This is a repost of my reviews that were posted on a now-defunct forum. There was some more discussion between myself and others involved, but I figured now would be a good time to resurrect these and clean them up somewhat.
I'm elated over the announcement that an upcoming Dave's Picks is going to be 7/17/76 at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. It's one of my favorite shows, but one that I suspected would never actually be picked for a release: what I like about it feels even more personal and introverted than what I like about other favorite shows, and besides, the next night, 7/18, seems like a far, far more popular choice among deadheads, particularly deadheads who don't like 1976. Which, from what I gather, is a lot of them.
I won't go so far as to say that 1976 is the band's most polarizing year among fans, but it has enough qualities that make it feel like their most sui generis period. The contrast between it and its neighboring years is striking: the Dead were a very different band in many ways in 1974, and they had yet to attain the polished, muscular grooming of 1977 (well, as groomed as the Dead ever got, anyway). Many others have covered this, so I'll spare the explanations, but one standard line is that they needed time to readjust to Hart's return to the band. While true, I've never fully bought that as the primary reason for the uniqueness of the "1976 sound." Whereas 1974 had an extroverted, pushed-to-the-limit style of improvisation and a quicksilver responsiveness (helped, to be sure, by having one drummer), most of 1976 feels almost chastened and introspective by comparison. "Exploratory" is an overused adjective in Dead-dom (guilty!), but 1976 feels like the most appropriate place to use it: a lot of their improvisations do really feel like they're actually exploring something: not so much bravely plowing forward to uncharted spaces, but taking some time to root around in the corners of spaces already charted, maybe now with a more reflective frame of mind. To my ears, this particular feeling or mood dominates more than almost any other year. It's like you're listening more to 1976 first, and a particular individual song second.
At any rate, they hit the road in June 1976 for a tour that was different in nearly every way possible, then finally took the stage in their hometown for the first time in 9 1/2 months, a week after the country's bicentennial (apparently a free concert in Golden Gate Park was rumored). I'm sure the connected local heads had a sense of what to expect, but I really wonder the average fan thought of all this. I shall, however, limit my speculation and focus on the music itself. This run of shows, in short, deserves a full-scale box set release, and the happy news that 7/17/76 (and most of 7/16) is coming our way in high quality is only slightly shaded by the fact that we'll probably never get the rest. Maybe, at least, some upgrades will come leaking through the usual channels? I sure hope so. The currently circulating sbds of 7/12-7/17 don't sound terrible, but they don't sound great, either. 7/18 was broadcast (locally on KSAN and nationally via the King Biscuit Flower Hour) and has always circulated in good quality. Bob Menke taped every other night and his recordings are very good, but I prefer the thicker, more viscous sound of the sbd recordings.
side note: um, the Orpheum? Any insight from the more knowledgeable heads as to why the band played here? I know they'd scrapped much of the Wall of Sound and had been touring smaller venues, so was Winterland suddenly too big? Seems unlikely. The JGB played a wonderful concert there on 5/21 (released as Don't Let Go) and the Dead apparently rehearsed there a bit for their June tour, so there seems to have been a short flurry of activity, but that was it until Garcia played a string of shows there in 1988-89.
edit: Corry has answered all of these questions and more...
edit: Corry convincingly argues that this video isn't actually from 7/12/76 or anytime from this run, but from the pre-tour rehearsals in May. But what the heck:
night one: 7/12/76
The opening night in their hometown, and they start off on the right foot, full of energy and in a tight groove. A great Music Never Stopped opener (an appropriate choice for their first official home gig in a year and a half!), then BEWomen and Cassidy make a great opening trio, although it doesn't sound like they're ready to push the boundaries much. Garcia's playing in each is mercurial, creative, and energetic, but also very concise: these are all little gems, but may disappoint anyone looking for the boys to just cut loose and wail. Listen closely, though, and you'll hear kinds of great left-field little fills and solos cut from fresh cloth. I especially love that little moment of zen in the first TMNS jam. Bob breaks out Minglewood for the first time since 1971 in a cool, funky arrangement that was dropped by the fall; but listen to Phil going to town on this! Typical for '76, there's a questionable setlist call of three slow numbers in a row (Candyman/LLRain/Row Jimmy), but take some time to revel in how nice the vocals sound. Donna really shines in a small room with good acoustics and decent monitors, and the interplay between her and Bob is noticeably more present than in 72-74: there's this great moment in LLRain when he sings, "you were listening to a fight," then emphasizes, "that's right" and she sweetly replies, "yeah." It's a little detail, but one that makes a real difference. (serendipity! I just noticed this excellent and long, long overdue post on Donna at lostlivedead. Hear hear!)
