Sunday, January 21, 2018

2/19/69 jam>jam>jam>jam

Rolling Stone, via
I took this jam for a walk in the greyness this afternoon and was inspired enough to sing its praises.  It’s a relatively little known show from a pretty epochal period, probably since it has long been misdated 6/19/68 and, unlike seemingly most other recordings that have long since been upgraded, is represented by one lone fileset that’s been in the digital realm since the early 00’s:  

The show itself wasn’t a usual Dead show: Light Into Ashes has done the best job of filling in the full picture, so go read up.  You would think that a quasi-Acid Test with one of their longest known stretches of uninterrupted jamming in the middle of prime early 1969, a week before the shows that begat Live/Dead, would attract a bit more attention, but apparently not.  I don’t have much to say about it by way of “review,” other than that it’s really good and pretty unique.  The tape is an hour and 50 minutes of what was apparently a four-hour show, and begins seemingly well into the middle of things.  Although the starting Lovelight>NFA>Lovelight is fine and has plenty going on within its 35 minutes, I think I’ve listened closely to it exactly once, which was enough.  Then there’s a break where Don McCoy of the Olompali commune takes the stage to do his thing and lead the crowd in a group chant, which devolves (or evolves, depending on your state of mind) into a bit of a mess — understandably, this is a skipper for most folks, but to me this portion drips with psychedelic goo that goes beyond period ambience and makes my teeth hum with a certain familiar… well, enough said about that.  You can hear Bill Graham marshaling the chaos as the band returns to the stage and slowly gets themselves together, deciding what they’re going to do as they start doing it. 

It’s not entirely clear at first who’s up there at first: Bob is initially driving things, and another guitarist who’s thought to be Gary Duncan is playing at first; Garcia doesn’t appear until 4:50 in.  The first segment of this jam is a slow burning, smokey, laid back E-minor blues jam.  After a few minutes, Lesh starts the Main Ten riff and they drift back and forth between the two themes for a few minutes minutes, then set off into a series of episodic jams for the next 20 minutes, much like many a 69-70 Dark Star, although there’s nothing explicitly Dark Starry about this, beyond the spirit.  I have no desire to map this out: it’s mostly two-chord vamps and various rhythmic ideas, all explored for a while and organically developed into something else.  Gary Duncan seems to take off at some point, maybe an extra percussionist joins in, and finally they land in the Other One (all instrumental) which gets a loose and pretty heavy, dark jam, before they wind down and stop cold.  The whole jam is nearly 50 minutes total and while it’s not as intense or hot as a lot of other Feb 1969 jams, but oh man, it’s got the sound: I'm talking about If I Could Only Remember My Name, the Crosby Dec 1970 Matrix tape, Garcia/Saunders 5/20/71, the 1971 Mickey’s barn jam, that kind of vibe. 

While this isn’t going to burn new neural pathways like, say, 2/28/69, I do think it’s a way overlooked and underrated jam.  Well worth a listen.  And how many nearly 50 minute uninterrupted purely instrumental jams did they play?  Hell, just for that reason alone, you’d think folks would be flocking to this one.  Give it another spin!

Also, I can’t let it pass that, evidently, Garcia was playing bluegrass at the Matrix earlier on 2/19.  Not confirmed, but that seems to be the consensus. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Great American *Music* Band: loose threads

Since the last post was long enough, I figured I'd dump the rest of what I had to say here.

first: some history

It turns out that there was already as detailed a history of this group as any, hiding in plain sight in the liner notes to the Grisman's wonderful collection DGQ20: A Twenty-Year Retrospective 1976-1996 by Pamela Abramson.  I will take the liberty of quoting it in full here, with some additional notes.
The acoustic revolution that coincided with the advent of the David Grisman Quintet in 1976 wasn't planned, nor was it accidental.  New ideas had been brewing in the heads of creative bluegrass and folk musicians throughout the late 50's and early 60's, extensions of those original radical folk musical concepts of Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs, who were certainly radical when they altered the face of old-time string band music in America.  Blues and jazz had influenced bluegrass musicians, as European classical traditions had influenced black music, but the time was ripe for even more ingredients to be tossed into the melting pot of contemporary American roots music.

