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in the comments, but I wanted to put it up top: he recently posted an excellent piece that Hugh Barroll wrote in 1999 (unpublished) for the Taper's Compendium that covers the same ground as this, all the way to 1995.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


  1. Great write up and review on the evolution of Bird Song. 6/22/73 and 8/27/72 are truely awesome!

  2. At last, the blog returns....nice work on the early Bird Songs!

    For those who long for more Bird Song reviews, another article covers the song up to 1995:

    1. I had no idea! I feel a little sheepish now, but what the hell, I'll carry on: I'm already noticing a couple of points where we differ, and I also have the advantage of there being more music that's circulated widely since 1999. I appreciate his attention to Bob's rhythm guitar, which I didn't pay as much attention to.

    2. Hey, it's like a stereoscopic overview of Bird Song. I think it's neat to have dual coverage of this song.
      Plus, your piece has links to the shows!