Sugaree is a laid back kick-off for the 2nd set, but you can feel them digging into the groove and seeing what happens when they take the scenic route through the song. After Bob's nightly Samson, they settle down into a very good Help>Slip>Franklin's, fairly tight (minus that intro) and full of the exploratory playing with dynamics mentioned above -- I can't help but think that a lot of fans seeing this in person would have been confused or underwhelmed (especially if their last experience seeing the Dead was in 1974!), but on tape the subtleties really glisten. Franklin's pops along with its trademark mellow bounce and some fine Garcia soloing. Dancing in the Streets is only decent -- even after a month on the road, they don't seem to have figured out how to reliably make this soar yet -- but the following Wharf Rat is excellent, with great vocals and a lovely outro jam that hints at the golden summer glory to come later in the week. A brief Drums>Wheel>Around and US Blues wrap it all up.
A fine but not outstanding show, and a nice relaxed start to the week. There's definitely less of a jubilant "welcome home" feel and more of a low key, warming-up/getting-everything-just-exactly-perfect feel to this show, and the real magic was still to come.
|Orpheum rehearsals, Ed Perlstein|
night two: 7/13/76
Everyone says they'll take quality over quantity, but the length of shorter sets is such a standard deadhead complaint that I wonder sometimes. Many folks want a 3+ hour feast rather small portions of gourmet delicacies. But even though we get barely an hour of music to start with, I remember this night's first set more fondly than almost all of 7/12 as a whole. This was the breakout for Half Step (last played 10/20/74; it was last song they played that night, actually, before AWBYGN) and much like Sugaree, you can hear them testing how far to extend it and where. They don't reach the pinnacles that versions from the following years shoot for, but it doesn't seem like they're trying to, either. Once again, the M.O. is to find the hidden backroads in these tunes and see where they go. I'm absolutely in love by the time Peggy-O comes around with it's wonderful slow roll and two Garcia solos. Later versions have a punchier groove to them, but there's an appealing lazy feel to this that fits the back-porch vibe of the song perfectly. The meat of the set is nearly 30 minutes of Crazy Fingers>Let it Grow, one of the year's unique combinations that works perfectly. 76 was really the only year they took Crazy Fingers as far as they could, and nearly every version is worth hearing. Might as Well gets its hometown debut before the break.
The second set opens with another TMNS, longer, looser, and more jammed than the previous night. Roses and High Time glisten as usual, particularly High Time, another treat for the crowd (not heard in San Fran since April 1970). I like how they keep this sweet and low compared to some of the 77 versions, which to me can sometimes sound a little shrill (I! was! losing! time!) and almost melodramatic. Then, if the old-timers weren't satisfied, they certainly get what they've been waiting for with the return of St. Stephen to the west coast (last played in SF on 8/19/70!). This has great energy and the jam jumps right away into a NFA jam with a bouncy, calypso-ish feel to it. Heads up for some great Fender Rhodes from Keith, who even takes a little solo. I really liked this jam, which lands in NFA, keeps jamming, tapers down to a quick little Drums back into Stephen. Sugar Magnolia breaks off for a beautiful Stella Blue, of all things; a little slippery at first, but with a gorgeous solo at the end, then back to SSDD. Maybe to compensate for the short sets, we get a long Dancin' encore, sounding already much better than the night before. Garcia even gets on the wahwah for a bit at the end. Great encore! Great show! Folks will naturally complain about the length, but there's really no down spots in this one at all.
night three: 7/14/76
The first set tonight is well done, but most of it doesn't do much to grab my attention. There's a questionable positioning of a late first set Ship of Fools, but the ending jam more than makes up for all of it, a 35 minutes Playin>Wheel>Playin sandwich. The first jam stays relatively close the surface before breaking for Drums, then a fine Wheel, whose jam quickly shifts back into a cool Playin' groove. They drift off into a very long, deep Space that starts pretty sparse, but gets more involved and intense after a good low-end Phil rattling, then culminates in a very long, wonderfully slow swim back to the Reprise. It's not as moving a first set as the shorter but much sweeter 7/13, but not at all bad.