In 1974 mandolinist David Grisman and violinist Richard Greene, with Jerry Garcia, Taj Mahal and others, formed a loose aggregation called the Great American Music Band. [1]  The concept was simple: sophisticated folk and bluegrass instrumentalists creating a format to play and improvise without vocals.  The repertoire would draw on varied sources: traditional fiddle tunes, swing tunes from the Hot Club of France, and music from great American composers Bill Monroe, Fats Waller, and Duke Ellington.  David Grisman had also been writing music, mostly bluegrass style mandolin tunes, patterned after those of his heroes Monroe, Frank Wakefield and others.  Now, with this new vehicle, David started composing pieces with greater scope and a more personal stamp; "dawg" music had come into being.  By the end of the year, Grisman and Greene had settled in with their own band which included guitarists John Carlini and Ellen Kearney [2], with bassist Joe Carroll.  The group generated excitement opening shows for many headliners, from Bill Monroe and Maria Muldaur to the Grateful Dead.  By the spring of 1975 Greene had left the band to work as a sideman for Loggins and Messina. [3]  Dawg remained with a bunch of newly-composed tunes, a bass player and -- most importantly -- a concept.  Soon David's mandolin protege Todd Phillips was jamming with his teacher and Joe Carroll on Dawg's back porch.  One day Todd brought a friend, fledging fiddler Darol Anger, who soon became a regular dawgmaniac as well.  With Carlini touring with the Ice Capades, and Kearney off somewhere else, the new ensemble rehearsed without a guitarist.

In the spring of 1975, Tony Rice was leading his own flatpicking revolution as guitarist with J.D. Crowe's New South, arguably the finest bluegrass band of its time.  Tony met Dawg early one morning in Washington, D.C. after they had both arrived to play on banjoist Bill Keith's first solo recording project.  Rice was curious about the music of the Great American Music Band and, upon hearing a tape, expressed great interest in playing this new music.  By October, he had decided to leave Kentucky, move to California and play guitar at David's down-home rehearsals. [4]  He also named the band the David Grisman Quintet.  With more tunes coming all the time, two mandolins, bass, fiddle and the world's greatest flatpicker, the DGQ was born. [5]
 [1]  So there’s the official name for posterity, I suppose.  I opted for Great American String Band in the prior post, since that was how they were billed for the June ’74 shows.  Notice there's no mention here of David Nichtern at all, which I infer to mean that his involvement wasn't central to the group’s concept… but I wonder what he would say about it.  By November 1974, at any rate, he was leading his own band:

[2] Corry has a history of Richard Greene's early career here:
As busy as he may have been, he did continue to work with Grisman; he toured along with the DGQ in Japan in 1976, for example:

[3] Ellen Kearney, interestingly, has been noted as sitting in with the Garcia/Saunders band at the Bottom Line in July 1974, joining Maria Muldaur on vocals.  I can only hear Muldaur’s vocals on the circulating recordings, but that doesn't mean Kearney wasn't there.  She recorded and performed for a few years with Muldaur, including on her hit debut album (also with Nichtern, Grisman, Greene, etc), then seems to have dropped off the professional music scene a few years later and left California to focus on family.  Here's an article that fills in some biographical details about her: what little I've found about her seems to downplay her guitar playing, but she must have had some serious chops!

Also, a thread at the mandolincafe forum has some interesting responses that fill in some more specifics about the early days of the GAMB/DGQ.  I see some mention of tapes of the 1975-era GAMB, so this stuff is out there somewhere.

