reason, has Keith back on grand piano exclusively, but the few remaining versions are all mostly performed with the Rhodes.  As a committed Fender Rhodes nut, these are particularly dear to my heart.

enter the Wolf: 10/30/73, courtesy Larry Kasperek

Bird Song stayed in the rotation throughout a light summer of performances, then the September tour kicked off with a bang as Jerry debuted his new Wolf guitar on 9/7/73, a knock-out show that featured a knock-out Bird Song that stands up to any other version from this period.  imho, it is the single best Bird Song of the 70's, albeit by a very slim margin.

9/12 and 9/15 are dreamy, lovely, wholly satisfying versions, and then… nothing.  Bird Song was dropped suddenly in the middle of the tour.  Why?  The vocals were rough and weren't getting any better; I think this at least had to be a factor (ditto with Here Comes Sunshine), particularly given that when they brought in back in 1980, they changed the key to one that everyone could comfortably handle.  Also, I wonder if Bird Song served the same relative "function" as Here Comes Sunshine: a relaxed song with room for extended but not fully open-ended jamming that let them stretch out a bit in the first set without really getting too deep into anything.  HCS was a more complex song that continued to develop and stretch out, whereas Bird Song essentially remained unchanged since its return in July 72.  Perhaps it had simply run its course for the band?

It still seems strange that they would drop a fairly regular song in the middle of a tour, but so it goes.  Here Comes Sunshine stretched itself nearly to its breaking point by the end of the year and was gone after one appearance in 74.  Bird Song wouldn't be heard from again until much further down the road…

the list

My #1 pick would be 9/7/73, which I think smokes even the beloved 6/22 -- and maybe even 8/27/72 -- and showcases Jerry playing with an amazingly high level of invention and precision (like much of the rest of the show).  Like 9/10/72, 6/22/73 is deep in the zone like many others come close to, but never quite equal -- although 7/27 and 9/12 probably come the closest.  8/1/73 stands out for being more energetic than many this year.

the wall goes up: Dec 1973, courtesy WKSU