The second set, however, is one of the more underrated sets of the year, and given the eye-popping, unique jam segment, I'm surprised more folks haven't happened upon it. BEWomen was a very rare opener, but I'll take it anyday. Let it Grow kicks off the jam, one of the better '76 versions, and I believe the only one that dispenses with the drum interlude. They take the end jam down a nice quiet place, then up into an Eyes of the World that zings along with that perfect elastic snap. Unfortunately, most of the whole song is missing from the sbd, though Menke's aud makes for a fine patch. The ending dissolves into maybe two minutes of a quiet, floating jam that's mostly just Garcia completely solo, an early incarnation of the solo theme he played a few times in May '77 that served as a prelude Wharf Rat, and that's what it does here. Wharf Rat is a soft, gentle version and winds down without much fanfare, but then the band throws a sucker punch with the Other One, another hometown first (and the first one of '76, though on 6/29/76, they got pretty close to it). Garcia got on slide for the tail end of Wharf Rat and even starts off the Other One with a little bottleneck. Nice! Things never get too wild, certainly nothing like 7/17's Other One, but this one simmers along with a quiet intensity that I quite like. Phil grabs the spotlight for a quick solo at the end, setting up one more unique transition into the Music Never Stopped. Whoa! No one thing about this segment really jumps out like a thunderbolt, but taken as a whole, this exemplifies some of the best of the year: everything that makes 76 special put together in a one-time only package. I say it's must-hear stuff, well worth an hour for the many folks who appear to have missed it.
the night off:I would hope that both the band and the fans all got a good night's rest, but I wonder if any folks took the night off to go see Robert Hunter's short-lived band Roadhog playing at the Shady Grove in the Haight? There's no digitally circulating tape (edit: Corry says there's a Jerry Moore recording?), but there is a recording of the band from two weeks later if you're curious:
The Dave's Picks release will be augmented by almost all of 7/16, whose first set is the only set of the run that currently circulates only as an aud tape. Allowing for differences in quality, this first set stills comes across as nearly ideal for the year. They must have all gotten a good night's sleep on the night off, because this one seems to have an extra energetic kick -- it's hard to say for sure, but they seem to be pushing a little harder and stretching a little further on stuff like Cassidy, TMNS, and an especially nice bonus Scarlet to close the nearly 80 minute set. Excellent stuff!
Playing in the Band opens the second set, which is the first of many remarkable things about the next 66 minutes. Framing a larger, nearly set-length jam segment with both ends of Playing in the Band eventually became a standard practice, but at this point it was still quite rare. The main song itself has a strong start, but to my ears it drifts away into a fairly nondescript Playin' jam for the first few minutes. It starts to drift into space, but Lesh pulls it back together with a bassline that's reminiscent of Stronger Than Dirt, but also not too far removed from his 72-74 era nameless "jazz theme." Labeling this "Stronger Than Dirt" seems like a stretch, but the resemblance is there. Garcia doesn't seem particularly interested at first, but as he brightens up, the jam starts to cohere more fully. There's some stunning Jerry/Phil/Keith interplay before the end as Phil cues different chord changes. Pretty hot stuff! Jerry gets out his slide and leads the way into Cosmic Charlie, another big moment for the older hometown heads. Honestly, I've never been all that moved by this tune, either in the 60's or in in '76, but they certainly nail this one. Here, though, Bob makes a questionable call with yet another Samson. There's a moment's pause, then they rise back momentarily to the Playin' jam. Bob, however, seems to have made the faux pas of needing to retune in mid-jam. Rather than disrupt the flow, they opt for a very quiet space jam, Jerry playing flurries of harmonics either to cover Bobby's tuning or maybe to retune a little himself. I find myself torn: couldn't they have just taken a break and let the drummers do their thing? does this disrupt the flow of an otherwise interestingly structured jam, or is it a clever, on-the-fly adjustment? I've loved it in the past, but this last time through I wasn't convinced. From here, Bob nudges into the Spanish Jam theme, which I believe is its only appearance between 1974 and Brent's entry in 1979. Again, it spills back into the Playing/Stronger Than Dirt jam and, amazingly, they're able to immediately find their way back to the same space they were in two songs prior. Even with a Drums break, they're able to keep the deep groove going on through the Wheel and a particularly beguiling Playin Reprise, and Bob ties it off with Around, maybe thinking that the set was done.