[4]  So here’s a fascinating moment of synchronicity, found on the the complete Pizza Tapes (Extra Large Edition) release, in the first track:
Grisman: It’s a trip seeing you guys together. 
Tony Rice: Should have happened a long time ago.
Grisman: Well, the funny thing, y’know, I was telling Jerry before, the day I came to get you at the airport, the first time you came out here, I guess the first time we got together out here, I ran into Jerry earlier that day and we were jamming at my house and then—
Rice: —then you had to pick me up at the airport— 
Grisman: —and then I had to pick you up, and that’s the last I played with Jerry for a bit, 17 years.
Um, wow.  Even if that’s not 100% accurate, it does indicate that Garcia and Grisman remained casually connected until well into 1975, around one year after Garcia left the GASB.  Dunno how that fits/contradicts any other narratives about their partnership, but there ya go.

[5] a later note in DGQ20 also indicates that the band rehearsed for four months prior to their Jan 31, 1976 debut performance.

Also, "fledging fiddler Darol Anger" is my new favorite tongue twister.

second: some tunes

I really like how those notes lay out Grisman’s musical vision very clearly while locating it within a broader 20th century tradition of blending different folk genres with more "sophisticated" or "cultured" traditions.  So, in that spirit, here are some specifics about the band’s repertoire circa mid-1974, broken down by genre.  I assume that they didn't have too many other tunes under their belt, since the setlists are fairly repetitive and they were playing Swing '42 twice each night.

traditional/old-time fiddle tunes:
  • Colored Aristocracy - info 
  • Methodist Preacher (Bill Monroe/trad) -- played mostly as a fiddle/mandolin duet; info 
  • Billy in the Lowgrounds (trad/Irish) --  played mostly as a fiddle/banjo duet.  OAITW also played this.  Note that Greene introduces Garcia as "Earl Spud," probably joking on Earl Scruggs' name (Scruggs did record this song).

country/bluegrass originals
  • Lonesome Moonlight Waltz (Bill Monroe) -- a classic bluegrass instrumental, which the DGQ continued to perform.
  • Maiden's Prayer (aka "Virgin's Lament") (Bob Wills/trad) -- this was also recorded by Buck Owens' Buckaroos featuring the great Don Rich, a major Garcia influence.
  • Bud's Bounce (Bud Isaacs) [thanks to anon commenter for the correction!] -- a popular country pedal steel instrumental.  It's a pity Garcia didn't break out the old Zane Beck!
Both Bob Wills and "Bud's Bounce," incidentally, could be classified as "western swing," which was arguably a stylistic precedent of dawg music (albeit electric).
  • Drink Up and Go Home (trad/Feddie Hart) -- deaddisc.  An outlier vocal tune; Garcia sang this in his pre-GD days, once with the acoustic GD in 1970, and with Garcia/Grisman.

David Grisman "dawg music" originals:
  • Cedar Hill (Grisman) -- DGQ20 notes this was Grisman's first mandolin composition, written in 1963, and was performed at the first DGQ concert in Jan 1976. OAITW performed this, as have other groups: deaddisc.
  • Dawg's Bull (Grisman) -- deaddisc 
  • Dawg's Rag (Grisman) -- deaddisc

David Nichtern originals:
  • I'll Be a Gambler If You Deal the Cards (Nichtern) -- vocal
  • My Plastic Banana Is Not Stupid (Nichtern) -- instrumental

Django Reinhardt and 20's-30's jazz standards:
There's only one actual Reinhardt original here, but most of these were recorded by the Hot Club and are associated by many with Django:
  • Swing '42 (Reinhardt)
  • Limehouse Blues (Braham/Furber) -- a 1920's showtune that went on to be a standard with many, many jazz musicians, including Django.  info 
  • Sheik of Araby (Snyder/Smith/Wheeler) -- info
  • Sweet Georgia Brown (Bernie/Pinkard) -- info 
  • Russian Lullaby (Irving Berlin) -- via Argentinian guitarist Oscar Alemán, an old favorite of Garcia's.  Grisman's Acoustic Disc label released a collection of Alemán's recordings, which I believe is the only American issue of his work?  Multiple jazz musicians have played it since; notably, John Coltrane recorded it on Soultrane (1958), a record that Garcia admired.   I don't believe Django ever recorded this.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

June 1974: Garcia on acoustic guitar

the Great American String Band, 5/5/74, courtesy jgmf
Even if you're a devoted listener to Garcia's music away from the Dead, I forgive you if you draw a blank on the Great American String Band.  Only a small few recordings circulate and Garcia's involvement didn't last more than a few months.  On paper, they may look a bit like Old & In the Way Mark 2, but the GASB was a wholly different group and differed in many interesting ways; Garcia's role in each is a minor point in the grand scheme of things, but since his brief intersection with the groups fits squarely in with the larger narrative of June 1974, so I think it's worth dwelling on.  From this Garciacentric perspective, the GASB gives us the change to hear something that Garcia almost never did in the 70's: solo on the acoustic guitar.