This Playing in the Band sequence is remarkable for a number of reasons, but, unfortunately for me, musically it never quite adds up to something truly special. There are some really breathtaking moments of brilliance that the band almost unearths by accident, but the meat of the jam just doesn't really get me going. Those moments of brilliance, however, are the first glimmers of the x-factor that lift the next two nights to their respective ecstatic heights. Also interesting is that, in this case, the entire jam has a notable lack of Garcia lead vocal tunes. Cosmic Charlie and The Wheel are his songs, of course, but they strike me more as ensemble performances. For that reason, maybe, the set keeps going. After some lengthy tuning, Jerry gets to sing his only lead vocal of the set, a lovely High Time that nevertheless feels a little out of place. They take another beak to fix the drums, during which Phil wishes a mock happy birthday to Bill Graham, before they close with Graham's favorite Dead tune, Sugar Magnolia. Another so-so US Blues encores for the second time.
I go back and forth on the merits of this jam. The first set is great and I'll be glad to hear the sbd on the new release. I'll certainly revisit the second set, too, but it's ranked behind 7/13's 1st set and 7/14's jam in my mind, and certainly isn't at the level of the next two nights.
night five: 7/17/76
I know I'm reading too much into this one, but Promised Land's travelogue to California is almost a subconscious announcement, "okay, we're home now" to the crowd, signaling a special night to come. Full disclosure: I have listened to this show more than any other from this run (more than the more famous 7/18), and it's a treasured personal favorite of mine. The magic starts with Half Step, another a low-key version that stands out for the delicate, lovely interplay between Garcia and Keith during the jam. Mama Tried, Deal, and Minglewood (again, special note for this short-lived slower, funkier arrangement) all keep it moving in the right direction, then we hit highlight #2, a perfect, slow, soulful Peggy-O. Big River is a good nudge, but Garcia is already following that fat summer sun and unleashes a wonderful Sugaree. Part of the smoothness is a result of the drummers easing back and letting Keith and Garcia really drive the groove. And was this the first time he fans/scrubs the climax as he would do so often in 77 and beyond? It looks incongruous on paper, but the JBG closer feels like just what's called for. The opening/closing Chuck Berry combo wasn't unheard of, but it's a nice surprising kick that sets us up for what's to come.
For whatever reason, Donna never makes it back onstage for the second set. Given my love for her singing in 76, I still can't say I miss her particularly here, since the vocals aren't what stand out about this set. 7/17's jam may not look as outrageous as 7/16's. It may not twist and turn unexpected corners, but as much as 7/16 seems to exemplify Bob's uniquely twisting turning approach, 7/17 is all Garcia and that sweet, sun-baked, flowing groove. He starts it off with Comes a Time, a tune we would expect to hear at the end of a set-long jam like this, not at the beginning. This Comes a Time, though, unrolls before us as the song sweetly fades way, leaving only that beautiful outro. Why didn't they ever repeat this? Why did they never again squeeze more than a minute or two out of this jam, and what inspired them to stretch this one as far as they do? It's not as emotionally charged as other famously beautiful moments like 2/18/71; rather, it just plants itself on that cosmic back-porch of neverending summer evenings and pops open a cold one (in a rocking chair right next to the 6/23/74 Ship jam). Seeds of future songs start to sprout from this fertile soil: I hear Eyes for a sec, but the Other One wins out. After a quick minute of drums, they begin in earnest, jamming the Other One with a surprisingly aggressive feel, and jumping fairly early into a longer space. This, paradoxically, is the darkest they got during the whole run, tucked in the heart of their warmest jam. Ain't that just the way?
Space gets noisy, but nothing too crazy, but then they find their way back into a beautiful jam and this amazing slooow transition into Eyes of the World. This is one of my favorite moments of the whole run, and maybe of the whole year, actually. Just listen to these few minutes, listen to how subtle everyone's individual transitions are. Listen to Keith's amazing Rhodes sound, too (how did he get that sound, btw? is it a Leslie speaker?). Eyes itself crackles and glows in prime style, but this is one of the only versions of the year to feature any substantial jamming after the last verse. It sounds like Keith returns to a vamp he was playing with during the previous night's Stronger Than Dirt jam, but Phil is definitely still rooted in Eyes, and between the two of them it almost sounds like a half-forgotten variation on the 73-74 Eyes jam. It peps up towards the end and sounds like it's headed for GDTRFB, but Jerry takes a quick left and pulls the Other One back in for the second verse before turning right back around and zipping into GDTRFB for real. A bombastic, joyful ending to a most enjoyable sequence, and One More Saturday Night is a preferred Bobby closer for me (and yes, it was a Saturday), so I'm left smiling. Nothing missing, nothing extraneous. An absolutely ideal second set.