First, to connect some threads: OAITW, as has been well documented (here or here if you need a primer) grew out of Grisman's, Peter Rowan's, and Garcia's informal jams in late 72-early 73.  Garcia got his banjo chops up to speed, they played around for a few months, did one small tour, attempted a studio album (scrapped), recorded a wonderful live album, and were long gone by the time that album was finally released to considerable success and acclaim.  In early 1974, Garcia began recording Compliments and recruited a number of other musicians for the sessions: in addition to bandmates Merl Saunders and John Kahn, participants included Grisman, Richard Greene, and guitarist David Nichtern, who was then playing in Maria Muldaur's band and enjoying her hit recording of his tune "Midnight at the Oasis" (Muldaur and her ex-husband Geoff were in the mix at this time as well, but that's another post).  Grisman, in the meantime, must have been searching for a new band of his own, and one catalyst seems to have been the rehearsals for a shared gig that Grisman and Greene played in March 1974, which also (partially) included Garcia -- there's no tape, unfortunately, but there are a few minutes of those rehearsals that circulate (info) and Garcia sounds delighted to be playing the music of another idol of his: jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

Django et Stephane

Unlike OAITW, the group that grew out of that gig played a more progressive amalgamation of styles that was more in line with Grisman's vision of his own music: a mixture of old-time fiddle tunes, bluegrass, and the Swing-era acoustic jazz perfected by Django Reinhardt's and Stephane Grappelli's Quintette du Hot Club de France in the 1930's ("gypsy jazz" or jazz manouche to some) — according to Grisman’s own description of the group, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller were in the mix as well, although no recordings survive of those songs (afaik).  Grisman dubbed it "dawg music" and built his subsequent career around this concept, continuing to join together many different threads of acoustic American music.  Garcia’s involvement time with the group was peripheral: he didn't make every gig they played, but they opened once for the Dead and apparently Owsley Stanley recorded them for a prospective live album (still uncirculating; fingers crossed!).  There are currently only six circulating recordings of GASB performances with Garcia: four shows plus two shorter festival sets.  Three of those shows were from another mid-week Lion's Share/Keystone run in June 1974, further proof if needed that it was a unusually powerful month of peak creativity.

Discussing these tapes from a Garcia-centric perspective isn't an accurate assessment of them, but that’s what I’m going to do.  I find that his banjo often recedes into the background (and, interestingly, none of Grisman's own later groups featured a banjo), and while his playing is strong, he's not at the same technical level of the other musicians -- one charming but telling moment is when we hear him practicing a particularly fast banjo run a few times right before they begin Limehouse Blues on the 6/13 tape.  What stands out for me isn't his banjo playing, but rather the relatively little-reported fact that he was also playing acoustic guitar during these three June gigs (he doesn't play any guitar on the April recordings; and, to be fair, Blair Jackson does mention that JG played both banjo and guitar with the group in his Garcia bio).  David Nichtern was a fine guitarist and well-suited to this style, so I think the idea of having two guitars was to recreate the distinctive Hot Club sound on a few songs, the relentless chunkchunkchunkchunk swing rhythm that Django's groups achieved using multiple guitars instead of drums.  But Jerry Garcia wasn't going to stand onstage next to a guitar all night without playing a little: he takes a few solos that are worthy of attention, but they may be easy to miss if you just assume it's Nichtern (one close listen should make it clear that it isn't).  Remarkably, I believe these shows are the only recordings of Garcia soloing on an acoustic at all in this golden era of his music: in the decade between the Dead's 1970 and 1980 acoustic performances, Garcia played acoustic in public only one other time, at the one-off benefit gig on 11/17/78.

Much like the Garcia/Saunders gigs the week before, this run started at the small Lion's Share up in San Anselmo, then moved down to the Keystone. 

6/12/74 The Lion's Share (thanks as always to jgmf for determining that this tape has been mislabeled with the wrong venue.)
Compared with the following night, this is a funkier quality sbd with a slightly uneven mix, although still a good listen.  Garcia seems to be getting his space together on guitar and working out the kinks on this first night -- he doesn't seem to be mic'ed as well, and his playing has a slightly more forced feel as if he's working harder to come through.  After starting the night on banjo, Garcia first gets on guitar for Lonesome Moonlight Waltz, leaning into it hard and sounding particularly sweet and soulful.  His work on the first Swing '42 (they played it in both sets every night) is a little rougher, especially next to Nichtern who sounds more comfortable and polished with this style.  In the second set, Grisman calls Russian Lullaby and it sounds like Garcia replies, "aw, no, really? aww" (I'm not totally sure of this, though) before setting off on his one vocal of the night.  Unlike all later JGB performances, it's played here in the Hot Club style arrangement used on Compliments (after Oscar Alemán's 1939 recording).  Garcia solos on the intro, and takes one chorus at the top and two more at the end before returning to the head.  He stays on guitar and takes two shorter solos (no Nichtern) on Maiden's Prayer, a lovely fiddle tune that they jokingly refer to as "Virgin's Lament" (it's a Bob Wills song, though Garcia must have also known this gorgeous Buck Owens version with Don Rich).  After another stretch on banjo, Garcia gets back on guitar for Sweet Georgia Brown (Nichtern takes the solo here) and the second Swing '42, with an even shorter solo this time.

courtesy jgmf; note the advertised personnel
6/13/74 Keystone, Berkeley, CA
info: (sbd), (aud)
This is both a more balanced recording and a better place to hear Garcia stretch out, if you only want to hear one of these shows.  The sbd has some cuts and is missing the end of the show, but Robert Castelli's excellent aud tape is complete.  Garcia's guitar is better mic'ed as well, which seems to allow him to play with a bit more sensitivity.  Lonesome Moonlight Waltz and the first Swing '42 sound even better tonight, but the real surprise comes in the second set with Russian Lullaby.  Garcia takes it at a sligher slower tempo and allows himself to really stretch out:

intro/Garcia solo > vocal > Garcia solo (1 chorus) > Grisman (1 chorus) > Garcia (2 choruses, after some uncertainty) > Greene (2 choruses) > Garcia (3 choruses; note the cool effect when the rhythm drops out at end his 2nd chorus) > vocal.

He sounds excellent on the second Swing '42, soloing for longer now, again serving to emphasize the differences between his and Nichtern's approaches.  Garcia then takes up the banjo for his second vocal for Drink Up and Go Home, a bluegrass number he would return to in the 90's with Grisman.  The set closes with Garcia on rhythm guitar for Sweet Georgia Brown, leaving the solo to Nichtern.

6/14/74 Keystone, Berkeley, CAinfo:
The only recording is Castelli's excellent aud tape of the 1st set.  Again, Garcia solos on guitar for Moonlight Waltz and Swing '42, and sounds excellent and well-settled in the groove both times, but not substantively better than the night before.

And that was all she wrote: two days later Garcia was on the road with the Dead and wouldn't share a stage with Grisman for another 16 years.  The Great American String/Music Band lasted through a couple more iterations, including Greene finally decamping to tour with Loggins & Messina in 1975.  More musicians came and went, and by the end of 1975 Grisman had met Tony Rice and established the first David Grisman Quintet. 