The usual US Blues encore seems like a pretty paltry offering after all that, but they're not done yet. They had already played a few standalone Not Fade Away encores that year, so it's not a total surprise, but after the concentrated brilliance of that jam, you'd think they would be ready to call it a night. And, to be honest, they do sound a little drained as they wind across 14 minutes of this, but it's involved and creative enough to make it a memorable encore for a very memorable show.
This is one of my very favorites, like I said, and one of those Dead sets I'd put above most others. For a much less gushing review, I direct you to http://www.deadlistening.com/2008/02/1976-july-17-orpheum-theatre-san.html
night six: 7/18/76
By this point, the band was certainly on top of their game. They don't, maybe surprisingly, sound all that tired or worn out, but it does feel like they're maybe a tad overly conscious of the radio broadcast. The opening Half Step is a well executed version and probably "better" for many folks than 7/17 in terms of excitement, but to me it seems like they're playing it pretty safe. The first few songs have that feel, actually. Scarlet Begonias is the highlight of the set for me, with a long, sweet jam that builds and crests naturally -- a great version, and one of many fine 1976 Scarlets that tend to be overlooked. The second half of the set kind of slumps for me, personally, with a lackadaisical LLRain-Jed-Loser stretch, though the Music that ends it is probably the best one of the whole run.
A strong Might as Well starts the second, but the Samson and Candyman feel a bit like unnecessary finger food before the main course. Lazy>Supplication has its usual gooey center that the band work into a hot jam, and Bobby wastes no time in leading the charge into a breakneck Let it Grow. It's not as hot as 7/14, but still a smoker. The drums break sounds more juiced up and energized, but the second jam already sounds like they're anticipating the jam to come. That's usually a good sign, in my book, and this LIG drifts into a smooth, pretty, floating jam for a few minutes that sounds like it could be… I mean it doesn't sound exactly, but… well, I mean they hadn't played it that tour, and the last one was 10/18/74, so it could have been possible, but… is that it? … If/when an aud of this part ever surfaces, I'll bet whatever you want that every meathead in the place was hollering DARK STAR! as loud as he could. Nope. It's a pretty spectacular transition to a pretty titanic Wharf Rat. After a very strong reading, the last three minutes are given over to another Jerry/Keith night flight. These always are breathtaking little jams in my mind, and Jerry really does us right in this one. He soars higher and higher, finally climaxing by cascading into the Other One theme, then dropping out for a few seconds for the drummers to properly set it up. This Other One certainly isn't the ride that the previous night's was, but the energy is right. Phil sets up Stella, Jerry's not having it, they do the push & pull for a minute, and St. Stephen it is. Am I being curmudgeonly, or does it feel a little like this Stephen>NFA sandwich was an obligatory one? It's not as fresh sounding as 7/13's return celebration, but it's still a pretty slinky NFA jam, and the transition back to Stephen almost falls apart for whatever reason. Garcia throws another curveball with the Wheel with some nice slide on the outro, then Phil abruptly rolls it back into the Other One for a quick return to the second verse for symmetry's sake, then the final kiss goodnight. This right here is exactly what we want in a Stella Blue, that ideal moment of silent purity, those pinpoint stars that Jerry dots the sky with at the end. He's most definitely painting the skyline tonight. Gorgeous, gorgeous. One of my very favorites, actually.
Everyone gets one final group-hug footstomp through Sugar Mags and one last shoo out the door with JBG. And so ends a week with the hometown heroes, returned from exile.
Upon reflection, this was a most impressive jam, not least because of it's length (nearly 80 minutes). Given the setlist, it's almost strange that the most magical parts of it are centered around the Wharf Rat and, while none of it feels like an afterthought, it does feel somewhat tossed together towards the end. Bonus points for finishing that Other One, though, and for spinning out such a long jam for the radio broadcast. I'm sure everyone taping at home must have been scratching their heads (and no doubt gnashing their teeth about where to flip!). Compared with most of the rest of the year, it's a top drawer set. I'd say that for the run, it definitely takes 7/16's equally eye-popping jam.
7/17, though… man. 7/17…