PS: a quick word is due, too, for bassist Buell Neidlinger ("Flame Bombadine") who sounds fantastic throughout these shows.  I don't know how involved in the group he was (Taj Mahal plays bass on the April tapes,), but Neidlinger does an outstanding job here.  I'm particularly fascinated by the fact that Neidlinger's career at this point already included work with John Cage and several records with avant-garde jazz pianist Cecil Taylor (about as far from dawg music as it gets), and he went on to record and perform with a wide range of musicians -- look at this discography!  and a fine, extended interview is here.  He has impeccable time and a great swing, but also check out the wild bowed bass work in the outro of Maiden's Prayer on the 12th.  Between Neidlinger, Tony Saunders, Kahn, and Phil Lesh, Garcia certainly got to work with a full range of bass players that month!  Is it even possible that Garcia might have mentioned that he played briefly in a band with Neidlinger when Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman checked out a Dead concert in 1988?  Probably not, but ya never know.

Monday, January 1, 2018

June 1974: you busy tonight?

Happy 2018!  While lingering in the wonderful month of June 1974, it occurred to me that... well, see for yourself:

5/30 (Thurs) -- Garcia/Saunders, Great American Music Hall, San Francisco (tape apparently exists, but is not in circulation)
5/31 (Fri) -- “Merl Saunders & Friends” w/Jerry, Inn of the Beginning, Cotati (per jgmf)
6/1 (Sat) “Merl Saunders & Friends” w/Jerry, Inn of the Beginning, Cotati
6/2 (Sun) Grateful Dead: canceled gig at Folsom Field, University of Colorado (per jgmf
6/3 (Mon) Merl Saunders group, the Sand Dunes, San Francisco -- possible Jerry sit-in? (see jgmf)
6/4 (Tues) Garcia/Saunders, Lion’s Share, San Anselmo (me)
6/5 (Weds) Garcia/Saunders, Lion’s Share, San Anselmo
6/6 (Thurs) Garcia/Saunders, Keystone, Berkeley
6/7 (Fri)
6/8 (Sat) Grateful Dead, Oakland Stadium (afternoon) -- this lostlivedead post is amazing
6/8 (Sat) Garcia/Saunders, Great American Music Hall (night)
6/9 (Sun)
6/10 (Mon) Merl, the Sand Dunes -- possible Jerry sit-in? (jgmf)
6/11 (Tues) Garcia/Saunders, Keystone (per jgmf
6/12 (Weds) Great American String Band, Lion’s Share, (see jgmf)
6/13 (Thurs) Great American String Band, Keystone
6/14 (Fri) Great American String Band, Keystone
6/15 (Sat)
6/16 (Sun)  Grateful Dead, Des Moines State Fair Grandstand, Des Moines, IA
6/17 (Mon)
6/18 (Tue)  Grateful Dead, Freedom Hall, Louisville, KY
6/19 (Weds)
6/20 (Thu)  Grateful Dead, Omni Coliseum, Atlanta, GA (me)
6/21 (Fri)
6/22 (Sat)  Grateful Dead, Jai Alai Fronton, Miami, FL
6/23 (Sun)  Grateful Dead, Jai Alai Fronton, Miami, FL
6/24 (Mon)
6/25 (Tues)
6/26 (Weds)  Grateful Dead, Providence Civic Center, Providence, RI
6/27 (Thurs)
6/28 (Fri)  Grateful Dead, Boston Garden, Boston, MA
6/29 (Sat)
6/30 (Sun)  Grateful Dead, Springfield Civic Center, Springfield, MA
7/1 (Mon) “Merl Saunders & Friends” (Garcia/Saunders/Kahn/Kreutzmann), Bottom Line, New York, NY
7/2 (Tues) “Merl Saunders & Friends” (Garcia/Saunders/Kahn/Kreutzmann), Bottom Line, New York, NY (me)
7/3 (Weds) “Merl Saunders & Friends” (Garcia/Saunders/Kahn/Kreutzmann), Bottom Line, New York, NY
7/4 (Thurs) canceled: Grateful Dead, University of Wisconsin

Um, yeah.  Dear freakin’ god.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

June 1974 with Tony Saunders

your blogger's old cassette.  Oh, for the halcyon days of tape cuts and mislabeled songs.

Yeah!  Managed to slide in one more before 2018!  JGMF did the work years ago to establish the historical particulars of these gigs, so I won’t rehash those too much: here are his listening notes on 6/4/74, 6/5/74, and 6/6/74.  Notably, all three of these shows feature Merl’s son Tony Saunders on bass instead of John Kahn.  From a historical standpoint, Tony’s presence puts these in a grey area regarding the persnickety issue of “what band is this?,” a question blurred by the fact that Garcia was an apparently frequent guest at Merl’s own gigs around this time.  The particularities probably won’t be teased out any further than JGMF has already teased them.  I’m still tickled, however, by the image of Garcia rolling up to some bar with his guitar and amp in his trunk, then a week later playing at the Oakland Coliseum.

I wish I could find some older pictures of Tony and Merl, btw.  His first paid gigs as a teenager were with Garcia & Saunders.  This little pic of the two at Fantasy Studios is all I could find, from Tony’s site:

Gigs at the Lion’s Share were more laid back and off-the-beaten-path: most tapes of the few circulating shows there all have that flavor, and 6/4/74 may have the most of it, with a rich warm Betty Cantor recording to capture it all.  The uniqueness of some of the material is likely what marks this show for most folks, but the expansive nature of the playing earns its place on the list of the best of Garcia/Saunders 1974 shows.  Darben the Redd Foxx was a tune by saxophonist James Moody that seems to have had some pull with jazz musicians in the 1960’s but nevertheless seems like a totally left-field choice for this band.  They lay down a smooth, straight-down-the-middle midtempo swing that rolls along for 17 luxurious minutes; Garcia understandably sounds a little tentative at first, but he digs in and is on top of things by the time his second solo comes around.  Many heads don’t appreciate Martin Fierro’s playing and while he did have a tendency to overblow theatrically at times (which I imagine was probably much more effective in person than on tape), there’s none of that here: Fierro is totally in his element, unraveling cool, focused lines through his solos.  A very cool and unusual sound for these guys.  Tony and Bill Kreutzmann (I’m pretty sure it’s him) lay down a supremely bouncy groove to start Expressway, but halfway through they all fall into the trap of cycling endlessly through that descending chord progression “jam” with increasingly less and less to say, with Fierro and Garcia repeatedly deferring to the other and noodling around to no great purpose.  The rhythm section wins again, however, on a great Second That Emotion, better than most from this time.   Even better still is the magic they conjure on Merl’s Wonderin’ Why.  I always like the feel of this song, but this one is particularly satisfying as Garcia and Fierro weave circles around each other in the first main jam; their interplay here makes this one of the best versions I know.  A bluesy, blustery Soul Roach ends the first set.

To underscore the jazz club ambience, they pull out another rarity in Miles Davis’ classic All Blues, and Garcia et al follow the form of the tune, each taking a few choruses over the simple, timeless changes, at first resisting the urge to stretch.  But after returning to the melody, Garcia and Fierro start wandering off the page as Merl tries keeping it rooted to the changes, resulting in a gentle freeform tug of war that sounds great.  Martin brings it back home with another blues melody at the end: I can’t tell if this just some standard blues riffing or another actual tune, but it’s a neat twist to end another long, relaxed jam that only could have happened at the Lion’s Share.  Local blues guitarist/singer Alice Stuart comes up to sing New York City (an “original” that’s not too far removed from Jimmy Reed) and the band sound great chomping down on a straight 12-bar blues.  The Harder They Come has a choppy, funky groove that works well, and they do better than usual with this one until a little “when/how do we end this?” snafu at the end. Then Dixie Down ends things on a soulful note.  It has its ups and down, but I’ll forgive a show like this its warts: much like 7/5/73, it may not rise to the tighter standard of other ‘best’ shows of the period, but its perfectly realized vibe and groove make it a real stand-out of the year.

City magazine June 1974, courtesy @joyatri_vintage
6/5/74, another fine Bettyboard, is missing its first set (the full tape seems to exist since we have a tantalizing setlist from, I presume, Rob Eaton).  Alice Stuart returns for the second set, this time with her guitar in tow — I wonder if she was the opening act for these two nights?  But, first, things get off to bumpy start: Fierro does no one any favors by test-driving some extreme electric effects on his flute on La-La which is, frankly, unlistenable.  The wahwah pedal was a component of his sound in 1974-75 (he, along with numerous other saxophonists, followed Eddie Harris’ example of using electric effects on their acoustic horn), but the effects really don’t work here.  Ouch.  Stuart evidently arrives onstage midway through Finders Keeepers: you can hear Betty adjust Garcia’s guitar in the mix @6:37 and Stuart takes the final solo.  It’s nothing all that inspired (and probably not what she usually played), but hearing another lead guitarist onstage with Garcia in this era is most unusual -- let alone a female lead guitarist at all -- so this certainly deserves a nod for historical importance.  Stuart doesn’t sound totally familiar with Dixie Down either, but she dishes it out on the blues chestnut Kansas City, adds a nice chicken scratch rhythm and some nice licks to another fine Harder They Come, and is in her element holding her own with Garcia on That’s All Right Mama.  Ultimately this set is more a curiosity than a must-hear, but this must be one of the last times on tape that we hear Garcia casually trading leads with another guitarist like this.  With some big doings on the horizon with that other band of his, Garcia must have been having a blast.

PS: after all this, I realized that there’s a video of Alice Stuart and her band at Winterland from 2/2/74 — haven’t checked it out yet, but I’m looking forward to.

On 6/6/74 they were back at their homebase in Berkeley, with Tony still subbing for Kahn.  Rather than a Bettyboard, we are most fortunate to have a top-notch Louis Falanga aud recording that’s one of the best he made, with mics set up right by Garcia’s monitor (the soundman’s voice is audible a few times) yet capturing the whole band with a nice balance.  After some atmospheric banter about a buzzing light dimmer, a loose and somewhat sloppy Someday Baby lazily gets thing rolling, and Expressway follows a similar trajectory as 6/4, although Garcia leans into it harder as things start to sag and drives it home with a forceful ending.  From there on, however, it’s all gravy.  He Ain’t Give You None sits happily in a fat, wide groove, and My Funny Valentine (which is prefaced by Garcia, off mic, “we haven’t done that in a little while”) is a picture-perfect textbook version of this band’s signature jazz tune  without a stumble or any hint of dissonance or weirdness — not that I mind it when they took this one outside, but they really seem focused on getting the most from the material here.  A heated Second That Emotion (check Garcia’s final solo!) ends the first set.  The tape cuts back in with some spacey fooling around and Garcia chuckling loudly at Fierro’s noodling before the real bombs drop.  Merl’s My Problems Got Problems, only ever played a handful of times, was never done better than this: the groove is incredible right from the drop, and by 10 minutes it becomes so unmanageably funky and I won’t detail the kind of moves I’m making while I listen.  Talk about a stone cold killer!  21 minutes compared with the puny 8 minute version from a few weeks later.  As they futz around afterwards, Jerry says “oh hey, let’s do that, Tony… let Martin start it” and off they go into Darben the Red Foxx again, but with a different, more march-like, staccato rhythmic feel (more like the arrangement on various jazz records) and a tense, edgier feel overall.  Unlike the more leisurely 6/4 performance, Fierro brings it back to the melody after 11 minutes, then they float off into spacier realms, flirting with all-out dissonance over a terse, sparse groove for another 7-8 minutes before they play the melody again and end it for good.  A hare-brained and high-energy How Sweet It Is rounds out the night.  Incredible!  As tasty as the whole show is, the 40+ minutes of Problems/Darben is some of my favorite playing this band did during that great year.

Then, y’know, like 36 hours later, Garcia was at it again with the Dead throwing down one of the most bananas Playing in the Band jams of all time (and, incredibly, Louis Falanga was on the scene again -- the man deserves a medal!)  But I’ll leave you to peruse that one on your own.  All in a day’s work for 1974!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Side Trips vinyl

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

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

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

professionalism: solved

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

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

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